Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Masculinity in Melissa Marr's Wicked Lovely

wicked lovely cover

I've blogged about love triangles in YA novels before, and how they always seem to boil down to the guy friend versus the hot guy. But Wicked Lovely by Melissa Marr changes this paradigm up a bit: the main character, Aislinn, lusts after and wants to be "friends" with both Keenan, the faerie prince, and Seth, the tattooed and pierced human. So what will separate these two suitors in Aislinn's mind? The answer is masculinity.


Seeing as how Keenan is a fae prince with numerous magical powers, as well as the authority to command all of the summer fae, one would think his masculinity would at least measure up to Seth's, if not exceed it. Instead, his "manliness" is almost nonexistent. He's metaphorically emasculated by his mother--stripped of all his power and ability to act--several times in the book. He can't protect Donia, one of his former paramours, from his mother's retaliation, and needs a woman--Aislinn--to come into his full powers. Even with Aislinn, however, he's not the one in control: once Aislinn realizes she's the Summer Queen, she intimidates Keenan and basically calls all the shots, forcing him to play a supporting role. Keenan's attempts to assert his authority backfire and end up as laughable, since he hardly has the conviction to enforce rules or punish anyone, least of all Aislinn.

Keenan is disheartened when he first realizes that even though Aislinn has decided to be the Summer Queen, she's not his queen--she just wants them to be friends. Work friends, as she puts it. This isn't because he has any personal feelings for her (he's obviously still in love with Donia), but because Aislinn's refusal to let him sexually dominate her robs him of the power he was clearly anticipating coming into with the discovery of his summer queen. Although we're told Keenan has had countless love affairs with mortals in the search for his queen, during the course of the novel we never see him successfully pursue a female, and it's difficult to imagine him having sex at all because his character is so powerless and unassertive. The examples of women from his past, the Summer Girls, are all ditzes who will sleep with anyone, so clearly not a comment on Keenan's personal magnetism; and even Donia, who tells him she loves him, only allows him to sleep with her because she knows it will be advantageous, allowing her to manipulate Keenan in the future.


Seth is also a serious ladies' man, with many conquests and one-night stands to his name; but unlike with Keenan, we can believe it of Seth even though we never meet his previous conquests. He lives with complete autonomy, in his own home which is filled with symbols of his strength, sexual prowess, and ability to protect. The walls of his home--which he made himself (definitely a provider)--are made of steel, keeping out all the fae except those of the royal court and thus protecting him and Aislinn. He is constantly feeding Aislinn, and can also take care of other creatures, as evidenced by his huge pet snake that likes to nestle in Aislinn's lap (! my, Seth, what a large friendly snake you have). Seth immediately demands respect from those around him, including Donia and Keenan, though he is a mere mortal. Sexually, he exhibits control, never forcing Aislinn to acknowledge their attraction and even delaying the consummation of their relationship when she wants to have sex.

Seth has other personality traits that differentiate him from Keenan and mark him as more of a man, while Keenan remains a boy. He's responsible, supportive, makes measured decisions, doesn't give in to emotions like panic or anger, and has a wide variety of interests and skills.


Themes of masculinity aren't unusual in narratives, but why have them in a book written by a woman and marketed to young girls? What does this market care about symbols of masculinity? Aislinn has to make a choice about what sort of mate she wants in life (especially now that her life is the long one of the fae), and clearly the masculinity of the characters is how she does it. What girl wouldn't take Seth over Keenan? Perhaps the love triangle paradigm of love versus friendship is in reality a veiled message about masculine traits that one should search for in a mate; in that case, one has to applaud Marr for her interpretation of desirable masculine characteristics.

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Sunday, March 27, 2011


Percy Jackson is a teenager with a lot of problems--he has ADHD, dyslexia, and keeps getting thrown out of schools for bad behavior. His troubles only get worse when he's kicked out of Yancy Academy and goes home for the summer, which is when he finds out he's a demigod who is only safe at Camp Half-Blood, a summer camp built for children of the Greek gods. If all that isn't enough, now Percy has to go on a quest to stop the Olympian deities from destroying the world by fighting amongst themselves.

