Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: Thriller (page 1 of 3)

Vox – Christina Dalcher

The last four years brought us something I think we can only just now begin to appreciate: a resurgence in The Handmaid’s Tale-inspired feminist dystopian literature, one of the few things actually made great again. I wonder if someday we’ll look back on this particular time as a literary category or movement all of its own (I’d suggest calling it Trump lit, but I don’t want to give him the satisfaction). Vox was one of the ones that came mid-way through in 2018: not quite early enough to be prescient, but not quite late enough to be retrospective, and with a weight of expectation on its shoulders.

Vox - Christina Dalcher - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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Note that the man himself is never actually named in Vox: he is simply alluded to, the president elected after a black man’s historic term in office, plunging the United States back into a totalitarian regime with the backing of the country’s Bible Belt. The new government forces women out of the workforce, freezes their bank accounts, takes away their passports – it all sounds familiar, right? What makes Vox different is one additional catch: women and girls are restricted to speaking just 100 words a day, monitored by “bracelets” capable of delivering sharp electric shocks to those who exceed the limit.

If you’re like me, your mind has probably jumped to all of the alternative methods of communication that women could use to resist. Dalcher is one step ahead of you. Pens and paper are forbidden, along with books and mail and all other iterations of the same. Anyone caught using sign language is hauled off and subjected to unspecified but undoubtedly horrible punishments. Even a nod is enough to make a woman feel self-conscious. This is all part of the plan, the Pure Movement, to throw America back to a bygone era (that, really, didn’t exist in the first place) of men at work and on top, women at home and silent.

The narrator, Jean, sums it up on page 1: “I’ve become a woman of few words”. Her husband, Patrick, is a high-ranking White House official. They have four children, three sons and a daughter. Their eldest son, Steven, has been lured into the Pure Movement via a religion class at his school. The ascendancy of the Pure Movement, and the family’s descent into fear and mutual distrust, are revealed through Jean’s recollections as her own story unfolds in the present.





Jean has been forced to give up her career as a neuro-linguistics researcher, studying aphasia (loss of language), under the new regime. She devotes a lot of time to blaming herself for not taking a more active role when the first warning signs of impending doom emerged. She, and most others, thought that the “hysterical” feminists were being “over the top” when they warned of what was to come.

Dalcher does a good job – for a debut novelist – of depicting Jean’s complicated relationships with her children. The middle two (twin boys) get kind of lost in the shuffle, but she resents Steven for bringing the prying eyes of the Pure Movement into their home, and fears for the future of her youngest, a daughter. There’s one particularly terrifying moment when Jean wakes in the night to hear her daughter shouting words in her sleep. She tries desperately to reach the girl before she hits her limit (at which point, she’ll be shocked), but when she does Jean has no words of her own left to comfort the girl. It’s heartbreaking, and probably the one scene from Vox that truly stuck with me. I also liked that Jean’s character was unabashedly angry (who wouldn’t be?), remorseful (that she didn’t do more before it was too late), and an imperfect wife (mostly indifferent to her weak-willed but otherwise-loving husband, and carrying on an illicit affair with a co-worker).

The rest of it, I’m afraid, was a bit of a let down. The dystopian world imagined in Vox is okay, but quite derivative (it’s The Handmaid’s Tale with a couple of technological gizmos). That world has already been created, written to (many times), surely we can come up with some other way to comment on and critique society? Jean’s role is also just a bit too convenient to swallow. She just-so-happens to be married to a White House official, and just-so-happens to be a leading expert on neuro-linguistics in a world where women aren’t allowed to use language. I mean, come on! Really?





About two-thirds of the way through, Vox goes from feminist dystopia to hackneyed crime thriller. The “big twist” of the government’s “secret plan” was obvious a hundred miles away; I actually got a bit impatient waiting for Jean to figure it out for herself. One-dimensional “bad guys” hold Jean and her research hostage (one of them, I shit you not, actually says “don’t do anything stupid, Jean” at one point). This whole dystopian future was imagined and put down on the page just so that there can be a gun-fight at the OK Corral and a couple of blokes can swoop in to save the day. Ugh!

