Monthly Archives: October 2013

Review of Every Which Way But Dead – Book 3 of The Hollows series by Kim Harrison

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This series was one that for one reason or other, I sort of lost touch with – but after dismantling the book mountain by my bed and coming across this volume, I decided to dive back into Harrison’s urban fantasy romp.

every which way but deadTo avoid becoming the love-slave of a depraved criminal vampire, bounty-hunter and witch, Rachel Morgan, is cornered into a deal with could promise her an eternity of suffering. But eternal damnation is not Rachel’s only worry. Her vampire roommate, Ivy, has rediscovered her taste for blood and is struggling to keep their relationship platonic, her boyfriend, Nick, has disappeared – perhaps indefinitely and she’s being stalked by an irate pack of werewolves. And then there’s also the small matter of the turf war raging in Cincinnati’s underworld; one that Rachel began and will have to navigate before she even has the smallest hope of preserving her own future.

If that sounds like an action-packed story, full of incident and tension, you’d be right. What struck me when I returned to this series, is just how quirky and enjoyable the world is. In this urban fantasy version, other species have now ‘come out’ due to a plague that swept the world, and humans are now confronted with a variety of other beings. The backstory to the world is complex and three-dimensional – and as soon as you think you have a handle on how it works, someone pops up who blurs the boundaries. This is a facet of the world I really enjoy – I run to these books for escape and enjoyment, but that doesn’t mean it has to be simple and one-dimensional.

The other issue that stood out was just what a muddle the first person protagonist, Rachel Morgan is in. And that is fine with me. I get a tad tired of very collected, smart heroines with lots of power, whose only conflict is which man in their lives to bed (yawn…), while Rachel blunders from one mess to another – many of her own making. Well, when I recall my twenties, most of the morass I was wading through was largely of my making, too… Granted nothing was quite as entertaining or dangerous as Rachel’s cock-ups, but I am really fond of her vulnerabilities.

But what also makes this series stand out, is that it has some wonderful supporting characters. Ivy, Rachel’s life vampire roommate, who would love to be her significant other, is also fascinating – as is the relationship between them. Where Rachel has to be careful with the tone of voice, how she moves and what scent or necklace she wears in order not to trigger Ivy’s predatory instincts. And Jenks, Rachel’s pixy partner is a wonderful creation.  Though, do be warned, the sexual content in the book is on the explicit side, so don’t leave it lying around for your pre-teens to pick up.

Harrison writes action scenes extremely well. We get to see and feel the extremity of Rachel’s encounters at a cracking pace, without any letup and when she is struggling with Al, the demon stalking her, the scene bounces off the page sizzling with tension and violence. But as is often the case with urban fantasy adventures, the action is mitigated by nice slices of humour. The pixy family provide plenty of slapstick moments, and the dialogue is invariably sharp, with Rachel’s entertaining and often acerbic narration of events providing any background information in an enjoyable and amusing viewpoint.

All in all, Every Which Way But Dead is an entertaining, accomplished example of urban fantasy that explains its popularity. But, if you haven’t read any of these books before, don’t start with this one – give yourself a treat and track down the first book in the series – Dead Witch Walking. You’ll thank me if you do…
9/10

Review of The Woman Who Went To Bed For a Year by Sue Townsend

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I had read a few reviews of this book, and then a friend lent me the book with the comment, “I’d love to know what you make of this one…”

the woman who went to bed for a yearThe day her twins leave home, Eva climbs into bed and stays there. For seventeen years she’s wanted to yell at the world, ‘Stop! I want to get off!’ Finally, this is her chance. Her husband, Brian, an astronomer having an unsatisfactory affair, is upset. Who will cook his dinner? Eva, he complains, is attention-seeking. But word of Eva’s defiance spreads.  Legions of fans, believing she is protesting, gather in the street, while her new friend, Alexander the white-van man brings tea, toast and an unexpected sympathy. And from this odd but comfortable place, Eva begins to see both herself and the world very, very differently…

It’s clear that humour is highly subjective. Comments on the front cover declare I laughed until I cried and Glorious laugh-out-loud. Several reviews particularly mention the ‘delicious humour’ and other similar phrases. However, I found the book achingly sad. Eva Beaver has endured seventeen years of non-stop toil looking after twins she didn’t really enjoy and a husband she stopped loving eleven minutes after the wedding ceremony. She takes to her bed in sick disgust at finding her embroidered chair smeared with tomato soup – and then cannot find the will to get up again.

