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Subject: What did you read in May 2014? rss

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I set a few goals for myself in May, one being to read a couple of the literary classics I have, another to read some books that Neil Gaiman had recommended through his various writings, and another to read the rest of the books in some series (serieses?) that I hadn't finished up. I made it through the first two goals, but that third one is going to take a little while.

I finished off The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood, and was pretty thoroughly depressed by the end of it. It's about as horrible of a dystopian novel as you can read, more so, I imagine, if you're a woman. I felt like it was a necessary read, and that it accomplished what it set out to do, but it's not a book to read if you live, say, on the fifth floor of an apartment building with windows that open (which is a luxury the women in the book didn't have).

I moved on to The Man Who Was Thursday by G.K. Chesterton, and was surprised that it was as readable as it was. It turned out to be a little predictable (at least from the halfway point of the story), and the heavy-handed Christian theme of the ending was somewhat disappointing, but I enjoyed the rest of the book.

Following that was The King of Elfland's Daughter by Lord Dunsany, which was a little overwrought and flowery, but still a decent read. I understand that the book is among the forerunners of the modern fantasy genre, so it has that going for it, even if it's a little light on plot.

Lud-in-the-Mist by Hope Mirrlees came next, and was a better "origins of fantasy" book than The King of Elfland's Daughter. The prose was more down-to-Earth, the plot was ... well, there, and it even had a good sense of humor about it all. It took itself less seriously than Lord Dunsany's take on the genre, and I can see why Gaiman counts it among his influences.

I moved on to the unfinished series books, starting with Castle in the Air and House of Many Ways, the two "sequels" to Howl's Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones. I like her writing style a lot, and as I mentioned in a previous month, the first book was charming despite the characters not starting out as being very likable, but these two books really showed how a sympathetic character goes a long way toward liking a story. The main character of Castle in the Air started out likable and the story wound up being a lot of fun to read; the main character of House of Many Ways, though, was insufferable, and it was hard to stay with the story because of it.

I moved on to Authority, the second book in the Southern Reach trilogy by Jeff VanderMeer, and while I liked it well enough, it was a different sort of book than Annihilation was. It gave answers to questions raised in the first book (while raising more questions of its own), and didn't disappoint, even if I would have preferred seeing more of Area X in this novel. If nothing else, it's set the stage for the conclusion pretty well.

I couldn't wait for the US release of the next book in Jasper Fforde's The Last Dragonslayer series, so I ordered a copy of The Eye of Zoltar from the UK. This is the penultimate book in the series, so it leaves a lot of questions to be answered in the overall story, but it works well as a standalone novel, and, like any Fforde book, is a lot of fun to read.

Lastly, I finished the second book in the Maze Runner series, The Scorch Trials, by James Dashner. I actually finished the third book today, but today is June, so I won't speak to that one right now. In short, though, if you've read the first book and enjoyed it, you should probably just stop there. The answers to the questions you have don't really exist.
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I finished up Before They Are Hanged, the second book in The First Law trilogy by Joe Abercrombie.
I didn't like it as much as the first book, for some reason.
It was still decent, though.
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Natchez Burning - Greg Iles. Excellent book about politics, race and crime in Mississippi.

781 pages - read it in 2 days.
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Bram Stoker - Dracula
Stephen King - Salem's Lot
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In May I read:

Embassytown, a science fiction novel by China Mieville. A tale of unintended consequences in a human diplomatic settlement on an alien planet. Different from Mieville's other things I've read, very good.

And For the Soul of France by Frederic Brown, about the culture wars in France from roughly 1870-1910, culminating in the Dreyfuss Affair.

A biography about the guy who invented the commercially viable flash-freeze method of freezing foods, in Birdseye: The Adventures of a Curious Man by Mark Kurlansky. Very interesting.

The Professor and the Madman - the professor was the guy in charge of the Oxford English Dictionary in the latter decades of the 19th century. The madman, an American who helped. By Simon Winchester.

Don't Know Much about the American Presidents by Kenneth Davis. It's what you would think it is from the title. OK.
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I finished reading A Clash Of Kings.
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In May I read the following 2 books.

Legions of Rome: The Definitive History of Every Imperial Roman Legion by Stephen Dando-Collins. 608 pages and very well written and enjoyable to read.

