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50. Beloved Poison by ES Thomson

I heard about this in the Guardian. It's shortlisted for a Scottish crime fiction award (the McIlvanney). The rest of the contenders are the usual suspects, but, as a historical novel, this caught my interest. Not enough to buy it, obviously, that's what libraries are for.

It's set in a crumbling hospital that used to be a monastery in 1850s London which is being shut down to make way for a railway station. Everything we learn about the place leads the reader to believe this is no bad thing.

The narrator is Jem Flockhart, the hospital's apothecary, who is a woman living as a man because there has been a Flockhart as the apothecary at St Saviour's for generations and her father had no sons. A lot of readers have complained that this is a cliche (I went on to Goodreads and immediately needed to shower.) Look, assholes, there's three choices to deal with women as protagonists in historical novels and apparently they all make people bitch. Either you don't use women, and that's just not acceptable to a lot of modern readers. Or you have women as women, and the sexists masquerading as sticklers for historical accuracy shout you down. Or you can use the cross dressing trope (and, interestingly, more evidence is coming to light that this actually happened a lot more than has been previously thought) and get accused of being a cliche. Representation matters, people, so STFU if that's the worst criticism you can come up with.

Interestingly, as the novel goes on it becomes more obvious that Jem and his/her father haven't been fooling many people but they've all gone along with it.

Jem becomes friends with a young architect sent to supervise the demolition works. They find six tiny coffins hidden in a disused chapel (more than a little reminiscent of the real-life mystery of the six miniature coffins found in Scotland which has been used as a basis for many a modern book). They start to investigate and people start dying.

I had a mixed reaction to this book. Thomson has a PhD in the history of medicine so that part is spot on. She captures the Victorian era reasonably well. It falls short of pitching you right into the era as the Shardlake books do to the Tudor era, but those books are my benchmark. She makes an overly heavy-handed use of foreshadowing. However, the literal and figurative claustrophobia of the hospital environment is unsettling and there was enough going on that I wanted to find out what happened next.

Overall, not bad for a first book. However, it's supposed to be the first in a series and while I think it was a good stand-alone book, I didn't find anything about it a good basis for a series. Not convinced I will be following up.
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41. Two For The Lions by Lindsey Davis

A few years ago I read the first half of this series and then tailed off. I've read the first chapter of this a couple of times but couldn't get into it and thought maybe I'd had enough. Started it again on the bus/at lunch last week and got sucked straight in. Read the rest on the coach to and from London this weekend.

Standard Falco series stuff - Falco lands what he hopes is a lucrative contract as an auditor for Vespasian's census and is given the task of looking into the finances of various participants in the arena - gladiators, wild beasts etc and stumbles right into the killing of one of the lions to which convicted criminals are fed. This is, naturally, swiftly followed by the murder of a gladiator. For Reasons, the case unravels but Falco's entire family ends up in North Africa, where it all comes together again.

Because it's set in ancient Rome, even though it's mostly about a fairly clueless, smartass investigator, there's a lot of death and violence. Even so, the ending, where everything *really* all comes crashing down around him, is pretty dark.

And I have to read the next one really soon to find out exactly what Falco did bring to light about the sacred geese...
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38. Heartbreaker by Tania Carver

Tania Carver is actually a large man from the North East of England who also writes as Martin Waites. I was unaware of his/their work until he did a reading from one of the Tania books at BristolCon recently. I was intrigued (he described the Tania books as occupying the same space in British publishing as Karin Slaughter does in the US, and I do like Karin Slaughter).

This is a recent book in the series, which follows the exploits of a husband and wife team - he's a police detective, she's a psychologist. In this one their marriage is falling apart and he makes a lot of bad decisions. She works out a lot.

