Review: “Master of Magic,” Linsey Hall

Pros: Some gripping scenes; consent
Cons: One bone-headed move; one fight moved too fast
Rating: 3.5 out of 5

In book one of The Valkyrie, Bree and her sister Ana had to fight hard to track down and acquire the antidote to a magical poison they’d been hit with. They had the help of the magical Undercover Protectorate, which took them in as potential recruits. In book two, Bree and Cade investigated the cursing of the Fae portal on the Undercover Protectorate’s lands and led a raid to fix it. In book three, Bree braved all sorts of trials in order to fix the powers that were jostling for dominance inside of her. In book four, Bree and Ana, along with all of their new friends, rescued Bree’s missing sister Rowan from the Rebel Gods (RGs). Now, in Linsey Hall’s Master of Magic (Dragon’s Gift: The Valkyrie Book 5), it’s time to finally put the RGs down. But first, Bree needs to visit the realms of the Norse gods in order to acquire her remaining powers. Once she does, the RGs will be able to track her and her sisters–but the women are determined to start the fight on their own terms!

One of the themes that has remained throughout the 20 books-so-far (yes, 20!) is that of romantic consent. It’s so delightful to see a man say “I love you” and NOT expect the woman to return the sentiment until and unless she’s ready. Nor does the lack of an immediate reply send the guy into a tailspin of hurt self esteem. Both characters are allowed to advance things healthily and in their time. The male leads in these books never push or prod their ladies into saying yes before they’re ready; sex tends to wait until book three, four, or five out of five. (It’s rated PG when it comes.)

Another theme I appreciate (I haven’t yet noted it in one of my reviews, but it’s consistent through the series) is that a desire to not harm people if possible is leavened with practicality. Sure, the characters don’t want to beat up the little old lady, but once she starts quite effectively beating them up, they get over it. In other books the characters have noted they prefer to fight demons because they’re sort of “freebies” when it comes to killing (they just disappear on earth and reappear in the Underworlds), but when fighting people they sometimes end up saying “…but if it’s him or me…” or “…but he’s undeniably evil…”. It’s nice to see that balance.

SPOILER WARNING, skip to the next paragraph to avoid spoilers: In the final battle, the sisters, at the suggestion of the Protectorate, add a twist to the plan. They decide to put their powers into three special crystals, so that the RGs will be drawn to those crystals instead of the women. This will give them an extra few moments of confusion as their allies attack the RGs; then the women are to break the crystals and re-absorb their powers. So basically, they add an entire extra step, and risk the possibility that anyone (including one of the RGs) could break the crystal and take all of the hard-won god-powers Bree has painstakingly collected… in trade for an extra couple of minutes of confusion?! This is a totally boneheaded move. Normally the twists and complications in the fights in these books make sense, but not this time. This made me realize how normally-smart the characters are in these books, because the contrast is so great. Also, the entire fight with the RGs, which we’ve been building toward for five books, is surprisingly short. Normally one of Hall’s greatest strengths is climactic battles that go on for delightful ages. This time the whole thing got rammed through in record time, and it was really disappointing. END SPOILER WARNING

It was strange to see several of Hall’s strengths fail so badly at the end, but the rest of the book stood up to all that’s come before. I’m still looking forward to starting Ana’s series, The Druid, next.

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Recipe: Pumpkin Pudding

Have a half cup of pumpkin puree left over from making Thanksgiving dinner? Here’s something to do with it!

I’m a huge fan of custards, puddings, creams, etc. I realized I had a can of pumpkin puree sitting around that I’d never used, so I went looking for a pumpkin pudding recipe and found this one. The first time I followed the recipe, it came out thin, like a sauce. But it was tasty enough that I was determined to work with the recipe to adapt it rather than looking for an entirely new one. The second time I made the pudding I added an extra egg yolk and another tablespoon of cornstarch, but it broke slightly–still edible, but not something I would serve to guests. I probably either failed to temper the egg yolk mixture enough or had the pudding on too high a flame on the stove.