The Wages of Destruction: The Making and Breaking of the Nazi Economy by Adam Tooze. 848 pages, well researched, well written, and an impressive bibliography.
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I zipped through Mariposa by Greg Bear, for the second time. It's a cop science fiction story with an engaging plot, well fleshed out characters, tons of cool ideas, and a foundation of believability. There were one or two sub plots which didn't pan out very well IMO, but Bear had the sense not to dwell on them. Recommended but not necessary is the precursor book Quantico where many of the same characters, and one of the bad guys, go through a different desperate battle for civilization as we know it. Bear is good enough to pull off that kind of schtick.
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I started on some Roger Zelazny:

Chronicles of Amber 1: Nine Princes of Amber It was refreshing that it wasn't anything like Tolkien, but it was a bit slapdash and read more like a summary to me. Decent start and I liked Corwin and Random.

Chronicles of Amber 2: Guns of Avalon Great part two with an an above average twist and nice ending, leaving me wanting to find out what happens next. Greatly improved on book one.
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"Leviathan's Wake" James S. A. Corey
"Caliban's War" James S. A. Corey
"A Shadow in Summer" By Daniel Abraham


For June I plan on:

"Hyperion" Dan Simmons
"Abaddon's Gate" James S. A. Corey
"A betrayal in Winter" Daniel Abraham and perhaps the third book in that series "The Autumn War"

James Corey is a pen name for Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck
So for some reason I'm on a Daniel Abraham kick
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Just to add some hipie lectures to the list, my book this month is The Power of Silence by Carlos Castaneda


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Perdido Street Station - You know, for a book so hell-bent on world building, I couldn't help but be disappointed by the overwhelmingly trite plot. A total slog.

Headhunters - Awesome Norwegian crime thriller. The author relies on a few tricks like the unreliable narrator and confusing plot twists, but he crafts it so well it's forgivable. Looking forward to watching the well-received movie starring Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (aka Jaime Lannister) as the villain.
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Got some reading done, slowly, but done. I've been watching stuff on the iPad more than reading.......modest

Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson. After reading and loving his novel 2312 a few months back, I knew I wanted to read his Mars trilogy. This first title in the trilogy did NOT disappoint. The story is told in 3rd person by different narrators who each have a whole section with many chapters. I was intrigued, fascinated, engaged, and mesmerized. I learned things, that I NEEDED to know that have helped me understand important aspects of my life. His vision of the colonization of the red planet was stupendous and super interesting......until it got deep into the political and economic issues/concerns. I would have LOVED an entire novel focused on the colonization aspect and did not like that it skipped 20 years at one point to move the story along. I would have enjoyed the details of those 20 years immensely. Still.......what a great, great book. I cannot wait to read the 2nd one. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.


Mort by Terry Pratchett. I hadn't visited Discworld in a while and started reading this on the iPad at the same time I was reading Red Mars. I loved it!! Every time I find a gem in the Discworld series I question why I haven't gone ahead and read them all! The humor is sublime, the characters likable, and the setting.....well, it's Discworld, so anything can happen. Here's a taste of its comic genius:
“*The disc's greatest lovers were undoubtedly Mellius and Gretelina, whose pure, passionate and soul-searing affair would have scorched the pages of History if they had not, because of some unexplained quirk of fate, been born two hundred years apart on different continents. However, the gods took pity on them and turned him into an ironing board** and her into a small brass bollard.
**When you're a god, you don't have to have reasons.”

RECOMMENDED, especially for Discworld fans.


Catherine, called Birdy by Karen Cushman. This is a historical fiction teen novel that tries to be cute and almost succeeds. The protagonist is a young teen in 13th century England and the story unfolds through the entries in her diary. Her family wants to marry her off for money and position and she rebels. It is clever and funny but tries a bit too hard and feels forced. Still...it is a fast and enjoyable read, if a bit far-fetched. Especially since at the end......no, I won't spoil it! (Since Cushman also wrote the fabulous Midwife's Apprentice I will seek out more of her historical fiction teen novels for when I want a quick non-boring read.) RECOMMENDED.


Out of the Silent Planet by C. S. Lewis. After Perelandra failed the 100-page test, I was intrigued enough to try the first book in Lewis' Space trilogy and I am glad I did. Just as in that book I was fascinated by the imagination and world that Lewis paints for us to drool over. I knew he was good because of Narnia, but this was extremely good as it not only takes you to another unique and beautiful world, but introduces you to other forms of intelligent life that have more wonderful qualities than ordinary human beings. The space travel, though dated, is still interesting and overall I really enjoyed the book and story. RECOMMENDED.
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The Night Circus, by Erin Morgenstern

Two young magicians are caught up in the selfish machinations of their "fathers"--forced to fight a duel with deadly consequences for both the winner and the loser. The titular circus acts as the battle ground for the duel, but also ground zero for the duelists' budding love.

