Winter’s Orbit by Everina Maxwell

This is not great science fiction and certainly the politics in here is laughable. But it is a sweet and charming romance that likely will keep you fully invested until the end. There is plenty of action and adventure but the focus never really swerves from the romance, which I think many readers will appreciate. The writing is easy to follow and it has a satisfying ending.

Story: Prince Kiam of Iskat and Count Jainen of Thea are forced into a quick political marriage after the death of Jainen’s previous husband (Kiam’s cousin). Iskat rules a small system of planets but it is part of a larger Collective that spans the galaxy. A renewed peace treaty with the Collective will ensure that their small empire remains protected. But that peace treaty is in jeopardy due to unrest at Thea that Jainen cannot control. If Jainen and Kiam cannot provide proof of unity among Thea and Iskat , the treaty is off and Iskat’s empire will be fair game to larger empires.

The usual romance tropes are here: misunderstandings, lack of communication, secret attraction. The author does a good job of not letting these cliches become too annoying; it can be so frustrating to the reader to know that all either main character has to do is just communicate. Admittedly, it did wear on me at times.

Both Kiam and Jainen have their own personal demons to fight: Kiam is considered the wastrel royalty and Jainen feels he has failed his one duty to help his planet. Kiam is freewheeling and outgoing, Jainen is compressed and high strung. Kiam feels he has to keep his distance from Jainen who must be grieving the death of his husband and Jainen takes Kiam’s reticence and distance as rejection and failure.

There are several side characters but the story closely follows the POVs of Jainen and Kiam. Both do feel uniquely crafted and separate from each other. Neither feel too much like an overidealized hero, though neither is very deep. Author Maxwell gives them enough foibles to give them enough nuance to be interesting. Of course, both are deeply good people trying their best to do right.

The plot is kind of silly and honestly not very realistic. But I think those looking for a nice escapist read won’t mind too much and appreciate that at least the author put in an overarching story with enough mystery and adventure to make for a fun read.

I listened to the Audible version and had mixed feelings on the narration. Kiam sounded like goofy cliche English nobility while Jainen sounded like a 45 year old man with a middle Eastern accent. It was very odd. But this was the perfect book to listen to on Audible – you won’t get lost if distracted and it is very easy to follow.

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A Deadly Education by Naomi Novik

A Deadly Education does something really unique: it gives you an extremely unlikable protagonist and makes you actually like her and want her to succeed. Our feisty little ball of bitterness and vitriol spends most of the book hating on everyone around her – all the while fighting off all manners of scary creatures (including nasty humans). But the book is strangely catching and once you start reading, it is hard to put it down.

Story: El joins the deadly school for mages knowing it is likely a one-way ticket to the grave. Many students don’t survive the creatures that infest the halls and the ones that do survive tend to be from wealthy guilds who stick together. A lone straggler like El is a waving red flag to every supernatural creature that prowls the grounds. But it should be no surprise that a girl whose every spell is destructive and who has been prophesized to destroy the mages might have a few aces up her sleeve. But it won’t be easy to survive, especially alone.

The story revolves around El meeting other students and slowly earning respect and friends among the other stragglers. Along the way, she’ll also have to work with the guild elites – many of whom have no qualms about killing her. One of those, a ‘white knight’ but incredibly dense young man named Orion, will become fixated on her, sure she is the one sucking souls and killing fellow students. As expected, El treats him (Orion) with disdain. But they are among the strongest in the school and each with different skillsets that might just be needed to learn exactly what is happening to the school. If they don’t kill each other first.

The mystery is the school itself: it is in its own dimension and wasn’t created to be deadly. But something has clearly gone wrong over the centuries and it is becoming more and more dangerous. The elders are unable to remove the dangers but at the same time want only the best mages and so force their children to attend. The school is a crucible to test skill and mettle and the guilds write off the student deaths as being from students who could not survive in the magical world anyway.

Of note: those expecting a Harry Potter should look elsewhere. El is a hard, bitter character (but incredibly funny in her own snarky way) and this is not a ‘feel good’ type of book. As well, some think the ‘mance” in Scholomance means romance and don’t realize it means magic. There isn’t much romance here at all in this first book.

In all, I listened to the Audible version and had mixed feelings on the narration. Some was very good but other accents and voices were joltingly odd or felt inappropriate for the character. She did an excellent job with El, though.

This was an addictive read that had me invested right from the beginning. I never wanted the story to end and greatly look forward to the next book in the series.

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Mortal Remains by Mary Ann Fraser

Mortal Remains is an easy read: just shut off your brain and go along for the ride. Because honestly, it gets very silly by the end and feels more like a Scooby Doo mystery than a gothic nailbiter. There aren’t really surprises, no one seems too disturbed by events and situations that should be impossible, and there is very little nuance to the writing.

