Reviews

Review: DANGEROUS WOMEN – Various Authors

17279560In my new-found interest for short stories’ collections I ran across this one that promised interesting female characters and sported several names of authors I either already appreciate or I’m curious about, so I thought it would be a good starting point for new discoveries.  While the journey was a good one, in several cases I wondered where the danger represented by these ladies was: most of them are strong, capable women, but not exactly threatening, and in one particular instance there was no woman, dangerous or otherwise, carrying the tale – so that I suspected, at times that the anthology title was more of a sales pitch than anything else.  I have no reason to complain, though, because the ones that were interesting, or downright intriguing, kept their own stories flowing smoothly.

Neighbors – By Megan Lindholm aka Robin Hobb

Sarah, an elderly widowed lady living by herself, shows the first symptoms of a failing mind, and therefore keeps to herself the amazing things she witnesses on foggy nights…

The main character in this story is indeed an unreliable narrator due to her problems, and yet there are extreme clarity and realism in the everyday occurrences she goes trough, both on her own and while dealing with concerned family members: what she sees through her windows has all the marks of reality, and yet we readers cannot avoid wondering if it’s all the product of her progressively deteriorating mind – probably picking that up from the echoes of Sarah’s own inner doubts. But after a while it all ceases to be important, since all that matters is the poignant story and the excellent way it’s told, clear-cut and with no need for excess sentimentalism. One of the best offerings in the whole anthology.

Shadows For Silence In The Forests Of Hell – By Brandon Sanderson

Silence Fontaine runs a inn at the edge of the dangerous Forest, where shadows hunt the living and prey on them. When her way of life and the safety of her family are threatened, she will do anything to protect them…

I have to confess I never read anything by Sanderson before, and this story showed me I’ve been missing out on a good author – a situation I must correct as soon as possible.  Despite the shorter form, the world building is solid and convincing, and the characters stand out quite clearly, but what took hold of my imagination is the story itself: the creepy, not-fully-explained danger lurking in the forest is much more terrifying because of its indetermination, not in spite of it. The characters’ dangerous journey through that forest is one of the most adrenaline-laden stories I ever read, the fear of the unknown and the unseen becoming almost tangible. After this sample of Mr. Sanderson’s work, I’m certain I will enjoy his novels quite a bit.

Second Arabesque, Very Slowly – By Nancy Kress

In a post-apocalyptic future in which a plague has made most of humanity sterile, people run in packs for protection: an aging woman with nursing skills, attached to one of these packs, inadvertently shows to two members a glimpse of past beauty through old ballet videos.

Easily my favorite story in the whole book, and another discovery of an author I never read before.

There is a poignant dichotomy in the world as it is in Nurse’s times, long after the collapse, and her recollections of better times passed on in the words of her grandmother, so that Nurse sees both things as they are, but also imagines them as they were in happier times. Yet even more poignant is the discovery of beauty and grace by the two young pack members, who are so overtaken by what they see in the old video, that they are ready to flaunt the pack’s rules in pursuit of something they didn’t even suspect could exist, also convincing others of the rightness of their path.  I’ve always been partial to ballet, so this story had one more reason to resonate with me, but the contrast between the world’s stark, brutal reality and the glimpses of a better past is more than enough to reach a reader’s soul. Very moving.

Pronouncing Doom – By S.M. Stirling

Another post-apocalyptic Earth, where what remains of humanity, gathered in clans, must re-learn the old ways of living to survive. Unfortunately, some people seem quite attached to the old world’s worst sins…

When the world as we know it collapses, what do we do to keep a semblance of civilization? And better yet, how far are we ready to go? This is the dilemma that Juniper McKenzie faces when she needs to mete out justice on the wolf hiding among her flock, and the interesting part of the story comes from the decision she takes and the way she arrives at that decision. Unfortunately, the “flavor” of the story was marred by the little voice whispering in my ear that such huge changes in social customs, complete with neologisms, were a little too fast for a world that’s only one year away from the big catastrophe. But it was not enough to prevent me from enjoying the tale.

The Princess and the Queen – By George R.R. Martin

A few centuries before the time in which ASOIAF takes place, a brutal war for power is waged between branches of the Targaryen family, and takes the name of “Dance of the Dragons” because the fiery creatures play a major role in it.