I listened to this on audio with Jesse Bernstein as the narrator and ZOMFG HE WAS AWFUL. He read at the pace of a snail and was really cheesy about it, as if he was reading to five-year-olds. Maybe if I was five years old this wouldn't be a huge annoyance, but I'm not, so it was. In addition, he had this habit of reading the end of sentences as if they didn't end with periods, but commas. IT DROVE ME FREAKING CRAZY!!!! For example, Bernstein would sound like he was reading,
All the way into the city, I put up with Nancy Bobofit, the freckly redheaded kleptomaniac girl, hitting my best friend Grover in the back of the head with chunks of peanut butter-and-ketchup sandwich...,

and then a new paragraph would start! I can't count the number of times I felt like I was left hanging off the end of a sentence. He also had problems with making exclamations in the dialog sound really flat, and sentences that were supposed to be flat sounded, paradoxically, like exclamations. Oh, and he can't do a Southern accent for shit. I can feel my blood pressure rise just thinking of the way Bernstein read this book, it was soooooo annoying.

Ergo it's a serious credit to Riordan's storytelling skills that I didn't just rip the CD out of my car stereo and start on another audiobook. I wanted to, believe me; but every time I felt like my sanity needed to be saved, some interesting twist in the story would convince me to keep listening to find out what happened next. There's a lot of action in the novel and Percy is always facing some new type of challenge.

Aside from the maddening narrator, this book is pretty good, although not without problems. Percy's not the sharpest knife in the drawer, and all the things he discovers during the course of the novel--from the identity of his father, to who the baddy bad guy is--are insanely obvious from the get-go. Hint: Hermes is the god of thieves, hellooooooo. Also, the environmental stuff was not well-done. It wasn't integrated into the plot and came off as preachy and kind of random. New Jersey is a forested paradise and the Pacific Ocean has so much litter in it you can't swim? I'M SURE.

Despite alllllll these problems, though, I still did enjoy the book. Like I said, Riordan can keep you engaged in the story even when you know what's going to happen. Percy is a totally likable character, and I loved how the book played with Greek myths and gave them modern-day twists. I also liked that Percy traveled West on his adventure--I guess you could sort of call this book a Western! I'm not sure I can handle another audiobook with Bernstein, but I am intrigued enough to check out the rest of the series and see what happens next.

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Wednesday, March 23, 2011

What's in a name: Ash

names schames

Sometimes I see way too many of one name and it starts to bug me. A few years ago it seemed like every other romance novel hero was named either Damon (or a variant--Damen, Damien, etc.) or Sebastien. Seriously? I've known a few Sebastiens and they were all really annoying, not sexy and brooding at all. As for Damon, that name is strictly reserved for novels featuring romantic and/or paranormal elements.

More recently I've been noticing there are a lot of Ashes running around literary land, especially YAland. Why? Have you ever met a single person named Ash? I haven't. Is it supposed to be evocative of a chemical reaction or something?

Ash can be either a male or female, but is usually either a 1. vampire; 2. fae; 3. dashing hero[ine] in fairy tale retelling. Here are a few of the books I came up with that have characters named Ash:
  • Wicked Lovely by Melissa Marr--The heroine is named Aislinn, but in the audiobook it's pronounced "Ashling," Ash for short.
  • Ash by Malinda Lo--Lo says she chose the name Ash for her heroine because it's a retelling of the fairy tale, Cinderella.
  • Daughters of Darkness by L. J. Smith--Ash Redfern is a vampire who falls in love with a human.
  • Keys to the Castle by Donna Ball--Ash is the metaphorical prince charming in this fairy tale-esque book.
  • The Iron King by Julie Kawaga--Ash is a faery prince.
That's five books I came up with in five minutes, and I haven't even read two of them!

Can you think of any other books with a character named Ash? Or are there other names you've been noticing a lot in books lately?