It's pretty generic violent-crime stuff (but it's not as graphic or even pornographic about violence as Karin Slaughter at all). Which is to say that I still read it in a very short period of time - nothing particularly to write home about, but very much delivers what it sets out to. It was above averagely plotted, though - I was pretty sure who the killer was early on, but enough red herrings are thrown into the mix to keep you doubting right till the end.
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33. Sherlock Holmes: The Patchwork Devil by Cavan Scott

I am fascinated by Sherlock Holmes as a cultural phenomenon, so have been vaguely intending to read one of the current run being put out by Titan for a while. Cavan Scott is a local writer and had a signing event for this at the local Forbidden Planet, so I decided this was as as good a time as any.

Despite the story having a good hook right from the start, it took me a while to get into it. It's set in 1919 so Holmes and Watson are older. The narrative is more self-aware and knowing than Conan Doyle, but not mean-spirited or sarcastic. It didn't quite work for me until about 1/3 of the way in, when it clicked.

It is based around an engaging mystery and throws in another enduring mythos in popular culture, the Frankenstein's monster. My main criticism is that it throws in too many elements from the original Holmes Canon so that it becomes a bit messy in places.

Nothing profound but it was an entertaining public transit read. My 12 year old self, however, would have loved this to death.
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31. The Secret Place by Tana French

Tana French writes straight up crime fiction set in and around Dublin. Her first book, Into the Woods, is a real page-turner, and the second, The Likeness, is one of the most painfully suspenseful things I've ever read. Everything since, while still good, has been a disappointment in comparison.

In this (newish) one, a detective in the cold cases unit is given some new information about a murder that took place on the grounds of an expensive girls' school the previous year. He's desperate to get onto the murder squad and so volunteers to go to the school to conduct some interviews with the lead detective from the original investigation (who is now an outcast). They have one day to get the kids to talk & work out what happened.

It's still not as good as the first two books but was definitely better than average with well observed characters and perfectly paced.
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22. The Origins of European Dissent by RI Moore

I've been putting this off till I am un-brain-fogged enough to discuss the ideas within. Not going to happen.

A foundational text about heresy in the 11th and 12th centuries. Moore is interested less in what heretics believed than what their heresy was in reaction to. This was a period when the church was expanding rapidly, and this brought changes both to the church hierarchy and ordinary people's lives.

Moore's thesis is that for the most part, heresy was a reaction to the failure of the Catholic church to live up to the apostolic ideals of the early church, and was most prevalent where the apparatus of secular government was lacking, not where the church was weak. Absolutely packed full of fascinating stuff - definitely recommended.

23. and 27. Brass in Pocket and Worse Than Dead by Stephen Puleston

I downloaded these to the Kindle in a moment of weakness - Amazon was telling me I'd like them and were selling the trilogy for £4.

The gimmick is that they are set in north Wales, and I was about to head there for the weekend. The other gimmick is that the detective, DI Drake, has OCD. His real problem is that he's a jerk, though. It is unclear to me whether the author grasps the difference.

Anyway, they're pretty average thrillers - the prose is pretty pedestrian and the pacing occasionally odd, especially in the first book, but the action starts on the first page and the mystery is engaging enough that I wanted to know what happened next.

24. Here Lies Arthur by Phillip Reeve

A re-read for the book club. I loved it when I first read it when it came out, and it holds up to a re-reading. It's a re-telling of the King Arthur myth for a young adult audience. It's about how myths are made and where they sit in relation to truth. There are strong female characters and some gender swapping. The parts set in the ruins of the Roman baths in Bath are creepy. Still highly recommended.

25. The Hanged Man: A Story of Miracle, Memory, and Colonialism in the Middle Ages by Robert Bartlett

In the late 13th century, a man named William Cragh was hanged for rebellion in Wales. We know about this mainly because he miraculously came back to life, and was the subject of a Papal enquiry some (probably) 15 years later and there are nine surviving eyewitness accounts.

This is a short volume, but packed with interesting stuff. It would be suitable for beginners but I learned a lot from it. Bartlett talks about how medieval people perceived time, about how the process of canonisation worked, and the complicated social and political systems of medieval South Wales.

Not important in the history of ideas the way the RI Moore volume is, but a good read full of interesting bits nonetheless.