It was not unknown in Victorian England for able-bodied women to retreat to their beds, where middle- and upper-class women were not required to do much, except look decorative and produce babies. But they had a staff of servants to wait on them hand, foot and finger – and Eva hasn’t. Her husband, Brian, announces that she is being utterly selfish and attention-seeking in going to bed and leaving everyone else to keep the home going. She won’t even feed herself and there are some fairly revolting discussions where she considers not even leaving the bed to use the toilet – but decides that she has to continue to use the en suite as no one else will consider dealing with her waste.

Her seventy-something mother, Ruby, and her mother in law Yvonne both end up stepping in and providing her with food and drink and keeping Brian’s laundry going, while the twins – floundering at university – find they cannot contact their mother on the phone. There are some amusing moments, particularly in the first half of the book. But as the situation continues and Eva steadfastly refuses to budge, despite her whole family falling apart, I found the spiralling situation less funny and more verging on the desperate. It seemed that Eva was refusing to move until she had processed every meaningful experience she’d had to date – good and bad, and come to some sort of decision.

The terrible irony, for me, is that her final insight was too late. Whether or not she’d intended her retreat to be an act of hostility, that is what it became – and when her concluding realisation set in, I got the sense that everyone around her was just relieved that she would be leaving. Eva becomes a footnote in her own life – so that even the brief flurry of publicity that her act inspired also dies down and the crowds melt away.

Townsend, I think, is attempting to examine what makes a family function – and what it takes to rip it apart. While she tests the Beaver family to destruction, there are some shafts of humour. However, as everyone is mercilessly exposed under Townsend’s blistering gaze, with their vanities, prejudices, self-absorption and criminality on full display, I found it hard to care or really engage with any single person – maybe with the exception of Alexander – while increasingly pitying them all.

And the message I took away from the book, was that Family, however inadequate and cruel, is the main refuge for all of us. While the price of conforming in order to avail ourselves of that refuge is often cripplingly high. By the savagely ironic end, I was tempted to cry, alright – but they certainly weren’t tears of laughter…
8/10

Review of EBOOK Time’s Echo by Pamela Hartshorne

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Himself recommended this book after I’d finally finished ranting about a very unsatisfactory dual narrative, historical thriller than didn’t thrill… Understandably, he was hoping to get me quietly engrossed in a really good book – but would I feel the same way about this novel?

Sometimes the past just won’t let go… York , 1575: Hawise Aske smiles at a stranger in the market, and sets in train a story of time's echoobsession and sibling jealousy, of love and hate and warped desire. Drowned as a witch, Hawise pays a high price for that smile, but for a girl like her in Elizabethan York, there is nowhere to go and nowhere to hide.

Four and a half centuries later, Grace Trewe, who has travelled the world, is trying to outrun the memories of being caught up in the Boxing Day tsunami. Her stay in York is meant to be a brief one. But in York Grace discovers that time can twist and turn in ways she never imagined. Drawn inexorably into Hawise’s life, Grace finds that this time she cannot move on. Will she too be engulfed in the power of the past?

Given that we open this book with Hawise’s drowning, we need to be immediately pulled into Grace’s narrative, or I – for one – would be rapidly putting this onto the Reject pile. But Grace is a far more cagier, elusive character than her Tudor counterpart who very much plunges into situations without weighing up the consequences. She clearly has major issues connected to her experience with the 2004 tsunami and it was an interesting to have a duel narrative with two women who are so very different. Although Grace enjoys cooking for relaxation, she isn’t remotely domesticated, whereas Hawise doesn’t really have any choice. I really enjoyed Hawise and her impulsive warm-heartedness, but one of those decisions ultimately sets her on a course that affects the rest of her life. The timeslip scenes were excellently done, where Grace’s sense of self was constantly challenged and undermined. There was a real feeling of menace as she grapples with Hawise over control of her mind and gets sucked back into her life. Hartshorne is a trained historian and her depiction of York is absolutely wonderful, with the wealth of domestic detail in Hawise’s daily routine completely natural – which is a lot harder to pull off than Hartshorne makes it look.

