The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge by M.T. Anderson and Eugene Yelchin: A wildly imaginative and creative MG Fantasy

The Assassination of Brangwain SpurgeThe Assassination of Brangwain Spurge

by M.T. Anderson and Eugene Yelchin


Hardcover, 523 pg.
Candlewick Press, 2018
Read: January 24 – 25, 2019

Let me start with a hat-tip to Paul at Paul’s Picks for putting this on my radar. Thanks, Paul.

For a MG book, I’m surprisingly intimidated by the prospect of trying to give a synopsis. That’s probably a clue about the book. Brangwain Spurge is an elfin historian of moderate renown — when (as far as he knows) an ancient goblin relic is found in his land, he’s dispatched to present it to the goblin’s king. No elf has survived being in — much lest returning from — goblin territories in more than a century, but the conventional wisdom is that a historian should be safe — even if he is also spying.

The goblins and elves have spent centuries fighting each other, and are in a rare season without warfare — and no one expects it to last for long. Each side distrusts the other in ways that make relations between the USA and USSR in the 1960’s seem warm and cordial. So this mission of Brangwain’s is an unexpected and welcome overture of peace. Or so many people think.

Brangwain’s host is a goblin names Werfel — who’s also a historian. Werfel is a very odd, but seemingly pleasant, person living in the midst of pretty odd, and apparently pleasant, people. Every goblin he meets goes out of their way to welcome Brangwain and try to make him feel comfortable, while celebrating elfin culture. Brangwain’s a nervous guy, who has spent most of his life (going back to childhood) being insulted, bullied and overlooked — he doesn’t really see the efforts of the goblins for what it is. Besides, he’s too busy trying not to get caught while spying on his hosts.

Now, how does this elf — who most people expect is on a suicide mission — get his information back to the elves? I’m glad you asked — this is an ingenious move by Anderson and Yelchin — while alone and resting, Brangwain uses elfin magic and imagines what he’s seen which is transmitted to a device in the office of his king’s military intelligence, that takes these transmissions and “prints” them out. These would be the illustrations that make up a significant portion of this book.

Ultimately, things go awry and Brangwain and Werfel are on the run together, trying to survive and hopefully keep the peaceful overtures alive. A friendship will rise between the two as they depend on each other and realize how much they have in common.

There’s some great commentary on the power of perspective when it comes to history. Werfel and Brangwain differ greatly in their understandings of the same event/person, wholly dependent on their backgrounds. It’s all about who writes the history — even if it’s an obscure scholar — when it comes to establishing “fact.”

A little bit more about the art. First, it’s just great. This isn’t a book directed at the picture book crowd, but the art might as well be for people who can’t read the text — it’s as much of the story telling as the text. Yelchin actually saves them a couple hundred pages telling the more dramatic portions of the story in his pictures. Interestingly enough, the events described in the narration and the events depicted in the art/Brangwain’s reports differ significantly, and part of the fun of the book is comparing them. Yelchin’s art reminds me of Jules Feiffer’s from The Phantom Tollbooth, which is possibly the biggest selling point for me. Well, except the picture of a spider-creature that makes Shelob and Aragog look tame.

It’s a fun story, a little wry, and it will appeal to grade schoolers who have an off-kilter sense of humor. I really enjoyed reading it and recommend it for middle graders and their parents/older siblings alike.

—–

3 Stars
2019 Library Love Challenge

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The Disasters by M. K. England: Some Fun YA Popcorn SF

The DisastersThe Disasters

by M. K. England


Hardcover, 352 pg.
HarperTeen, 2018

Read: January 29 – 30, 2019

           We sit in silence while al-Rihla, the jewel of the colonies, gradually takes over more and more of the viewport. It looks exactly like it did on the pages of my textbooks, only so much more. I let my eyes linger for a moment, taking in green continents outlined in rich red sand and huge, intensely blue oceans that glitter below. I know we’re in a life-or-death situation, but it’s hard not to be overwhelmed by the view. I can see why all the antiexploration crap went away once a few humans actually got out here. Who could look at all this and not want it? It’s bizarre–I’ve only seen Earth from space once, and I was busy trying not to die at the time. Now I’m looking down on a completely different planet, in person, in space, while flying a ship I stole.

I’m actually here. This is all I’ve ever wanted, though I didn’t get it in the way I wanted.

