Review: Breasts: A Natural and Unnatural History

Breasts: A Natural and Unnatural HistoryBreasts: A Natural and Unnatural History by Florence Williams
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book was depressing as hell. I added it to my To Read list 5 or so years ago when I heard about it on Fresh Air. Don’t get me wrong, the author has an entertaining style. There were lots of chuckles as I read various witty things she said. It’s just that the core thesis of the book – or at least the thread that seemed to tie everything together – was that the modern world was screwing over everyone with breasts, men included.

And that’s where things got depressing. More or less everything has endocrine disruptor chemicals that come off of it – from car seats to plastics to various medicines. The chemical companies have so much money that regulators in the USA aren’t doing anything. And when they *do* as that a chemical be changed – like the bromine (or some other element) based flame-proofing – the chemical they pick to replace it is just as bad.

Also, there’s the fact that I’ve grown a lot as a reader of non-fiction and I’m a lot more wary of these scientifically proscriptive books. The problem is not that I’m conspiracy-minded or that I don’t want my mind changed. It’s that I’ve seen too much quackery peddled as science that I’m not sure how much this book should freak me out about about my daughters’ and wive’s potential health issues. A lot of animal studies don’t end up to mean much when transferred to humans. On the other hand, we have a long history (lead in paint/gas, medicines given to pregnant women, cigarettes, etc) where we’re told that things are OK and they aren’t.

So I think my frustration comes from a mix of being powerless against rich corporations and not knowing how much of what’s in this book is valid science.

My favorite chapters were about the evolution of breasts (both in terms of animal evolution and culturally/socially) and how a lot of what science believed (believes?) about them have been greatly colored by societal and moral beliefs.

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Review: Clarkesworld Magazine, Issue 127

Clarkesworld Magazine, Issue 127 (Clarkesworld Magazine, #127)Clarkesworld Magazine, Issue 127 by Neil Clarke
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is, as per usual, a great issue of Clarkesworld Magazine. Once again Clarke’s affinity for bringing Chinese SF to the fore gives us a great, fun story in The Robot who liked to tell tall tales. The non-fiction section also has some really great essays that made me think while also being entertaining.

As I do with short story collections, here’s a set of per-story mini-reviews:

Conglomerate: I’ve read LOTS of interstellar colonization stories and I think is is the most unique one I’ve ever read; doesn’t rely on any of the usual tropes. Not only is the colonization done in a unique way, but the ultimate arc of the story is also unexpected and somewhat beautiful.

Some Remarks on the Reproductive Strategy of the Common Octopus: I heard this somewhere – perhaps it was also featured on Escapepod. It is another interesting look at how we define intelligence and whether that is true or arrogant. It ends somewhat abruptly and I would love to have a novella examine this world.

Left of Bang: Preemptive Self-Actualization for Autonomous Systems: The title sounds like some of the talks I’ve been to at various technical conventions. Most chilling quote: “It plays well to the board. They like it when it looks like the movies.” A very disturbing story about creating the perfect military/police robot.

Sunwake, in the Lands of Teeth: A world in which wolves became the sentient species. It takes a bit for the phrases and titles to make sense. But once it does, it’s pretty great. As the story continues, it all works together as a plausible society. My guess, based on the continued animalistic behaviors and phrases, is that this would be equivalent not to homo sapiens, but maybe an earlier iteration of humans where many of the primate behaviors remained important signifiers.

The Robot who liked to tell tall tales: Heh, I wonder what Chinese word translates to rapscallion! An incredibly fantastical tale that takes many twists and turns. I could never tell where it was going – all my tropes were useless. There’s definitely a Chinese/Indian (perhaps stemming from Buddhism) aspect to portions of the story which make for an interesting contrast to American Tall Tales while at the same time containing some similarities which come from the Tall Tale story-type. Also the mix of the Tall Tale ideas with a society with robots was very neat.

Thing and Sick: A great SF thriller set at an Antarctic research station right as they’re about to go into 6 months of darkness. It was pretty darned scary although the story structure does give away what happens to the protagonists at the end, chronologically.