In truth, this story was disappointing: I expected more from GRR Martin, some story that would expand my knowledge and understanding of the rich tapestry of Westeros, and the same satisfying characterization I’ve come to enjoy in his ASOIAF saga. Sadly, I found none of this: this looks more like an outline for a story, with an almost endless list of characters and deeds (mostly bloody and ruthless, but that’s Martin for you) and no perception of depth. It’s entirely possible that the author’s choice of relaying the events from an historian’s point of view robbed the narrative of any human interest, preventing me from feeling any attachment for the various figures depicted there. If I had come across this before taking up the first ASOIAF book, I don’t believe I would have given the saga a second thought.

Overall Rating:


Reviews

TOP FIVE WEDNESDAY – Disappointing Eye Candy

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I recently stumbled on this GoodReads group that proposes a weekly meme whose aim is to give a list of Top Five… anything, as long as they are book related. It sounds fun, and something I can manage even with my too-often-limited time.

This week the topic is: Disappointing Eye Candy, or the books that looked beautiful, but were awful.

Well, I guess this could mean that the covers looked attractive, but the contents were not, but I’m going to push the envelope a little, here: covers are important, indeed they are a book’s first calling card, but they work hand-in-hand with the back-cover blurbs, in my opinion. And sometimes the promises of both remain unfulfilled.

A word of warning, before I start with my list: these books don’t really deserve the term ‘awful’, it’s just that they simply did not work for me, and they crushed my expectations in a major way, but that does not mean they are essentially bad – just not what I expected them to be.

AURORA: DARWIN by Amanda Bridgeman

This is indeed a case in point: the story focuses on a ship’s crew headed into unknown dangers, as they try to integrate old hands with a group of newer ones. The main problem here came from poor characterization and the premise that in the future the role of women in space would be regarded as a mix between a curiosity and an intrusion into an all-male territory. In my opinion, a quite anachronistic concept, developed with some questionable characterization choices.

A CROWN FOR COLD SILVER by Alex Marshall

Again, great expectations and a premise that had all the elements to draw me into a story of adventure and revenge, with a fascinating female figure as a protagonist. Unfortunately, the story felt quite uneven both in pace and in characterization, and not tight enough to keep me reading on.

DIVERGENT by Veronica Roth

Here I know my opinion might clash with that of the many fans of this series, but not even curiosity about a much talked-about book turned into an equally famous movie was enough to make forget what I perceived as the flaws of this story, mainly my irritation with the central character and her shallow (to me) motivations. The too-used tropes of the genre did not help, either…

THE DAYLIGHT WAR by Peter Brett

In this case, after enjoying the first volume in this series, and finding the second one acceptable – even though not as compelling as the first – I discovered that what had started as a compelling story with a unique premise, was turning into the semblance of a soap opera with a fantasy setting, one that had lost all the peculiarities that had captivated me at the beginning.

THE MARTIAN by Peter Weir

Once more going against the current, I did not enjoy – nor finish – this widely acclaimed book because I could not connect with the main character who came across as the kind of guy who tells silly jokes at a party and expects everyone to laugh at his wit. In my opinion, the potential for an exploration of the human soul in such a situation were both overlooked and discarded in favor of a humorous note that did not ring true for me.

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Reviews

2015 PLANETARY AWARDS NOMINATIONS

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Thanks to Planetary Defense Command I discovered this call for bloggers (and also podcasters and booktubers) to nominate their favorite science-fiction and fantasy book published in 2015.

HERE you will find all the necessary information: you’re still in time to vote! The Awards require we nominate three categories:

1) Shorter story (under 40,000 words/160 paperback pages)
2) Traditionally published novel
3) Small press / self-published novel

My thanks to Planetary Defense Command for this opportunity to list my 2015 favorite reads!

And here are my choices.

For Shorter Story, SLOW BULLETS by Alastair Reynolds: this author usually deals with wide-spanning galactic civilizations, but here he keeps his focus tighter on a group of people who find themselves marooned in space – and time – through an accident that might be sabotage as well. I enjoyed the fascinating characters and the more intimate depiction of their psychology.