Just to cap it off, there’s a melt-in-your-mouth happily ever after (yes, I’m going to spoil it, not sorry even a little bit): the loser husband dies in a sudden fit of heroics, and Jean falls into the arms of her lover (to whom she is, conveniently, pregnant). Every “bad guy” is knocked off, and a whole new administration sweeps in overnight and puts right everything that went wrong. As we have all seen by now: it don’t work like that! Double ugh!

One final overarching concern: I really felt a bit icky about the way Dalcher “borrowed” (i.e., appropriated) longstanding symbols of oppression – internment camps, electrical torture, chemical warfare – to build up stakes for a bog-standard thriller. She didn’t even mention trans rights or the “problem” that non-binary people would undoubtedly pose for the Vox regime – a glaring and unforgivable oversight, in my view, one I can’t believe made it all the way to publication. Dalcher clearly had her blinkers on writing this one, and working in two (2) lesbians and one (1) black woman to remind the white narrator about her privilege wasn’t enough to overcome the fundamental flaws in her approach.

As a blurb, Vox is great: I’d love to understand what might happen in a world where women are literally silenced! But it’s a premise in search of a plot that could do it justice. Dalcher would have done better to let this one marinate for longer, maybe come at it with a broader view and a bit more distance from the realities of the past few years. All said and done, if you’re looking for a fresh feminist dystopia, I’m afraid this ain’t it; it might scratch your itch for a crime thriller though, if that’s what you’re after, and there’s a couple of moments with the kids that will pull on your heartstrings.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Vox:

  • “This book was recommended to me by someone, I wish I knew who, because it was not a pleasant read. It was actually rather horrifying.” – Gwen B
  • “It’s not even bad enough to be good.” – Amazon Customer
  • “Am not a big fan of mystery or suspense and the abuse of all females disturbed me tremendously.
    There wasn’t an issue of the book being written badly or anything like that. Just hated the story.” – Straightshoota


Sadie – Courtney Summers

Well, Keeper Upperers, last year I asked Santa for a big stack of books – and boy, did he deliver! Sadie by Courtney Summers came via my wonderful and dear friend Cathal, right into my hot little hands. This one has been near the top of my wishlist for ages, so I couldn’t bring myself to wait another minute before tearing in to it.

Sadie - Courtney Summers - Keeping Up With The Penguins
Buy Sadie here.
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Sadie is Courtney Summer’s break-out novel. She’s written several other books prior, but this is the one that catapulted her to international attention and #bookstagram fame. What brought it to my attention was the killer premise: a modern twist on a murder mystery, partly styled as a podcast transcript.

The story begins with the discovery of a body, that of 13-year-old Mattie Southern, in a small run-down town in the middle of nowhere. She is survived by her 19-year-old sister, Sadie. Right off the bat, I liked the way that Summers was thumbing her nose at the tropes by naming her book after the living protagonist. When was the last time you read a crime novel with a titular girl who wasn’t dead?

That’s your first hint that Sadie is cleverer than it might first appear. Summers also lampoons the true-crime trend of middle-class butter-wouldn’t-melt-in-their-mouths white blonde victims. Mattie and Sadie are from the wrong side of the tracks, their fathers are long gone, and their mother decided she preferred drugs to home-cooked dinners. Sadie and Mattie have had to forge their own way, living in a trailer with only their landlady for any kind of support.



West McCray – a radio journalist – overhears the tragic news of Mattie’s death while he’s working on another story nearby. At first, he doesn’t think much of it (another dead girl? that’s sad, but it’s hardly a story). Then, he hears from their landlady: Sadie has gone missing, just months after Mattie’s death. That’s the impetus for his podcast investigation, what hooks him (and us, the readers): what happened to the girls?

So, one side of the story is told by West, as he investigates – through interviews and sticking his nose everywhere it doesn’t belong – and the other side is told by Sadie herself. It’s a really interesting way of piecing the story together: each protagonist knows things the other doesn’t, and even without the high-stakes plot, you’ll find yourself desperate to find out what happens when their stories catch up to one another and intersect.

Summers also nails the podcast transcript, I must say. It’s very clearly modelled off cultural staples like Serial and This American Life. As I read, I couldn’t help but “hear” most of it in the soothing tones of Ira Glass. It got a little trite towards the end, maybe a little “neat”, but overall it holds up. I read in another review that apparently there are actual recorded episodes out there, which I’m curious to track down.