Seeing both women juxtaposed brought home to me just how limited women’s lives were back in Tudor times. And how dangerous it could be when women stepped outside the perceived norms at that particular time in history, when an obsession with witchcraft was at its height.

After building up such a tense, disturbing atmosphere of creepy wrongness, did Hartshorne manage to create a sufficiently satisfactory ending? Yes. And it was a relief, because I already knew that Hawise’s plotline wasn’t going to end well and by that stage I really cared for her and strongly identified with her plight. But though the circumstances of her death were terrible, the worst bit was the emotional agony she underwent – and which Hartshorne graphically depicted. So, if you’re looking for a really enjoyable, effective timeslip tale full of historical details, then go and track down this book – you won’t be sorry.
9/10

Review of EBOOK Blue Diablo – Book 1 of the Corine Solomon series by Ann Aguirre

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I had read the first three books in Aguirre’s Sirantha Jax series and been very impressed with the quality of her writing – and how she had produced an engrossing, tough heroine in a science fiction setting, but would I enjoy her urban fantasy offering as much?

bluediabloEighteen months ago, Corine Solomon crossed the border to Mexico City, fleeing her past, her lover, and her ‘gift’ – for Corine is a handler: she can touch something and know its history, and sometimes, its future. Using her ability, she can find the missing – and that’s why people never stop trying to find her. People like her ex, Chance…

Chance’s uncanny luck has led him to her doorstep. He needs her help. Someone dear to them both has gone missing in Laredo, Texas, and the only hope of finding her is through Corine’s gift. But their search is going to get dangerous as the trail leads them into a strange dark world of demons and sorcerers, ghosts and witchcraft, zombies – and the blackest of black magic.

And that’s the blurb. Aguirre writes conflicted heroines well. I enjoyed Corine’s gutsy take on the world and her emotionally difficult backstory is depicted convincingly. I also liked Chance, and although I usually skim the love interest in urban fantasy books as I’m far more of an adventure junkie, this time I didn’t.

So, having set up a sympathetic, readable heroine, did the resulting adventures provide plenty of thrills and shocks? Yes. I was reading this on a train journey – and was relieved to be travelling to the terminus, as I risked becoming so engrossed that I would have been in danger of missing my stop had I needed to disembark before then. Once I got into the story, the resulting adventure grabbed hold and didn’t let up until the end – which did come somewhat abruptly. But perhaps that was also a result of my reluctance to surface back to reality after inhabiting Corine’s world.

Aguirre has set this adventure in southern America and Mexico, straddling both sides of the border and I enjoyed the backdrop on a chilly autumn day in Britain. I could taste the dust, the heat and felt the danger lurking in the unsavoury neighbourhoods, where Chance and Corine ended up. The cast of supporting characters were also well drawn and provided some surprises along the way that I didn’t see coming.

The climactic ending provided plenty of action, although I did feel it ended a tad sharply – but it certainly provided me with a strong inducement to want to read more of Corine’s adventures and if you enjoy well crafted adventures about evil magic users and sympathetic, enjoyable heroines, then track down this series. It’s worth it.
8/10

Review of EBOOK short story Hookers and Blowe by Mhairi Simpson

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My pal Mhairi Simpson’s short story was on my To Read list and during a train journey to London, I decided to give myself a treat. Firstly, let’s get the business of the title out of the way first. While this story is aimed at an adult audience, it’s not ‘adult’. And certainly not about the sex trade and illegal nasal substances – sorry if you were suddenly excited, there…

hookers & bloweDetective Constable Robert Blowe has put away more criminals than most of his colleagues combined, but in a world of plea bargains and witness protection, he’s starting to wonder what the point is. His fatigue on the job gets worse when a murder of a local drug lord has Blowe on the back-foot and searching for answers to questions that go back to his childhood—to the scene of his own father’s killing. The murderer is no average criminal and seemingly always one step ahead. You can’t touch it, let alone cuff it, and if you see it, it’s probably after you. Blowe is the only person ever to survive an encounter with the shadowy killer. That was over thirty years ago—a distant memory. Until now. Blowe isn’t one to hide from a challenge, however, and with the aid of a peculiar informant, a little faith, and a considerable amount of guts he faces down his nemesis. If he doesn’t stop it then no one will.