Story: Lily bears the constant harassments for being a ‘creepy mortician’s daughter.’ She spends most of her time doing makeup on the dead while having life discussions with them. When a neighbor’s house explodes and the building flattened, Lily is saddened; it was the home of her mysterious friend Adam. When her friends decide on a dare to investigate the rubble and see if they can find any ‘treasures,’ what she finds is a hatch to a basement where a chained Adam survives. Suddenly, everything changes for Lily: Adam moved away years ago from his single father so why was he there? And why doesn’t he remember her or anything about his past?

Most of the book is Lily and Adam trying to figure out why he was in the basement and who he really is. She doesn’t at first believe it is her Adam since he doesn’t remember her but the similarities are undeniable. As well, Adam has to live with her family since he lost his father in the explosion and doesn’t know of any other relatives, including contacts to his mother. This allows plenty of opportunities for them to be together as they chase down the mystery of Adam’s past.

There is not a lot of subtlety or nuance here. Just look at the names: Lily for a mortician’s daughter? Really? And the name Adam should give you an exact idea of the mystery behind his past. Lily isn’t the brightest, however, and despite being hit over the head with clues, doesn’t really get a feel for what’s going on until near the end of the story.

As a Summer read, this is fine. You won’t miss much if you get interrupted often and it is very easy to follow the plot. The romance is kind of uninteresting since Adam is pretty much emotionless and like a bot through most of the story. But I guess it makes sense to the author that a mortician’s daughter doesn’t mind an emotionless love interest? That said, there were several situations in the book that felt wrong or inappropriate for the moment. Adam especially had a personality that seemed to wander across several spectrums all the time.

I did not dislike Mortal Remains but I was left feeling very unsatisfied. I would say this skews young and that young teens would be an ideal audience for this book. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher

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Dragon Age The First Give Graphic Novels by David Gaider, Alexander Freed, Greg Rucka, Nunzio DeFilippis, Christina Weir

This collects the following series:

Dragon Age: The Silent Grove
Dragon Age: Those Who Speak
Dragon Age: Until We Sleep
Dragon Age: Magekiller
Dragon Age: Knight Errant

This collection of Dragon Age’s first five graphic novels series (note: the eponymous Dragon Age comic by IDW, which takes place before Origins, is not included in the set) gives a good survey for events starting after Dragon Age II. Some were authored by Dragon Age lead writer David Gaider (The Silent Grove, Those who Speak) while another is a Gaider/Alexander Freed collaboration (Until We Sleep). Greg Rucka helms Magekiller and Nunzio DeFilippis and Christina Weir head Knight Errant. These are not all the Dragon Age comics out there: note that e.g., newer titles like Deception and Blue Wraith are not part of the collection.

At a whopping 800 pages, this is very nicely value priced and a great way to delve more into the great lore of Dragon Age. Nearly all the stories take place right before Inquisition (3 of them) or around Inquisition time. The last series takes place just after the Trespasser DLC. Characters from the games spring up often but are rarely the main protagonists of the stories. Instead, we can get new perspectives on the lore and story of Dragon Age through these fresh faces.

The artwork can vary a bit but for the most part the characters look as they did in the game. I liked some stories much more than others and the pacing can be very very slow. As we wait for Dragon Age IV, this is a good survey on the lore and a great way to get ready for the new game, Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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Money Shot by by Tim Seeley, Sarah Beattie, Rebekah Isaacs, Kurt Michael Russell

I get what the author was attempting here – something fun and frolicky and irreverent. But honestly, a really unbelievable story with cardboard characters acting irrationally in order to do a sex gag was never going to be a great read. The book was completely unengaging and left me feeling like there should have been something clever in here when there wasn’t.

Story: A group of scientists find their funding cut and so do the most obvious next thing: convince each other to travel to different worlds and have sex with aliens for money. But on the very first trip, they find themselves trapped and in the middle of a civil war. Can sex get them out of their sticky (pun intended) situation?

So yeah, apparently everyone in the universe is stupid, selfish, and self centered. The scientists all have hot bodies (natch) but pretty much dislike each other. The leader feels more like a sociopathic drug dealer hell bent on leading the group into bad situations rather mindlessly. The rest of the characters are stereotypes rather than people.

The plot is silly, of course, and about as unsexy as you can get. Those looking for a salacious read will be better served elsewhere – this isn’t an xxx graphic novel and the sex is surprisingly tame considering the milieu.

The most off-putting for me is that none of the characters are likable. They don’t really look like they are enjoying what they are doing. The aliens are just stupid and oversexualized. The interactions among characters are almost mean spirited. There is no ‘fun’ anywhere to be had and the only joy to be found was in characters putting down others.