Here’s the ultimate recipe, with a few tips and thoughts on custard-making after the photo:

  • 2 cups dairy*
  • 4 large egg yolks
  • 1/3 cup light brown sugar
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 2 tablespoons cornstarch
  • 1/8 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1/8 teaspoon allspice
  • 1/8 teaspoon nutmeg
  • 1/2 cup pure pumpkin puree
  • 1 tablespoon maple syrup (optional)
  • whipped cream (optional)

*The original recipe called for 1/2 cup heavy cream and 1 1/2 cups milk. Since I had one percent milk I used 1 cup heavy cream and 1 cup milk. 2 cups of half-and-half would probably also work well.

Pour the dairy into a saucepan on the stove.

In a medium-sized bowl, whisk together the egg yolks and light brown sugar until thick and pale, about three minutes. Whisk in the vanilla. Whisk in the cornstarch, salt, cinnamon, allspice, and nutmeg. Whisk in the pumpkin puree and maple syrup.

Heat the milk gently until scalding hot, but do not boil. Gradually drizzle the hot milk into the egg yolk mixture, whisking vigorously (otherwise the eggs will scramble and your pudding will break). Pour the mixture back into the saucepan and stir constantly over medium heat, being sure to scrape the bottom and sides of the pan so the mixture doesn’t burn. Heat for 8-10 minutes.

The mixture should start to thicken after 5 minutes or so, as it comes to a simmer (try to keep it to a simmer rather than allowing it to come to a full boil). Once it has started to thicken, allow it to simmer for two minutes (still stirring), then strain through a fine-mesh sieve and put into serving dishes or a storage container. Press a sheet of plastic wrap onto the surface of the pudding (this prevents a skin from forming). Cool to room temperature, then refrigerate until cold. Serve with whipped cream if desired.

Pumpkin Pudding

Pumpkin Pudding

Here are a few thoughts on puddings and custards if you haven’t worked with them much before. They can be tricky, so it’s good to practice before making them for guests. Don’t worry if a batch goes wrong; it happens. Since they need to be chilled, you can get enough ingredients to make the recipe over several times and make it the day before. The particularly tricky thing with this one is that you don’t want to scramble the eggs (hence tempering them gradually with the hot milk), but you need to bring the mixture as a whole to a simmer to get the real thickening power of the cornstarch.

Gas stoves and electric stoves work very differently, and that comes into play with this sort of recipe. If you’re using an electric stove and you turn up the heat too high when heating the milk, you won’t be able to turn it down quickly to gradually heat the pudding. Same if you heat the pudding as a whole too quickly and then try to turn it down once it reaches a simmer. If you’re using a gas stove and aren’t used to using it for delicate tasks, it’s easy to end up overheating things. (And not all gas stoves can be turned down all that far. If yours has a “simmer” burner, you’ll probably want to use that.)

Enjoy your pudding! Next I might work on a chocolate version.

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Review: “Attack by Magic,” Linsey Hall

Pros: Managed to be surprisingly tense despite the formula
Cons: The formula
Rating: 4 out of 5

Book one of The Valkyrie saw Bree (and her sister Ana) join the magical Undercover Protectorate to chase down their current nemesis, Ricketts, and get the antidote to the poison he’d used on them. Book two saw the Fae portal on the Protectorate’s castle grounds get cursed, starting to corrupt and destroy the castle, leaving Bree and Cade to lead a raid to fix it. In book three, Bree needed to find a way to “fix” the powers jostling for control inside of her–before she could lose them, and her soul, for good. Now, in Linsey Hall’s Attack by Magic (Dragon’s Gift: The Valkyrie Book 4), Bree and Ana finally have a lead on their missing sister, Rowan! They know the Rebel Gods have her, and it’s time to track down those gods and find a way to disrupt the enchantment that keeps Rowan bound. First stop: a heavenly realm where they’ll have to fight in a variety of death matches to even get close to the god who runs the place.

I look to these books for certain things: excellent, extensive fight scenes, kick-ass women of all types, a sweet touch of respectful romance, and in the case of the Valkyrie books specifically, some adorable Pugs of Destruction. I do not, however, look for great stakes and surprises, because the formula dictates certain things. In each book, there shall be one (1) task, which shall be outlined at the beginning of the book, and which shall be accomplished by the end. (This is book nineteen in the Dragon’s Gift universe, so I don’t expect to see variation on this any time soon.) It’s the particulars of the trials encountered and the details of the inevitable battle scenes that vary. This time, despite the foregone conclusion, things were cut close enough to the wire that I felt genuine tension. It was delightful! Some of the traps and pitfalls the sisters and their allies encounter are daunting indeed, and it became difficult to imagine them succeeding.