And there you are – the hardbitten lawman finds himself confronted with a shadowy murderer who targets those who have crossed the line, themselves. Simpson’s prose is always enjoyable – her style has plenty of bounce and some nicely noirish images. I quickly got caught up into the story and found Blowe a sympathetic protagonist – but also was interested with the moral conundrum that Simpson sets. In an environment where the hardened criminal seems to be able to operate with impunity, is it so terrible if some shadowy vigilante picks off the occasional lawbreaker? And if the collateral damage is that occasionally an innocent gets caught up, as well – maybe that’s just the price to pay for having someone/thing out there that gives the wicked pause for thought…

Simpson manages to pack a lot into this short story, which kept me engrossed right up to the end – and wanting more when I reached the end. Looking forward to reading her first full-length novel…
8/10

Review of Glasshouse by Charles Stross

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I’m a fan of Charles Stross’ writing – his work is intelligent, sharply witty, often funny and always enjoyably engrossing. So when I unexpectedly came across this offering on the shelves, I snatched it up with delight.

When Robin wakes up in a clinic with most of his memories missing, it doesn’t take him long to discover that someone else is trying to glasshousekill him… It is the 27th century: interstellar travel is by teleport gate, and conflicts are fought by network worms that censor refugees’ personalities and target historians. Robin is a civilian now – demobilised following a civil war – but someone wants him dead because of something his earlier self knows.

Fleeing from his ruthless pursuer, he volunteers to participate in a unique experimental polity, the Glasshouse. It seems the ideal hiding place for a posthuman on the run, but in this escape-proof environment, Robin will undergo even more radical change, placing him at the mercy of the experimenters – and of his own unbalanced psyche.

If that seems rather a lot of blurb, it is. Because this book carries a large amount of backstory that immediately impacts on Robin’s current plight. Problem is, he cannot exactly recall what it is about his past his would-be assassins are objecting to, because he has undergone memory surgery…

Posthumanity regularly crops up in far-future science fiction and the problem I generally have with it, is that these very old, highly evolved beings often appear so alien and different I find it difficult to really care about them. Not so Robin. He is short-fused, argumentative, judgemental, occasionally violent, amusing and suspicious of everyone to the point of paranoia. He is also very damaged. In order for Glasshouse to work, we have to care for this tricky protagonist, because in a shifting, difficult world full of secrets and treachery, it is Robin who guides us through this landscape. And I found myself immediately drawn into his worldview, his problems and this apparent solution.

But the Glasshouse isn’t all it seems, either. Neither is Robin… I’m not going to continue as I’m allergic to spoilers and the plot to this book corkscrews off in all directions. Maybe other cleverer souls who read it realised where it was going – but I regularly found there was yet another shock as the storyline revealed yet another layer of surprise. Robin finds it hard to keep up, too. And the damage he has sustained becomes all too apparent just at the time when he needs to be at his shiny best – and he isn’t. So as well as a flawed uncertain world, reeling from the savage wars when reality itself melts taking with it the pockets of humanity caught up in the folds, Stross also provides an unreliable narrator through whose first person viewpoint we access this world. It’s an almighty big task – and in many ways, Stross manages to pull this off.

I really cared about Robin – and when he undergoes major physical and gender changes, while the depiction isn’t as visceral and raw as Richard Morgan’s sleeved protagonist, Takeshi Kovacs, there is still a strong sense of confusion and anger. It was interesting to note that Robin never seems fully comfortable in a woman’s body, any more than he is happy wearing silk, which s/he describes as ‘bug vomit’. The steady trickle of amusing asides, while Stross ridicules our way of life through future eyes, adds to the pleasure of this thriller as it steadily builds towards the climax.

If you’re sensing a but, you’d be right. As to the major plot denouement, I have no problem – the climax and reveal are all enjoyable and satisfying. If only the final couple of pages weren’t there… For me, Stross’ final solution to Robin’s misery strikes an entirely false note and seemed utterly unrealistic. We’re into major spoiler country here, so I won’t go into details. But suffice to say, given Robin’s history, where he ends up and with whom simply didn’t convince me, which was a real shame.