In all, a rather tame, bland, and unengaging story contrasted with illustration work that is serviceable but doesn’t help the story any. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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Come Fly The World by Julia Cooke

The bubbly looking cover may lead reader to believe this is a tell all about the life of a stewardess – salacious stories of famous passengers, men in every port, and dealing with strange people. But there have been plenty of those ‘memoirs’ written and this is a different animal altogether: a thoroughly researched view of Pam Am’s stewardesses as told through three individuals with the emphasis on the historic milieu.

What we get is not stories of individual flight anomalies but the macrocosm in which Pan Am was operating and how the stewardesses dealt with world events. Pan Am was closely tied to the US Government in those early eras and as such, many stewardesses were pulled into wars, political turmoils, unstable countries, and especially changing laws/mores to women and races. As such, the three women whose stories we follow are smartly chosen: a European, an all-American Caucasian, and an African-American. It provides a broad context of the different experiences each stewardess had, especially through the lens of their own situations and perspectives.

Yes, Pan Am in the jet age was glamorous and the stewardesses enjoyed the freedoms this new world provided. And despite the ‘sex-symbol’ and especially advertisements meant to turn them into objects of lust, they were highly educated and valued for that intelligence. The book makes interesting contrasts between the “Fly me” and “Coffee, Tea, or Me?” attitudes that came with other airlines and how Pan Am managed to maintain a higher standard of class for its cabin crew.

The first part of the book covers the beginning of the jet age, cold war, Viet Nam war, and introduction of the world changing 747. In other words, the Juan Trippe era of Pan Am. The second book deals with the late 1970s forward, including airline jacking, changing cities (Beirut, Thailand, etc.) and a shift toward women having more rights and respects.

In all, because it was so well researched and put everything into context, I found this to be an excellent read. There are enough books out there making stewardesses look like mercurial sex kittens. For once, it was a pleasure to read about aviation with a more grounded and realistic view toward the women who crewed what was, at the time, America’s premier airline. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publishers.

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A Dark and Hollow Star by Ashley Shuttleworth

The best way to describe this book is as a CW TV version of Faeries: what Reign did for medieval history, Vampire Diaries did for Vampires, and Charmed did for Witches. It is light and fluffy and uber relatable to the modern teen. But it also has characters that at least are diverse and a fast moving plot that will keep you interested. So while it isn’t deep, gets very cliche at times, it is very similar in spirit to a Twilight book (just replace vampires with faeries).

Story: Four ‘teens’ are about to have their worlds collide when a set of murders draw their attention. A fae prince and his companion, a half blood fae/human girl, and an ages old but ageless disgraced fury will have to find common ground to get to the heart of the murders.

There are four main characters. The disgraced Fury (the cover image) is a wise cracking, smart aleck, hard bitten street denizen who is curious about the murders and observing what is going on. She comes in contact to with an innocent half/fae girl who witnesses a murder right in front of her – and at the same time sees the Fury. There is an instant attraction between the two. Then there is the prince who is secretly in love with his companion but thinks his companion is not interested. Meanwhile, his companion is also in love with him but dare not show it or become a weapon to destroy his prince.

There is a lot of mythology here, mostly along the Fae lines: sidhe, lesidhe, courts of the seasons, etc. Along with that are a few other mythologies such as Furies and immortals. The heart of the story is the mystery of the murders and why the Court kings (including the high king) are purposely avoiding looking into them. Two of the characters are children of Fae royalty (half human girl and Fae prince) and so the Fae are the focus of the book.

The writing is fine and easy to follow. The parents were, as with so many teen-oriented books, woefully incompetent and pedantic. There are plenty of cliche teen scenes such as the usual mother spouting, “Honey, you’re grounded!” “But Mom, I am 18 now and can make my own decisions.” “Not while you live under my house, young lady!” It was hard not to roll my eyes at these scenes because none of the adults felt fully realized beyond cardboard ideals.

In all, I doubt the quibbles above will matter to most – they just want an adventure and teens especially can easily relate to the characters and what they go through. Would make a great CW TV series, that’s for sure. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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A History of Finland by Henrik Meinander

This book isn’t really meant to be a survey course on the history of Finland; rather, it is a search for the events in the past that specifically led to the current state of Finland today as a country and a part of the EU. As such, the author picks and chooses among Finland/Europe’s history, looking for those incidents that were pivotal to the country’s formation.

What that means is that the book quickly glosses over or ignores events such as the Civil War (which was deemed by the author as a skirmish and merited 1-2 pages in the book). As well, the Winter War was only 1-2 pages but a lot more time was spent on the Continuation War and its repercussions.

Quite a lot of the book is mostly about the politics, GDP, and external influences. This led to some interesting viewpoints since major cities such as Turku frequently had mostly non-Finnish speaking residents and it wasn’t really considered a part of Finland – more as a remote province of Sweden. But I did like the big picture perspective of e.g., the issues with the unstable Swedish monarchy and how it affected the territory of Finland either directly or indirectly.