Ancient Engines: Perfect to have first been printed in Asimov’s because it has a very old-school feel to it. There isn’t really a plot, just a lot of dialogue. Then a great twist. I love that old SF story type.


Narrative Perception: A Study in Interspecies Stimuli: I really hope some authors and screenwriters read this and come up with some awesome ideas of alien species interacting with us or each other.

Enlightenment Voices and Norse A Capella: A Conversation with Ada Palmer: “…which is why our sanitation victory of cholera resulted in a disastrous increate in polio” – wait, what?!? I want more details! An awesome discussion about the Terra Ignota series that I now want to read!

Another Word: Being James Tiptree, Jr: A fascinating essay on a female SF writer who wrote very successfully as James Tiptree Jr. It takes a few unexpected turns, making it a very worthwile essay.

Editor’s Desk: It’s Real?: Neil Clarke talks about transitioning to editing full time.

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Review: Make: Bluetooth: Mobile Phone, Arduino, and Raspberry Pi Projects with Ble

Make: Bluetooth: Mobile Phone, Arduino, and Raspberry Pi Projects with BleMake: Bluetooth: Mobile Phone, Arduino, and Raspberry Pi Projects with Ble by Alasdair Allan
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The book was fine. The projects in here didn’t draw me in as much as some of the other Make electronic books I’ve recently read. I think it’s because most of them were a bit less useful in my house given the need to satisfy the wife aesthetically.

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Review: Fool Moon (The Dresden Files, #2)

Fool Moon (The Dresden Files, #2)Fool Moon by Jim Butcher
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I typically read 1-3 fiction books at once (depends on whether I’m caught up on my podcasts and listening to an audiobook), going back and forth between books I already own (say from Humble Bundle or Story Bundle) and books I have to buy. I don’t usually have to worry about getting confused about the plots or anything because the books are pretty different. Somehow, this time I ended up reading two supernatural detective books at the same time – this one and Dan Shambles #5. Not only that, but both books had cases involving multiple types of werewolves. The only deleterious effect is that I kept forgetting that Dresden is in Chicago instead of New Orleans.

Generally, it’s a bit hard to talk about a detective novel without spoiling anything so this’ll be pretty short. It’s been a bit since I read the first Dresden book so I kept forgetting some of what he we referring to as having happened six months ago, but I overall remembered enough about how the magic worked and how the main characters worked with each other. Butcher does a good job of reminding readers of the important details they need. We evolve each of our characters a bit and you can see that Butcher is charting out the growth arc that Dresden is going to have as well as setting up a big bad that might encompass the whole series. (As in Buffy where each episode more or less stood on its own, but each season told a coherent story as a whole with one Big Bad having been orchestrating all the shenanigans) While I wasn’t able to puzzle out the mystery before Dresden spelled it out, I felt like all the clues were there and Butcher didn’t cheat. I also thought Butcher did a great job of not making Dresden a Marty Stu or anything.

Highly recommended for anyone who likes Urban Fantasy and detective novels – it’s not really necessary to have read the first one to jump in here.

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Review: Working Stiff (Dan Shamble, Zombie P.I. #5)

Working Stiff (Dan Shamble, Zombie P.I. #5)Working Stiff by Kevin J. Anderson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The world of Dan Shamble, Zombie P.I. is a fun world full of dad jokes and groan-worthy puns. The author doesn’t take himself too seriously and so it’s easy to have fun and roll with it rather than end up rolling your eyes at it. This collection of Dan Shamble short stories does a good job of introducing, and then having fun with, the regular cast of characters. If you like your noir/hard-boiled detective novels with a bit of camp, this is for you. Here’s what I thought of each of the stories within:

Stakeout at the Vampire Circus – I was able to figure out the case, but that doesn’t make it a bad detective story. It shows that Anderson wasn’t cheating. Also, it was a pretty fun cast of characters.

Road Kill – this one was quite a bit of fun. Looks like Mr. Anderson has a good time filling out the details of his world

Naughty and Nice – Santa hires Dan Chambeaux to discover who stole his naught/nice list. Sometimes the best way to be subversive with a detective story is to be direct. Not bad.