With many other books, this would be sufficient to have given the book a 5 and not bother reviewing it – I don’t review books I don’t like – but despite the wrong ending, there is so much about this novel that is excellent, I’m still going to recommend you track it down and read it. Who knows? Maybe you’d even like the ending…
7/10

The Adventures of Mike and SJ – Episode 12

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This thread started on a forum Mike and I shared, when we started playing off each other about this alternative/fantasy persona we each gave ourselves. Since then, we’ve started writing a novel together and Mike has had a number of books published as Michael D. Griffiths (The Chronicles of Jack Primus, Part I, The Chronicles of Jack Primus, Part II, Eternal Aftermath) while I’ve been busy rewriting several books and establishing my Creative Writing classes at Northbrook College. But though he writes horror and I write sci fi, when we get together, we write… differently! So I thought I’d put a slice of our combined madness on my blog…

Honestly. It’s enough to make a woman give up and go home! Except that half the Met police force will be double-parked outside my little cottage, waiting for us to show up…

I mean – how often do you get the producer of Dr Who make an offer of employment? It could’ve been a real opportunity.

londonstreetBut no – Jack has to attempt to shove the soundman’s big fluffy mic up the guy’s left nostril. And why? Because when the bloke offered Jack Billy Piper’s autograph, Jack figured that Billy was a boy – and to use his own words, ‘Figured the durn waste’ve skin an’ air took me fer some kinda homo that were lookin’ fer company. An’ I ain’t standin’ fer that kinda insult.’

As I mentioned to Jack at the top of my voice – no one would mistake him for a homo sapien anytime soon, if he went on behaving like a snake-bit seagull. He and Dahtoe make a pair and that’s a fact. I ALSO pointed out that if he was feeling quite so protective of his manhood, then maybe he should reconsider wearing those leather trousers. They might be good at keeping out the dust and wind in the American panhandle – but they make quite a different fashion statement on the streets of London…

So now he’s stomping around with a face blacker than a thunderstorm and muttering under his breath about ‘wimmin not knowin’ their place these days…’

Meanwhile, Mike is fluttering around Jack with remarks like, ‘C’mon buddy. You know SJ. All bark and no bite. She didn’t mean it, pal…’ Stuff like that… Way to go, Mike. Nice to know I can count on you for backup in a tight spot.

So – I’ve done all I can. I tried to get us away without any fuss – but Dahtoe trashing the Food Hall in Harrods put paid to that scheme. And now, Jack’s messed up this chance to stay safe AND earn us some much-needed cash.

And it’s no good Mike patting me on the shoulder and telling me it’ll be fine. Cos I’ve seen him looking at all those creepy guys hanging around outside the pub. Which we’re going to have to leave right now. Or have Jack arrested for assault with a deadly weapon – the big fluffy mic.

Right *deep breath and hands in pockets like I don’t care if I’m about to die* Hang on – what’s this? Oh, it’s the gem I found stuck to the bottom of my jeans. I wonder whether it-

Oh – I just HATE it when Mike’s hair does that…

Little Wax Head Boy? Is that you? Goodness – haven’t you grown! You want – what? The gem – no! We’ve got to take it back to Her Majesty. No – you can’t have it. It’s property of the Crown! You make Her Majesty mad – and you’ll be SO sorry. She’ll pinch her lips together and look disapproving and the Beefeaters will march you off to the Houses of Parliament and you’ll be doomed to listen to House of Commons’ debates about fracking and killing badgers for the next 10 years… The European Court of Human Rights reckons that comes under the heading of ‘cruel and unusual punishment’, by the way…

There! I’ve swallowed it. You can’t have it now.

Ahh… Stop – don’t! Mike! Don’t just stand there looking all waxy – help me! He can’t-

Ahh….

***

Ah… why are we in this Limo?

Why is SJ not answering me? Jack doesn’t seem to be too pleased either. I knew they were angry with each other, but why are they angry with me? And how did we get captured again?

SJ, what happened? SJ what did I do?’ This is bad.