Since the book is mostly about modern Finland (the last 100 years of being an actual independent country), you’ll find you are already at the 1880s by the first half of the book. There isn’t much covered in that early part – mostly about Sweden, Turku and then eventually Helsinki. That isn’t to say there were not some very fascinating facts throughout, though (E.g., why there is a Lion on the shield of Finland, how Turku had few Finns in it throughout history, how Tampere is a result of the Russian Czar putting a city there, and how large companies like Finlayson were pretty much created by Russia).

The book is a very dry read. And like so many Finnish historical books, there is a tendency to state interesting facts without really telling you WHY that thing happened. This makes the book a quick read since it isn’t overly wordy but also a flat read – the author doesn’t understand his audience and doesn’t recognize the reasons they want to read a book like this. He also doesn’t recognize which facts are salient and deserving of more detail discussions those that don’t (endless GDP figures and political factions). The book begs for footnotes or callouts.

For English readers, there are a LOT of obscure words to trip over. Have a dictionary ready. But there are also interesting photographs/prints of historical items to gloss over amidst all the dry text. So yes, this is a book very a very narrow purpose (hence the reason it is “A History of Finland” and not “THE History Of Finland”). The guiding theme of the book is to understand how the modern day Finland ended up the way it is in 2020. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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The Vanishing at Loxby manor by Abigail Wilson

This reminded me a lot of the gothic romances from the 1970s – back when sexism wasn’t really an issue and the women did not have to screech or do stupid things in order to seem independent. I will always appreciate a heroine who uses her head and thinks things through rather than rushing out and doing things that should get her killed. That said, however, our heroine spend a LOT of repetitive and boring time ruminating on a past assault as well as not really clueing-in to the obvious. It meant a lot of eye rolls and unintentionally funny scenes.

Story: When Charity’s love broke off their secret romance, she fled with her family to Ceylon. But an assault there in a secluded garden has left her mentally scarred. Now 5 years later, returning to her home and her best friend, Celine, Charity will have to face the man who abandoned her: Piers, Celine’s brother. When the impulsive Celine suddenly disappears, Charity will have to team up with the one man she has always trusted – the one man she has never stopped loving but who ultimately broke her heart.

In many ways, I was reminded of Bram Stoker’s Dracula (minus the vampires, of course) since the relationship of Charity and Celine was very reminiscent of Lucy and Mina Harker. One is very practical and down-to-Earth while the other is flighty and impulsive. Part of the mystery of this book is whether Celine actually did elope with a stable hand or if her disappearance has more serious implications.

Charity as a character was fine – yes, we did get far too much inner monologue about the assault. E.g., in the middle of a discussion about her beloved friend’s disappearance and trying to find clues, we get a whole tangent where Charity completely forgets her friend and ruminates on the night of the assault. But she doesn’t rush into things and takes the time to think things through.

Problematic for me is that Charity felt both intuitive and really really dense at the same time. E.g., we have dialogue from her like this: “After all, Miles’ murder was not an accident!” (yes, Charity, that’s why you call it a murder). Similarly, (and not to give too many spoilers) throughout the book, the word ‘treason’ is used over and over by several characters. Then at the end, Charity is absolutely shocked and cries out, “Treason?!?” as if she just figured out the word might apply to the situation. There were many moments where she came off as an absolute blockhead.

Side characters felt rather cardboard, though, and love-interest Piers was a bit too overidealized to feel real. The rest of the characters were hard to really get behind since they seemed to change personalities quite a bit. None felt very organic but they were all likeable enough.

The mystery itself built nicely and it really wasn’t easy to figure out who the main big-bad was – the clues were there but nicely obfuscated. But at the same time, one question kept being asked that would have solved the whole mystery – yet Charity never pressed when she was not given a straight answer by several people. It felt very annoying and very much a deus ex machina by the writer rather than a part of the story that made sense. Especially considering the answer, you’d think they’d be comfortable telling her.

I listened to the audio version and the narrator did a decent job. I can’t say I loved her male voices and several lines felt like they were inappropriately emoted for the scene in which they took place (e.g., perhaps too cheery for a somber mood). She also made these young characters sound like they were in their 40s. But the pacing was fine and I appreciated the British accent. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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Skip Beat Volume 45 by Yoshiki Nakamura

Ah, this is the volume we’ve been waiting for since the series began. It’s hard not to go into spoilers territory but yes, you definitely want to get this volume!

Story: Kyoko is devastated when she sees the image of Ren kissing the porno movie star. It’s all so scandalous and she doesn’t know if she should feel bad that Ren is making such a ruinous match or that her heart is breaking as he does. When Ren is feeling low, he finds Bo the chicken and confesses his frustrations with a certain ‘high school girl’ who has mistaken the image for something it wasn’t. Kyoko, in the Bo costume, of course assumes he must mean Mogami. Frustrated and depressed, she tells him to just confess to the girl. But will he actually tell of his strong feelings for a certain girl he doesn’t know is sitting right next to him?