The book is full of sort-of-interesting characters, with The Night Circus itself being the most interesting character of all. It's certainly full of lovely turns of phrase and word-play. But the book jumps ahead in time throughout, so it's hard to dig in and care when you're just jumping ahead in a few pages. Also, and I don't think this is a spoiler, this duel is the most drawn-out, boring duel ever. Seriously, if you have visions of the epic battle from The Sword in the Stone floating around in your head, get rid of them right now.

It's interesting that the cover of The Night Circus features a papercraft image of the circus. Like that papercraft image, none of these fragile bits are strong enough to support the story--they crumble under the weight.

So in the end it's okay, but not great. I find myself easily able to walk away from these magical tents...



A Feast For Crows, by George, R.R. Martin

Oh, man. This series is losing some serious steam.

First, there are the problems with the character decisions Martin made. Of course, it's very subjective, but many of the more interesting characters aren't in this book at all. I don't mean they're hardly in it; I mean they aren't in it AT ALL.

Apparently when Martin was writing the book it started getting way too big, so he decided to split the book in two. But rather than continue the story with all of the characters as he had before (which, admittedly, has its own problems), he decided to just use half the characters in this book, and half in A Dance With Dragons.

But it's not just that there are only half the characters, and it's not just that these aren't the most interesting characters. Martin adds whole new characters and storylines to the narrative. So we have some mildly interesting stuff with The Iron Islands, and we suddenly go to Dorne for some reason.

But it gets worse. There are over 1,000 pages here, but there are so many viewpoints that each viewpoint doesn't really get much room to breathe. So even though I think it was crazy to add characters and viewpoints, it's compounded because they're just a flicker, so they seem even more out of place and annoying. "Hey, here are some brand-new characters. They'll get two whole chapters."

But as long as there are interesting things happening, who cares, right? But there aren't, really. There are some parts that are sort-of interesting, but whole swaths that are just downright boring. When books are 1,000 pages, you start wondering where things could be cut. And I was constantly finishing chapters I felt could have been cut with no affect on the story.

It appears to me that Martin has achieved a level of success where his editors are afraid to edit him. That never ends well...

I had a hard time deciding between 2 and 3 stars, but in the end, it really was just okay...

I'll read A Dance With Dragons, but my hopes are remarkably low...



The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, by Alan Bradley

Author Alan Bradley's story is extraordinary. He was offered a multi-book deal, based solely on a single chapter of this book. He's certainly created something original in young Flavia de Luce. She's a brilliant 11-year-old with an obsession for chemistry, who's forced into solving a mystery when a man ends up dead at her house, and her father is arrested for the murder.

The mystery here is interesting, and everything just feels right for the period--it seems Mr. Bradley has really done his homework.

The problem is that I just don't believe Flavia. I want to. I really do. I get the brilliant kid. I get the interest in chemistry. But she just doesn't ring true. She's too smart. Too experienced. Too willing to ignore rules that she feels are silly. Everyone here (other than her sisters and the baddies) seem to love her, but I don't think she'd be very pleasant to hang around with. And when does she have time to do learn about all of this? She's well-versed in science, Shakespeare, and ornithology, but also seems to have time to keep up with pop culture of the time--including cartoons, songs, and musicals. I just don't believe there are enough hours in an 11-year-old's day to learn all of this.

And her voice seems wrong. She uses turns of phrase, and similes, and vocabulary, that NO 11-year-old--not even a brilliant one--would use. It doesn't matter how smart she is, she hasn't had the life experience to be able to use these in such an offhand way.

People keep describing Flavia as precocious, but I think that's just a word they're using to hand-wave away the fact that she's just not a believable character.

So why three stars? Because I still enjoyed the book, and the mystery. And if Flavia were an adult, almost all of my problems with this book go away.
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Feast for Crows was initially my least favorite of the five, basically due to editing problems. I really think it could lose 3 Brienne chapters and 2 Cersei chapters and it would have been *much* better. Even still, it was one of my favorites on re-read, because I knew what I was getting into and it really does have some great stuff in it.
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Scott Firestone IV wrote:

The Night Circus, by Erin Morgenstern


...

So in the end it's okay, but not great. I find myself easily able to walk away from these magical tents...


I had the complete opposite reaction. I loved this book. The one thing we agree on is the best parts of the book are when we're taken on a stroll around the circus itself.
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Railsea by China Mieville. Imaginative future-fantasy adventure story that has some steampunk elements but enough new ideas that it doesn't feel derivative. Light, but I enjoyed it.