26. The Sign of Four by Arthur Conan Doyle

I actually hadn't read this one before - I would certainly have remembered the end if I had! It's one of the novella-length Holmes tales. All of the usual elements you expect from a Holmes story - hard to put down.

I read it because I'd just bought one of the modern reboots, as well as in anticipation of thew new Paul Cornell book - thought I should immerse myself in the real thing first.

I really do need to get my hands on the annotated version.

27. See above
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20. A Time of Torment by John Connolly

The latest Charlie Parker thriller. A solid addition to the series, but not one of the best. The usual stuff - Charlie gets pulled into an investigation that centres around a creepy reclusive rural community, only this time it's based in West Virginia rather than Maine. All the usual supporting cast are around.

I did charge through it because I always wanted to know what happened next, but it doesn't have the magic that some of the books in this series do.
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14. Sovereign by CJ Sansom

I loved the first two books in this series, and part 3 did not disappoint.

It is several years since the last story took place. Shardlake and his clerk/tough guy Barak are sent on a mission by Archbishop Cranmer to accompany the King's Progress in the North in 1641 (an even largely sidelined by history because of what happened next). On their first day in York, a local guildsman is murdered practically in front of them, and it all snowballs from there. Several attempts are made on Shardlake's life, and he even ends up a prisoner in the Tower at one point. Shardlake has a run-in with Henry VIII. It does not go well.

Couldn't put it down. The plot is excellent and I love the characters. I put it on my kindle when I was unwell a few weeks ago & I nearly downloaded the other three books and kept going. But my project for the Easter weekend is to finish all the half-finished books lying around, so I resisted.

I said this with the first two books - this series brings home the reality of the level of paranoia and terror that characterised Henry VIII's reign in a way that no history book ever could. In the first book, Shardlake was an ardent Reformer, in the second somewhat disillusioned, in this one he has come to hate the King and sympathises very much with the rebellious northerners. I love Falco too, but he can be an annoying pain in the arse. I love Shardlake much more - it's painful to watch him lose his idealism and get messed around and abused on account of what idealism he has left (with regard to law and fairness, not religion) and his disability.
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8. Even Dogs in the Wild by Ian Rankin

I got this from the library because the last few instalments in the series have been a bit average (ie everything since Exit Music).

Rebus has been made to retire (again) but he's back as a consultant. Malcolm Fox (the anti-Rebus) is still on the force, a bit surplus to requirements. A retired judge is murdered, and a very similar attempt is made on Big Ger Cafferty's (formerly Edinburgh's premier gangster) life. The big players from Glasgow's organised crime world are in Edinburgh and under surveillance. Is it all connected?

I don't know what happened, but Rankin is back on form here. There's an awful lot going on and he's really playing with making the reader wonder what's relevant and what's a red herring. There is less of Rebus doing Drunken Stupid Shit. Malcolm Fox gets beat up. A lot.

Couldn't put it down.
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1. The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde

Regular readers may remember that I had resisted Fforde's works for a long time because I thought they'd be too whimsical for me until I heard him speak at various events over the past couple years. I've giggled my way through his young adult Last Dragonslayer series, and after his appearance at BristolCon I gave the first of his Thursday Next series a go.

It's set in an alternate world (where Swindon is still a boring place that everyone leaves at the first opportunity; let's keep things believable) where there are rifts in time, mythical animals and resurrected extinct ones, Wales is a socialist republic, and literature is taken so seriously that there is a thriving black market in bootleg manuscripts etc so that there is a division of Special Operations to deal with literary crime. The protagonist's uncle has invented a Prose Portal that can insert people into their favourite story.

The characters all have ridiculous names. My inner 12 year old giggled every time Jack Schitt was mentioned.

I loved it. Too often this sort of work sacrifices plot for the sake of humour, but this is meticulously thought out (Fforde would probably strenuously deny this) and has a real page-turner of a story at its heart.

It's a really dark world, too. The Crimean War has never finished and Thursday Next is a PTSD'd up veteran of a disastrous campaign.