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Monday, March 21, 2011

THE SALON by Nick Bertozzi

the salon cover

Georges Braque is a typical starving artist in Paris, hoping to invent a new style of painting. After courting the favor of important avant-garde art collectors Gertrude and Leo Stein, he becomes embroiled in the salon--a group of the Stein's friends (including Pablo Picasso, Guillaume Apollinaire, Erik Satie, and Alice B. Toklas) who drink a special blue absinthe that allows them to enter paintings. Unfortunately, Gauguin's former mistress, Anna, has figured out a way to live in the paintings permanently, which has given her super-human strength; and now she's taking bloody revenge on the artists for being objectified, by ripping their heads off. Leo and Gertrude are certain they'll be next.

sample page

A part of me really loved this graphic novel--and yes, it was the art historian part. As soon as I saw Memory's review of it on Stella Matutina, I knew I had to read it. A good portion of my master's thesis involved the avant-garde in early twentieth-century Paris, including Apollinaire and Picasso, so it was soooo totally up my alley. That being said, the part of me that reads for pure entertainment value was disappointed. The only character with any personality in this novel was Picasso, and his motivations were pretty basic: food and sex. Everyone else seemed fairly interchangeable. The book feels edited down to the point of near-incomprehensibility, but at the same time it takes a looong time to read. The ending was kind of lame, and I didn't feel like I learned much of anything about this time period or the avant-garde.

But like I said, as a person who knows way too much about this shit, I did enjoy it. My favorite part of the novel was, surprisingly, Picasso. As some of you may know, I'm not a fan of Picasso. I think he's an overrated hack, in all honesty, so any book that presents Picasso as a lewd and unoriginal "little man" who fucks chickens (all true--okay, maybe the chicken part isn't) gets my vote. I actually warmed up to Picasso a bit while reading The Salon, just because he was so stupid. I also loved clever Apollinaire, even though he didn't get a lot of scenes, as a dashing bi-sexual playa playa.

Leo and Gertrude's storyline, on the other hand, seemed to go nowhere; nor was Georges Braque very interesting. This is unfortunate, since Braque's the hero of the story and the Steins are the main connection to Anna, the murderous blue woman.

gauguin's spirit of the dead watching
Paul Gauguin. Spirit of the Dead Watching, 1892.

Anna, meanwhile, was very interesting. In the graphic novel, Anna is the girl seen in paintings such Spirit of the Dead Watching--in real life, Gauguin's fourteen-year-old Tahitian wife, Tehura. In The Salon, he takes her to Paris, where they both become addicted to the blue absinthe that allows them to enter paintings. Anna starts to whore herself out for money to buy more of it. She becomes ill with a European disease (let's face it, probably syphilis) and dies, but Gauguin paints new bodies for them and they both become blue people living inside a paradise he painted. Only, Anna now hunts the streets of Paris, tearing the heads off of Gauguin's artist friends and collectors of his work.

This is why I say Anna is taking revenge for her objectification--Gauguin has taken away her humanity, literally regulated her to the status of a painted, sexual object forever. But not powerless--she takes control of Gauguin's blue image, trapping him inside his own painting, and kills those who would presume to possess her (interesting side note: the "spirit of the dead" that Gauguin referred to in the painting of Tehura was occasionally described as a blue spirit with sharp fangs). In that context, I found the conclusion of this sub-plot and how the salon winds up putting an end to Anna particularly interesting.

How does this all tie into Braque and Picasso and the invention of Cubism? It's not made explicit in the novel, but I think the move to non-representational art in the story is connected to Anna, in that little pieces of inanimate objects cannot come out of their paintings to attack you, as apparently Tahitian women can. Cubism is hailed in the novel as a new way of seeing whole objects in two-dimensional space, but it's also a safer representational method for the characters in the book--and crueler for their subjects. Picasso takes Gauguin's objectification of Anna to a new level and fucks her into oblivion until she's nothing more than disorganized facial features, an object unable to bite back, finally and truly relegated to two-dimensional space.

As for the art of the graphic novel itself, the panels mostly have two colors, and the change in them are used to signal different storylines. The colors are kind of garish, but it fits into the style of painting that was going on at the time (as you can see in Spirit of the Dead Watching, above). There are also some very elegant and well-done visual quotations from other famous paintings that made me smile, but didn't really play any significant role in the plot. If I were to be honest, I found myself missing the manga style of illustration, but c'est la vie.

The Salon has a lot of great ideas and is definitely worth checking out if you're interested in this time period. I do wish, however, that the characters were more fully realized and that the narrative flowed more smoothly. It has the feeling of an artistic vision that was restrained; I don't know if that's true or not, but I do have affection for this graphic novel and definitely appreciate what Nick Bertozzi was trying to create.