I think it’s also really powerful that Sadie is given her own voice, the opportunity to tell the reader her own story. Had the whole lot been narrated by West and the people he interviews, a lot of the complexity and intimacy would have been lost. She reveals pretty early on where exactly she’s gone “missing” to: she’s on the hunt for the man she believes killed Mattie, and she plans to give him a taste of his own medicine. She also has a stutter, which makes her internal monologue particularly powerful; what she’s not able to physically say out loud, she can share with us.

Being a crime novel, styled as a true crime podcast, there’s obviously some pretty gruesome stuff (if you’re not a true crime junkie, it’s probably worse than you’d imagine). So, here’s a content warning for violence (duh) and child abuse. Though Courtney Summers’ books are classed as Young Adult, I really feel that Sadie could have been published and marketed as adult crime fiction without raising an eyebrow.

The ending isn’t exactly happy, though it does provide enough resolution that the story feels finished. I knocked it over in a single afternoon. I’d say it’s the perfect book for fans of Veronica Mars.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Sadie:

  • “It was pretty ok!” – Lauren A Woods
  • “Wtf” – User


Gone Girl – Gillian Flynn

It is nothing short of miraculous that I’ve managed to go so long – over eight years, including the release of a wildly successful film adaptation – without reading Gone Girl. It’s doubly miraculous, surely, that I managed to avoid spoilers that whole time, too. But the jig is up, and it’s time to buckle down! Gone Girl is a crime thriller/mystery novel by American writer, Gillian Flynn. It came on the crest of the wave of “psychological thrillers”. In fact, given how many copies it sold (over two million in the first year alone), how long it spent on the best-seller lists, the extent to which it has permeated the popular consciousness, we might say that Gone Girl was the typhoon that caused the wave to begin with.

Gone Girl - Gillian Flynn - Book Laid Face Up On Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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Nick Dunne’s wife, Amy, disappears on the morning of their fifth wedding anniversary. There’s a sign of a struggle in the living room, but no other real clues as to where she’s gone. The police suspect Nick was involved somehow in her disappearance, but he swears he had nothing to do with it. That’s how Gone Girl begins.

Flynn deftly weaves in their back-story, in the form of Amy’s diary entries. Nick and Amy had a fairy tale meet-cute and courtship. They married after dating for two years, merging seamlessly into one another. But when the global financial crisis hit, they both lost their jobs (Nick as a pop-culture writer for a magazine, Amy as a personality-quiz creator).

This change in circumstance all but forced them to leave cosmopolitan New York, moving to Nick’s hometown in backwater Mississippi. There, he opened a bar with his twin sister (borrowing the last of Amy’s family money to do so), and focused on caring for his terminally ill mother and demented father. Meanwhile, Amy… did nothing much, really, until she disappeared.

Flynn has borrowed from a few different sources to put this plot together. She used her own experience of being laid off from her job as a writer for Entertainment Weekly. She has also said that she was inspired by the real-life disappearance of Laci Peterson in 2002. It’s a strange mix, but damn, it’s delicious.

Nick and Amy’s perspectives alternate throughout the novel. They describe their marriage in very different ways, each (obviously) more sympathetic to their own cause and critical of the other. Both narrators feel unsteady, unreliable, but it’s not exactly clear why… at first. Every character in Gone Girl – from the married couple to the childhood friends to the greasy lawyer – exists in a murky grey area. No one is entirely likeable or unlikeable, trustworthy or untrustworthy, hero or villain.

The “big twist” comes almost exactly half-way through. Amy isn’t who she’s been telling us she is in her diary entries. At first, the switch felt a bit jarring, too extreme to be believable. But I went with it, and stopped using “believability” as a criterion by which I gauged my enjoyment of the story. I quickly found it added a whole new dimension to an already-complex plot. Plus, it was a great subversion of the kind of “suspense” we expect from these kinds of stories. The reader is forced to change gears, from wondering whether Nick Dunne was actually involved in his wife’s disappearance and waiting for the “big twist”, to wondering where on earth the story could possibly go after the truth is revealed.