For Traditionally Published Novel I had no doubts: my vote goes to LUNA, NEW MOON by Ian McDonald. It’s a rich, multi-faceted tale of the civilization created on our Moon by the colonists who came to live there, choosing for themselves and their children the forced exile due to the physiological changes brought on my micro-gravity. It’s also the compelling story of those who made their fortune on the Moon, and the way they wage war on each other to conquer or maintain supremacy.

And for Small Press/Self-Published Novel, again I had no doubts: THE LOST MASK by Ashley Capes. The second volume in the Bone Mask Trilogy, it’s fantasy set in a very intriguing world, in which bone masks have a life of their own and confer power to their wearer – but sometimes exact a terrible price.  It’s a complex, many-layered world that draws you in through interesting characters and different narrative threads that keep the pace lively and compelling, bringing the background to full life under your eyes. Highly recommended.

Good luck to everyone!

 

Reviews

Review: MADE TO KILL, by Adam Christopher

PrintMade to Kill is the perfect example for the warning about not judging a book by its cover: although being aware of its existence, I never looked beyond the unappealing (for me) exterior appearance of the book, to inquire what it was about. That is, until the very positive review from a fellow blogger, whose comments piqued my interest.

This book is a curious mix between a classic noir novel and science fiction: Raymond Electromatic (the first name a clear nod toward Raymond Chandler) is a robot, the only one remaining after humanity decided to dispense with mechanical helpers, and he’s a self-employed private investigator – with a side activity as a hired killer. No one could image a more dispassionate, detached murderer than a mechanical creature, and Raymond fulfills this requirement most admirably, also thanks to his peculiar structure, one that requires a daily power recharge and the installation of a new memory spool. This 24-hour limit on Raymond’s storage capacity means he starts afresh every day as a new man – ok, robot – with no recollection of what previously transpired: no guilt, no danger of exposing one’s clients, plausible deniability.

Here is where Ray’s manager comes into play: Ada is a complex computer array tasked with running the office, taking care of the mechanical P.I., finding clients and managing finances. She is quite a character, and another nod toward the chandler-esque typical perky secretary acting as a buffer between her employer and the public. Apart from the human-like noises she emits – mostly puffing on cigarettes or swiveling on creaky office chairs – she’s graced by a quirky sense of humor and a sharp tongue, not to mention a keen business sense that is never clouded by emotional considerations of any kind.  Ada’s voice came through from the book’s pages much more clearly than Raymond’s for me: I enjoyed quite a bit her world-savvy practical approach to everything and the way she manipulates Ray who appears like very pliable putty in her capable hands, or circuits if you want.

The two move in a world that, despite some technological developments like robots, seems still very much anchored in the period between the ‘40s and the ‘50s – or at least this is the “flavor” I perceived from the book, that shares many of the tropes one could expect from a noir story from Chandler himself: dark ladies and shady characters move around in a Los Angeles still very much concerned with the Hollywood star system, and there’s a dastardly plot to be uncovered and neutralized, as Raymond runs through the city in search for clues.  Spies, night-clubs where dubious dealings go on while the music plays and alcohol flows, government agents and undercover operatives – they all make an appearance while Raymond applies his deductive skills to the complicated situation, and the whole scenario makes for a fast, entertaining reading.

My initial enthusiasm for this uncommon story did however flag a little past the book’s midpoint: while my interest remained the same about the story – after all I wanted to know what was behind it all and how the various threads would be resolved – the characters lost a little of their sparkle because of repetition.
For example, one of Raymond’s quirks concerns facial expressions: as a metal automaton, he does not possess a mobile face, of course, so from the very beginning of the novel we are told that all of his facial reactions happen on the inside – the first few times this information makes you smile, as do the offered similitudes for his attempts at a laugh or a cough or any human noise, but after a while and after reading about it a few times too much, the smile slowly fades and is supplanted by mild irritation.  The same goes for Ada puffing on cigarettes or the other behavioral traits she fakes when she wants to sound human. For me, these details are like a nice joke: once or twice it’s ok, but by the n-th time one hears it, it has lost its charm…

Another disappointing element came from the antagonists: even though I understand this story is modeled on period movies and books, I did not like the fact that the chief villain tends to laugh wickedly as he lays down his plans to a captive Raymond: I always wondered why the bad guys have this burning need to explain in full details their dastardly plots to a soon-to-be-killed prisoner. Need for recognition? Childhood traumas? Whatever it is, it always sounded phony to my ears, and here we have that in spades, mixed with that same villain’s endless laugh as he contemplates the upcoming success of world domination.