At the beginning of Attack by Magic, Bree can fly but can no longer cast any sort of ranged attack magic. I know I’ve griped before that there’s no reason why none of the characters in these books use guns, but that has never been more true than it is here. Until she gains new ranged offensive magic, there’s nothing she can do from a distance except throw a dagger, which shouldn’t be nearly as effective. And since she can fly, she should want to take advantage of all the ranged firepower she can get. It’s a minor thing, but it’s like that pebble in your shoe that just won’t stop pinching.

Overall I really enjoyed this book. It’s about time we got to see more of Rowan, who disappeared roughly five years earlier. I can’t wait to see what she’s like in the next book.

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Review: “Pursuit of Magic,” Linsey Hall

Pros: Wonderful adventure and fight scenes; strong female characters
Cons: Formulaic aspects
Rating: 4 out of 5

In book one of The Valkyrie, Bree and her sister Ana joined the Undercover Protectorate. They chased down their nemesis, Ricketts, and got the antidote to the poison he’d hit them with. In book two, both sisters were working hard to train to join the Protectorate as full members. During a test, Bree realized the portal to the Fae realm, which lies within the forest surrounding the Protectorate’s castle, was cursed. She and Cade, the Celtic god of war, journeyed to the Fae lands to find out the problem, then led a raid to deal with it. In Linsey Hall’s Pursuit of Magic (Dragon’s Gift: The Valkyrie Book 3), Bree has to come to terms with the fact that her new powers as a DragonGod are battling it out inside of her, and if they aren’t “fixed”, she’ll eventually lose them all, along with her soul. She goes on a quest to speak to a seer, only to find herself fact-to-face with the Norns, the Norse fates. They tell her she’s a Valkyrie, and that she must travel to the realm of the Valkyrie if she wants to learn how to fix her powers.

This book holds up well to the rest of the series. There’s plenty of fighting, adventure, trials to be overcome, and so on. All of these are delivered with aplomb. The fight scenes are still my favorite parts of these books, and they’re one of Hall’s greatest talents. There’s a lot of Indiana-Jones-like adventure, and of course every good-guy group Bree comes across insists on putting her through trials to make her prove herself. It’s something that’s a bit overused in these books, but it makes for great stories and scenes, so it’s hard to complain.

The Pugs of Destruction get a little more involved in the action this time. We also get to see Cass, Del, and Nix come into things (as a reminder, it’s about five years after the events of their books). Cade is giving in to his feelings for Bree, although Bree doesn’t want to move too quickly.

We do get a hint as to what happened to Bree and Ana’s sister, Rowan. She’s been mentioned often enough that she had to show up eventually, and I figured that much like Cass, Nix, and Del, we’d end up with a threesome here. I still assume things are going in that direction.

I don’t have as much to say about individual aspects of this book as I do with some of them. Suffice it to say, we get more of all the things we’ve come to count on Linsey Hall to deliver. The female characters are strong and most of the characters have depth. Those aforementioned fight scenes are creative and attention-grabbing. There are plenty of dangers, and new and unusual powers to complicate things. All in all, a good entry into the series.

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Review: “Academy of Magic,” Linsey Hall

Pros: Delightful fight scenes; great characters
Cons: A bit formulaic; some inconsistencies
Rating: 3.5 out of 5

Linsey Hall’s Academy of Magic (Dragon’s Gift: The Valkyrie Book 2) starts off two weeks after the events of the previous book. In that volume, Ana and Bree, sisters who’ve been on the run since they were children, were taken in by the magical Undercover Protectorate as potential recruits. There was just one major problem: they were poisoned and would be dead in a few days. The Protectorate was happy to go after their nemesis, Ricketts, who had the antidote, since he’d been on their radar anyway. Bree also met Cade, the ultra-hot Celtic god of war, for whom she fell like a rock. In this volume, Bree and Ana are training to join the Protectorate. During one of her tests, Bree discovers that the portal to the Fae lands that lies within the forest is cursed. It’s coated with a black, oily substance, and the area around it smells rotten. A creature tries to push its way out and calls Bree’s name. If Bree and her new friends can’t find an answer to the curse, the Protectorate’s castle itself will be in danger of falling.