Musical Notes: Kathleen Edwards, "I Make the Dough, You Get the Glory"

Monday, March 7, 2011

Cat Among the Pigeons by Julia Golding

cat among the pigeons cover

"setting a cat among pigeons" idiom; def.: to create a disturbance or cause trouble

Cat Royal proves once again she has a talent for getting into trouble. Her friend, Pedro, is being hounded by Kingston Hawkins, a slaver who claims Pedro is a runaway that belongs to him. Cat would like to help Pedro, but she can't, because she herself is hiding from Bow Street Runners after "attacking" Hawkins at White's and not only shocking the members of the club with her female presence, but cursing a blue streak at them as she left. How long can Cat stay hidden? And how can she and her friends save Pedro from being kidnapped?

This was such a great book, and I have very high hopes for the rest of the series--Harry Potter-sized hopes. It's that good. Since I was already introduced to the characters in The Diamond of Drury Lane, I fell easily into the action of the book, which has a better story line than Diamond did. Instead of feeling like it's going all over the place, here the plot is very focused on Hawkins' pursuit of Pedro (who has become a major London celebrity), and Cat trying to hide from the Runners and the absolutely amazing amount of trouble she gets into while she's doing it. This may sound like two divergent storylines, but they feel integrated into one. Part of the reason is because the threat to both Cat and Pedro is the same man, Kingston Hawkins; but there's also a definite parallel drawn between Cat and Pedro so that is seems like they share the same problem. Neither of them has any true rights and both of them are essentially powerless--and nameless--in the eyes of the law. Hawkins can get Cat sentenced to death as easily as he can claim Pedro as his personal property. The only thing the two kids have going for them are their friends (and fortunately they have very good and powerful friends) and their nerve. Golding had a similar message in Diamond, but Cat gets it across much more elegantly by showing instead of telling us about these inequalities.

A heroine who's constantly getting into scrapes probably sounds like a cheesy narrative device, but with Cat it feels absolutely organic to the story. I loved the spots Cat chose to hide--they were so unexpected and such unique locations. I can't recall ever reading a novel where the heroine goes to the places Cat does in these books.

Furthermore, like its predecessor this novel is witty and funny and smart. I felt the relationships described between the sexes was particularly perceptive here--we get a lot more of Frank, heir to the Duke of Avon, as well as some of his friends; and the difference in the way the boys behaved when they thought they were just among boys and when they were with girls was incredibly interesting. Not to mention the fact that Frank and his friend Charles are pretty hilarious.

Speaking of boys, Billy "Boil" Shepard is back in Cat, and I have to say I think he's my favorite character. Billy has expanded his interests since Diamond and now fancies himself a respectable businessman. Cat remains doubtful and still pretty much hates him, but is perturbed by his obvious fascination with her. And who wouldn't be? He did try to kill her, and he does run a notorious gang of criminals. But in Cat we begin to get the sense that Billy's perhaps not as much of a heartless guttersnipe as he appears. Or maybe he is and he's only pretending to be just-this-side-of-hell-bound to attract Cat?

The only thing I didn't like was that ending seemed very rushed and convenient, and the epilogue was one of those where everything is metaphorical pixie dust. But other than that, this was another very quick, entertaining, and well-penned novel. Now that I've read a little further, I'm beginning to get the sense Golding knows exactly where she's taking us with these characters, and I can't wait to find out where that is. Besides, I want there to be someone I can reference the Captain Benington-Smythe maneuver to who'll know what the heck I'm talking about.

(Still) recommended!

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Saturday, March 5, 2011

Brian Jungen by Daina Augaitis (ed.)

brian jungen cover

Brian Jungen is a Canadian with Native American/Swiss roots. His work is really awesome. Among his best-known pieces are his Prototypes of New Understanding, which are Air Jordans deconstructed and rebuilt into Northwest Coast masks.

prototype Brian Jungen, Prototypes for a New Understanding, 1999.

These pieces remind me of Germantown Blankets in that they show a piece of European-American culture deconstructed and rebuilt for specifically indigenous use (in theory, anyway--the masks are never actually used and Jungen isn't a Northwest Coast Indian--see below). Jungen has also taken things like plastic chairs and remade them into skeletons, baseball bats into totems, and IKEA boxes into bird habitats, among other examples.

