Holiday Romance Binge, Part 3: More Contemporaries

A few anthologies, a few novellas, a novella from another anthology, and one I thought was a novella but was actually a novel which is probably why I got pissy with it.

I kinda forgot about the “Naughty & Nice List” theme, but I can’t think about that right now because I need to figure what to take to the office potluck tomorrow that won’t require cooking or baking. Or buying ingredients. I’m thinking Mint M&Ms. Unless I eat those for breakfast again.

ANYWAY….

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More Audiobook Adventures

I am now wishlisting books by narrator. I am officially addicted.

Highly recommended….

That would be “highly recommended” as in “read this NOW, dammit, your life is meaningless without this book.”

The Book Thief by Marcus ZusakThe Book Thief by Marcus Zusak

Narrated by Allan Corduner

I avoided this for years because it’s told from Death’s point of view. I was a dumbass. It’s stunning. From start to finish. I can’t even begin to count how many times I nearly drove off the road trying to bookmark a “holy SHIT, that was good” passage.

It’s one of those books that uses language in an entirely unique way. I kept thinking the title should be “The Word Thief” instead, because Zusak somehow manages to turn seemingly simple words and phrases into characters in their own right. Just read the prologue in the sample, you’ll see what I mean.

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Naughty Norsemen: Going a-Viking in Romancelandia – Part 1

We’ll subtitle this post….

The maiden voyage

As part of my Haul of Half-Off Harlequins, I wound up with two Viking romances, chosen primarily for the snark value. Unfortunately, both were actually pretty good.

But, of course, these books kicked off a Viking-theme book binge, which dredged up one ridiculously fun PNR mashup, several “meh” examples, and one so-called “classic” that left me cringing.

Cute Viking

Before we set sail, I must admit I know fuck-all about actual Vikings or Norse mythology. I did learn that the proper homage to Thor for a successful pillage was a goat sacrifice, and you know how I feel about goats.

ANYWAY, it’s time to put on our pointy-horned hats and go raiding.

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Theme Night: Richard III (The Non-Fictional Version)

Things history nerds obsess about:

Two child princes disappeared, and nobody raised a stink. What. The. Ever-Loving. FUCK.

Was Richard III really that much of a fear-monger? We now know he got his comeuppance (*cringe*), but seriously — NO ONE bothered to look for those poor boys? Sheesh.

ANYWAY, it’s been a while since I dug into the non-fiction side of York vs. Lancaster (and I can never remember who was on what side), but here’s a few from my Shelf of Actual History With Little Or No Smooching.

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One-Quote Reviews: The Druid Stone and Galway Bound by Heidi Belleau and Violetta Vane

I have officially lost my Urban Fantasy Virginity. I feel so dirty. But in a very good way.

The Druid Stone by Heidi Belleau and Violetta VaneThe Druid Stone

  • Title: The Druid Stone
  • Author(s): Heidi Belleau and Violetta Vane
  • Series: Layers of the Otherworld, Book 1
  • Genre(s): Contemporary, GLBTQ, Urban Fantasy
  • Publisher: Carina Press, August 2012
  • Source: NetGalley
  • Length: 278 pages
  • Trope(s): Time Travel, Other Paranormal Stuff About Which I Have No Clue
  • Quick blurb: Tortured by murderous recurring dreams, “Sean from America” needs help from paranormal investigator Cormac to rid himself of a cursed Druid artifact.
  • Quick review:  Stayed up until 3 a.m. finishing this, and I don’t even LIKE paranormals.
  • Grade: B

…Sean realized if he wanted to now he could push back, any time, because there was nothing holding him to the wall anymore. Nothing but Cormac’s unspoken expectation and Sean’s unspeakable desire to meet it.

I really hate it when I have to stop reading in the middle of a sex scene because I have to go back and highlight everything because the writing is so fucking good.

For the urban fantasy elements, I must admit that I am in no way qualified to judge the world-building, and I was pretty intimidated when the heavy-duty paranormal stuff kicked in. But after a few chapters, I figured out that reading the Irish mythology as a history lesson with some Harry Potter analogies helped keep me in the story.

I still hate time travel, though. All the “what if?” and “but what about…??? GAH!” moments put my brain in overdrive trying to make everything line up properly.