Revenants by Daniel Mills. Spooky novel set in colonial New England, inspired by Nathaniel Hawthorne's writing. It was a decent read, but it needed a little more plot and a little less description. Still, recommended to anyone with an interest in the time period or writing that is creepy without gore.

erak wrote:
Looking forward to watching the well-received movie starring Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (aka Jaime Lannister) as the villain.

It's good! Just so long as you don't mind a little blood. Which, if you made it through last night's Game of Thrones, presumably you're okay with.
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Pone4games wrote:
Legions of Rome: The Definitive History of Every Imperial Roman Legion by Stephen Dando-Collins. 608 pages and very well written and enjoyable to read.


Huh. I read Dando-Collins' poorly titled Caesar's Legion, which inexplicably dealth with everything the Tenth Legion may have ever done during the entire time it existed. I thought that the lack of focus made everything fairly confusing. It alternated between minutiae and excesssive detail, and that was just a book on a single legion.

How does he manage to handle all the legions?

Anyway, I finally got around to reading The World That Never Was: A True Story of Dreamers, Schemers, Anarchists, and Secret Agents, because it has been sitting on my shelf for a year and the designer's notes in A Study in Emerald talked about it. I see how Wallace's design works thematically with the original anarchist theme, in a way that it doesn't work with the supernatural chrome. The book itself takes a long time to get going and goes a bit long, but the middle is a thrilling bit of popular history. I wouldn't cite it or anything, but it is worthwhile reading.

After finally organizing my comic colelction and realizing that I never got past the first volume of 100 Bullets because I'd lost the second volume. So I bought that, and I've been devouring it. It's still a great book, although maybe not as great as I remember. Still, reading it all in one shot has helped me work out the "which white dude in a suit is that, again?" issues that plagued me the first time.

I've also been dabbling with a bunch of RPG books. The only ones I actually FINISHED were A Quiet Year (short, definitely on the hippy-dippy story games end of the spectrum, game where you play factions in an evolving community and draw stuff on a map). I've been reading De Profundis, too, which is a Lovecraftian letter-writing RPG from the Neuroshima Hex dude. It's a cool conceit, and it definitely encourages you to apply a sinister and conspiratorial lens to everyday life. However, there's some serious Lovecraft fanboyism, and I actively dislike both Lovecraft's fiction and (especially) "Lovecraft games," so I'm trying to figure out how to adapt it to a setting that's not so lame. Still lots of cool ideas, marred though they may be by association with Lovecraft.
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In Cold Blood by Truman Capote. I liked his Breakfast at Tiffany's so much I decided to try another of his better-known books. The writing was as great as BaT, but some of the subject matter just made my skin crawl so I had trouble enjoying the book. Capote very much got into the heads of the murderers, and, well, that's just not a great place to be. So a good (maybe great) book, but not an enjoyable one.

The Last Ringbearer by Kirill Yeskov. The idea: Tell the story of Lord of the Rings and it's aftermath, from the point of view of one of Sauron's minions. And based on the concept of "history is told by the winners," the author assumes that what Tolkien wrote is not just biased towards the heroes of that book, but is in some cases wildly incorrect propaganda. From this idea, there are some great moments, like when Gandalf is shown to be not the noble hero that Tolkien said he was, but a bigot who advocates for an ethnic cleansing, exterminating the race of Orcs from Middle Earth. But sadly, the author is no Tolkien, and the writing quality shows this; lots of exposition, long sections that seem taken from a tedious spy novel, and terrible dialogue (every time Faramir and Eowyn call each other "babe" it made me want to cry). It's an interesting idea, good in parts, but overall I can't recommend it.

(One thing that gave me a laugh was reading the reviews of Last Ringbearer - lots of stupid stuff like "This guy doesn't understand tolkien at all, he's so dumb he made Gandalf into a bad guy!" Well, duh, that's the point: If Stalin's best buddies wrote a history of 20th century Russia, he would have probably seemed as great as Tolkien's take on Gandalf.)
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Chuck Singer wrote:
I started on some Roger Zelazny:

Chronicles of Amber 1: Nine Princes of Amber It was refreshing that it wasn't anything like Tolkien, but it was a bit slapdash and read more like a summary to me. Decent start and I liked Corwin and Random.

Chronicles of Amber 2: Guns of Avalon Great part two with an an above average twist and nice ending, leaving me wanting to find out what happens next. Greatly improved on book one.