Admittedly, Skip Beat has been very long winded and this volume is pivotal in switching the story to a new direction that looks to have many more chapters to come. For that reason, my heart will always belong to the more compact and even zanier Tokyo Crazy Paradise series that preceded this but I still enjoy every Skip Beat chapter and even after 45 volumes, Skip Beat is fun and romantic and it doesn’t look to be slowing down anytime soon.

So yes, a pivotal volume in the series you don’t want to miss! Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austin, Illustrated by Marjolein Bastin

This review is for the version with illustrations by Marjolein Bastin, published March 22, 2021.

The illustrations for this version of the book are a small flower, butterfly, or a bird. They are small embellishments and typically include one little flower or bird in a corner of every 4-5 pages or so. Chapter headers and chapter ends get a whole stalk with a butterfly or two.

So while this gives the pages a bit of color now and then, I had hoped to have illustrations of the story itself and not random flora and fauna. Honestly, you could have put these illustrations on any romance book, which seems to defeat the point to me. That isn’t to say the illustrations aren’t lovely; just that they are very irrelevant to the story.

Of note that the type was small and very close together, which could make for a challenging read for those with poorer eyesight. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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Mend It, Wear It, Love It! By Zoe Edwards

The book is nicely presented with many full color illustrations. It is meant to be very user friendly so those with no experience in sewing won’t feel overwhelmed by the various topics. The first two sections on sewing were better than the latter sections on ways to recycle or redeem older clothes, which failed to inspire me unfortunately.

The book has four main sections that are color coded: Mending clothes (using a sewing machine, basics, repairing a hem, mending a hole, etc.), Wearing clothes (shortening a hem, adding a pocket, removing sleeves, etc.), Loving your clothes (storage options, laundry and ironing tips, dying, etc.), and the Basics (your basic sewing kit and other equipment you’ll need).

There are great points in the beginning about recycling, buying at thrift stores, etc. to save the planet. But I have to admit, the photo examples given of upcycling too often ended up looking tacky, homely, or just sad to me (in other words, they looked like craft projects). Each of the above sections had a photograph page of ideas of changing/fixing/redeeming a clothing item: contrasting buttons, visible darning, visible stitching, contrast trims, patch pockets, elasticized sleeves, dying, and using embroidery to cover holes. None were very convincing that they improved the clothing item.

For the instructional part, the book uses clean illustrations rather than photographs. For me, it could be a bit hard to match up the illustration to an actual 3D object in my hand; I may just be more of a visual person in that regard. But I did have some issues with the tutorials in that I think I would have had a better time with photographs rather than drawings. But I can say that there are more than enough drawings in here and the author did a great job of ensuring all the instructions were fully illustrated. The drawings are very cleanly drawn to make them as easy as possible to follow.

I do think the topic is needed and I do hope we recycle our clothing more in the future. For a beginner, I do believe this is a good choice and I appreciate that the format is especially colorful and encouraging. Sewing is definitely not daunting when following this book’s instructions. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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The Girl From The Sea by Molly Knox Ostertag

While this doesn’t bring anything new to the table, it is still a sweet and gentle story worth reading. The illustration work is clean and the action easy to follow.

Story: 15 year old Morgan Kwon lives in a remote town by the sea, nursing the wounds from her parents’ divorce and compartmentalizing her life neatly. Until the day she stumbles and falls into the ocean, a nasty bruise on her head incapacitating her. When she is rescued by a lovely young girl named Keltie, she is thankful. Until Keltie tells her of her mythical existence and how Morgan’s impulsive kiss has enabled her to remain in human form. Morgan has barely begun to explore her own preferences and now there is this beautiful but unusual girl slowly but surely knocking down all her carefully constructed walls. But Keltie also has a mission – one she will desperately need Morgan’s help with completing.

The rules of the ‘magic’ are somewhat arbitrary and unexplained regarding Keltie; but then again, this is a book about their relationship and to raise environmental issues and not about magical creatures. Morgan has a believable family (including annoying younger brother and distracted mother) and the friends you’d expect at fifteen. The inclusion of Keltie into the mix throws everything up in the air for Morgan and for her friends.

The illustration work is clean and the cover is a good representation of what you will find within. It is a self contained story and does not contain a cliffhanger.

In all, a very sweet story with great messages throughout. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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Woodwork Step by Step: Carpentry Techniques Made Easy by DK Publishing

Comprehensive, instructive, easy-to-use and fully illustrated with concise photography, this is a one-stop shop for everything carpentry. I was highly impressed – this is great for someone just starting a hobby in woodworking or those looking for more intermediate instruction. The book grows with the reader as they grow proficient in the craft.