There are some inconsistencies. Melusine calls Bree “Njord” at one point and Bree totally ignores it until Melusine does it again. When Bree and Cade meet a man made of rock they find that his idea of ‘recently’ could mean days or years, and he mentions that rocks can’t tell time, then crows about his fastest time crossing a river being 45 seconds. They’re little things, but they add up.

The other thing I’m not always fond of is the formulaic nature of these books. There are some advantages to it. For one, as an author I’m sure it’s a lot easier to write all of these books when you know there’s one discreet task per book, the hot guy always shows up at the beginning, and so on. For another, as a reader, while many people like surprises in their reading, sometimes you just want a particular kind of writing. Like wanting a comfort read when you’re sick or depressed. You can get that here. But it does take away that element of risk and surprise. I mean, once you’ve identified the task for the book you know it’ll get resolved by the end–the only question is how. Each main character even has her own Favorite Drink and Favorite Food, as though the author filled out a form for each character. We know that each main character will gain powers as the books progress, even if it’s for entirely different reasons than previous main characters.

I love the Fae world in here, although we don’t see it at a “normal” time. I love the predator/prey interactions and how they work. The rock-man (“Rocky”, naturally) is also an entertaining character, and I wish we’d gotten to see him a little more.

One of my favorite parts of this particular sub-series in the Dragon’s Gift world is the Pugs of Destruction. They’re just so damn entertaining and adorable:

But it was Ruckus who really caught my eye. The dog sat in my sink, which was full of water. His fangs glinted in the light.
“Are you taking a bath?”
He barked an obvious denial.
“There are bubbles in there.”
He looked away.

So in conclusion, you kind of need to be in the right mood for these books. If you want a comfort read with undeniably strong female characters, respectful love interests, and exceedingly creative fight scenes, these are excellent books. If you need to be surprised or to feel the tension that comes with risk, this isn’t for you. I find that when I’m in the right mood they’re fantastic.

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Review: “Undercover Magic,” Linsey Hall

Pros: Inventive fight scenes; strong female characters
Cons: A bit formulaic
Rating: 4 out of 5

Linsey Hall’s Undercover Magic (Dragon’s Gift: The Valkyrie Book 1) starts off the fourth sub-series of her Dragon’s Gift universe. (See my review of Ancient Magic for the start of the whole series.) We come back to the characters of Ana and Bree–this tale is narrated by Bree–who cropped up a few times in earlier sub-series. They’re sisters who live near Death Valley, and sell their services to take people across the supernatural (and deadly) part of Death Valley to reach a haven for outlaws. They’ve been paying a Blood Sorcerer named Ricketts for concealment charms to hide them from the people who were chasing them as children. But now Ricketts has jacked up his prices, and they can’t keep up with payments. He sends his bone-crackers to make an example out of them, leaving Ana and Bree poisoned and in the custody of the Undercover Protectorate, who came to save them. Note that it’s been five years since the events of the earlier books.

I have a couple of small negatives. For one, the tenor of the early battle between the sisters and Ricketts’s men doesn’t mesh with the idea that he wanted them poisoned and forced to come to him for an antidote. He sent an overwhelming force after them, hurling exceedingly deadly and massive magics, and would have had them captured or dead if the (entirely unexpected) cavalry hadn’t shown up. I’m also a bit disappointed–although not surprised–that the love interest aspect of these books is so predictable that the moment Bree notes that Cade is hot, you know he’s not an enemy, even though the circumstances are otherwise drawn to make you uncertain of that. It would be nice to have a little variety in the love interests, who are across-the-board smokin’ hot, powerful (physically and magically), male (yeah, I’m sayin’ it, a same-sex romance would at least inject some variety), and flush with cash. That said, I can go with the trend of them all being respectful of their women.

I love the fact that the main characters in these books aren’t the only women allowed to be strong and powerful in a positive way. There are dangerous, powerful women who in nearly any other series would be labeled as aggressive, nasty, or bitches, but instead our characters approve of them. That’s such a refreshing change.