I debated long and hard whether to discuss the details of the “big twist” here on Keeping Up With The Penguins. I mean, they’ve already been discussed and debated elsewhere at length – even some publicity materials have at least alluded to them. Plus, I don’t really believe in “spoilers” (if you don’t want to know what happens in a book, what the heck are you doing here?). But in the end, I had to concede: I won’t reveal all, just on the off chance that there’s some other Keeper Upperer out there who hasn’t read Gone Girl yet and would like to someday. The reading experience will definitely be better, as it is with all thrillers, if you don’t see what’s coming.

(What I will say, for those who already know, is that I really liked the ending. That might be a controversial position, as I’ve seen other reviewers bemoan it for being “unrealistic”, but I thought it was very fitting. I really appreciated that Flynn avoided the neat-bow-around-everything approach of so many other contemporary crime thriller writers. So, there.)

I was pleasantly – if weirdly – surprised by Gone Girl. I wasn’t going to stay-up-all-night to finish it, the way the schlocky blurbs promised I would, but I was always curious to see what happened next. I was particularly impressed by the complexity of the characters, and the way that Flynn weaved intriguing, tantalising hints into the story. In the Battle Of The Girls (Gone Girl versus The Girl On The Train), this one definitely comes out on top.

The film adaptation was released in 2014, written by Flynn herself and starring Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike. I’m actually planning to watch it – a very rare outcome, but one that should be a testament to how much I enjoyed Gone Girl. I’m also keen to read Flynn’s other books (Sharp Objects, in particular, comes highly recommended), though I worry that they couldn’t possibly “live up” now that my expectations have been elevated. But even if they don’t, at least Flynn will already have a win on her record.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Gone Girl:

  • “Too many sexual remarks that were not necessary” – Tonga
  • “This is a great book, the shipping was fast, but the book was somewhat dirty. I had to wipe off dust.” – Esmerelda
  • “I would rather read an offensively revisionist middle school history textbook from a religious private school in a red state cover to cover once a week for the rest of my life then have to read this again. So you hate yourself go ahead and give somebody money for it and insult yourself by reading it. Trash.” – DangItBobby
  • “I didn’t like what was revealed in the middle of the.book because it should have been revealed near the end of the book. I went to Wikipedia to read a review and I shouldn’t have. The idiot who did the review disclosed the whole story of what happened in the second part of the book. When I read a mystery I want the main event to be revealed at the end of the book not in the middle” – Bruce
  • “Wife loved it.” – Jeremiah

My Sister The Serial Killer – Oyinkan Braithwaite

As much as we all love a bit of mystery and intrigue, sometimes it’s nice to read a book with the premise laid out completely in the title. My Sister The Serial Killer gives you exactly what it says on the tin: the story of Korede and her sister, Ayoola, who has the unfortunate habit of killing her boyfriends.

My Sister The Serial Killer - Oyinkan Braithwaite - Keeping Up With The Penguins
Buy My Sister The Serial Killer here.
(And in that spirit of transparency, I’ll tell you straight-up that there are affiliate links on this page, and if you use them to buy a book I’ll earn a small commission).

I first encountered Oyinkan Braithwaite at the Sydney Writers’ Festival (she’s lovely, by the way, and she had a queue out the door for book signings after her session). It’s hard to imagine that such an astonishingly dark and laughably twisted plot came out of the mind of such a delightful creature. I’m sure her Google search history must’ve got her on a watch-list somewhere…

But, to the story: as I said, Ayoola keeps killing her boyfriends, and it’s up to Korede to clean up the mess. Korede is literally the person Ayoola calls to help her hide a body (c’mon, we’ve all got one). The story begins with Korede cleaning up the blood spatters of the third man that Ayoola has “dispatched”, and immediately you get the sense that this situation can’t continue indefinitely.

Even aside from the serial murders, Korede and Ayoola have a strange relationship – in no small part due to their fact that their father was horribly cruel and extremely dodgy (in fact, the knife Ayoola uses to off her suitors once belonged to him, a deftly crafted metaphor for the inheritance of violence). Korede feels responsible for her sister, but simultaneously suffers from a bit of an inferiority complex. She’s the “homely” one, while Ayoola is unequivocally the “beautiful” one, with all of the privilege and preference that beauty entails.