I will definitely be following up the rest of the series. I'm still not sure I'm ready for his Nursery Crimes series though.
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Wow, I am spectacularly bad at this. Once again I had a lot of thoughts at the time but have undoubtedly forgotten everything I wanted to say.

55. Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie

Or That Book What Won All the Awards This Year.

It's space opera, which is really not my thing unless it's by Iain M Banks or Ken Macleod. I did, however, thoroughly enjoy the world building. I didn't find the use of all-female pronouns as distracting as I feared, and I totally get what Leckie is doing there. For me, however, that wasn't the most interesting thing about the society described - it's a massive culture on a Culture-level scale but built on class and family and clientage. That was interesting as in theory it shouldn't work at that scale. Also the use of dead bodies as vessels for an AI was interesting, as was the AIs' development of personality.

Having said that I didn't care much about the plot (big honking space gun, whoopee), the scene where the two main characters fall off a bridge is a treat; really visceral. Ow.

I'm not going to run out and buy the sequels but will probably grab them at the library at some point.

56. The Girl With All the Gifts by MR Carey

ie Mike Carey, author of Lucifer, Hellblazer, the Felix Castor novels etc.

This one is hard to talk about without massively spoilering, but it's fair to say that it is a zombie apocalypse story that is very tender and human but violent and horrific at the same time. The ending is predictable on one level but with the most wonderful twist.

I can't recommend this highly enough, it is beautiful.

57. Women in the Crucible of Conquest: The Gendered Genesis of Spanish American Society, 1500-1600 by Karen Vieira Powers

I thought this was going to be academic and difficult, but it is a very good basic introduction to how women's roles changed in the Aztec and Inca empires after the Spanish conquest, and then goes on to discuss the roles of Spanish and mixed race women in Latin America. I knew most of the introductory part about women's roles in the Aztec and Inca worlds; the rest was new to me. It's clearly told and really, really depressing. It left me wanting to know more, but there are not a lot of English-language sources and my Spanish is a long way from being up to that.

58. Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

December's book club book.

I expected to hate this because I don't play video games, but it's a pretty good ripping yarn about a disenfranchised youth in a distopian near-future playing a video game to become the richest person in the world, and then to save his life. It is oddly paced and so there are parts I ripped through and parts that dragged, but a good waste of a few hours.

It probably didn't help that I figured out where the first part of the puzzle would be found because I knew that ludus means game as well as school and was waiting for the character to catch up.

59. And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie

The BBC were making a big thing out of their production over Christmas, and I hadn't read the book since I was about 13, so I grabbed one. It takes about 4 hours to read. The characters are cutout stereotypes but the plotting and tension are first rate. Good fun.

So far I've only watched the first part of the adaptation. It's pretty good but the changes made have all been completely unnecessary, and it looks like there are more, and stupider, changes in the concluding two parts.

60. The First English Empire: Power and Identities in the British Isles 1093-1343 by RR Davies

This is all a bit High Middle Ages to be in my comfort zone. I meant to read it when it came out over a decade ago and I came across it in the library recently. It's the write-up of a series of lectures so it is more a collection of essays than a comprehensive narrative of how the English put their stamp on the rest of the British Isles - culturally as well as politically. Also why, unlike other European countries as they expanded and cohered in this period, why Wales, Scotland and Ireland remained culturally, linguistically and politically separate. My interest is in the north of England which, at the time of the Norman conquest, was not necessarily destined to be part of England (or Scotland) at all.

Recommended, if this is Your Thing. It's a reasonably easy read for the non-specialist but with good notes if you wish to follow anything up.
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32. Finders Keepers by Stephen King

This book is a sequel to his recent thriller, Mr Mercedes.

It starts with the robbery and murder of a great American author in the 1970s, a man who wrote three acclaimed novels and retired, by an obsessed fan, who really wanted not his money but his safe full of notebooks. He kills his accomplices and stashes the lot for later consumption in a local waste ground. He goes out to celebrate and promptly lands himself in jail for 35 years.