And in a few painfully long minutes, I’ll find out whether I get to live to see the other seven colony worlds one day, or if I get to die in a dramatic crash and kill all my new friends instead.

Fantastic.

Nax Hall is a would-be pilot, would-be space colonizer, and would-be anything but a failure in the eyes of his family. Sadly, after a day at the Ellis Station Academy (the only way to achieve two of those goals, and his best shot at the third), he’s been cut from the program. He’s not the only one — three others have been, too. As they wait for the shuttle to take them back to Earth, a terrorist group of some kind attacks the Academy. With a little luck, the expelled students escape in the shuttle that was destined to take them to Earth.

But they quickly realize that space fighters won’t allow the ship to land on Earth where they can alert the authorities about what happened at the Academy — so they have to hyperjump (or whatever it’s called in this world — I already took the book back to the library and can’t check) to colonial space. They quickly learn that the terrorists have used their escape as a means to frame them for the atrocities committed at the Academy and they now are on the run from the same authorities they were hoping to help them.

Thankfully, between the four of them, they have an almost perfect crew — a pilot, a diplomat, a medic and a technician/copilot. They soon find themselves aligned with a computer expert with ties to black-market entities that can help them spread the word about what happened at the Academy and what it might mean for the future of Earth’s space colonies. These five plucky teens are all that stands between humanity and widespread destruction.

England has a gift for action scenes — they were energetic, dynamic and enough to sink your teeth into. Nax’s flying, in general or in combat, was the highlight of the book for me. I could’ve used a little more of it, even though that would have been gratuitous. I’m not above gratuity in the right place. There’s a strong sense of fun in the narrative — despite being up against impossible odds, these kids are living their dream (just not in the way they wanted, as Nax put it in the quotation above). There’s a good deal of bonhomie between the makeshift crew, which builds gradually over the book to the point where they’re a tight bunch of friends at the end. This sense of fun is grounded by the dangers they face and the costs they’re paying, just enough to keep this from being a romp.

The characters aren’t that complex, although England makes a couple of attempts at it. Their backstories are interesting, to the degree that she explores them (which isn’t much). We get enough of Nax’s crewmates’ backstories to explain their presence on the ship, but not much more. We get plenty about Nax in bits and pieces — which is good enough, he’s the star of the show (and should be). The bad guys aren’t much more than stock villains, mostly a faceless group or two conspiring to do evil things. That’s fine with me, this isn’t the kind of book that promises complex opponents with compelling reasons for their activities, mustache-twirlers with lots of henchmen are good enough.

Here’s my major complaint with the book — the politics. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that politics shouldn’t enter into fiction. Particularly Science Fiction. I’d prefer to see more of it — at least more diversity in political views, too much of the politics in SF is so culturally homogeneous one could easily believe no other opinions existed. But before I get gong on that line, let me get back to The Disasters. The politics and societal struggles of the late 22nd Century are apparently identical to those of 2018. Now, I’m not suggesting that Earth’s culture should have worked everything out and the struggles of today will be a distant memory — but they should’ve changed somewhat. The way these problems are seen, expressed and argued about should be different. England just comes across lazy in her approach to these ideas. It’d be like someone writing about Irish cops in 2019 Boston the same way people wrote about them in 1850.

Thankfully, while it flavors much of the book, the characters don’t spend that much time actively discussing it, so it’s easy to forget about. What you’re left with is popcorn fun. A bunch of underdog kids, rejects from society (while really being exceptional), find themselves in a place to save the world (more than 8 of them, technically). There’s some good action — again, the flight scenes are great — a couple of chuckles, and a solid ending. It’s a couple of hours of escapist entertainment when it’s at its best (which is pretty often).

—–

3 Stars
2019 Library Love Challenge

My Favorite Crime/Mystery/Detective/Thriller Fiction of 2018

Once I settled on dividing this chunk of my reading out for its own list, I knew instantly half of the books that’d make it before I looked at just what I’d read in 2018. After going through that list, I had 15 more candidates for the other 5 spots. Whittling those down was hard, but I’m pretty comfortable with this list. That doesn’t mean the other 90 or so books I read in this family of genres were bad — most were great (I can think of maybe 5 I could’ve missed). But these are the crème de la crème.

Man, I wanted to write the crème de la crime there. But I’m better than that.