While I understand these are nothing more than personal pet peeves, I’m sorry that they detracted a little from the enjoyment of this unconventional and amusing book, that nonetheless was a very welcome change from my usual fare and is definitely worth a try.

My Rating:


 

A new post for the 2016 Sci-Fi Experience, an event hosted by Carl  V. Anderson over at Stainless Steel Droppings (follow the links to know more!)

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Reviews

TV Review: KILLJOYS (Season 1)

Killjoys

With its companion Dark Matter, this show is part of SyFy’s summer “offering” to a science-fiction-starved audience, and in my opinion it was a success: with main ingredients as fast-paced action, politics, secrets and conspiracies and a fascinating, well thought-out background it could not be otherwise.

One of the most attractive features in Killjoys is the quick delivery of information with little or no explanation, a choice that requires the viewers’ total attention: I must confess that I watched the first episode when I was particularly tired (and also nodding in front of the TV) so that I missed several details and the show did non make a significant impact on me. On re-watching it, though, I understood that this is the kind of story that makes your brain work, doing its best not to offer you easy answers: exactly the kind of story I enjoy. Once I recognized this, I was hooked.

The show rests quite firmly on background and characterization: let’s examine the former first.
The Quad is a four-body planetary system: the main planet, Qresh, was the first to be colonized and then expansion led the inhabitants to place footholds on the planet’s three moons.  The first attempt was made on Arkyn, the smallest one, but something went horribly wrong and the fate of the colony and its inhabitants is shrouded in mystery.  The colonization of Westerly went far better, so that the largest moon in the system is also the most densely inhabited: unfortunately, the thoughtless harvesting of resources has played havoc with environment and general living conditions. With Leith, the Company – the shady entity running everything in the Quad – used more cautious methods, so that it’s a sort of agricultural paradise – that is, for the middle class inhabiting it, not for the indentured workers slaving in its fields.

With these premises it’s not surprising that the Quad is administered through a rigid class system that leads to social injustice: the elite lives on Qresh, and the lesser nobility rules on Leith, while Westerly is the refuge for those without means and for the workforce in the planet’s many industries. It’s even less surprising that such overcrowding and generally poor living conditions would lead to high levels of crime, hence the creation of an organization of bounty hunters, or Reclamation Agents – the titular Killjoys.  They owe allegiance to no one, simply offering their contracted services: the Killjoys motto is “The Warrant is All”.

And here characterization comes into play: the team formed by Dutch (an ass-kicking lady with a shady past) and John Jaqobi (wingman and tech expert) is quite a successful one, although at some point the winning dynamic is altered by the appearance of John’s brother, D’avin, a former soldier with something worse than PTSD.  What I love about these characters is the strong bond between Dutch and John, a collaboration born of shared dangers and humor, an intense sense of family that does not need any romantic overtones to work. The best moments are those when the two exchange rapid-fire quips, usually during hairy situations: the beauty of these exchanges is that they feel very natural, not at all contrived or cheesy. If you add into this mix the personality of Lucy, their ship’s A.I., and one with a temper, you get an intriguing package.

For this reason the appearance of D’avin and the unavoidable romantic entanglement with Dutch felt as unnecessary as the apostrophe in the man’s name: even though the situation takes a different route quite soon, the disturbance was there, placing the wonderful interaction between Dutch and John on the back burner, so to speak. There is enough on the table to keep a viewer’s attention riveted: the frequent flash-backs into Dutch’s past and her training as an assassin, the re-appearance of her mentor and the shady goals he’s pursuing, the political currents moving underneath and involving both the Company and the Qresh nobility, give enough material to carry this story forward on its own power.  But that’s just a very personal point of view, of course…

What really matters here is that Killjoys seems to mark a return to a Firefly-like kind of space opera: the well detailed world-building hints at layers on layers of information and depth – social commentary and political maneuvering or the dangers of expansion and terraforming being among the most explored ones, but also more personal topics like freedom of choice against conditioning or the role of hope when there is nothing else to cling to.  The beauty of it all is that it’s built in increments: even in the episodes that look like stand-alones, there is always some small piece of information that will come to the fore in later segments.  I’ve always been partial to story-arc shows, and Killjoys delivered an intriguing progression in its too-brief run of 10 episodes, ending with a cliffhanger that I can only hope will find a satisfactory solution in the next season.