Fast forward to the current recession. A boy whose family is in dire straits because his father was injured by the villain in Mr Mercedes finds the "treasure". He uses the cash to help out his family (the issues that cash from the 70s is unlikely to still be accepted is never commented upon), but he is also a big fan of the author whose work he uncovers. Eventually the money runs out and he needs to sell the notebooks.

At the same time as the original thief gets out of prison...

Up to here the story is well told but not that exciting. However, when the boy gets himself into trouble and, through a circuitous route, the detective and his friends from Mr Mercedes get involved, and it becomes a race to see who gets to the notebooks first, the pages just turn themselves. It help that I really liked those characters.

So it's a decent thriller, but I'm not convinced he successfully does whatever he was trying to do about fandom and the nature of obsession.
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28. A Song of Shadows by John Connolly

In the last book in the series, the protagonist Charlie Parker was shot and nearly killed. Now he is recovering and has taken a cottage in an even more remote part of Maine.

He's embroiled in trouble and murder straight away, as you might expect.

Not the best book in the series, but not the worst either. A real page-turner, and once again Parker isn't in a lot of it, due to his reduced physical abilities. There are hints applied with a sledgehammer that Connolly is looking to tie up the series and that all will be revealed in the not too distant future. In the meantime, Parker finally finds out who is behind the fact that he always manages to not only stay out of jail but also keep his PI licence, but not why.
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24. Critical Mass by Sara Paretsky

I'd been renewing this from the library since before Christmas. Partly because I haven't been reading as much as I usually do, but also because I wasn't convinced by the blurb on the back. This despite the fact that I have thoroughly enjoyed the few books that I have read in this series.

Anyway, I picked it up on Wednesday night and returned it to the library on Saturday afternoon. (And these books, like everything else, have been creeping up in length over the years.

I was unconvinced because it's one of those books where everything hinges on things done by various characters' grandparents or great-grandparents during WWII. When done well, it works, but most of the time it's not, and I was especially concerned about it not working in the context of the hard-boiled detective story.

The flashback sequences should have been annoying but they weren't, really, and the story is well paced so that I kept turning the pages anyway.

It's just disposable detective fiction, but it's really good disposable detective fiction. I've mostly read the early books in the series, which date from the 80s, and it's nice to see that VI moves with the times and had an iPad etc. these days. It'll be interesting to see where, if anywhere, the series goes from here - VI is in her 50s, Lotty is getting to be too old to be convincingly still practising medicine, and Mr Contreras is on borrowed time.
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9 & 10 Bone Song and Black Blood by John Meaney

I became aware of these books back at my very first BristolCon. John Meaney was on a panel and talked about books he'd written that are noir crime thrillers set in a world where everything is powered by emanations from the bones of the dead in massive reactors.

Hello, that's ticked all my boxes.

While the mysteries and the detective parts were good, overall I found them a bit disappointing.

He throws too much into this world to make it "alien" for the length of the books, that don't really seem to have any function other than to prove how alien and dangerous this world is. Some aspects of it work better than others. At one point there is a throwaway comment about being made to pay a blood price. In a society that is made up of megacities and impersonal bureaucracy, I don't think that would work. (Admittedly, you probably have to specialise academically in societies that have a blood price to come up with that particular niggle).

The pacing is odd - there are parts I couldn't put down interspersed with parts where I wanted to give up, and the characters do things that simply don't make sense at times.

There's one nice touch where the detective goes into his local secondhand book shop and buys a fantasy novel that is clearly based on our world.

I so wanted to love these books, but they fell pretty flat for me.
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3. Dark Fire by CJ Sansom

I liked Dissolution so much I started the next book right away.

It's three years later. Since we last met him, Matthew Sheldrake has become disillusioned with the reform movement (he still believes in reform but has seen that actually it's only going to profit the already-rich) and distanced himself from Cromwell, concentrating instead on his private legal practice.

