Category Archives: Book review

Review of The Medusa’s Daughter – Book 1 of The Mask of Medusa series by T.O. Munro

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I met the author during a late-night session at the bar at Bristolcon 2016 – a marvellous evening and it ended up with him giving me a review copy. I’m ashamed it’s taken me so long to get around to reading it…

Haunted by very different pasts, three travellers journey together across a continent riven by clashes of faith and race. Odestus, the war criminal flees from justice. Persapha, new to all things human, yearns for a way and a place to belong. Marcus Fenwell, schooled in diverse talents, seeks a future beyond a wine bottle. But past and future entwine to snare them all, for the Medusa has not been forgotten nor her daughter forgiven.

As it happens, that very snappy, non-spoiler blurb neatly sums up the ongoing structure of the book. We follow the fortunes of all three of these interesting characters as events unspool around them. This is complicated by the fact that one of the characters is in a very tricky position in a timeline ahead of when the rest of the action takes place.

Munro certainly knows how to wind up the tension as we witness one of the protagonists being interrogated in fairly dire circumstances – before switching to one of the other characters. The focus of the book is the title heroine, Persapha, who has had a very peculiar start in life, having been hatched from an egg and raised by reptiles. We are alongside as she starts to pick her way through a busy city filled with humans, who she finds difficult to understand. I found myself genuinely concerned on her behalf as the dangerously innocent girl uses her mother’s mask to try and discover what happened to her.

The magic system is skilfully handled and I really enjoyed the world, which works well. There are some nice twists in the political landscape that I appreciated and the characterisation is convincing with plenty of depth. However, I was more distanced from the main protagonists than I would have liked as Munro tends to drift out of viewpoint and into a semi-omniscient point of view. While I am aware that plenty of readers still enjoy this story-telling structure, it gives the book a slightly old-fashioned feel and left me a little frustrated. Given the depth and complexity of the characters, I would have appreciated a more immersive approach to fully hook me into the story, though this is very much a personal preference.

That said, it is still very well written with plenty going on and a gathering momentum towards the end. Before it all comes to a juddering halt. Not a single storyline is resolved – every single one of the main plotlines is left on a cliffhanger after reading over 600 pages. I am aware that a second book is in the works, but I would have liked some payoff for getting to the end of the first volume in this series.
8/10

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Review of KINDLE Ebook Falling Apart – Book 2 of the Otherworlders series by Jane Lovering

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I read and thoroughly enjoyed the first book in this delightful urban fantasy set in York, Vampire State of Mind – see my review here – so was delighted to see the sequel was languishing on my TBR pile.

Jessica Grant liaises with Otherworlders for York Council so she knows that falling in love with a vampire takes a leap of faith. But her lover Sil, the City Vampire in charge of Otherworld York, he wouldn’t run out on her, would he? He wouldn’t let his demon get the better of him. Or would he? Sil knows there s a reason for his bad haircut, worse clothes and the trail of bleeding humans in his wake. If only he could remember exactly what he did before someone finds him and shoots him on sight.

This is great fun, if decidedly darker than the first book. While the humour and gags are all still there, Jessica and her loyal underpaid and overworked assistant, Liam, are bantering with a slightly desperate edge. The situation has gone from difficult to grim and it doesn’t help that the local newspaper is definitely gunning for Jessica, while the Council are as much help to their put-upon staff as a lead balloon.

I really enjoyed the sense that things have moved on since the first adventure – and that has left its mark on Jessica. I get a tad fed up when protagonists in series deal with knee-buckling events only for them to spring back to action in the next book as if nothing has happened. While obviously, the author needs to take into account that some readers (like me) regularly crash midway into a series, there should also be a payoff for the loyal followers who read all the books in the correct order. Lovering achieves this. We also get an insight in Liam’s growing problems with the long hours and poor pay – he is frankly unable to afford to keep working in the job as he is now supporting a baby daughter. It is refreshing to have a shaft of realism penetrate this essentially escapist adventure – because far too many people in this country are in exactly the same situation.

As Sil struggles to put together the holes in his memory, I was completely caught up in the story and found the plot progression worked well – I certainly didn’t see the plot twist coming or the major change in their fortunes at the end.