Not all of these were published in 2018 — but my first exposure to them was. As always, I don’t count re-reads, or almost no one could stand up to Stout, early Parker, etc. and my year-end lists would get old fast.

Now that I’m done with this, I can focus on 2019.

(in alphabetical order by author)

The Puppet ShowThe Puppet Show

by M. W. Craven

My original post
A book with some of the darkest moments I came across last year — and some of the brightest, too. The mystery was great, the character moments (not just between the protagonists) were better — great rounded, human, characters. Even after I saw where Craven was going with things, I refused to believe it — and only gave up when I had no other choice. Two (at least) fantastic reveals in this book, very compelling writing and fantastic characters. What more do you want? Washington Poe and Tilly Bradshaw are two of my favorite new characters and I can’t wait to see where they go next.

5 Stars

Needle SongNeedle Song

by Russell Day

My original post
I could pretty much copy and paste that above paragraph for this one. It never gets as dark as The Puppet Show, but the depravity displayed is bad enough to unsettle any reader. What makes this story compelling isn’t really the crime, it’s the way the crime impacts the people near it — those who lost a family member (I don’t want to say loved one) and those who are close to the suspects. Yakky and Doc Slidesmith are characters I hope to see again soon, and I want to bask in Day’s prose even more.

5 Stars

She Rides ShotgunShe Rides Shotgun

by Jordan Harper

My original post
The story of a little girl being surrounded by death and destruction, with both looming and threatening her all the time, and her discovering how to be brave. The story of a man trying to be a good father — or just a father. The story of survival. A story of revenge. A story about all kinds of violence. Wonderfully told.

4 Stars

WreckedWrecked

by Joe Ide

My original post
Not as entertaining as IQ, but it works as a novel in ways the previous two didn’t. I don’t know if I could put my finger on it, but it’s there. Wrecked is a clear step in evolution for Isaiah, Dodson, and probably Ide. It definitely demonstrates that the three are here to stay as long as Ide wants, and that these characters aren’t satisfied with being inner-city Sherlock/Watson, but they’re going places beyond that. Some good laughs, some good scares, some real “I can’t believe Ide ‘let’ them do that to Isaiah” moments — a great read.

5 Stars

A Mint Condition CorpseA Mint Condition Corpse

by Duncan MacMaster

My original post
I put off reading this for reasons I really don’t understand and haven’t forgiven myself for yet. But the important thing is that I read it — it took me a chapter or two to really get into it, but once I did, I was in hook, like and sinker. In my original post I said this is “a joy to read; full of characters you’ll want to spend days with, that you’ll want to have over for Thanksgiving dinner just to lighten things up and distract you from Aunt Martha’s overcooked yams and dry turkey; a completely fun time that’s very likely most I’ve enjoyed a book in 2018. It is escapist. It is silly. It is clever.” I also said, “Probably the 5-Star-est 5-Stars I’ve given this year.” There are a couple of books that could compete for that line, but I’m not sure they’d win.

5 Stars

My Little EyeMy Little Eye

by Stephanie Marland

My original post
Fantastic, fantastic premise. Great hook. Another great pair of protagonists (although most of their work is independent of each other). A True Crime blogger and a DI racing to uncover a serial killer, while battling dark secrets, dark pasts, and outside pressures that threaten to derail them at every turn. Marland surprised me more often and in more ways than just about any author this year. I was floored by some of them, too. A great puzzle, a great mish-mash of amateur detective and police procedural.

4 1/2 Stars

Her Last MoveHer Last Move

by John Marrs

My original post
I didn’t realize what I was getting myself into when I said yes to this Book Tour request. I’m not sure I could have — no offense to Mr. Marrs, but I don’t think I’d heard of him before. He’s definitely on my radar now. This was brutal, devastating, shocking, and just about every other adjective reviewers (professional and otherwise) overuse when describing a thriller. Marrs did so many things I didn’t think he would do. He didn’t do a lot that I thought he would (and seemed to mock the idea that he’d so some of what I wanted him to do). I spent a lot of time while reading this book not liking him very much, but so grateful I was getting to read the book. I’m still upset by some of it, but in awe of the experience.