The book has four main sections: tools, techniques, wood types, and projects. Within those sections, you’ll have a comprehensive list (all carefully photographed) of all the tools available, the techniques you’ll need from miter jointing to veneering and restoration, images of all the types of soft and hard woods, and then projects that increase in degree of difficulty to create. The projects themselves are also very smartly presented to be easy and easily referenced.

For those looking to get into the hobby, this is a very comprehensive book that will include everything from hand tools to simple projects. For those more advanced, you have all you need to know about the more industrial or specialized machines. You likely won’t need whole sections but they are there as your skill improves and you want to move to more complex woodwork. It’s a book that you can always reference to know what you need to get the job done right.

The projects start simple but are chosen to give you a chance to try a wide range of techniques. You won’t have to break the bank for the simple tools and over time you can get an idea of what machines or tools you may eventually want to purchase as you move on to more intricate projects. So don’t be daunted by the sheer amount of tools or techniques if you are a beginner – this is a book that will last you as you progress in carpentry.

I was highly impressed by the sheer number of photographs. Every step, technique, wood type, and project step has one or several photographs. In fact, I had a hard time finding anything in the book that was not clearly explained and photographed. This isn’t the type of textbook where you get walls of words – it is all beautifully and intelligently presented with all the visuals you need to understand the concepts and get the job done right.

In all, I am highly impressed. This is everything I was looking for on getting into woodworking – and all in one intelligently presented book. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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Spy Island by Cain, Miternique, McCall, Rosenberg, Caramagna

Spy Island is an odd experiment in taking a shot at the camp of the 1970s (Fantasy Island, Jaws, James Bond, etc.) but ruthlessly stripping it of all humor and entertainment. What remains is an odd mélange of what should be quirky and satirical vignettes but instead falls flat with a thud. I did enjoy the random 1970s photos and travel brochures that were in addition to the illustration work but also felt let down that they felt random and strange rather than amusing.

Ordinarily I’d summarize the story but honestly there wasn’t one. Something about a female spy, her odd sister, mermaids and mythical creatures, and conservation groups? Our main character mostly walks through scenes with stereotypical characters from various countries while we get plenty of warnings through brochures, signs, images, etc. that the islands are dangerous (the Bermuda Triangle). The cover gives you a good idea of some of what you’ll find – 1970s photos with ‘additions’ such as a kraken or mermaid or shark.

The illustration work is fine but I would have liked for more coherence in the 1970s theme. The work is bright and colorful like a Barbie comic and yet it still never felt like 1970s comics. This created a bit of a dissonance with the era photos and brochures. That isn’t to say that the artwork isn’t well done – just that it somehow never seemed to embrace the milieu.

Spy Island was an interesting read if you ignored the lack of story and just looked at the ‘reworked’ photographs and travel ephemera. But when the illustrations came back, it was almost a let down to go back to the pointlessness of it all. There was something here I just don’t think it came to fruition. I certainly didn’t see any humor or biting commentary. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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The I Love My Instant Pot 5-Ingredient Recipe Book by Michelle Fagone

This book was a bit of a surprise in that I really liked the recipes I tried from it; the food tasted good and I didn’t feel like I was compromising taste for expediency. That said, there are several ‘cheats’ to the title of “5-Ingredient” and I had a hard time finding a recipe that did actually only have 5 ingredients. What the author has done is clever – she doesn’t count spices or items such as milk or butter as an ingredient, only items you won’t find stocked in your pantry already. And wherever possible, she will list combined/prepackaged items (e.g., garlic salt powder instead of fresh garlic and salt, jar salsa, marinara sauce jar, etc.). It did make the book feel like it had a misleading title.

The book is broken down as follows: Instapot Cooking tips, Breakfast, Soups/Stews/Chili, Beans/Rice/Grains, Appetizers, Side Dishes, Chicken Main Dishes, Beef and Pork, Seafood and Fish, Vegetarian, Desserts, US/Metric conversion chart, Index. There are only a few photographs but each recipe is cleanly laid out. The title is large and in blue with a short 1-2 sentences about the item. Hands on and cook time are listed. Pantry staple items you’ll need are also listed. The ingredients are in a yellow callout box that is easy to read. Directions are numbered in short paragraphs. At the bottom of the page is the per serving info: calories, fat, protein, sodium, fiber, carbs, net carbs, sugar. Recipes are one per page.

You’ll find the usual instapot items recipes along with some interesting items: loaded broccoli, BBQ cocktail wieners, Italian sloppy joes, classic meatloaf, shrimp fajitas, creamed crab sauce, blood orange and goat cheese wheat berry salad, hot cocoa brownies, etc. As with most cookbooks specific to an instapot or air fryer, you’ll need to invest in specialty bowls and dishes in order to make many of the recipes.