I notice on Goodreads that these are the only two books in this series – a shame. I do hope Lovering considers writing more. Recommended for anyone who enjoys quirky urban fantasy with a Brit twist of humour.
9/10

Review of KINDLE Ebook A Local Habitation – Book 2 of the October Daye series by Seanan McGuire

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I read Rosemary and Rue far too long ago and when ill I came across this one on my Kindle and immediately dived into it, recalling the quality of the writing in the first book.

October “Toby” Daye is a changeling, the daughter of Amandine of the fae and a mortal man. Like her mother, she is gifted in blood magic, able to read what has happened to a person through a mere taste of blood. Toby is the only changeling who has earned a knighthood, and she re-earns that position every day, undertaking assignments for her liege, Sylvester, the Duke of the Shadowed Hills. Now Sylvester has asked her to go to the County of Tamed Lightning—otherwise known as Fremont, CA—to make sure that all is well with his niece, Countess January O’Leary, whom he has not been able to contact. It seems like a simple enough assignment—but when dealing with the realm of Faerie nothing is ever as simple as it seems. Toby soon discovers that someone has begun murdering people close to January, whose domain is a buffer between Sylvester’s realm and a scheming rival duchy. If Toby can’t find the killer soon, she may well become the next victim.

This is  a classic murder mystery where the potential victims are all within a closed environment – in this case a software systems industrial unit – and Toby is desperately struggling to discover the perpetrator before everyone is wiped out. A complicating factor for Toby is that she is not working alone – Sylvester wanted her to take along one of the young pureblood courtiers to get him out of the way. So when she finds herself pitchforked into the middle of a situation far more dangerous than she expected, she is also responsible for a youngster who has no training or preparation for this kind of assignment. Though Toby increasingly is coming to the conclusion that she hasn’t sufficient preparation for it, either…

I loved this extra insight into McGuire’s haunting, dangerous world of fae where creatures who live for a very long time are slowly failing against humanity. As for the variety of types – think of the TV show Grimm. The standout characters are brilliant, abstracted January, who is responsible for keeping her people safe and running a successful company; Alex with the red eyes, who Toby finds she enjoys being around far too much. And poor little April – a young tree dryad who escapes the slaughter of her community when the oak grove where she lives is bulldozed flat to make way for a housing estate and is found wandering alone and traumatised by Jan. She is rescued and, before she fades away, is digitised to wander around the server as a shy, ever-present entity who occasionally runs errands for the staff and spends much of her time with Jan, who she regards as her mother.

Often in this type of murder mystery, the victims are the props – no one likes or cares much about them and they are there to provide clues and possible red herrings as the investigator and reader tries to puzzle out who is doing the killing. While I didn’t particularly care about some of the characters who died, there was a real sense of loss conveyed in the story. Each one was mourned by those around them, which had the effect of both upping the stakes and creating a sense of menace as Toby tries to discover what is going on.

I guessed part of the puzzle before we got to the denouement, but that didn’t really matter, as this case was as much about the ‘why’ as the ‘how’. And the answer is something of a heartbreak. Perhaps it was because I was feeling ill, but the ending left me with a lump in my throat as McGuire’s depiction of the final funeral drew to a close. This one really packs a punch and I now need to get hold of the next book, An Artificial Night, before too much time goes by.
8/10

Review of KINDLE Ebook The Language of Power – Book 4 of The Steerswoman series by Rosemary Kirstein

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I have been reading this series throughout the year and read the final book during my bout of flu as I wanted something to take me away from the misery of feeling so ill…

A STEERSWOMAN ASKS, AND IS ALWAYS ANSWERED

The steerswoman Rowan has learned much about the master-wizard Slado: how his spells are devastating the distant lands known as the Outskirts, and how they will ultimately threaten even the Inner Lands. But she knows nothing else about him, not even why he is hiding his actions from the other wizards. He must be found, and stopped. Now, following the slimmest of clues, Rowan arrives in the city of Donner hoping to learn more about Slado’s plans. But when the answers begin coming in faster than the questions can be asked, a strange tale from the past emerges, a tale behind all the secrets of the present…

My firm advice with this particular slice of the adventure is not to read it. First, go back to the first in the series, The Steerwoman, and start the narrative there. While I’m sure you could follow this slice of the unfolding story without too much trouble, this is such a cracking series with so many clever twists and scenarios that starting here right at the end would be a real shame. Far better to begin at the start to fully appreciate this adventure.