5 Stars

Stoned LoveStoned Love

by Ian Patrick

My original post
Sam Batford, undercover cop, is back in a sequel that shows real growth from a very impressive debut. Batford is in incredibly murky ethical and legal waters — and that’s not counting what his undercover op is. Any misstep could ruin his career, end his life, land him in prison — or all three. Actually, those options hold true even if he doesn’t make any missteps. There are so many balls in the air with this one that it’d be easy to lose track of one or more. But Patrick doesn’t seem to struggle with that at all — and he writes in such a way that a reader doesn’t either. That’s a gift not to be overlooked. I liked the overall story more than it’s predecessor and think that Patrick’s writing was better here. This is a series — and a character — that you really need to get to know.

4 1/2 Stars (I remember liking it more than that…I’m sure I had a reason at the time)

Exit MusicExit Music

by Ian Rankin

My original post
I’ve spent enough time with John Rebus over the last couple of years that I knew one of the books had to end p here, I just wasn’t sure which one. Exit Music ended up on the Top 10 not so much for the main mysteries (although they put the book in contention), but for all rest of the things that the novel was about — Rebus’ moving on (not knowing how to or to where), Siobhan moving on (and not sure she wants to), and the dozen or so little things surrounding the two of them and their work. Even Big Ger was kind of moving on here — and that’s just strange to read about. Exit Music would’ve been a great way to say farewell to John Rebus, I’m just glad it wasn’t that.

5 Stars

Trouble is a Friend of MineTrouble is a Friend of Mine

by Stephanie Tromly, Kathleen McInerney (Narrator)

My original post
If not for Kirby Baxter (above), I could say this was the most fun I had with a Mystery novel this year (not to take anything away from the sequels on that front). This is just the right mix of high school hijinks, teen drama, quirky characters and writing with panache. Zoe and Digby are a great combo of smarts, recklessness and responsibility as they work their way through puzzles surrounding missing kids, drug dealing doctors, and some strange cult-like group. You can feel the chemistry between them — like Remington Steele and Laura Holt, David Addison and Maddy Hays, Cumberbatch’s Sherlock and Freeman’s Watson. Throw in their friends and frenemies and you’ve got a recipe for fun and suspense. I listened to this on audiobook (and bought the paperback for my daughter before I got to the end, I should add) and McInerney’s narration was perfect — she captured the spirit of the book and made the characters come alive.

4 Stars

My Favorite 2018 (Fictional) Dogs

In one of the lightest moments of Robert B. Parker’s Valediction (just before one of the darker), Spenser describes his reservation about the first two Star Wars movies: “No horses . . . I don’t like a movie without horses.” After watching Return of the Jedi, he comments that it was a silly movie, but “Horses would have saved it.” Which makes me wonder what he’d have thought about The Last Jedi. Horses aren’t my thing, it’s dogs. I’m not quite as bad as Spenser is about them — I like books without dogs. But occasionally a good dog would save a book for me — or make a good book even better. I got to thinking about this a few weeks back when I realized just how many books I’d read last year that featured great dogs — and then I counted those books and couldn’t believe it. I tried to stick to 10 (because that’s de rigueur), but I failed. I also tried to leave it with books that I read for the first time in 2018 — but I couldn’t cut two of my re-reads.

So, here are my favorite dogs from 2018 — they added something to their novels that made me like them more, usually they played big roles in the books (but not always).

(in alphabetical order by author)