This catalog, from a retrospective exhibition of his career, contains several essays grounded in theory and modern art criticism that talk about Jungen's work. I wouldn't call them widely accessible--they are self-consciously by and for the art world cognoscente--but I'm willing to forgive them because they do help one understand Jungen's works.

cetology Cetology, 2002. Photo: Trevor Mills/Courtesy Vancouver Art Gallery.

Jungen takes a lot of inspiration from minimalists (according to the book--personally I didn't quite see it, but what do I know about minimalism), but unlike true minimalists who don't want to tell a story, Jungen does. He also uses art to highlight social issues and make statements about the role of viewer/viewee, and all that post-modern stuff (can you tell I'm totally interested?).

The most interesting essay is, unsurprisingly, the one where Jungen himself talks about his art. He ignores all the po-mo theory and discusses how he was interested in animals from an early age, and his work is really all about animals. Maybe I'm just a bad art historian, but if he hadn't mentioned it, I never would have noticed how animals are the dominant theme in his art. Only one of the book's essayist even brought the subject of animals up, and that was very briefly, so I'm glad they included Jungen's interview. It makes the pieces seem much more personable, relevant, and "real" in way that all the essays based on theory--though impressive in their verbal gyrations--don't.

A very interesting, and odd, aspect of the book is the fact that no one ever mentions Jungen is not a member of the Northwest Coast Nations. His Native descent is from the interior of Canada and a tribe that speaks the same type of language as the Navajo, so he's not in any way related to the Native tribes of the Pacific Northwest. What implications does this put on his use of Northwest Coast masks in his Protos? No one in the book addresses this, and in the essay that focuses on the Prototypes, the author even says he's a Northwest Coast Indian, something that is completely false. In the US, this would be a Big Deal--Jungen is taking historical, religious and cultural symbols of a Native peoples he has absolutely no claim to and appropriating them for his own profit. Imagine if someone took Dooney & Burke bags and created representations of the Snake Dance with them. Yet this Canadian publication seems genuinely not to care and is only vaguely interested in his status as an American Indian anyway. I'm not saying it's a good or bad thing, just that it's something I found curious; and I can't help but wonder if Jungen would even define himself as an "Indian artist." Somehow I think probably not.

There is one thing I absolutely loved about this book--pictures! There are so. many. pictures. It's practically a photo album. It's about half as long as you think it will be because of all the illustrations of Jungen's work.

As far as reading this book, I would only recommend it to people with a vested interest in art--but if you're interested, you definitely should read it! And I highly recommend everyone make the effort to check out Jungen's work in a gallery or museum--his art is really cool and I think can be appreciated on a multitude of levels.

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Thursday, March 3, 2011

Love In the Afternoon by Lisa Kleypas

love afternoon cover


Now that I've gotten that out of the way, perhaps I can tell you about this book a little more calmly. This is the final book in the Hathaway series, about the crazy 19th-century English family that keeps marrying for love. What will they think of next? I just don't know! In volume five, the sylvan Beatrix falls in love with Christopher, a Crimean War vet with PTSD. Beatrix has avoided Christopher ever since she overheard him saying she belongs in the stables, but when his shallow almost-fiance (whom Beatrix strangely has no problem hanging out with) refuses to answer his letters from the front, she decides to do it herself. They fall in love via post but Christopher thinks he's in love with Prudence the social butterfly, not odd animal lover Beatrix Hathaway. Boy, is he in for an unpleasant surprise!

This novel felt a little clunky and I think it's fair to say it's the worst volume in the series. Not that I hated it, but there were just so many problems and it needed to be edited down and then built back up. First and foremost are the letters--it's not that I don't think people can fall in love through letters, but I can't see them falling in love with the letters that are exchanged in this book. They're short and to the point and kind of impersonal, almost like an e-mail conversation. I could tell Kleypas was really not into it. Fortunately, despite the fact that these two fall in love by writing to one another, the letters are a very short portion of the book--I have to wonder, why bother to include them at all?

white mongrel terrier

The real story starts when Christopher returns to Hampshire, determined to marry the love of his life, aka Prudence. In the meantime, he's one of England's greatest heroes, his brother died, and his mother hates him. Drama! Oh, and he also has a cute dog that Beatrix insists on helping named Albert. Christopher found Albert guarding the body of his dead master on the battlefield and adopted him. Soon Albert was carrying messages for the Rifle Brigade and became Christopher's best friend. Isn't that sweet? And this story is actually based on a real dog from the Crimean Wars!