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

Galway Bound by Heidi Belleau and Violetta VaneGalway Bound

  • Title: Galway Bound
  • Author(s): Heidi Belleau and Violetta Vane
  • Series: Layers of the Otherworld, Book 1.1
  • Genre(s): Contemporary, GLBTQ, Erotica
  • Publisher: Self-Published, October 2012
  • Source: All Romance eBooks, 99c (part of the Cyber Monday Binge)
  • Length: 32 pages
  • Quick blurb: Sean and Cormac indulge in a weekend away to reconnect and celebrate their first year together.
  • Quick review:  If you think BDSM can’t be romantic, THINK AGAIN.
  • Grade: A

Cormac knew he should pull back, delay this, let himself savor Sean’s submission just a little longer, but the truth was — the truth was  even though Sean gave him the drive to be strong, he also gave him the permission to be weak. And Cormac was weak. He was torturously, deliciously weak.

I read it, and then I read it again. Because OH. MY. GOD. *~*swoon*~* <thud>

One-Quote Review: Gnome on the Range by Jennifer Zane

Before you ask “WHY???” (because I know that’s what you’re thinking), I put the full blame for this on Jennifer at Romance Novel News. I dared her to read something called Moosed-Up, so this was my self-inflicted penance.

So actually, it’s my own fault. But then again, Jennifer definitely got the better end of the deal on this one.
Gnome on the Range by Jennifer Zane

  • Title: Gnome on the Range
  • Author(s): Jennifer Zane
  • Series:  Gnome Novel Series, Book 1
  • Genre(s): Contemporary, Suspense (*eye-roll*)
  • Publisher: Self-Published, December 2011
  • Source: Amazon, free promo ($4.99 ebook)
  • Length: 216 pages
  • Trope(s): Firefighter, Military Man, Single Mother, Widow, Wacko In-Laws, Sex Toys, Small Town
  • Quick blurb: Single mother and studly new neighbor join forces against evil villain.
  • Quick review:  If not for the noble firefighter neighbor, this book would have been completely OTT WTFery.
  • Grade: D

For the next fifteen minutes, we went over fire inspection paperwork with an elephant in the room the shape of a dildo.

This wasn’t painful, but it wasn’t good. A nearly-TSTL heroine, her way-OTT mother-in-law, a completely transparent “suspense” plot, inane and irrelevant details about houses, horses, sex toys, street names, etc., etc.

And…the Evil Villain. Oy. Uff da.

Are you ready for this? Because this is where the gnomes come into play.

Are you SURE? All righty, don’t say I didn’t warn you.

!!!SPOILER!!!

The Evil Villain is a ranch owner trying to retrieve stolen vials of valuable horse semen that were hidden in garden gnomes purchased by the heroine’s young sons at a yard sale.

But how does that make him villainous, you ask? It doesn’t.

He’s an evil villain because he’s — wait for it — a Pyscho Dom With Horse Tranquilizers.

I SHIT YOU NOT. On all counts.

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

Epilogue….

While I was reading this, my kids decided to watch Gnomeo and Juliet on one of those mysterious cable movie channels I didn’t even know we had. It was actually tolerable because James McAvoy voiced the main character, and I could listen to him all day. Or night.

But then again, there was this:

Gnomeo and Juliet

World Series of Romance: Caught Running by Abigail Roux and Madeleine Urban

Gay High School Baseball Coaches: A Doubleheader

In case you missed it, be sure to read the wrap-up of Game 1: Pine Tar & Sweet Tea by Kerry Freeman. Also, full disclosure on this one: I’ve read this approximately 17 times, so put on your squee-proof panties.

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

Game 2, featuring the veteran Gold Glove power hitters:

Caught Running by Urban and Roux

Caught Running by Abigail Roux and Madeleine Urban

  •  Title: Caught Running
  • Author(s): Madeleine Urban and Abigail Roux
  • Series: N/A
  • Genre(s): Contemporary, GLBTQ
  • Publisher: Dreamspinner, December 2007
  • Source: Amazon ($5.38 ebook)
  • Length: 326 pages
  • Trope(s): Athletes, Beta Heroes (x2!), Teachers, Friends-to-Lovers, Lust in the Workplace
  • Quick blurb: Science teacher reluctantly accepts assignment as assistant baseball coach, putting him on the field with the all-star jock from his own high school days.
  • Quick review: Dear Jake and Brandon: You can coach my team ANYTIME. Love, Kelly.
  • Grade: A-

The soft words made Brandon’s insides clench, and the sentiment spurred him to clasp Jake’s face between both hands and kiss him with a hint of desperation, a tinge of hopefulness, and more than a little agreement. When he pulled back, he murmured, “Would have been more than kisses.”