  • Edgar from The Puppet Show by M. W. Craven (my post about the book) — Edgar has a pretty small role in the book, really. But there’s something about him that made me like Washington Poe a little more — and he made Tilly Bradshaw pretty happy, and that makes Edgar a winner in my book.
  • Kenji from Smoke Eaters by Sean Grigsby (my post about the book) — The moment that Grigsby introduced Kenji to the novel, it locked in my appreciation for it. I’m not sure I can explain it, but the added detail of robot dogs — at once a trivial notion, and yet it says so much about the culture Cole Brannigan lives in. Also, he was a pretty fun dog.
  • Rutherford from The TV Detective by Simon Hall (my post about the book) — Dan Groves’ German Shepherd is a great character. He provides Dan with companionship, a sounding board, a reason to leave the house — a way to bond with the ladies. Dan just felt more like a real person with Rutherford in his life. Yeah, he’s never integral to the plot (at least in the first two books of the series), but the books wouldn’t work quite as well without him.
  • Oberon from Scourged by Kevin Hearne (my post about the book) — Everyone’s favorite Irish Wolfhound doesn’t get to do much in this book, because Atticus is so focused on keeping him safe (as he should be). But when he’s “on screen,” he makes it count. He brings almost all of the laughs and has one of the best ideas in the novel.
  • Mouse from Brief Cases by Jim Butcher (my post about the book) — From the moment we read, “My name is Mouse and I am a Good Dog. Everyone says so,” a good novella becomes a great one. As the series has progressed, Mouse consistently (and increasingly) steals scenes from his friend, Harry Dresden, and anyone else who might be around. But here where we get a story (in part) from his perspective, Mouse takes the scene stealing to a whole new level. He’s brave, he’s wise, he’s scary, he’s loyal — he’s a very good dog.
  • Ruffin from Wrecked by Joe Ide (my post about the book) — Without Isaiah Quintabe’s dog opening up conversation between IQ and Grace, most of this book wouldn’t have happened — so it’s good for Grace’s sake that Ruffin was around. And that case is made even more from the way that Ruffin is a support for Grace. He also is a fantastic guard dog and saves lives. His presence is a great addition to this book.
  • Dog from An Obvious Fact by Craig Johnson (my post about the book) — I might have been able to talk myself into ignoring re-reads if I hadn’t listened to this audiobook (or any of the series, come to think of it) last year — or if Dog had been around in last year’s novel. Dog’s a looming presence, sometimes comic relief (or at least a mood-lightener), sometimes a force of nature. Dog probably gets to do more for Walt in this book — he helps Walt capture some, he attacks others, just being around acts as a deterrent for many who’d want to make things rough on Walt. Walt couldn’t ask for a better partner.
  • Trogdor from The Frame-Up by Meghan Scott Molin (my post about the book) — Honestly, Trogdor probably has the least impact on the book than any of the dogs on this list. But, come on, a Corgi names Trodgor? The idea is cute enough to justify inclusion here. He’s a good pet, a fitting companion for MG — not unlike Dan’s Rutherford. He just adds a little something to the mix that helps ground and flesh-out his human companion.
  • Mingus from The Drifter by Nicholas Petrie (my post about the book) — Like Trogdor, a great name. Like Mouse and Dog, a great weapon. He’s really a combination of the two of them (just lacking Mouse’s magical nature). He’s vital in many different ways to the plot and the safety of those we readers care about. Petrie made a good move when he added this beast of a dog to the novel.
  • Chet from Dog On It by Spencer Quinn (my posts about Chet) — If I couldn’t cut Dog, I couldn’t cut Chet. Listening to this audiobook (my 4th or 5th time through the novel, I believe) reminded me how much I love and miss Chet — and how eager I am for his return this year. This Police Academy reject is almost as good a detective as his partner, Bernie, is. Chet will make you laugh, he’ll warm your heart, he’ll make you want a dog of your own (actually, all of these dogs will)
  • Zoey from Deck the Hounds by David Rosenfelt (my post about the book) — how do I not invoke Tara when discussing an Andy Carpenter book? Good question. It’s Zoey that brings Andy into the story, it’s Zoey that helps Don to cope with his own issues, it’s Zoey that defends Don and saves him (in many ways). Sure, Tara’s the best dog in New Jersey, but Zoey comes close to challenging her status in this book.
  • Lopside from Voyage of the Dogs by Greg van Eekhout (my post about the book) — It almost feels like cheating to bring in a dog from a novel about dogs — conversely, it’s hard to limit it to just one dog from this book. But Lopside the Barkonaut would demand a place here if he was the only dog among a bunch of humans — or if he was surrounded by more dogs. He’s brave, he’s self-sacrificing, he’s a hero. He’ll charm you and get you to rooting for these abandoned canines in record time.

P Is for Pterodactyl: The Worst Alphabet Book Ever by Raj Haldar, Chris Carpenter, Maria Beddia: Twisted, Fun and even Educational

P Is for PterodactylP Is for Pterodactyl: The Worst Alphabet Book Ever

by Raj Haldar, Chris Carpenter, Maria Beddia (Illustrator)


Hardcover, 40 pg.
Sourcebooks Jabberwocky, 2018
Read: December 20, 2018

One of the first books printed in the American colonies was The New England Primer, filled with catchy lines like “In Adam’s Fall / We Sinned All.”