Locked Room – Dan and his partner are hired to test a room that’s meant to be inescapable by the undead. The solution is a little bit of a cheat, but still plausible.

The Writing on the Wall – Not too hard to figure out the main case. The fun part was trying to figure out how the two fit together.

Role Model – McGoo and Chambeaux attend a Cosplay Convetion where things go awry. I was able to partially solve it ahead of time, but there were a good number of fakeouts. Also learned that within the world of Working Stiff there are Dan Shamble stories similar to the ones I am reading.

Beware of Dog – The culprits were incredibly easy to guess, but still a BIG twist reveal at the end. Very entertaining.

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Review: Morning Star (Red Rising Saga, #3)

Morning Star (Red Rising Saga, #3)Morning Star by Pierce Brown
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This initial Red Rising Trilogy is a little like the original Matrix Trilogy (if you haven’t heard, there’s apparently a fourth in the works). The first one was a triumphant, mostly fun story. At the end, our protagonists haven’t 100% won, but you could imagine it happening. Then the second one just crushed all that hope and made you feel dumb for believing in the narrative of the good guys always winning. Finally, the third entry in the story keeps that crapsack worldview and manages another, less satisfying ending.

There’s a weird tension for me with books. Obviously, there needs to be conflict for most books to work. The stakes need to be real. How often do we complain about characters having plot armor or being Mary/Marty Stus? Thus it’s revolutionary when GRRM (and even crazier with HBO and their promotional material) off Ned Stark. But, at the same time, I read my fiction books for escape. Shoot, even with non-fiction I’ve moved away from certain topics when they just reinforce the fact that you can’t do anything if you’re not wealthy and well-connected. (contemporary EG – wife told me yesterday that a woman who lied about her address to get her kid into a good elementary school is getting 5 years in prison while one of the college pay-of-play criminals is getting a few months) So if a book is giving me a nice give/take between the stakes and hopelessness, I tend to try and read whenever I get the chance. This book STARTS bleak and just rolls downhill from there for a LONG, LONG time.

I think Mr. Brown makes good use of it. Darrow is REALLY brought low to make his rise that much more impressive. But Mr. Brown does some things that just kept me putting off the book because of the crapsack nature of the world. And they all have one thing in common – realism. And, you know what? We probably need more realism in our revolutionary narratives. The version of the American Revolution we learn makes it seem to inevitable. Combine that with tons of pop culture narratives of revolutions where the inevitability of the Good Guys winning is prime and you get people calling for revolution any time the political winds aren’t going their way. The Hunger Games trilogy was one of the leading stories on this new trend of “hey guys, revolutions are messy!” and the Red Rising Hexology (I read the synopsis for the next couple books and it looks like it’s at least going to be 2 trilogies long) seems to carry on this tradition. But yeah, Mr. Brown makes all the characters in this book take off their plot armor. And while it makes for a more realistic and more dramatic book, it’s just too much for me right now. The world is garbage enough in real life right now.

So, I guess there’s two points to a review, right? How did I like this book and should the reader of the review read the book? Well, I liked the book well enough. 3/5 stars on GR according to the hover-tip on the stars is “I liked it”. I thought it was a good resolution to a trilogy’s worth of story – even with the Matrix-like similarities. Am I going to keep going? Oh, hell no! Darrow’s been through enough. In my head-canon, the story ends with this book and he’s got enough pain to last him a lifetime while he enjoys what little happiness the Epilogue gives us.

Should you read it? Well, I think it’d be weird for you to have read 2/3 of a trilogy and then stopped. Then again, I don’t Lem (…) books. I slog through and hope the writer will redeem him or herself. Most of the time they do well enough to at least earn 3/5 stars. But if you thought Mr. Brown was too tough on Darrow of Lykos and friends in book 2, then he is no nicer to them in book 3 – stay away!

Well, this has gone on long enough. Time to move on to some SFF Detective novels.