I really like the inventiveness of the Amber books but I feel like his writing quality fluctuates pretty wildly at times. There are times when I am engaged on every page and other times when I kind of just want to move on. I enjoy them and read them every so often, and I think it is worth getting through some of the tough parts for the good stuff, and I'm definitely not trying to discourage you, just suggesting you be prepared for some ups and downs. It's still excellent that it has a conclusion and in fact is fairly compact for a series of books that has a bit of a wider scope. (each book if I recall was fairly brief for the way some people write fantasy series' of 600+ pages a book, not that I'll mention any names)
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Oblivion by David Foster Wallace. I'd never read any of his stuff and knew I was supposed to, so I figured I'd do short stories instead of committing to Infinite Jest. It's heavy lifting, as DFW appears to have disdain for anyone reading his shorts in separate sessions—the first story is 60-some pages with no obvious breaks—and I was unimpressed with such enormous chunks of prose in which nothing actually happens, the whole exercise being in the mode of New York literati fiction where the story feels like the middle third of something substantial, but lacking a beginning or an end. Slice of life where you don't know it's slice of life until it just stops abruptly. Anyway, I was shruggy about it until I hit "Incarnations of Burned Children" (which you can read at the link if your day needs a solid kick in the neck bones). He achieves more psychic demolition in 1000ish words than I could get by driving a speeding truck full of dictionaries through a playground. This is why he is who he is.

Glasshouse by Charles Stross. I'd only read one other book by Stross, Singularity Sky, which ended up being one of those SF novels where the author has this awesome idea he or she just has to get out and the book ends up being an interminable essay on how awesome the idea is, with characters as multipartite mouthpieces to spout the idea back and forth. It was hard to finish. So when Glass House was recommended to me by two friends who were gushing about it, I figured I'd give it a shot as the antidote to all the heavy lifting I was doing with Oblivion. It's breezy and ticks along and has some neat scenes but I really can't recommend it unless you're looking for those three things all at once.
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Legiathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey. A space opera set in Our solar system after humans have expanded to settle Luna, Mars, and a bunch of asteroids and outer planet moons. Fairly hard SF elements, a pretty light and quick read. Fun. I was a bit surprised to find the book only half as long as I expected. I read the Kindle version; the book ended about 51% of the way through the file. The rest of the file is another book - a fantasy title by one of the writers who makes up the duo that is James Corey. I started on the second title in the series, Caliban's War and am about 1/3 through it now.
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Odd and The Frost Giants by Neil Gaiman.

Lovely short book.

I just got a Kindle, so all the ebooks I've amassed from Humble Bundles will begin to leave their data tombs and enter my psyche.

2 edits because I am type good
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HiveGod wrote:
Oblivion by David Foster Wallace. I'd never read any of his stuff and knew I was supposed to, so I figured I'd do short stories instead of committing to Infinite Jest. It's heavy lifting, as DFW appears to have disdain for anyone reading his shorts in separate sessions—the first story is 60-some pages with no obvious breaks—and I was unimpressed with such enormous chunks of prose in which nothing actually happens, the whole exercise being in the mode of New York literati fiction where the story feels like the middle third of something substantial, but lacking a beginning or an end. Slice of life where you don't know it's slice of life until it just stops abruptly. Anyway, I was shruggy about it until I hit "Incarnations of Burned Children" (which you can read at the link if your day needs a solid kick in the neck bones). He achieves more psychic demolition in 1000ish words than I could get by driving a speeding truck full of dictionaries through a playground. This is why he is who he is.

I found his previous book of short stories, Interviews with Hideous Men, to be a bit sterile and bleak, so I never picked up Oblivion.

If you want to do DFW and you're not quite ready for Jest, I highly recommend A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again. It is ten kinds of awesome.
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Robb Minneman
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Jackasses? You let a whole column get stalled and strafed on account of a couple of jackasses? What the hell's the matter with you?
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The Martian, which I loved. Red meat for those of us who think High Frontier is the most awesomest game ever.

The Lies of Locke Lamora, which I very much enjoyed. It's a heist/con artist movie set in a strange fantasy land. Engaging and fun read. I thought I had it figured, and then it took a nice hard turn on me. Very satisfying.

Citadel. This is a "stuff blows up" book; the literary equivalent of an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie. Don't expect it to have any deep ideas or anything. Sit back and enjoy the carnage. Caution: The author has weird, and to many people offensive, politics. Be forewarned. Second book in a series; the first one was better.

Something Other Than God. A personal conversion narrative from a former atheist. I'm about 80% through this one, and the author has a light touch with her prose that helps make it engaging. Not everyone will like this one, for sure. The author makes the point midway through the book that she needed to be in the right frame of mind to consider Christianity. In the same way, you need to be in the right frame of mind to get anything positive from this book.

I got a lot of reading done this month. Spending two weeks off work does something for that, but they tell me you're not supposed to get much reading done with a newborn in the house. Huh, who knew?
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