Something I definitely look forward to…

My Rating:


 

This is another post dedicated to the 2016 Sci-Fi Experience, an event hosted by Carl  V. Anderson over at Stainless Steel Droppings (follow the links to know more!)

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Reviews

Review: CAPTAIN QUASAR AND THE SPACE-TIME DISPLACEMENT CONUNDRUM, by Milo James Fowler

26242418I received this book from the author, in exchange for an honest review.

There is a movie I re-watch regularly when I’m in the mood for some light-hearted humor, and it’s Galaxy Quest: a fun trip through some of the tropes of televised science fiction, and one that never fails to make me laugh for the perfect balance of annoyance and affection that those tropes entail.  Captain Quasar and the Space-Time Displacement Conundrum is indeed the equivalent of that movie, and for me it represented an amusing interlude between more ‘serious’ books, the necessary change of pace every reader needs now and then.

The novel follows the bizarre adventures of the titular Captain Quasar and the crew of his ship, the Effervescent Magnitude, clearly modeled on its iconic television counterpart: Quasar finds himself swinging wildly between past and present after an accident with an outlandish new engine that has destroyed vessel and crew only to have them reappear, five hundred years later, through a black hole.  Don’t look for logical narrative progression in this story, or for scientific plausibility, because that’s not the point of it all: the goal here is to poke some fun at the genre’s most used clichés, with a kindly mischievous eye. The best way to appreciate it all is to sit back and enjoy the ride…

And indeed it is a Helzapoppin-style trip, where we encounter two and a half meter tall Amazonian warriors from a society where men are enslaved and treated like chattel, only to witness one of them fall head over heels for the intrepid captain and his far-too-often mentioned bulging muscles, gleaming teeth and perfect hair; or face formless globs of gelatinous matter intent on exacting a toll from the Magnitude as it passes through their area of space; or spider-like bounty hunters who can double as space pirates and so on. There’s even the required god-like being only Quasar can see, since he’s embedded in the captain’s consciousness – or rather in his sinuses, after having inhaled the quartz dust on the planet where the ancient creature dwells. See what I mean?

Quasar himself is the incarnation of all those square-jawed, intrepid heroes from the screen, but with a substantial difference: on TV we see only the outward “shell” of those characters, we observe their heroic efforts and bold endeavors, not to mention their romantic interludes, while here we are privy to the captain’s inner thoughts, and they somewhat tarnish the picture. Captain Bartholomew Quasar is as self-centered and selfish as they come, graced with a high degree of self-esteem (“They may not have been as good looking as me or some of you […]”) and the required attitude toward women we have come to expect from this kind of “hero”, and yet he manages to instill a form of amused sympathy in the reader, who ends up rooting for him – not despite his massive shortcomings, but because of them.

The only overt redeeming quality Quasar possesses is his affection for helmsman Hank, a furry, four-armed alien (it took me a few instances to connect his shaggy appearance with the name of his planet of origin, Carpethria, but I finally did…) who is the only constant fixture in the captain’s peregrinations through time, together with the god-like alien Steve, old, bearded and leaning on a wooden staff. These two characters represent the one constant element in the narrative arc: Hank on one side, providing Quasar with something akin to firm ground, and Steve on the other, acting as a sort of conscience for the intrepid captain – provided he does have one, a topic on which the jury is still out…

Add to the mix the amorous Amazon Asteria (a sight that can make even the boldest captain quake in his boots) and a series of equally bizarre characters, and you obtain an outlandish mix that will carry you into the depths of unknown space – and time – at a breakneck pace, helped by the very short chapters that jump from one weird adventure to the next in quick succession.

If you’re looking for some light fun, you need look no further…

 

My Rating:

 

After some time, I’m back with an offering for the 2016 Sci-Fi Experience, an event hosted by Carl  V. Anderson over at Stainless Steel Droppings (follow the links to know more!) and running until January 31st.