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Review: Make a Raspberry Pi-Controlled Robot: Building a Rover with Python, Linux, Motors, and Sensors

Make a Raspberry Pi-Controlled Robot: Building a Rover with Python, Linux, Motors, and SensorsMake a Raspberry Pi-Controlled Robot: Building a Rover with Python, Linux, Motors, and Sensors by Wolfram Donat
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Donat does a great job of giving the reader everything they need to know to build a rover (like the Mars rover) out of a Raspberry Pi and some motors and sensors. It’s definitely a project I intend to add to my ever-growing list of hardware hacking projects. This book gives you enough info to get started while also pointing out places where the user could go off and make it their own. Very great balance and I heartily recommend.

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Review: The Eye of the World (The Wheel of Time, #1)

The Eye of the World (The Wheel of Time, #1)The Eye of the World by Robert Jordan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I don’t know if Robert Jordan knew this series was going to be a ton of books, but he clearly knew it was going to be more than one. In a book about the making of Star Wars, the author uncovers that the old rumor that Lucas spread that he started in the middle of the story because it’s more interesting than the beginning is a lie. However, the concept he was falsely trying to get across certainly is true. This book is SLOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOW. The reason I gave this book 4 stars instead of 3 is that, like Lord of the Rings, which every high fantasy book written since is in conversation with, the extra slow beginning is important as a contrast for the adventure our protagonists go through.

Like the Hobbits in The Shire, we start off (technically no, but I’ll get to that in a second) with a bunch of village folks that think they’re Top Dogs because they’re not afraid to wander a few miles from their village. The book takes it time (a pretty good number of chapters) to show just how rural they are. They only get news about the outside world when traveling peddlers come to town. Everything revolves around the spring fantasy-Maypole celebration. The town inn is a big deal because it’s the only two-story building in town, etc. Like the villagers, we don’t really know anything of the world beyond. As the story progresses, each town they visit is as awesome to the previous one as to make it seem as small as their village seems to the first town they visit. This culminates in visiting the seat of government which is so remote that everyone remarks (correctly) they doubt our protagonists even know they’re part of that kingdom. Eventually it pays off in a story that I enjoyed the more I learned of the history of the world along with our main characters. So while I started off not knowing why this is such a beloved series, I came to understand a little better by the end. Especially considering a lot of the tropes that are blase now probably started here (more on this later).

Why not 5 stars, then? Because there are still some missteps in execution. The main climax of the story left me bewildered. I wasn’t quite sure what happened or what triggered it. It seemed to be something that could have taken place at any time in the narrative. And while it happened when they finally reached the location-equivalent of a MacGuffin, it didn’t seem that the location had any thing to do with why it happened. So for such a key moment not to make any sense is kind of annoying (to put it mildly).

Other thoughts:
Of all the tropes employed by this story, the most annoying trope: if only the protagonists would talk to each other (be honest), things wouldn’t get worse. Now, there are in-universe reasons why our protagonists don’t trust the non-POV protagonists. (We only get POV chapters for a subset of our main characters). That’s why I don’t dock too much from the story because of it. But it’s a plot trope I really got sick of from Marvel and DC comics (where it’s endemic), so it always annoys me here. Lots of things got worse because characters just wouldn’t share honestly with the other supposed good guys.

Of all the tropes employed by this story, the best trope: despite being a fantasy world, most of our characters have names that aren’t too different from our own, especially when pronounced out loud. Yes! Yes! A thousand times YES! I have such a hard time with fantasy books with names like Galadriel and T’uebadue and stuff like that. I don’t know why, but the further from my experience the name is, the harder time I have remembering who is who and relating to the characters. But while the spelling is a little weird compared to ours, if you’re pronouncing it in your head or listening to an audiobook, these are normal Earth names: Mat, Lan, Moirane (close enough to Maureen), Rand (close enough to Randy), Egwene (close to Edwin), and so on. And when it deviates, like Perrin – that’s not too hard a name. The Dark One is named Sh’aitan which is pretty similar to the way Satan is spelled in some other languages. Also, the characters are sheepherders and blacksmiths and each soup and drink tea. I know it can be fun to really deck out your not-Earth with not-Earth things, but almost everyone hates this trope:…