The plot boils over when a love triangle forms: Ayoola sets her sights on the handsome and charismatic doctor that Korede has loved from afar for months. Sibling loyalty can only go so far, after all. This forces Korede into the small gap between the proverbial rock and hard place: should she keep her sister’s secrets, or divulge them to the man she loves (possibly saving his life)?

My Sister The Serial Killer thus cleverly mixes crime, romance, and family saga. It’s definitely not a thriller, in the sense that it focuses far more on the sisters’ relationship – and what happens to it under strain – than it does any cat-and-mouse games with detectives. It’s also set in Lagos, with a remarkably strong sense of location and culture that we might more commonly associate with “place writing” (and a “place” that’s sadly not often encountered by Anglophone readers, to boot).

The story unfolds in short, punchy chapters. The family backstory – abusive father, complex mother – is revealed incrementally, in a way that naturally parallels and informs the rollercoaster of the love triangle and the will-she-or-won’t-she (kill again). I must say, I thought My Sister The Serial Killer would be more light-hearted in tone – or, at least, more morbidly humorous. Braithwaite focuses more on moral responsibility and culpability than I expected. There were few laughs, and more “wait, what would I do in that situation?” dilemmas. Is Ayoola empowered, or simply sociopathic? Is Korede doing the right thing by covering up her crimes, or is she enabling a murderer? Is she righteously loyal, or simply blinded by the affection of shared experience?

But, I suppose, I can hardly complain that my funny bone wasn’t tickled when it was such a pleasure to spend time with such complex and intriguing characters. The novel’s conclusion was satisfying without being too “neat”. Braithwaite demonstrates a talent for writing far beyond her years and experience. I look forward to seeing what she comes out with next (“My Brother, The Money Launderer”, perhaps? “My Mother, The Armed Robber”?)

My favourite Amazon reviews of My Sister The Serial Killer:

  • “I love this story. This is the first book I’ve bought since scholastic book fairs were a thing for me.” – Lauryn
  • “I don’t understand why I’m meant to care about an unapologetic murderer and her accomplice sister???? Also if I had a sister I feel like my cap would be covering up one murder for her. After that homegirl is on her own. By three I’d probably call the police myself because, you know, maybe my sister needs to work through some stuff (in prison) if she’s killing this many people?” – Miss Print
  • “Hilarious! I have two younger sisters and one torments the other with… well, not covering for murder, but other things.” – Mason J Blacher

Under The Dome – Stephen King

Here’s another book review that’s been in the works for far too long. Back in the days when Keeping Up With The Penguins was still a seed of an idea, I was talking over my to-read list with a friend at a bar. As the night wore on, and the drinks went down, I pulled out my phone and created a new list – the next to-read list – and promised my friend that Under The Dome would be the first book on it. It was her personal favourite, and I swore to her that I’d review it just as soon as I was done with the original 109 books on my list. Well, I’m a couple months late and a dollar short, but I’m finally making good on that promise!

Under The Dome - Stephen King - Keeping Up With The Penguins
Buy Under The Dome here.
(Help me make up that dollar by buying it through an affiliate link on this page – I’ll earn a small commission from the sale!)

Really, the only reason that I put off reading Under The Dome is that I’m a big chicken. All I knew about Stephen King books is that they’re scary. Also, they’re (usually) huge – this one comes in at a whopping 880 pages. But, as with all fears, it turned out mine were (mostly) unfounded. Sure, it took a little longer to read than your standard 250-page novel, and there were a few spooky elements, but nothing that kept me up at night. So, that’s my first hot tip about Under The Dome: don’t be chicken!

The story starts on 21 October, when a small (fictional) town in Maine is completely cut off from the rest of the world by a large invisible dome that appears, seemingly out of nowhere. A plane crashes right into it, killing two pilots (and one unfortunate woodchuck). The dome is unyielding, and pretty much impenetrable; some sound, light, and radio waves can travel through, but nothing with corporeal form (so no one in, no one out). So, as you can imagine, it throws everyone – under the dome, and outside of it – into a bit of a tizz.

As with any crisis situation, there are some who stand to benefit from (among other things) the panic that ensues, and an unlikely hero is called up to save the day. “Captain Barbie”, an ex-military man who was attempting to hitchhike his way out of the town on Dome Day, is charged with figuring out what the fuck is going on (the military is called in straight away, naturally, because America). Luckily, he’s got the keen-eyed flinty-cored local newspaper reporter, Julia Shumway, on his side.