Anyway, enough about the dog. Terriers are such a great breed, but that's beside the point. I enjoyed the first part of the book, but after Christopher realized it was Beatrix who really wrote the letters, the story lost a lot of narrative tension. Toward the end it had pacing issues, as well--for example, the return of one of Christopher's friends was reeeally interesting, but it was given about a page and a half while other parts of the story I honestly did not care about dragged on and on. Admittedly, most of these parts had to do with sex. And, okay, the sex was kind of hot, but I was really more interested in the characters.

Basically, Love In the Afternoon wasn't a complete dud of a read, but it definitely didn't have the same feeling of charm and energy as the previous Hathaway books. Still, if you're a fan of the series, you'll want to read it.

For more images from the book, check out my image board at PInterest!

Musical notes: "Lost" by Coldplay

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Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The Ballerina, the Gymnast, and the Yoga Master by RJ Silver

ballerina gymnast yoga master cover

Anna is chillin' in Central Park, reading, rockin' the sweat pants--when she spots a handsome stranger sitting on the bench next to her with a bouquet of roses. Anna is pretty sure he's way out of her league, but as he keeps distracting her with morose sighs, she feels like she has to ask him if anything's the matter. Soon Vincent (who is not only handsome but a billionaire) is telling Anna all about the disastrous last three relationships he's had. Vincent keeps falling in love with various women--the elegant Russian ballerina, á la "good Nina" from Black Swan; the fiery Latina gymnast; and the spiritual Asian yogi--all of whom go into a personal and career nose-dive once Vincent gets his claws into them. Is there something wrong with Vincent other than the fact that he's emotionally immature and has commitment issues?

This is another short and funny romantic comedy from RJ Silver (of the ever-popular Princess and the Penis). It is just as funny as The P & the P, but not as romantic. Also--ironically--it's much more sexually explicit. But I was much more interested in the implicit sexual nuances relating to prowess, masculinity, reflexivity, and performance.

All the women Vincent dates are employed in fields mythologized for their implied sexual prowess (I couldn't help but think of the Seinfeld episode where he dates a gymnast). Vincent takes on the women's skills in order to woo them, and as he gets better at ballet/gymnastics/yoga, he becomes more attractive to them. There's an interesting reflexiveness going on here, since it seems like Vincent desires not only the women but their professional artistry, even though these métiers aren't considered "manly." Vincent calls watching a man dance a ballet a "visual assault" on his heterosexuality, yet he clearly loves ballet. Mastering these stereotypically "gay" skills is made acceptable by the fact that Vincent is doing it in pursuit of a woman, and proficiency of the tasks equates to Vincent's heterosexual finesse. Yet eventually the women start reflecting Vincent back at himself, and it's then that the relationships begin to go downhill, for the parts of his personality they take on are the parts he rejected by assuming their roles.

What confused me about the story was how Anna is different from all these other women. Perhaps her relationship with Vincent is successful because they both take on fictional roles, thus never reflecting one another back at themselves. Vincent is allowed to hide from himself forever and Anna can be any type of woman he wants, like a chameleon. There might be a larger statement to be made here about how we all take on "roles" in a relationship to help keep it stable, but I'm not sure if Silver is arguing for or against it, or if there's even enough time spent on Anna and Vincent's relationship to make an argument.

The only thing that threw the novella off for me was the persistent ethnic stereotyping, and not just with the women. Of course the Cuban gymnast has to be passionate, and someone name Enrique has to be a pool boy, and so on. Maybe Silver meant to satirize these stereotypes, but it seemed a little too casual for that.

In any case, the story is still funny--not as cute and sweet and The Princess and the Penis, but a quick and fun read nevertheless. I have to say, The Ballerina, the Gymnast, and the Yoga Master offered a surprising amount of thought for food. I definitely recommend you check it out and hope Silver keeps writing and publishing!

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