The last thing I want to talk about will have some spoilers for Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive. Mr. Sanderson finished The Wheel of Time series after Robert Jordan died. I’m curious if The Wheel of Time was one of those series that’s SO important in fantasy that it leaked into Stormlight Archive or if these tropes are more widespread and I don’t know about them because I’m not a fantasy person. Here’s what I found in common:
-the Ways reminds me of the gates that lead to the congnitive realm; and some of the dangers of each
-Both involve dreams in which our characters talk to gods – in a very literal sense, not as a dream or metaphorical
-Eye of Time seems like the pool found in Mistborn 1 and may have a similar purpose
-Dark one bound – this is one of those that’s maybe a bit more universal?
-opening is a non-sequitor that makes no sense until the end and takes place hundreds or thousands of years in the past
-the cyclical nature of the battles with the Dark One.

Anyway, Mr. Jordan got me intrigued by the end. I’ll give book 2 a shot.

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Review: Getting Started With Raspberry Pi

Getting Started With Raspberry PiGetting Started With Raspberry Pi by Matt Richardson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a really GREAT book that, more than some of the other books with the same title, is about Getting Started with electronics; the Raspberry Pi, in this case. The author does a REALLY GOOD job explaining the basics of getting started with the Pi, the basics of Linux, and a bunch of ways to use the electronics part of a Raspberry Pi with some fun real world examples. (Controlling a lamp over the net or making a Photobooth that can automatically add mustaches, hats, etc) If I’d had this book back when I bought my Raspberry Pi B (back when that was new), I would have done lots of projects with it by now. Instead, it’s been sitting in my basement. (Now, the new RaspPi 4 is great enough to easily play 1080p vids over the net and I’m loving running Librelec on it)

If I had to give one negative nitpick for the book it’s that this space changes so much. I think the one I read was the 2nd or 3rd revision and there’s already the RaspPi 4 which has so much more capability. This is where sometimes technology sites make more sense than books. But, that said, MOST of what’s in this book remains valid.

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Review: Qt5 Python GUI Programming Cookbook: Building responsive and powerful cross-platform applications with PyQt

Qt5 Python GUI Programming Cookbook: Building responsive and powerful cross-platform applications with PyQtQt5 Python GUI Programming Cookbook: Building responsive and powerful cross-platform applications with PyQt by B.M. Harwani
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

On the plus side, this book gave me the knowledge I needed to finally complete a GUI for my Extra Life Donation tracker program (…). I’d tried many different GUI toolkits and none of them was getting me what I wanted. I wanted to use QT since I love using KDE, but it was just too complicated and free posts on various blogs didn’t quite take me far enough. So for that I’m grateful to this book. There are also future improvements I’ll be able to make to my code thanks to this book.

However, I did have to knock off two stars for two related reasons involving errors. The first one is annoying if you don’t know what you’re doing, but it’s not the end of the world – there are times where he tells you the text to write on a button or a label and it doesn’t match the screenshot in the book. Like the text says to have the button say “Go” and the screenshot says “Click Me”. It’s not a big deal as long as you’re consistent in the code. What is worse is that there are MANY indentation errors here. And Python is a language where indentation matters! It, not curly braces, is what determines when code blocks start and end. So the reader constantly has to be asking themselves if this indentation makes sense and then adapting their code if it gets a runtime error.

I usually don’t come across errors like these in O’Reilly or Starch Press programming books, but on reddit the Pakt books have a bad reputation. Perhaps this is why. So, it’s very useful (especially being the cookbook style book), but reader beware of following the examples blindly.

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Review: Getting Started with Adafruit FLORA: Making Wearables with an Arduino-Compatible Electronics Platform

Getting Started with Adafruit FLORA: Making Wearables with an Arduino-Compatible Electronics PlatformGetting Started with Adafruit FLORA: Making Wearables with an Arduino-Compatible Electronics Platform by Becky Stern
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

First of all, lots of kudos for the authors including lots of photos. Many of the other microcontroller books I’ve read from MAKE have had illustrations, but this one actually has photos and that’s very helpful when illustrating sewing.