I love a moment when a (mortal) god of war, Cade, uses Google Maps instead of magic to figure out where he is. I still wonder, though, why guns never make an appearance. Given the amount of ranged magical abilities involved, I can’t help thinking Hall could still do fantastic fight scenes if guns were involved, and it just doesn’t make sense that they wouldn’t even be kept for back-up when the magic runs low. Sixteen books and not one person uses a gun? I’m not buying it.

The Pugs of Destruction–a trio of ghostly dogs–shows up in this installment, and I really hope they play more of a role in later books, because they’re delightful!

Much like Cass, Nix, and Del, Bree is growing into some unusual and very powerful abilities. I’m looking forward to seeing where the books take this. My favorite part of these books is still the fight scenes. Hall excels at delivering high-octane, long-lasting fight scenes using a variety of magics, weapons, and creatures.

So killing a demon was pretty much guilt-free all around. Like low-fat yogurt. Except more murdery. And tastier, because that yogurt sucked. All the smiling women on the commercials could not fool me.

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Review: “Archangel’s Prophecy,” Nalini Singh

Pros: Characters, story, tension
Cons: Slow start; ENDS TOO SOON
Rating: 5 out of 5

ARGH. This is why I used to try to avoid series books. I hate it when a book ends in the middle of something important. Who knows how long it’ll be until the follow-on comes out, and I’ll have forgotten half of the amazing details when it does. Anyway. I was thrilled when I realized Nalini Singh’s Archangel’s Prophecy (A Guild Hunter Novel) had finally arrived. It got off to a slow start and wasn’t pulling me in as quickly as I’m used to with the Guild Hunter novels, but it’s still well worth reading.

In this installment, Elena is changing. Instead of becoming more immortal, she’s becoming less. She’s starting to lose her feathers, and she’s hearing the whispered voice of an Ancient, Cassandra, in her mind, sharing prophecy with her. She must die for another to live. Elena can’t just throw herself into figuring out what’s going on, though. Her vampire brother-in-law, Harrison, was nearly killed, and the killer threatened Harrison’s wife and daughter, Elena’s sister and niece. She refuses to give up while the killer roams free. She hunts down tiny clues and a painstaking trail until she grows closer to the killer, as the omens become more frequent and dire. How can she and Raphael thwart prophecy?

Just to get this off my chest: as Elena’s ability to converse with Cassandra grows, why does she never ask Cassandra who this “other” is who will live if she dies? Elena’s sharp–it doesn’t make sense to me that she’d totally miss this. I’d rather have seen Cassandra conveniently not answer, particularly given the sporadic and unreliable nature of their communication.

The story starts off a bit too slowly for my tastes. But as it blossoms into its full potential, the slow buildup of details pays off in a truly gripping spiral as Elena’s burgeoning immortality fades. Luckily Singh weaves in plenty of details about the various characters she name-drops, because it’s been a while since I read the last book and it’s hard to remember everyone. I obviously would not recommend starting the series with this book, but if it’s been a little while, or your memory is as bad as mine is, you should be able to hang on by your fingernails.

I got so wrapped up in finding out what would happen to Elena, Raphael, and the prophecy, that I was floored (and none too happy) when I realized that question isn’t answered in this book, and will have to wait until the next one comes out. Still, the writing is so good, the world so vivid, that I find I can’t dock points from this review. While it takes a while for the tension to build up, it ultimately does so in masterful style. The characters are complex and wonderful. The world is stunningly drawn. I love Archangel’s Prophecy every bit as much as I do the rest of the series.

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Review: “Afterburn,” Scott Nicholson

Pros: Intriguing
Cons: Not enough to make me want to read more
Rating: 3 out of 5

Scott Nicholson’s Afterburn: A Post-Apocalyptic Thriller (Next Book 1) was a fun read, but wasn’t enough to make me want to read more. The apocalypse came several years ago: intense solar storms wiped out all electronics, killed most of the population of the Earth, and mutated most of the rest. Actual human survivors are few and far between. Rachel (who’s half-mutated) and DeVontay are looking for more supplies and more people. They have a small family–a couple of teens, Rachel’s paranoid grandfather, and a hyper-intelligent mutated baby–they’re trying to support and protect. While they run into new people Lars and Tara and Tara’s little girl, their little family back at the military bunker they’re living in runs into a fragment of the remaining military. Rachel and DeVontay have to help rescue Tara’s girl from a Zap (mutant) who has taken her, while the rest of the family tries to keep the military from taking away everything they’ve worked so hard for.