Under The Dome is big in scope. I’m talking huge. I’m talking epic. At first, I couldn’t really see what the big deal was going to be; the map of the town in the front of the book included a book store, and the character list included “Dogs of Note”, so I figured I’d get by just fine in that situation… but then I was introduced to the town councilman, James “Big Jim” Rennie, who sees the dome as one big opportunity to make a power play that will allow him to take over the whole town. He carefully orchestrates and encourages unease among the townsfolk, using that as a springboard to expand the powers of the police force and silence any troublemakers. The dome basically throws small-town politics into a pot of water, and sets it to boil.

Now, your standard good-guy-Barbie-versus-bad-guy-Jim story would wear out real quick over the course of a book this size; they’re the main contenders in the conflict, sure, but there’s all kinds of other battles and romances and whatnot going on all around them, and King gives each their due. Under The Dome has a huge cast, and pretty much everyone’s point-of-view gets a look in at least once or twice.

The story isn’t exactly a laugh riot (in case you couldn’t tell), but some of the small-town slang and dark humour throughout made me literally laugh out loud. It was good of King to occasionally break the tension for us – believe me, there’s plenty of it. Oppressive religious mores, corrupt town council, dwindling supplies, toxic masculinity run rampant, widespread substance abuse problems, a kid with migraines and a penchant for killing women who annoy him… By putting a small town under a dome, sticking all the residents in a Lord Of The Flies-type scenario, King really lets us zoom in on the fallacy of the American Dream. In fact, King is quoted as saying that he took a lot of the same issues that he addressed in another of his books, The Stand, and used them in Under The Dome but dealt with them in a more allegorical way, taking big-world problems and putting them on a much smaller scale so we could look at them differently. After all, Anywhere, USA has a lot of dirty secrets.





As for the scary bits: well, Under The Dome isn’t horror, but holy heck, some parts are horrifying. Not just psychologically, either – I’m talking visceral, physical violence. It’s not quite supernatural or science-fictional, either. There are some spooky/other-worldly elements, but they’re not the focus or the key driver of the book. I’d shelve this one as more of a suspense thriller, a cautionary tale, with some genre-bending towards the end.

I can see why they made Under The Dome into a TV series (2013-2015); it’s got that strong small-town big-cast vibe that would be perfect for fans of Lost, or any other broad-woven light-sci-fi stories. The characters were quite well fleshed-out, which was surprising given how many of them there are (and how many die). The sheer number of them, in the book version at least, allows King to tantalise the reader and reveal information really slowly, BUT the constant changes in perspective make the story FEEL pacy and compelling regardless.

It was actually really refreshing to read a contemporary epic – not a multi-generational saga set across a century, but an event playing out over just days (a fortnight, tops) with close and intimate attention paid to every detail. Yes, it makes for a hella-long book, but it’s probably as short as King could have possibly made it without sacrificing the multiplicity of perspectives, and without those, the story would have needed a lot of long, boring monologue-y exposition from one or two key characters. No, thank you, please! Not for a story as complex as this one! I’d be happy to call Under The Dome a long book worth your time, and I must concede my friend was right in drunkenly insisting I read it (apologies, again, for taking so long to finally make good on my word – I’ll do better next time, I swear!).

My favourite Amazon reviews of Under The Dome:

  • “Never finished, conned a friend into taking it off my hands.” – Michael A. Swaney
  • “The story is entertaining though much of this book and the voice performance is really great (baaaarbie), but Stephen Kings loony left bias just pops it’s ugly head up way too often. It’s distracting and takes a lot away from the story. Really. Every white male christian is an evil crack addicted psychopath Nazi rapist and every journalist is like a cherub from heaven? Come on dude. I know this is fiction, but these old cliches are not only unbelievable they are boooooooring. If I knew it would have been like this I would not have purchased this audio book.” – Dorian
  • “I know this is blasphemy but I was disappointed with this effort of Stephen King. The baddies are bad. The goodies are good. Smut and flying body parts couldn’t hid a boring read. Sorry, there it is.” – Bod Parr
  • “Good until the ending as usual. 2 1/2 stars.” – L. M.

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