Rowan visits Donner on the trail of the wizards – and Slado in particular. Once there, she needs to be careful as she cannot afford to come to the attention of the wizards. They have lethal powers and arcane methods of tracking people.

And once more we are tipped into the middle of a nail-biting adventure that had me gripped – while I don’t want to venture into Spoiler territory, the scene in the field with the dragons was masterfully handled and will stay in my mind for a very long time. I also loved the manner in which this magical fantasy slowly slides into science fiction. Kirstein beautifully handles the action and unfolding plot. It was also great to have her companion Bel alongside once more. They make a strong team and I missed her presence in the last story. In fact there is only one major problem for me with this particular book – it doesn’t wrap up the adventure.

Kirstein is apparently working on the next two books in the series and I am hoping that they will appear in due course. Though I’m prepared to be patient as she is now self-publishing the whole series – this outstanding adventure deserves a suitably awesome ending. In the meantime, I recommend the series so far – it’s a gem and should have far wider recognition.
9/10

*NEW RELEASE SPECIAL* Review of NETGALLEY arc Deadly Dance – Book 1 of the D.I. David Vogel by Hilary Bonner

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I was drawn to this one because it is set in Bristol and the fact it is the first in a series, so I requested the arc.

The discovery of the partially-clothed body of a teenage girl in the heart of Bristol’s red light district indicates a tragic yet familiar scenario. But this marks the start of a baffling murder investigation where nothing is as it first appears. Fourteen-year-old Melanie Cooke told her mother she was visiting a school friend. Who was she really going to meet? Detective Inspector David Vogel is led towards three very different principal protagonists, each of whom grows increasingly chilling. But are they what they seem? And is any one of them capable of murder? A darkly complex secret lies behind Melanie’s death – and its ultimate revelation will shock Vogel and his team to the core.

I’ll be honest, I wasn’t sure whether I’d done the right thing in requesting this murder mystery thriller. There are four narrators throughout this tense thriller – D.I. Vogel’s point of view, which is in third person and three first-person viewpoints, who are three tormented young men who are struggling to fit into society – Leo, Al and Saul. As we keep returning to their ongoing battles to come to terms with their impulses, I found myself feeling some sympathy with the crippling loneliness that is evident within all three of them.

By comparison, I found David’s character rather pallid – he isn’t exactly Mr Charisma anyway, but while it becomes increasingly imperative that he solves the mystery, I was tempted to skim his scenes at home with his wife. The third person viewpoint simply doesn’t have the punch and immediacy of the three antagonists – I’m assuming this device is a deliberate ploy, but I don’t think it is wholly successful. It seems to me that one of the major tasks of a first book is to establish the protagonist as a strong, sympathetic character, even if he isn’t completely likeable and I’m not sure that Bonner has ticked that box with this book.

Where she triumphantly succeeds however, is in delivering a gripping page-turner. For as the story progresses, each of these three characters are increasingly mired in a mess of their own making. I was watching each of them begin to unravel and there was no question of my putting the book down until I discovered who did what to whom. The gathering tension as the stakes are steadily raised and the handling of the denouement and resulting fallout is beautifully handled. This book is recommended for those who like their police procedural thrillers tense and gritty. While I obtained the arc of Deadly Dance from the publisher via NetGalley, this has in no way influenced my unbiased review
8/10

*NEW RELEASE SPECIAL* Review of NETGALLEY arc The River Keepers by Michael F. Stewart

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I saw the fabulous cover, read the blurb and immediately requested this one – shapeshifting and infused with magic? It sounded irresistible…

What would you do if your sister turned into a skunk? How about a mouse? Or a frog? Would you want to be a snake? Have you ever wished to swim like an actual fish? Wouldn’t you worry that a snapping turtle might take a bite out of you? In The River Keepers, two sisters must rise to meet an unexpected challenge. It’s a story infused with the magic and drama outside their backdoor — perhaps yours, too.