After reading this I’m inspired to mess around with some wearable tech, but also extremely terrified of screwing something up as someone who’s done little to no sewing. However, I might end up teaming up with my mother-in-law who’s a great seamstress to work on some projects. Just need to decide on a plan of attack first.

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Review: Getting Started with Arduino

Getting Started with ArduinoGetting Started with Arduino by Massimo Banzi
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Massimo and his co-writer do an excellent job creating an introduction to the Arduino board. I started mucking around with the boards before reading this book because I’d done some projects with Atmel chips in undergrad (a couple decades ago) and I do software programming on the side. But I wish I’d read this book first as it would have saved me time on figuring stuff out on my own that’s unique to Arduino as well as stuff that I’d forgotten in the intervening decades. Programming hardware chips is very different from general purpose programming for a computer or cell phone. Not only are resources on the chip a lot more limited (although, in the case of the Raspberry Pi – getting closer and closer to a regular desktop), but input and output is also more limited. These microcontroller boards are meant for automation projects where you set something up (like a system to water your plants based on whether or not it is going to rain) or limited interactions. They’re running in a never-ending loop and that requires a different mindset.

The best thing about this book, though, is that Massimo has targeted it towards the non-technical. I didn’t find it annoying to read as someone who knows about this stuff, but I feel that he has reached his goal of allowing the non-technical to become hobbyists or even for artists to integrate microcontrollers into their art. For example, the final chapter is a great resource on how to do debugging that even introduced me to some new concepts (again as someone who’s been doing software for the past 20 years instead of hardware). It even has a section on how to ask for help in forums.

If you would like to do something neat with microcontrollers (and if you don’t even know what you could do – visit this site and see the cool stuff people are doing! (examples right now include digital thermometers, a NASA-looking control panel for the video game Kerbal Space program, a laser harp, various synthesizers, robots, smart mirrors, a DIY google glass thing, Internet of Things … it goes on and on…. )) – check out this book!

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Review: Korean Home Cooking: Classic and Modern Recipes

Korean Home Cooking: Classic and Modern RecipesKorean Home Cooking: Classic and Modern Recipes by Sohui Kim
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Beautiful photos and well-written recipes fill this book. I’ve added lots of them to my to-cook list. My only disappointment is that the BBQ section is more about grilling indoors than true BBQ.

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Review: Love, Fishie

Love, FishieLove, Fishie by Maddy Gaiman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Since Maddy Gaiman wrote this when she was 8 and I have a nearly-8 year old who loves to read and write, I figured it’d be a fun book to read together. She enjoyed it even though poetry isn’t her thing. I thought it was pretty neat that Maddy and Neil Gaiman write poems to each other. Overall, it’s a pretty neat collection.

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Review: Double Life (Razia, #1)

Double Life (Razia, #1)Double Life by S. Usher Evans
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I met Ms. Usher Evans at Baltimore Comic-Con a year or two ago and she is a very prolific author. If any particular book of yours isn’t your cup of tea, you can try another – she has magical school YA, fantasy, and SF as well as others. This book is one of her science fiction books.

I like the character Ms. Evans makes with Razia/Lyssa. By changing the context I’m used to, changed the way I look at dual identities in another medium – the superhero story. Her struggles are also quite relevant in the current moment in which MAYBE we might finally be working towards a more equitable work environment for women. Her internal monologue is pretty realistic as are her interactions with others.

I think where the book fell short for me was in the pacing. The book pretty quickly introduces us to Razia/Lyssa’s skills, shortcomings, and challenges. Then spends most of the rest of the book without the stakes rising or falling significantly. There isn’t really a climax to this story, just a couple hills in place of what should be a mountain, figuratively. I don’t know if it’s because it was a planned trilogy or just one of Ms. Evans’ earlier novels, but I just found myself wondering when things would pick up.

I’m not soured on Ms. Evans’ writing; I’d like to check out some of her other series. But I think I’m done with Razia.

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