The set-up:

Jake is the jock, former two-sport college standout now coaching at his high school alma mater after injuries put him permanently on the DL. He’s also permanently in the closet about his bisexuality — until his new assistant coach makes him re-think his lonely life.

Brandon is the nerd, with two master’s degrees and an acceptance to med school. He returned to his hometown when his parents were killed, and he’s learned to love his unexpected career as a science teacher — and his unexpected acceptance into a jock’s world.

Oh, as the authors say in their dedication:

“Caught Running” is for everyone who didn’t become what they thought they would, but still found happiness.

The hits:

Oh, lordy, where should I start? I believe this requires a list:

(1) Two – count ‘em, TWO (2) – beta heroes

They’re both flawed and conflicted and cautiously optimistic and really quite yummy.

(2) The relationship-building

Pacing is perfect, By the time the first kiss happens, it’s a huge rush of “oh, thank GOD.” And then it just gets better.

(3) The sexy times

The racing through the front door, shoving up against the wall sexy times.

And the post-practice locker-room workout…

He yanked at Brandon’s jersey, hearing a seam rip somewhere and not caring as he continued to pull at it and kiss the man messily. It still wasn’t enough, and he pushed Brandon toward the nearest hard surface, slamming him brutally against the empty bulletin board.

And the hood of the car….

There was no way Brandon was going to summon the strength to resist this. It was everything he wanted to be reassured. Wanted. Craved. Oh God.

Excuse me for a sec, I’ll be right back.

We now interrupt this blog post for a brief pictorial interlude:

*ahem*

All righty then, where were we?

(4) The extremely effective use of alternating POVs

Sometimes the head-hopping changed with every paragraph, and yet I never had any doubt whose head I was in.

The BRAIN kind of head, sheesh. Pervs.

(5) The funny bits

Like the very unwanted late-night run-in with the on-the-prowl cheerleading coach in the grocery store.

Also, the Flip-Flop Scene:

How could he have said something like that, anyway? Wanting to know what was happening next when they’d only kissed for the first time about ten hours ago?

Jake watched him go down the walk with a frown, but smiled slightly as he had an idea. He reached down, took off his flip-flop, and chucked it at Brandon as he walked away, hitting him right on the back of the head.

Brandon’s eyes bugged out, and he whipped around to look at Jake in amazement. “Did you just do what I think you did?” he exclaimed.

“Depends on what you think I did,” Jake shot back with a signature grin as he thumped down the front steps and strolled forward to retrieve his flip-flop. “That’s what we do. You think and I throw things,” he explained. “So I’ll make you a deal. You stop thinking,” he drawled, bending to pick up the shoe and wave it around threateningly, “and I’ll stop throwing things.”

(6) Completely believable teacher/coach world-building

Trust me on this. I know from which I speak.

(7) Great scene-setting and secondary characters

Jake and Brandon live and work in a small Southern town, but they aren’t surrounded by clichéd empty props. I know exactly what their school and houses look like, and their friends, co-workers and stalkers (well, just one, the horny cheerleading coach) are unpredictable and yet integral to the story. This is contemporary world-building done really, really well.

That’s probably enough squee for now.

The misses:

Only two items on this list:

(a) The too-convenient absence of family interference or anxiety

Caught Running was one of the first M/M romances I read, so I didn’t really notice it while I was reading it the first time(s).

But on second and third (and maybe fourth and fifth) reads — after inhaling Heidi Cullinan and L.A. Witt and K.A. Mitchell and Marie Sexton and others (a LOT of others) — it felt like an important source of external conflict was missing. But I wouldn’t want Roux/Urban to change anything, so, you know, there you go.

This is why I am terrible at writing squeeful reviews. I sound like a freaking idiot.