I was a bit skeptical of this book due to the cheats listed earlier but found that once I made several of the recipes, they were both very easy but also tasted just fine. The family approved and I didn’t spend a lot of time. Of note, however, that those living outside of the US or in small rural areas may have a harder time finding some of the pre-made items.

So no, there are no 5 ingredient recipes in the book that I could find. Most have 10-15 ingredients, even with shortcuts such as instant hot cocoa mix packets for the hot cocoa brownies. But the ingredients are simple and the results were more than acceptable to the family. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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All Things Bright and Beautiful by James Herriot

With this second book in the series, the emphasis switches from dating and farm animals to married life and small pet stories. The star of the BBC Series once again returns to do a very animated and enjoyable narration of the book – capturing the young James Herriot (nee Alfi Wight) perfectly. As with the first book, the emphasis is on the people more than the animals and is a love letter to Yorkshire.

There is no running storyline and instead the series is a collection of anecdotes/vignettes inspired around a theme. E.g., one theme was whether the animals loved or hated Heriot after a visit – some would bark angrily whenever he came by and some would patiently allow him to cause pain when examining a new injury. Sometimes the topics would be about the animals but more often than not, it was really about the animal’s owner(s).

In this volume, the running theme was that Herriot found his calling in large animal vetrinary work but loved the small animal cases especially. As such, we get stories of many dogs, a few cats, and even a bird or two. Of course, farm animals will come into the picture now and then. Another topic was how Herriot’s (Wight’s) practice changed between the 1930 and 1960s (when farm horses were replaced with tractors and anti biotics/penicillan revolutionized centuries old ‘random’ medicines.

The book ends with all the leads in the practice (Herriot and the two Farnums) called to war. The book always tended to stay on the positive and it is always interesting to read about the reality of Wight’s life. E.g., Herriot talks so lovingly of his wife but it is never mentioned in the book about how Wight’s parents disapproved of her (she was only a secretary and they felt she was not good enough for Wight), didn’t come to the wedding, and later Wight had a mental breakdown over the topic.

In all, this is a beautiful and modern narration with an actor who does an excellent job of capturing the youthful vigor and indiscretions of James Heriot. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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The Thinking Fan’s Guide To Walt Disney World Magic Kingdom 2020 by Aaron Wallace

I like the idea of the book: a ride-by-ride philosophical debate on the ride’s impact on the rider. You can ponder with the author whether the Carousel or Progress is sexist or not, if the 7 Dwarves Mine Train is the land’s first storycoaster as Disney advertised, why the Tiki Room’s Under New Management was a disaster, and why fans of the park wax eloquent about a slow moving boat ride whose only purpose is to stare at mannequins all with the same face and singing the same 15 sentences over and over (It’s a Small World, natch).

Of note: a Kindle version was not available so I received a print copy through Amazon Poland printing in the EU. The print face was excruciatingly small and tightly packed together, as if to make sure the page count was kept low as possible (and at the expense of a pleasant read). Fortunately, the book is broken down by park land and then the rides in that land. As well, for quick reference, the park land is located at the top of each page. So it was easy to read the book in short bouts.

Each ride has a call out square containing ride: type, duration, height requirements, crowdedness, fear factor, fast pass, wet factor, a preshow, and best time to wait. But those are the only tourist infos – the paragraphs themselves are the opinions on the existential nature of the ride. The author does keep the tone light and conversation and adds his own humor throughout (e.g., in the callout box for It’s A Small World, the fear factor is 0 (unless singing dolls give you nightmares).

There are notes at the back for each chapter and they contain more specific info – frequently interesting tidbits such as the Haunted Mansion being located in a different land in all theme parks, info on a particular person/engineer, or origins of an opinion. One of the things that I enjoyed most about the book is that the author often referenced the Disneyland versions and made comparisons.

Since this is an opinion piece, you may or may not agree with his opinions. Clearly, the ones he loves are given long loving reviews (Carousel of Progress) and the ones he does not typically warrant a few pages of why. What you won’t find is a lot of information on the history of the ride. You can take the Tiki Room section as a good example: two pages of undisguised sarcasm discussing the ‘disaster’ of the Under New Management rework and then a discussion of why people still love the Tiki Room (a nostalgia for 1960s Hawaii, even with the (still noticeable) casual sexism).

What this book will give you that you will get no where else is feel for every ride as well as the emotional response the imagineers wanted you to feel pre-during-and-post ride. In that regard, I think the author did a good job of getting to the heart of the ‘magic’ of the Magic Kingdom. But on the other hand, he does overreach several times, coming to conclusions that feel they were trying a bit too hard to support an unsupportable opinion. As well, there will be odd assertions – such as saying that the Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom card game was a result of nerd culture like Dungeons and Dragons (when the fare likelier influence are kids trading card games like Pokemon, YugiOh, and Magic The Gathering).