My hair? What about my bloody hair – wait – there’s blood on it?? Oh – SJ! You and your Brit curses… Kids could be reading this.  My hair grabbed you and beat up Jack when he tried to help while I went all waxy again… You sure about this?  Cos I reckon that tea you keep drinking-  Okay, okay, keep your voice down.  Just thought I’d give it a mention.

Why don’t we cut it off then? Sheesh, okay, okay stop yelling, will you? How was I to know that you blunted your favourite garden shears hacking away at my hair? And – I have to say, I’m kinda shocked at you using garden tools on my hair. One snip in the wrong place – I could’ve been earless. And I’m mightily relieved that you couldn’t get the chainsaw going, as it happens…

Look – SJ – I’m really sorry about all the stuff that’s happened. Let’s have a big hug and put it behind us-GD075-Garden-hedge-shears-2

Sheesh! Oh boy… are you hurt?

Hey Jack, you saw… it was an accident. Right? I really didn’t mean for my hair-spike to poke SJ’s eye like that.

Jack? Are you not speaking, either?

Hey – I’m sorry they took all your weapons, buddy… Maybe they’ll give them back…

So… you’re not speaking to me, either. Oh man. Never thought I’d find a trip in a limo such a drag. With you two for friends, no wonder I gotta seagull for a pet…

Review of EBOOK Broken Homes – Book 4 of the Rivers of London series by Ben Aaronovich

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I have read and enjoyed the other three books in this police procedural urban fantasy series set in London. If you haven’t yet had the pleasure, don’t start with Broken Homes, give yourself a treat and tuck into the first book, Rivers of London.

brokenhomesA mutilated body in Crawley. Another killer on the loose. The prime suspect is one Robert Weil; an associate of the twisted magician known as the Faceless Man? Or just a common or garden serial killer? Before PC Peter Grant can get his head round the case a town planner going under a tube train and a stolen grimoire are adding to his case-load. So far so London. But then Peter gets word of something very odd happening in Elephant and Castle, on an housing estate designed by a nutter, built by charlatans and inhabited by the truly desperate. Is there a connection? And if there is, why oh why did it have to be South of the River?

This excellent series has a number of distinguishing features that separate it from many other offerings in this crowded genre – for starters, it is a police procedural crime drama, told from the first person viewpoint of P.C. Peter Grant, who works for the magical division of the Met. Grant’s voice is wryly humorous and more than a tad cynically weary and – unlike many urban fantasy protagonists – he is fond and reasonably close to his family and regularly alludes to his parents and their opinions. He is also mixed race and casually defines most characters by their skin colour – including the whites. Grant is also good-looking, and like many physically attractive young men, rather spoilt and definitely wary of any kind of commitment. It also has left him with a rather cool, appraising eye regarding the opposite sex which isn’t a particularly pleasant trait – but rings so very true.  As a junior member of the team, headed up by Nightingale, his superior officer, Grant is regularly involved in departmental tussles as the cases stack up. Unlike many other urban crime mysteries, Grant isn’t permitted the luxury of working on a single case – not until he and Lesley get to go undercover in the hopes of flushing out their nemesis, the Faceless Man.

Aaronovich isn’t afraid to slow the pace right down in order to furnish his readers with a wealth of detail about various places in London, or exactly how the brutalist tower block that provides the backdrop for a chunk of novel is laid out. Some readers thoroughly enjoy these interludes, other find them exasperating. I have to say that I fall into the former camp – which is uncharacteristic as I am the first to have a good old moan when the adventure goes on hold while the alien planet’s weather system is discussed and described. Perhaps the reason I’ll cut Aaronovich such slack is that I particularly enjoy the strong Brit flavour of Grant’s voice, along with the cast of quirky characters. Although I could have done with more of Molly in this particular adventure, as she is one of my favourites and I want to know exactly who she is and more about her backstory. All we got was another slice of her odd cuisine and the fact that she is secretly using Peter’s computer in this book.

So is Broken Homes a worthy addition to this strong series? Absolutely. The major twist near the end was a plot development that I certainly didn’t see coming – and had me more than a little winded, and wanting very much to know how it will play out. So I will definitely be getting the next book in the series – which I’ll have to negotiate with Himself as to who will read it first.
9/10