(b) The kinda sorta anti-climactic* HEA

I wasn’t expecting a Grand Gesture or anything schmaltzy, but it left me wanting more. As in, you know, like, maybe…A SEQUEL???

Pretty please, Ms. Roux and Ms. Urban? Ty and Zane have about 17 books each now. I think Jake and Brandon need some attention again. Or maybe I need attention from them. Either way, I’m asking nicely.

There’s that slobbering idiot thing again. I know you’re all grateful I don’t write romance novels.

* I almost typed that without giggling.

The final score: A-

Veil of Pearls by MaryLu Tyndall

Veil of Pearls by MaryLu Tyndall

  • Title: Veil of Pearls
  • Author: MaryLu Tyndall
  • Series: N/A
  • Genre(s): Inspirational, Historical (American)
  • Publisher: Barbour Books, July 2012
  • Source: Provided by the publisher via NetGalley ($9.26 ebook)
  • Length: 312 pages
  • Trope(s): In Disguise, Angst, Star-Crossed Lovers, Revenge, Mistorical
  • Quick blurb: Light-skinned former slave finds love with plantation playboy in 1811 Charleston.
  • Quick review: Great title, gorgeous cover, promising setting, very disappointing story.
  • Grade: DNF

Each step she took toward freedom loosened the fetters enslaving her soul until they began to slip away, one by one.

Oh, fudge. I really really really wanted to love this – an intriguing premise, a pre-Civil War Southern setting and scads of five-star reviews. Unfortunately, I only made it about a third of the way through. The anachronisms and the logic issues and the sermonizing and the awkward mix of purple prose and clichés were just too distracting to ignore.

As usual, I feel guilty for DNFing an inspirational, because the Road to Hell is paved with Bricks of Sarcasm.

And…now I feel guilty for snarking about going to Hell. And now I’m freaking out because the irony of the guilt doubling in on itself might spawn a ginormous spiritual wormhole or something. Which I really hope doesn’t happen, because wormholes usually have some sort of space/time continuum weirdness, and time travel stuff really confuses me. I need to stop watching Doctor Who. This is the way my brain works, in case you were wondering whether I really need that Zoloft prescription.

Speaking of time travel….

The Mistoricals

Let’s get this big one out of the way first. Nearly every review of Tyndall’s 14 books mentions her attention to historical accuracy, so I wasn’t expecting to find this in Chapter 2:

Morgan circled one of the Victorian stuffed chairs in front of the hearth….

Yes, VICTORIAN. In 1811 South Carolina. I lost my trust in the author right there.  I was reading an ARC, so I downloaded the Kindle sample of the published book to double-check, but the sample wasn’t quite long enough to include this scene. I really hope that someone noticed and fixed it, but that kind of error should NEVER have even made it that far.

We later meet a minor character named Lord Demming. No, he’s not a British peer taking a vacation from the House of Lords.

“He is the speaker of the General Assembly and a descendant of the Earl of Demming.” Though Morgan had heard he was the younger son of the late earl and therefore had no right to the title “lord.” But such things were tolerated in America.”

Wait just a gosh-darn minute (please note I’m restraining myself because this is an inspirational). Fake British titles were tolerated in early American political leaders? I’m no historian, but I seriously doubt…. Oh, never mind. It’s not worth the effort because there was really no reason to include that bit of irrelevant characterization.

But maybe Charleston was the last bastion of Loyalist sympathy, because there’s this:

Had she even had a coming out? Being a commoner, most likely not.

Yes, COMMONER. In 1811 South Carolina. Again, not necessary at all.

There were several other jarring words and phrases that irked me: Don Juan, city council, landlubber, hair the color of alabaster, besotted (as a synonym for drunk), pampered urchins and coddled urchins (to describe the idle rich), witch doctor…. And that was just the first third of the book.

Authors: PLEASE remember Kelly’s Golden Rule of Writing (And Also Life In General Because It’s An All-Purpose Sort of Rule):

Just because you CAN doesn’t mean you SHOULD.

It might be historically plausible, but that doesn’t mean it’s not awkward and distracting.

Also: Readers do not need to be reminded 27 times that your heroine has ebony curls. Disguising the luxuriant tresses as “trickles of obsidian” isn’t fooling anyone.