A client comes to him asking him to defend a girl accused of murder. It's an almost-impossible task, but is made possible because Cromwell intervenes. On the condition that Sheldrake helps him out one last time (Cromwell is rapidly falling out of favour at court), to track down the people who have stolen Greek Fire, which has recently been rediscovered.

This one's another page turner. I've been up too late every night this week reading it. Two compelling mysteries, political intrigue, wonderful snapshots of daily life in Tudor England - what's not to love?

Sheldrake himself is a much more sympathetic character now. The self-righteousness is gone.

As in Dissolution, Sansom portrays the social upheaval and atmosphere of terror caused by the Reformation far better than any history book I've ever read.

I have six more library books already, and a room full of my own books, but the temptation to order the third volume from the library right now is almost overwhelming.
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1. Dissolution by CJ Sansom

One of the books in this series was dramatised on BBC radio not long ago and it Did Not Suck. Last time I was in the library the first and second volumes were sitting on the shelf, so I thought I'd give it a go.

These are set in the reign of Henry VIII and the detective is a lawyer, Matthew Shardlake. Initially he is a agent of Thomas Cromwell in setting about the dissolution of the monasteries, but I understand that changes later in the series.

Shardlake and his assistant are sent to a monastery on the Sussex coast to investigate the murder of the previous commissioner who had bee sent by Cromwell to evaluate whether the monastery is corrupt enough to be shut down. They get snowed in, and further deaths occur.

So far, so standard. The puzzle is a good one (the crime was obviously committed by someone within the monastery, but who has a sword sharp enough and the skill to behead someone?), though.

I'm often wary of historical detective stories, but this really is a cut above the rest. It made me understand, in a way no reading of history books has, the feeling of living under the reign of terror (and that is really what Henry VIII's reign was). Shardlake himself means well, but is often hard to sympathise with as he is a hard-line Protestant reformer and his ideology sometimes gets in the way of his humanity and his sense. But only sometimes. The monks are all complex characters. Sansom really effectively shows the many ways people feel about reform, that there is no one way "Tudor people" thought.

An excellent surprise to start the year with.
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36. Mr Mercedes by Stephen King

This book is described as a hard-boiled detective number, but it's more a psychological thriller where the (retired) detective plays a cat and mouse game with a mass murderer.

By far the best thing about it are the retired detective's two sidekicks, the over-achieving teenager who mows his lawn and fixes his computer, and the deeply damaged woman who is a relative of one of the victims. There are bits where I couldn't put it down, interspersed with bits that dragged. The last quarter was pretty not-put-downable, at least, as is fitting with any crime novel that isn't absolutely hopeless.

It's OK. But I'm waiting for his return to straight-up horror, due out in October.
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31. Enemies at Home by Lindsey Davis

This is the second in Davis's follow up series to the massively popular Falco books (of which I've only read half) featuring Falco's adopted daughter, who has taken over his informing business.

Flavia Albia is called in to investigate the murder of a newly wed couple. Their slaves were at risk of being blamed and fled to sanctuary at the Temple of Ceres, which is all a bit of an embarrassment for the Powers That Be, so she is asked to bring the matter to a speedy conclusion.

It's a competently plotted and quite convoluted mystery, but it's mostly a series of digressions while Albia muses on the nature of family, of household, of slavery and how it cane take away humanity, but shouldn't. (Found on the streets of Londinium as a teenager and brought back to Rome as part of Falco's family, she sees things from a lot of different angles).

And the epilogue is - odd. I'm not quite sure where (if anywhere, I might be over-thinking this) Davis is going with it.

I liked it. Not as much as I like the actual Falco books, but it's good.
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22. Gone Missing by Linda Castillo

The fourth book in the series set in the Amish parts of Ohio.

Yeah, I said I wasn't going to read any more of them after being so disappointed with the 5th. But this one came before...

Anyway, I'm stuck at home too sick to sit up again, so it's a good thing I grabbed it when I saw it at the library.

It's not very good, but it was a quick read. The first book in this series is so good, it's a pity she just phoned them all in after that.


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