The mutants are definitely not your run-of-the-mill zombies. Apparently they started out feral and vicious, but swiftly “evolved” and are now hyper-intelligent and advanced. They are relatively sexless, have identical haircuts and weird polymer jumpsuits, and are accompanied by realistic, self-repairing flying bird-drones. Of course, because they’re so unfathomable, and because of their initial violence, humans are determined to kill them. I thought the whole identical haircuts and robot-like behaviors at first weren’t interesting, but their behavior does become creepier as the story advances.

Unfortunately, the story back at the bunker wasn’t nearly as engrossing. The teenage characters feel fairly stereotypical. The conflict with the military felt just as stereotypical. It’s the usual military wanting to murder anything they don’t understand storyline. It may be justified within the story, but that doesn’t make it any more interesting. The only character in that storyline that I found engaging was a woman who used to be a PR person who joined the military after the apocalypse happened. She’s a nice combination of tough-yet-sympathetic.

As post-apocalyptic stories go this isn’t bad, and has some original material in it, but it just didn’t hold my interest sufficiently. I don’t plan to read the rest of the series.

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Short Take: “The Hair Wreath and Other Stories,” Halli Villegas

Pros: Deeply engrossing tales
Cons: Some stories end far too abruptly
Rating: 4.5 out of 5

The Hair Wreath and Other Stories, by Halli Villegas, is a wonderful collection of horror and paranormal tales. Particularly at first I felt that some of them ended entirely too abruptly, when they just seemed to be hitting their stride, leaving me saying, “what was that?” They were still intriguing; they just didn’t entirely deliver on that intrigue. I found the rest of them so engrossing, however, that overall I love the book.

Many of the stories are surreal little nuggets. There are mysterious killings, and plenty of ghosts. Some hauntings are paranormally-based while others are purely human. People vanish and people die. Most of these are modern horror, but there’s even one sci-fi story; it’s focused enough on the horror that I think it didn’t particularly break the feel of the book. Many stories’ endings go unexplained (particularly those stories that end precipitously). I found many of the stories, particularly the longer ones, really engrossing. I just wish more of the tales had at least a smidgen of denouement. Or even, in some cases, an actual ending rather than simply a cessation of story.

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Non-Review: “Experimental Film,” Gemma Files

It’s been ages since I last posted a non-review: a brief blurb in which I tell you why, exactly, I was unable to finish reading a book, so you can decide for yourself whether it might interest you anyway. (When I do this, I don’t review the book on Amazon or Goodreads.) In Gemma Files’s Experimental Film, film critic Lois has lost her job as a teacher and spends her time split between reviewing films and taking care of her autistic son, Clark, with her husband Simon’s help. She thinks she may have found a lead on a mysterious piece of old film… and that’s about as far as I got, although it took longer to get there than you might think.

Lois’s specialty is Canadian film, and she goes into this in exquisite(ly painful) detail. I usually like learning new things, but I read way more than I ever wanted to about surrealistic films. Or, to quote Lois’s narrative:

[Experimental film] “WANTS to bore you, to annoy you, to put you in a trance and force you to meet it halfway.”

Well I wouldn’t say that the book put me in a trance, but it did bore and annoy me. I really wanted to like it, because I was interested to read more about Clark and his problems and how Lois and Simon handled them, and how that would interact with the main storyline. But instead at some point I looked down and saw that my e-reader estimated another six hours left in the story. The idea of reading that rambling, slow narrative for that much longer completely and utterly turned me off.

So, if you’re in the mood for something very slow, with a lot of random stuff about surrealist Canadian fimmaking, then go for it. I have it on the authority of a friend who finds film fascinating that he loved this book. Me, I’d rather go back to studying for my anatomy exam. Since I usually agree with his taste in books, I’ll put it down to the fact that he’s a bit of a film buff and I’m decidedly not.

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