Since that time, many alphabet-type books have been published in the same — or similar — vein. One of the latest is P Is for Pterodactyl, which carries the subtitle, The Worst Alphabet Book Ever which doesn’t seem that complimentary, but when it includes lines like:

” is for Jai Alai.

or

” is for Ewe.”

or even

U is not for You.

and maybe you start to think there’s a little truth in advertising.

It’s actually an amusing book with some examples of the oddities and vagaries of English spelling/pronunciation that will stick with you. I’m not crazy about some of the selections (V’s a good example), but by and large, I really liked each “for” that the authors selected.

The artwork is great — it compliments the text well and will help keep shorter attention spans focused.

For everyone who enjoyed BNL’s “Crazy ABC’s”, this Picture Book entertains as well as educates. I’m not sure how well it’d work for the 7-and-under crowd, but for older elementary kids — and adults who just want a chuckle, this book will be just the ticket. I had a fun time reading it — as did my whole family. Unlike most of the picture books I post about here, you’ll note tat this one doesn’t carry any kind of disclaimer — I bought this one after seeing a couple of pieces about it online, and am glad I did. I imagine you will be, too.

—–

4 Stars

Kitties Are Not Good To Eat by Cassandra Gelvin: and other useful and cute advice on feline care for the younger set.

Kitties Are Not Good To EatKitties Are Not Good To Eat

by Cassandra Gelvin
Kindle Edition, 14 pg.
2018
Read: November 17, 2018

This is just adorable. That’s really all I have to say.

This is a board book — I’d honestly forgotten those existed — so dial those expectation in to the correct channel. This is a collection of cute cat pictures (you know, the things the Internet was full of before we entered the era of heightened political discourse we’re now in) that are sure to delight little kids. Accompanying these pictures are handy rhyming tips like, “Kitties were not made to fly / And they do not want to try.”

Maybe not advice you need, but for a 2 year-old this could be life changing stuff — life extending, even.

The photos are fun, the text is, too. I can’t imagine that the target audience of a board book (or their electronic equivalent) wouldn’t love to hear this read to them a few times a day. Potentially more importantly, this won’t become really annoying to the reader all that quickly (it will eventually, but what doesn’t?)

A cute book that will entertain and/or not annoy — that’s pretty much all you can hope for with a board book. Give this a shot.

Disclaimer: I received a copy of this book from the author in exchange for my honest take.

—–

3 Stars

Be Brave, Little Puffy by Arline Cooper: A Cute Fish Tale

Be Brave, Little PuffyBe Brave, Little Puffy: Promoting Positive Body-Image and Self-Esteem

by Arline Cooper

Kindle Edition, 28 pg.
Ofek, 2018
Read: November 8, 2018

Puffy is a puffer fish with a little problem — he’s not terribly fond of his spines, if for no other reason than he’s frequently poking his friends with them. He leaves his fellow puffer fish to go on a journey to find other friends — maybe fish he won’t bother as much. Puffy encounters many other fish of various species in his effort to find a new group of friends he can live with. Eventually, naturally, he finds a way to win back his friends, and learn to accept his spines.

Each encounter is captured in a colorful drawing depicting the new species — attractive, fairly accurate and eye-catching.

It was a little wordier than most books for 4-8 year olds tend to be. Which isn’t a bad thing — just something I noticed. The thing that bothered me the most about this book was the pictures. I want to stress that this might just be a Kindle Version thing, and that other formats may not have the issue. But the pictures about each episode follow the encounter with the fish — so the visual aid comes too late. So you have to flip to the next screen before starting to read so you can see or show the fish in question, and then flip back to pick up the narration. Is this a problem? No, but it’s a pain — especially if your child/audience is impatient.

The pictures are also a little on the small side (yes, I know that can be changed for each picture as you go along, But it’d be nice if you didn’t have to do anything) — and they deserve a closer look than is easily possible.

Arline Cooper has the goods — story and pictures bother — to produce quality picture books, hopefully we see more. Quibbles aside, this is a fun book, a book I can see parents reading frequently — and kids demanding frequently. Nicely told, attractively illustrated, with a positive message — that’s a good combination.

Disclaimer: I received a copy of this book from the author in exchange for my honest opinion, as seen above.

—–

3 Stars