Leaps of Logic and Very Convenient Coincidences

We meet our enslaved heroine Althea as she escapes a brutal Barbados plantation. She walks hours – still in leg shackles – through a jungle to the nearest port. Because she’s only one-quarter Negro, she’s light-skinned enough to pass for white. She instantly finds a Charleston-bound ship, conveniently captained by an abolitionist, paying for her passage with money she somehow earned during her years of slavery.

The captain informs her he’ll waive his “women on board are bad luck” rule but he won’t feed her. We are given no indication of how she survives the week-long journey without food. We aren’t shown – or even told – how a beautiful young woman traveling alone is able to reach her destination completely unmolested.

You might think this was a Harlequin Intrigue. But you’d be wrong.

One month later, our heroine – now known as Adalia – is safely ensconced in a Catholic church in Charleston, sleeping on a spare cot in exchange for volunteering her healing skills to treat slaves. She worries that her luck is about to run out:

She’d not eaten since yesterday when the last of her money had run out. Of course, she still had her mother’s pearls, but she’d rather die than sell the last remnant of her family – a symbol of the love she’d known before slavery.

She was somehow able to hide a pearl necklace from her ABUSIVE SLAVE OWNER for SEVEN YEARS. And I still can’t figure out how she managed to save the necklace in the first place.

…the hurricane swept them out to sea, leaving Adalia and Delphia orphans. Two days later, Sir Walter visited their farm on the pretense of checking on his neighbors. With soft words and promises of care, he stole them, frightened and hungry, from their beds.

Where could she have possibly hidden the necklace as she was being stolen from her bed?

I almost quit reading right there. I probably should have.

OH! ALMOST FORGOT! The necklace is made of black pearls. I’m not kidding. Check the cover. Subtle, huh?

Where were we?

Ah yes – the starving waif clutching her pearls. But never fear! A local doctor appears at the church (it’s A Miracle because she had just prayed for it!) and offers our heroine a position as his assistant, with free room and board at his home.

Other penniless orphaned beauties might be concerned at such an offer, but our heroine is the trusting sort:

Relief loosened the tight coils in her chest. A man who read his Bible was surely a good man.

Because everyone who reads the Bible is a saint. (That was sarcasm, a literary technique used by bona fide saints. For realz. I looked it up.)

Historical world-building gone wrong

On her very first foray to a plantation, Althea/Adalia literally knocks our hero off a bridge into a creek. But first she calls him a “swaggering, vainglorious despot.”

You might be wondering how a slave acquired such erudition. You’ll recall she wasn’t born a slave; we’re told that although her parents were poor farmers, they educated their daughters in mathematics, literature, history, science, Latin, and religion. Althea/Adalia must have been a been child prodigy to learn all that by age 12.

“You do not own me, sir, as you do the poor souls who work your land. Therefore, you cannot insist I do anything.” She couldn’t believe how wonderful the defiant words felt on her lips. How glorious! How empowering!

Yes, EMPOWERING. I fully expected to see “synergy” and “leverage” and “calendarize” in the next chapter.

But wait – there’s more! A few pages later, our heroine observes our charming hero thusly:

His face no longer held that look of abject boredom so often found on the spawn of the tediously affluent.

Here’s another one:

“You overbearing, self-gratifying” – she growled, attempting to control her tongue. Her attempt failed – “presumptuous vain, pampered milksop.”

Not done yet….

“I don’t hate you sir. I merely know your kind.”

“And what kind is that?”

She stopped and eyed him. The social season had begun in Charleston, and much like the season in London, it was a time when the affluent and powerful forsook their plantations to converge on the city for balls, plays, concerts, and general frivolous amusements. That was all she was to him – an amusement.

“The kind who have more wealth than they can ever spend, who fritter away their time in idle and often immoral amusements, and who think they are better than everyone else simply by nature of their birth and fortune.”

The heroine was raised on a small farm in Barbados. She was forced into slavery at age 12.

I keep repeating these important points, but it seems like I’m the only one standing up and yelling “How in the HECK (this is an inspie, so no h-e-double-hockey-sticks allowed) would she know what the London social season is like? SHE WAS A SLAVE, FOR CRYING OUT LOUD.”

But then, just a page or two later, she turns into a simpering idiot:

With wide eyes and open mouth, she was like a child seeing the world for the first time.