I have to say – this was something of a disappointment. The story is well-written, the characters are convincing, the sibling rivalry between the twins and the dynamic between them and their annoying little sister is realistic and believable. But. I was expecting a story infused with magic and anticipating the ordinary throughout would be backlit with a glow of otherness, thanks to that wonderful cover. While Stewart provides all sorts of solidly good things in this book, that magical dimension is limited to being used as a device to explain to children the importance of our environment.

Now there is absolutely nothing wrong with that approach – indeed, it could be argued it is far more vital to give children a sense of urgency about their immediate natural surroundings and how fragile they are, than some fey tale about gnomes. My grizzle is that I picked this book up expecting said fey tale and instead got something a lot more sensible and worthy, due to the blurb and the cover.

Onto the positives. I found the children pleasingly realistic and when they did encounter the magical element, it worked very well. The touches of humour were welcome and will be appreciated by the target age-group and in amongst this story is a wealth of information about the environment that is delivered with a nicely light touch. Overall, the story progression works well – until the ending which seemed very abrupt and consequently rather unsatisfying, especially as this doesn’t appear to be the first in a series.

However, if you are looking for an enjoyable tale for your eight to ten-year-old girls, who are interested in stories with a twist of magic, then this one would be a good stocking-filler.
7/10

*NEW RELEASE SPECIAL* Review of NETGALLEY arc The Curious Affair of the Witch at Wayside Cross – Book 2 of The Curious Affair series by Lisa Tuttle

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My attention was snagged by this title and Lisa Tuttle is an author who is been on my radar for a while, so I requested it.

“Witch!” cries the young man after stumbling unexpectedly into the London address of the consulting-detective partnership of Mr. Jasper Jesperson and Miss Lane. He makes the startling accusation while pointing toward Miss Lane . . . then he drops dead. Thus begins the strangest case yet to land—quite literally—on the doorstep of Jesperson and Lane. According to the coroner, Charles Manning died of a heart attack—despite being in perfect health. Could he have been struck down by a witch’s spell? The late Mr. Manning’s address book leads Jesperson and Lane to the shrieking pits of Aylmerton, an ancient archaeological site reputed to be haunted by a vengeful ghost. There they sift through the local characters, each more suspicious than the last: Manning’s associate, Felix Ott, an English folklore enthusiast; Reverend Ringer, a fierce opponent of superstition; and the Bulstrode sisters, a trio of beauties with a reputation for witchcraft. But when an innocent child goes missing, suddenly Jesperson and Lane aren’t merely trying to solve one murder—they’re racing to prevent another.

I haven’t read the first book in this series, but while I have clearly missed a slice of the adventure, that didn’t hamper my understanding or enjoyment of this story. Tuttle doesn’t hang about – she tips us straight into the case which I appreciated. While this series has been compared with the Sherlock Holmes adventures, I don’t think that Miss Lane, the narrator of this case, is all that much like John Watson. She isn’t overly gushing about Jasper Jesperson’s detecting skills, for starters – indeed, there are times when she is quite sharp about him, which I enjoyed.

The other aspect that I hadn’t expected and very much liked – while both Jesperson and Lane are middle-class and reasonably comfortably off, that doesn’t prevent Tuttle from lifting the façade on apparent Victorian respectability by depicting a young serving girl’s plight after suffering a rape. The detective duo also uncover a shocking lack of respect towards women who have the temerity to refuse or thwart a couple of apparently eligible men, who portray themselves as perfectly reasonable, educated gentlemen. Miss Lane isn’t particularly happy about the state of affairs, but isn’t overly surprised. What it reinforced for me is how much women were simply not regarded as on a par with men. Not only did they not have the same protection in law, they were not felt to be capable of the same understanding or intellect as a man – so when a woman demonstrated any independence of spirit, she frequently incurred anger at her temerity – how dare she defy him!

That said, I don’t want you to go away thinking this entertaining, engrossing whodunit is focusing on the gender inequality of the time – it is a mere side issue in this adventure. An adventure full of twists and turns as Lane and Jesperson then find themselves desperately looking for a baby. And the resolution to that puzzle had my jaw dropping…

All in all, I thoroughly enjoyed this one and will definitely be tracking down the first instalment in this series. Recommended for anyone who enjoys their historical crime series with a twist of fantasy.
9/10

Review of Mother of Eden – Book 2 of the Dark Eden series by Chris Beckett

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I read Dark Eden a while ago – and the gritty, colony adventure deeply impressed me and has lingered in my memory when many other books have been forgotten. So when I encountered this one on the library shelves, I scooped it up.

Civilization has come to the alien, sunless planet its inhabitants call Eden. Just a few generations ago, the planet’s five hundred inhabitants huddled together in the light and warmth of the Forest’s lantern trees, afraid to venture out into the cold darkness around them.

Now, humanity has spread across Eden, and two kingdoms have emerged. Both are sustained by violence and dominated by men – and both claim to be the favored children of Gela, the woman who came to Eden long ago on a boat that could cross the stars, and became the mother of them all. When young Starlight Brooking meets a handsome and powerful man from across Worldpool, she has no idea what is in store for her…

If you have picked up this one without first reading Dark Eden – don’t. While Mother of Eden can be read as a standalone, there are numerous references to the fabled hero, John, and his followers. In order to appreciate the context and historical distortion around details of his life, I strongly recommend you track down the first book so you understand exactly how John’s life and adventures are being used.

I love the approach Beckett takes to the classic colonist adventure in Dark Eden where the small crew of a crashed ship settle in a nearby valley, eking out a rudimentary existence while waiting for rescue. As they have a lot of time on their hands, sex becomes a main pastime, which in turn leads to a lot of babies.

In this next slice of Eden’s story, humanity has now scattered and we are in the viewpoint of a beautiful young girl living on an isolated island with her sister and some seventy other people. Life is peaceful, if a little slow and limited – until she manages to persuade a small party to make an epic trip across the dark seas to a larger settlement, where she meets someone who will change her life forever. This is a book all about power – who has it, how they go about grasping it and what it takes to hang onto it. It is about the pull of stories and the past. Who gets to tell our history? How is that history fashioned to impact upon our present and future? Beckett gives us answers in this engrossing adventure story that nevertheless, also has some strong messages for us all – history is always fashioned by the victors to justify what happened to make them victorious.

Starlight encounters a culture very different from the peaceful egalitarian existence she has been brought up with on the island. She experiences wealth and luxury beyond her wildest expectations – but discovers the price is very high. The pages kept on turning as I followed her adventure, holding my breath as Beckett is capable of killing off some of his major characters.

Some of the events that unfolded, I could see coming – but there were also plenty of twists that surprised me right up to the end. And when this one finished, I found the characters had burrowed into my brain – the story keeps popping into my head when I’m supposed to be thinking about something else. I think it will continue to do so for quite a while – in just the same way as Dark Eden. The next book in the series, Daughter of Eden, is also available. I’ve promised myself to get hold of it early in the New Year – I want to know what happens next…
10/10

*NEW RELEASE SPECIAL* Review of INDIE arc The Hidden Face – Book 1 of The Fifth Unmasking series by S.C. Flynn

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This puzzle-driven epic fantasy was offered to me by the author as I had read and reviewed his debut novel Children of the Different. Would this one impress me as much?

A face without a face – an unmasking that leaves the mask. Once every few hundred years the sun god, the Akhen, takes on human form and descends to earth. Each Unmasking of the Face of the Akhen ends one era and begins another; the last one created the Faustian Empire. Where and when will the Face next appear, and who will he – or she – be?

Dayraven, son of a great hero, returns to Faustia after years as a hostage of their rivals, the Magians. Those years have changed him, but Faustia has changed as well; the emperor Calvo now seems eccentric and is controlled by one of Dayraven’s old enemies. Following the brutal murder of his old teacher, Dayraven is drawn, together with a female warrior named Sunniva, into the search for an ancient secret that would change the fate of empires.

I liked both protagonists, Dayraven in particular. In common with a lot of high-born children, he has been sent to a neighbouring kingdom as surety for good behaviour and brought up in their court. But while he expected to return home within a handful of years, he has to wait a lot longer before returning home to discover all is changed – and not in a good way. Flynn’s unfussy writing style quickly drew me into the story as Dayraven finds out just who his enemies are, while he hurries to meet up with his former tutor and mentor.

And from then, the story nocks up another notch and we are whisked along with Dayraven, who begins to appreciate there is a lot more at stake than Emperor Calvo’s current mental confusion. Once he encounters Sunniva and they form a team, they begin to try to unpick the trail of clues left behind by the two guardians of these vital secrets. Together, they manage to uncover part of the mystery – but a number of formidable antagonists are in close pursuit.

I have seen this book rated as YA – do be aware that while the puzzle-solving aspect may appeal to teens, this one isn’t suitable for a younger age-group. I would not be happy to discover my thirteen-year-old granddaughter reading it as there is a fair amount of sexual content, including a rather explicit sex scene.

Other than that concern, I enjoyed this one. I particularly appreciated the depiction of the antagonists as we discover their motives and why they are trying to find out where the Fifth Unmasking will take place. This works well in powering the story forward as the reader is left in no doubt as to what will happen should the secrets fall into the wrong hands.

The storyline comes to a climactic denouement with plenty of action and drama that had the pages turning and bringing this particular slice of the adventure to a satisfactory close – though there are several major plotpoints left dangling as the story evidently will be continued in the next book. Recommended for epic fantasy fans with a taste for arcane mysteries embedded within the worldbuilding.
8/10

Review of KINDLE Ebook A Plague of Giants – Book 1 of the Seven Kennings series by Kevin Hearne

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I loved Kevin Hearne’s Iron Druid series – you can check out my review of Hounded. So when I heard that he had embarked on an epic fantasy, I was intrigued.

In the city of Pelemyn, Fintan the bard takes to the stage to tell what really happened the night the giants came . . . From the east came the Bone Giants, from the south, the fire-wielding Hathrim – an invasion that sparked war across the six nations of Teldwen. The kingdom’s only hope is the discovery of a new form of magic that calls the world’s wondrous beasts to fight by the side of humankind.

What do you do if you wish to portray your epic world through the eyes of eleven protagonists? Well… there is always the George R.R. Martin option, I suppose. But Hearne has gone for a different approach – he has a bard with a magical ability to take the shape and persona of the characters, who then tells their slice of the adventure to a city of refugees caught up in the war. It’s a nifty device to sidestep the problem of trying to get the reader to keep track of exactly who is doing what to whom – especially as at the start of each performance, the bard tells the audience who will be introducing the character who will be taking the stage.

Does Hearne succeed? I’ll be honest – A Plague of Giants took some time to grow on me. Himself immediately was drawn into the world and kept imploring me to keep going, not that I was tempted to DNF it – the writing is too good, for starters. But I was about 20% into the story before the world seeped into my bones and I was reaching for my Kindle with eagerness. Once I was familiar with the cast of characters and the narrative had taken root, I was won over. Because of the structure, this epic fantasy is completely character-driven and I’m a real sucker for character-driven plots.

As we drew closer to the climax, I was holding my breath because we already knew that the giants had very little wriggle-room – they couldn’t return to their homeland due to the volcanic eruption devastating their island. And because a significant number of the giants also wielded fire as their kenning (read magical talent) they were lethal. I also have to warn you that not all the eleven protagonists survive to the end of the story – I was shocked to discover who doesn’t make it and the manner of their death. Inevitably, the story is somewhat fragmented, given it is told piecemeal by a variety of characters – some of them not human. But I grew to really enjoy this world and the diversity of species who are caught up in the conflict caused by the giants’ invasion.

The ending was suitably dramatic and despite the book being 600+ pages, when I got to the end I was genuinely sorry this instalment of the tale was over. While I’m aware that there has been a mixed reception to this one, if you enjoy well-written epic fantasy that gives an insight into the political machinations as well as plenty of action, both military and magical, then go looking for this one. While I can’t guarantee you’ll love it – if it does tick your box, you’ll really, really thank me.
9/10