Finally, I know that an entrepreneur has to bring in revenue but self promotion can often cross an egregious line. In this case, it was hard not to stumble over the frequent references to go see his podcast or his other books. In an opinion piece such as this, I do find it odd to reference himself as the origin of an opinion on his opinion.

In all, inveterate fans won’t find too much new here but it still makes for an interesting read to compare his thoughts on the rides with your own. For those less versed on Disney Parks, it can also be a very interesting read to help you appreciate and respect the often lookover and missed nuances for each ride in the park. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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The Ultimate Healthy Keto Air Fryer Cookbook by Aaron Day

This cookbook is beautifully presented with very clean and easy-to-use recipes accompanied by a decent amount of photographs. But I have to admit, I had to question whether they really needed to be air fried or were more easily done in the oven (without requiring extra purchases for special/unique fryer machine accoutrements. I also noticed that a couple of recipes did not come out as pictured/didn’t match the photographs despite my best attempts.

The book breaks down as follows: The Basics (4 pages of tips on air fryers and the keto diet); Breakfasts; Mains; Sides; Snacks; Desserts; index. Recipes include chorizo breakfast hash, ‘breaded’ fish, Asian style broccolini and pine nuts, nut-free sesame bread, coconut shrimp, blueberry muffins, etc. Recipes that typically use flour are instead substituted with almond flour, whey Protein powder, or coconut flour; recipes that use potatoes will often be changed to use cauliflower rice instead.

Each recipe is very nicely laid out: large tittle, small description, nutrition information sidebox (calories, fat, carbs, protein, fiber), prep and cook time, serving size, and total amount. The ingredients are listed on the left in bold and italics. Steps are in short, numbered paragraphs. Each recipe has a tip at the bottom for e.g., substitutions, preparation, etc.

When it came time to use the recipes, I found I had to go out and buy several items in order to be able to do the recipes – which meant trying to find storage for these extra items (many of which I already had for an oven). As well, recipes for e.g., beef pretty much started with long marinade times so I quickly realized I needed to prepare the night before.

Many recipes were obvious – air fried whole chicken, for example. Or chicken nuggets. Others such as chicken fillet pizzas or egg cups were a welcome surprise. There are also several variations on the same thing: e.g., chicken wings with blue cheese sauce and then garlic pamesan wings.

There are many photographs – about one every three recipes. It’s ironic to me that the colorless tofu-looking garlic-butter steak recipe is on the cover considering it looks very unappetizing and bland. The steak itself was not bad at all

Admittedly, for my tastes, I didn’t find the recipes that appealing. But I do have to stress here that it is likely due to my preferences and that I am rather new to the keto lifestyle. The book is professional laid out and the recipes have a decent variety. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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Penny A Graphic Memoir by Karl Stevens

Imagine if a photorealistic Garfield sat all day contemplating existential crises (instead of lasagna) but always only ends up shrugging and either eating or sleeping and you’ll get an idea of Penny. Too much of the story was a lot of mumbo jumbo metaphysical musings that didn’t really go anywhere and never really had a humorous punchline. In that regard, the book became a one-note from end to finish that never really captivated, amused, humored, or intrigued.

Story: Penny was rescued (or kidnapped, if you ask her) from the trash of New York’s streets and given a warm home and steady food. She thinks she misses the freedom and spends each day having acid trips on catnip, wondering about the universe, and giving her toys names and calling them friends. The humans give her petting, food, call her stupid when she plays with strings – all the while otherwise alternating between insulting her and putting up with her. It makes for a very mixed message about unrequited love on both sides of the relationship.

I can see how the author decided to do this: watching his cat just stare or idly play all day and then deciding to create a stream of consciousness in her head. The problem is that we never come to like Penny, the human couple, or any of her ‘faux personality’ cat toys. Penny never really seems happy and the humans, who have memories of rescuing her maggot covered kitten body, seem to see her more as a separate oddity than as a member of the family. This is like a cat story written by someone who never had a cat until recently and has no idea about the bond human and felines form. Compounding the issue are logic holes: e.g., Penny contemplating living in the desert – how would a NYC cat who only lived in one small area even know what a desert was?

Penny is drawn very true to life – a tortie (tortoise shell) stray with blotchy features and admittedly a fairly unresponsive face. Most of the expressions the cat gives look the same – and very disaffected from the deep thought bubbles above her. I applaud a true-to-life drawing of a cat but can’t help but feel disappointed that the author failed so spectacularly to convey all the different and subtle expressions a cat can make. I can’t help but make comparisons to Neil Gaiman’s Sandman Night of a Thousand Cats and how there was so much more pathos there in giving cats voices.

Penny isn’t a bad story but due to the one note nature (contemplate random subject then give up) it felt long and fairly dull. I felt as disassociated from the cat as the owners did in the story. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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