So is she a worldly sophisticate or is she a childlike simpleton? I cannot get invested in any character – much less the main character – whose thoughts, words and actions are so completely at odds with the given backstory. That kind of inconsistency ruins the world-building for me every time.

The heavy-handed preachifying

As a general rule, I prefer subtlety and understatement in my casual reading. I don’t need to be beaten over the head with THEMES and MESSAGES and LESSONS. For example:

Morgan glanced at the slaves, their bare backs leveled to the sun. Lud, this woman challenged him like no other! Why had he not considered the right or wrong of forcing others to work against their will, of keeping them imprisoned on the plantation like animals?

When I read passages like that, I get the feeling that the author thinks (a) readers are stupid OR (b) doesn’t trust her own writing to get the message across. Sometimes both.

Too many inspie authors fall into the trap of telling instead of showing – but pulpit-pounding is never a good storytelling technique.

Perhaps that was why God had brought them together – the most ill-suited, unlikely couple in Charleston! For Adalia to open Morgan’s eyes to the horrors of slavery and perhaps change the opinions of the next generation. Or maybe even to bring Morgan closer to God. He certainly needed a relationship with the Almighty. If she could achieve the latter, God would certainly convince him of the former.

I don’t need to be told this. I had already figured out all on my own that Adalia is the Perfect Christian who is Licensed to Judge because God Is Her BFF. I avoid people like that in real life, and I don’t find those traits are inspiring in any way.

Love, Hypothetically by Anne Tenino

Love, Hypothetically by Anne Tenino

  • Title: Love, Hypothetically
  • Author: Anne Tenino
  • Series: Theta Alpha Gamma, Book 2
  • Genre(s): Contemporary, GLBTQ (M/M)
  • Publisher: Riptide Publishing, August 2012
  • Source: Provided by the publisher via NetGalley ($4.99 ebook, available 8/27)
  • Length: 100 pages
  • Trope(s): Reunited, Big Misunderstanding, Guilt & Groveling, Nerds vs. Jocks, Coming Out, Unrequited Love
  • Quick blurb: Cranky grad student finds it difficult to forgive and forget when the high-school boyfriend who betrayed him shows up unexpectedly.
  • Quick review: 100 pages, 60 “damn, that’s good” highlights – you do the math.
  • Grade: B+

Once again, I am forced to abandon my beloved and lazy One-Quote format because there were just too damn many good ones to choose from.

“How does one go about about changing one’s life?” he asked. Toby seemed to know a lot of useless crap, maybe he’d know the answer to this question.

It takes a lot of skill to turn a villain into a worthy hero. Yes, Paul was an evil little worm in the first book. But he freely admits his worminess (I just made that up) and he does something about it.

“I’m a prick. A prickly, bitter volatile prick, destined to splat on the floor of life.”

“…So stop being one.”

“…What, you think it’s that easy? I just decide to stop, and bam! No more prickliness? It takes action, man. I have to do things, take positive steps. I have to apologize and obtain forgiveness.”

For a relatively new author, Tenino is remarkably good at the elusive art of showing instead of telling. She avoids cheesy angstifying and lets Paul stumble through his anger and confusion and guilt with his usual dark humor:

Just…. How in the hell did one prepare oneself for apologizing? Was there some kind of training program? Had Tony Horton produced an exercise video about it?

Paul eventually figures it out, and – with reluctant forgiveness and help from Brad and Sebastian – finally gets the guy:

“All those years without you, I never had anything happen worth remembering. You came back and that all changed in a few days.”

So by the time we get to that hard-won HEA, it’s easy to share Frat Boy Brad’s protective stance:

“…I don’t have to threaten to kick your ass if you’re a dick to Paul, right, dude? Because up until yesterday, I didn’t even really like him, but you know, I’d do what needs to be done.”

The only issue that kept Love, Hypothetically from being an A grade was a formatting annoyance with the titular “well, hypothetically speaking” scene in the bar. The long monologue paragraphs were difficult to read on my Kindle Touch – which means it would be even more of a struggle on a smaller device. I had to page back to read a few of Paul’s charmingly convoluted explanations a second time because I missed an important bit of self-discovery on the first pass.

But that won’t stop me from reading it again.