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Reviews

Review: THE TRAITOR BARU CORMORANT by Seth Dickinson

23444482This was possibly one of the most talked-about books of the past few months, so it was bound to cross my attention threshold, although some controversial comments led me to believe it not would be an easy read.

The Traitor Baru Cormorant is indeed a complex novel, both in scope and story structure, but it’s also a fascinating one, and it drew me right inside its well-crafted landscape of a society in the throes of change – not all of it welcome.

The Masquerade is the name of a conquering empire that does not wage war to annex new territories, on the contrary it does so by slowly, but steadily, encroaching on its neighbors’ economy, customs and ultimately on their way of thinking. In my opinion this is far more brutal than mere military occupation, because the Masquerade aims to win by destroying everything that does not conform to its way of thinking, and by destroying whole cultures in the process, smothering any ethnic or philosophical difference with its unstoppable drive of Borg-like will to assimilate everything its finds on its path.

The building of schools, where the young are taught to embrace the Masquerade’s way, and the sudden onrush of previously unknown plagues (the smallpox-infected blankets allegedly given to the American Indians come to mind) are other ways of eradicating the past in favor of the new conquering mindset, and they show the ruthless determination powering this empire in its expansion.  This merciless shaping touches every aspect of life, including personal choices in matters of religion, family structure, sexual orientation: in the latter case, brutal punishment is applied to those who don’t conform to the Masquerade’s strict, myopic rules of “social hygiene”, painting a chilling picture indeed, even more so because several other details, like forced interbreeding and genetic experiments, resonate with our own history in a quite uncomfortable way.

In this background moves the main character, Baru: a child on recently-invaded Taranoke – a place that has the flavor of a carefree Pacific island, where sun, sea, fish and birds shape the landscape – she willingly embraces the Masquerade teachings, first to quench her deep thirst for learning, then, once she gets older, with the aim of one day changing the system from the inside.    Blessed with a keen analytical mind, Baru excels in all math- and finance-related studies, so that she gains the important post of Accountant in the remote realm of Aurdwyn, where she will exercise the Masquerade’s will in a place that has been known as a breeding ground for rebellion.  According to her plans, Aurdwyn will be the final test of Baru’s brilliance: success at this post, the “land that cannot be ruled” as its inhabitant proudly claim, might one day take her on the fast track to the center of government, where she will be able to effect the changes she aims for, in the name of her beloved Taranoke.

If I was afraid that the economic complexities of the story might distract me from it, I was wrong, because at the core of it all (even when the concepts are hard to grasp) there is the notion of power, and how to wield it: finance and taxes are Baru’s weapons, and she employs them as such, waging battles that are just as nerve-wracking as sword fights.  Observing how Baru learns the ways of that power and how she understands to use it as the weapon it is, is a fascinating journey, although not an easy one, since everything comes with a price and this protagonist must steel herself to pay it – no matter what kind of currency is required of her.   Baru is fiercely driven by her ultimate goal, and there is no obstacle high enough or loss so devastating as to turn her away from her target – even though, at the end, I was both horrified and overwhelmed at the kind of choices she makes to remain true to her plans.

This is indeed the true hurdle I needed to overcome with this book, the pervasive sensation of a long-reaching yoke that cannot be removed, of a willpower that cannot be broken, of everyone fighting something that reminded me of Tolkien’s Elves’ “long defeat”: there are precious few rays of hope in this story that at times the going gets difficult.  When I read stories of vicious cruelty (the so-called grimdark novels), the savagery is all external, for want of a better word, expressed on the battlefield through swords and axes and blood. Here that cruelty is far worse because it’s subtle, the sword and axe hidden behind ledgers and edicts and laws that little by little become more smothering, more annihilating than a ferocious wave of invading, blood-thirsty barbarians.

Reading this book I was often reminded of a quote from a favorite show: “Fight them without becoming them”. This is what happens with Baru, she tries to hold on to her identity, to her diversity, while fighting the subtle, but equally ferocious, battle of encroaching doctrine: following her journey is a harsh, often bloody trek, and yet a compelling one.  Finding out how she solves that dilemma will shatter your soul.

But it will be more than worth it.

 

My Rating: