Life as Fiction

I’ve always had immense respect for writers who were capable of putting themselves on paper.  A bit of disdain (and jealousy) always went with that, because you cannot bare yourself without baring others. But then again, most writers have to be selfish, self-righteous pricks to a certain degree, don’t they?

Beyond Fiction

I have read two such books recently, Crazy for Vincent by Herve Guibert and Intimacy by Hanif Kureishi. These books defy fiction and still you cannot read them as anything but. Pieces of people’s lives disguised as fiction strike me as something beyond fiction. How much of it is real? Is the fragmented, disconnected style a by-product of trying to hide as much as you reveal, or is it a conscious choice to enhance the realism of depicting human emotional life?

How much of it is a result of compulsion, and how much a choice of the author? Can we talk about plot, characterisation or structure? Can we rate a person’s life just because they decided to put it in a book?

250 Pages – a Million Questions

The two books total at a bit over 250 pages, yet they have left me with so many questions – about life and nature of literature, its purpose and function – both personal and civilizational. Is literature meant to entertain or educate? Even if an author decides on the purpose, is it even important – being so dependent on what the reader is bringing into the process?

Different or Not

Different yet eerily similar (and familiar!), both Crazy for Vincent and Intimacy show that most of us (if not all) are broken, in disrepairsearching for meaning, love or something like it.

The paper is not covered with ink it’s covered in scars – especially in Crazy for Vincent. Guibert is more self-aware. Unlike Kureishi, he is not self-aggrandizing (even when he’s trying to be contrite).  Guibert does not try to justify himself or his story, while I felt Kureishi had the need to prove that he is a “good man” by the same bourgeoisie standards he’s failing/refusing to meet.

The fact that I could see a reflection of myself in these stories complicates things further. More questions arise, because they have managed to elevate a deeply personal experience to a more universal level (at least in my case). We’re talking about male authors. One of them is obsessed with his young gay lover (simplification!), the other is trying to rationalize his decision to leave his wife and two sons. Not very relatable in my case, yet the emotional level, the raw material  is malleable.

Ethics of Fiction

I’ve read a review of Intimacy on Goodreads which made me pause and which is closely related to my intro. Does a writer have an obligation to protect those he includes (exploits) in the service of his writing? Should Kureishi have masked the autobiographical elements of Intimacy to protect his family and friends? All valid questions, but I consider them unimportant, because even if Kureishi “tweaked” his life in order to be nice (?), a book like this would have brought about the same questions as the “untweaked” version.

I believe that if you choose to be a (certain type of) writer and you actually succeed in becoming one, you have to be prepared to be judged and called “unethical” or “selfish and self-righteous “.

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It was the best of times, it was the worst of times

Annual reviews are not among my favourite things. I’ve done two of them so far (work-related) and frankly, I’ve had enough. However, reviewing a year in terms of books and my activity in the blogosphere (poor as it was) in the end proved to be relaxing and not taxing.

I have, once again, failed to meet my reading challenge (24/31). Still, I am quite pleased with the two per month average and the catching up I’ve managed to do in November and December.

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How did you fare?

There have been ups and downs last year, not only in terms of personal and professional life, but also in terms of books. I was sorely disappointed by Andy Weir’s Artemis, however The Inexplicable Logic of My Life by Benjamin Alire Saenz proved to be the biggest disappointment of 2017. It so happens when you expect a lot, and get only a smidgen (again, true in personal and professional life as well).

Pleasant surprise of 2017 (alongside Logan in the movie department, Hajime no Ippo and Haikyuu in the anime department) was certainly Mary Balogh’s A Summer to Remember.

I wrote about the Cheap Thrill of 2017 extensively, however, if you care to know more of the Guilty Pleasure of 2017, you’ll have to wait for me to complete the Captive Prince Trilogy. Hint – the first two instalments feel like reading an anime (might sound silly, but it’s true).

Note: I have updated the “About (Hello There!)” section to include better explanation of the main categories (Cheap Thrills, Guilty Pleasures & Personal Edification):

In 2018 I will once again try to read 31 books. I will also endeavor to be more attentive to the digital sanctuary that is my blog. I’ll do my best to include entries in each of the categories that have developed during the years, which will make me focus more on my interests and things that make me go *grin* in the night.

May 2018 bring you many Cheap Thrills. Indulge in Guilty Pleasures as much as you can, and don’t forget that there is Personal Edification in everything, if you approach it with a critical mind.

Thank you for stopping by and reading.

Debasement of Language (and Thought)

There are two terms which have been omnipresent (ok, present) in the Croatian public sphere (used by politicians, activists and then by the media and the people) which have been concocted, I think, to serve interests of certain groups. I will not go into the merits of those interests, and I will not state these terms (which I have used more often than I care to admit).

I’m going to, however, put them into the B vocabulary of Newspeak which “consisted of words which had been deliberately constructed for political purposes: words, that is to say, which not only had in every case political implication, but were intended to impose a desirable mental attitude upon the person using them.”

This abuse of language and of the fact that people tend to take words as something that is given upsets me. I see these terms slowly worming their way into our everyday communication and it fucking scares me. Because fighting language is much more difficult then fighting people and because I don’t like comparing anything in my reality to 1984.

Orwell might have been writing about Newspeak, but it was just a way of saying that language can be manipulated“not only to provide a medium of expression for the world-view and mental habits proper to the devotees (of Ingsoc), but to make all other modes of thought impossible.”

The vague meaning (?) of these terms puts them into the B vocabulary because “some of the B words had highly subtilized meanings, barely intelligible to anyone who has not mastered the language as a whole” and let us just remember that “the special function of certain Newspeak words was not so much to express meanings as to destroy them.

I’ll keep on quoting Orwell, this time his essay Politics and the English Language, because we take on these new words and terms with “the half-conscious belief that language is a natural growth and not an instrument which we shape for our own purposes”.

To conclude, “to think clearly is a necessary first step toward political regeneration”and the scariest thing is that this “reduced state of consciousness, if not indispensable, is at any rate favourable to political conformity”.

“This invasion of one’s mind by ready-made phrases can only be prevented if one is constantly on guard against them, and every such phrase anaesthetises a portion of one’s brain.”

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You Perv, You!

“You are a sexual deviant. A pervert, through and through. Now, now, don’t get so defensive. Allow me to explain.”

Jesse Bering: Perv – The Sexual Deviant in All of Us

What is Jesse Bering’s Perv about?

To put it plainly, the Perv explores the normalcy of what we perceive as abnormal in sexual behaviour and/or desires and it takes abnormal from the equation.

One of the best covers ever shows even more plainly what the book is about. Imagine yourself reading this book on a bus and you’ll get what it’s all about.

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Why I liked the Perv?

Bering uses documented paraphilias (a whole bunch of them) to illustrate the impossible malleability of human sexuality. He cites numerous studies, and describes practices of curing paraphilias and homosexuality throughout history. He does this in a way that made me completely numb to the word “normal” – the word I have learnt to detest because it is usually coupled with unspoken bias.

I’ve always felt that, as long as no one is harmed physically or psychologically, the “anything goes” principle should be applied. My belief, I have to admit, was tested throughout the book, but I concluded my reading experience with: I do not have to be able to internalize it to accept it.

The scientific reconstruction (or deconstruction?) of what we perceive as “natural” and “normal” is what made me fall in love with sociology; the impassionate approach to things people feel strongly about but fail to explore with a cool head. Perv might seem light on occassion, but the cool is always there.

Why I did not like Perv enough to give it five stars?

It’s easy to read (and like) a book which pretty much tells you you’re right. Despite those parts which tested my open-mindedness, reading this book felt like a friendly pat on the back. “You’re so evolved in your thinking! So cool! Here, have this study which proves you’re right.” This, of course, has nothing to do with the quality of the book itself, but I feel it dulled my ability to be objective and it put the book at 4.5 stars.

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While I honestly enjoyed Bering’s witticisms and puns and I found it very pleasing to laugh hysterically at his sarcastic commentary, at times I found it to be a bit too much – bordering on judgemental. Here comes the illogical part of my four-star review. Part two. I love a bit of nonPC humour. I do. But I could not stop myself from thinking about an imaginary person; let’s call him John Smith.

John decided to pick up the Perv. John is ok with gay people. I mean, he’s still struggling to abandon the “let them do what they want behind a closed door” maxim. But he’s trying because his best friend in the world turned out to be – gay. I do not see John making it through the first chapter of the book.

Yes, this book has been written for a specific target audience. The cover and the title make it blatantly obvious and the way in which it is written only serves to confirm it. And yes, there are probably books out there intended for the audience to which our John gravitates to. But hey, it’s my review. And even though I play pretend to being objective, I perceive the term much in the same way I perceive normalcy. So there.

P.S. Let’s not forget the possibility (or rather probability) that I’m underestimating John and overestimating the delicacy of his sensibilities. Perv might have given me a pat on the back, but I can’t pretend that I hold no bias.

5 Freak-out Films

Movies, books, TV shows… Even those which seem as nothing more than mindless entertainment, if positioned properly within a life-cycle, can leave an indelible mark. Maybe it is not the dictionary definition of experience (every language should have a word equivalent to vicarious, btw), but it is nonetheless something you’ve been through. As with any and all experiences, the effect often depends on how much of yourself you put into the process, but sometimes you simply have no choice.

I believe I would not be who I am today if I haven’t read certain books at a certain point in my life. The same goes for movies. The best examples are probably Star Wars and Star Trek which have shaped the way my imagination works in space. However, when I am tasked with imagining a robot, the first thing that pops up is that very chic guy from the Forbidden Planet.

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I was prompted to write a post about movies which freaked me out by the recent release of the live action Ghost in the Shell and the first IT trailer.

Think. Which movies freaked you out so much you still shudder when you think of them? (NOTE: I’m not talking about Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo).

1. Stephen King (beyond time)

Long before I even knew what a Stephen King was, I developed an epic distaste for clowns, and I never managed to develop a balloon fancy – something which most kids seem to have had at one point or the other. Sewage and drains have held no appeal for decades due to fear of floating. Needless to say, there is Misery and Kathy Bates who decided to use a sledge hammer and mash Jimmy’s legs. No blood. No gore. And I was physically sick. The fact that both books were disturbing on a whole other level is a matter for a different post.

2. Enemy Mine (1987)

Some years ago Boyfriend Mine and I were discussing 80s and 90s movies and he mentioned Enemy Mine at which point I had an epiphany because I realized that he was talking about one of THE movies.

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In this movie, one of the main characters is an alien, which is in itself perfectly normal. Now this alien, who I’d considered a dude, turns out not only not to be a dude but to be pregnant, because it’s “that time”. I think this movie was a major step on my road to realization that being different is cool, that you just need to try and understand and accept those differences.

Jurassic Park paraphrased it nicely in 1993: “Life finds a way”. Then Feyerabend expanded on it: “The only principle that does not inhibit progress is: anything goes”, after which Le Guin pretty much nailed it (as she usually does, the vixen): “The only thing that makes life possible is permanent, intolerable uncertainty: not knowing what comes next.”

3. Waterland (1992)

I’ve had disturbing dreams for years. Sometimes I thought those were caused by repressed memories. Then one day, some years ago, I stumbled upon Waterland on TV. It would seem that it is not very good to watch it when you’re 7 or 8 because it causes serious mental scarring. I’d thought there was something seriously wrong with me. Ok. It’s possible that there is something very wrong with me, but at least I know a part of it was caused by Waterland.

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I really don’t want to go into the specifics because to date I prefer not to think about those.

4. Monster (2003)

Back in early 2000s when I watched Monster I decided that I am done with drama, tragedy and “difficult” movies. I decided nothing is worth the misery and anguish, no matter how good or how true it was. I think it took me a month to recuperate from the desolation and hopelessness of the world and “human” beings depicted in this movie. This one really f#$%&d me up.

5. Ghost in the Shell (1995)

I’ve saved this one for the end because it might debunk the tentative claim I have made about not being crazy. I’ve had this dream when I was in high school. It was all cyberpunk-y and totally cool. It was one of those that stick with you because it’s as realistic as it is improbable. And there I am, walking around town and I notice a DVD of something called Ghost in the Shell. Mind you, this was before I was into anime and all things Japanese (now you’re thinking about hentai, aren’t you?). The moment I’ve noticed the cover I knew that was what I’ve dreamt about. It was extra weird. The conviction that I’ve dreamt a movie that someone actually made. Now, I’m a rational person and I’m aware that it is possible that this was the same situation as with the Waterland. But I could not recall ever having seen Ghost in the Shell and the weirdness of that moment, the certainty of that particular déjà vu still disturbs me.

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I will, however, like to end this one with a hearty recommendation: I, Daniel Blake. I cannot remember how long has it been since I’ve seen a movie so beautiful and so heartbreakingly painful. A masterpiece.

 

A Feeling to Remember

Have you ever sat by the river, watching the endless flow of placid water, listening to the rustle of leaves on the summer breeze? Have you ever sat in silence feeling the warmth of sun rays filtered through the branches on your face? Have you ever closed your eyes to better hear that moment of serenity? If you have, than you have an idea of what it felt like to read A Summer to Remember by Mary Balogh.

I did not fall in love with Kit, the male protagonist, nor did I wonder what it would be like to experience the things Lauren has experienced. I did not feel compelled to rush through the pages, inadvertently skipping whole sentences to see what happens next. I was not frustrated by the “unnecessary” events and descriptions which did not deal with the two protagonists.

I did not grin excitedly.  I smiled contentedly.

Normally, only the books that fall into the Personal Edification category can arouse anything similar. The fact that I enjoyed a book intended for the Guilty Pleasure section this much is surprising. Novel. Strangely exciting.

There is nothing guilty about the pleasure I’ve had reading it. A Summer to Remember is a beautiful, unassuming book. I absolutely loved it and have enjoyed the writing style, the dialogue and the many characters it manages to portray wonderfully. I respect the way it reflects the period (Regency) in which it takes place in every aspect – even when norms and propriety are toyed with.

It’s not really easy to write about this book, but where words fail, I’m sure that the fourth panel of the little comic below will best explain what reading A Summer to Remember felt like. I do wonder whether the new category “maximum coze” will have additional entries.

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Homo Mensura

The Flanders Panel
Arturo Pérez-Reverte

Part of the infamous and no-longer-neglected Mini Book Club (featuring moi and Lukre)

Throughout most of the effort of completing the Flanders Panel, I genuinely hated the thing. I despised its inability to give depth to its characters, its inaction and unnecessarily long-winded philosophical musings. Reading it was a horrible experience. Truly, an excruciating feat. There’s nothing happening in this book. There are characters which talk a lot about what’s happening (which is nothing). It’s a jumbled mess of art, chess and dime-store philosophy which only dabbles in mystery.

But (I’m still having difficulty accepting there’s a but!), having completed it, it seems that the objective suckiness of the book has been misplaced by what I have decided it was lacking,

My participation in the recreation of the story has rendered it not-so-horrible. My irritation with the lack of proper emotional response of the characters to the atrocities in the book has, inadvertently, infused them in my mind with exactly that. Even though the flat protagonist Julia has failed to be appalled and heart-broken, by noticing her failure and purely by thinking about how she should have felt, I have somehow redeemed this bad piece of writing. This does not happen often, and I don’t know why it happens with some books, while not with others, but I ended up not giving a one-star review.

I’m a bit distraught by this, but at the same time I love it because it reflects that which I love about books – the words they contain and the stories they tell are subject to endless interpretation of the reader and how much that reader dedicates himself or herself to the process. The whole process is so delectably unstable and open – beautiful.

As I usually do, I rummaged through Goodreads in search of positive reviews which only confirmed that we only think we are reading the same book because it has the same content.

The Flanders Panel still sucks, tho. It’s one of those books that should have been good, because it has all the ingredients. However, as we all now, it’s crucial to know just what to do with those ingredients.

One damp afternoon, Arturo Perez Reverte sat down at his usual table in the quasi-artistic cafe El Museo, somewhere on the way from La Navata to Madrid. Quasi-artistic because its clientele comprised of art enthusiast and connoisseurs. Salvador Dali, who would meet his demise in January next year, never sipped absinth in the dim, smoke-infused interior while pondering the finer nuances of artistic expression.

Arturo was looking through the newspaper he found lying languidly on the table. He looked up briefly when the waiter inquired of his beverage of choice.

“Gin”, he replied, smoothing out his moustache, “with a twist of lemon, if you please.”

He went back to the newspaper, stopping at the art section. Apparently, there was a possibility of Spain housing the Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection.

August Thyssen, the founder of the Thyssen family’s financial empire and a passionate art collector would not be found in El Museo, Arturo thought, without malice or envy. He liked El Museo. He liked the reproductions which hung on the wall and the quiet discussions about art and an occasional game of chess which included more pensive stares than actual moves on the board.

The lanky waiter set the lemony gin on the table with a polite word or two, prompting Arturo to look up and smile. His smile froze beneath his moustache when his eyes caught a game of chess being played under the reproduction of the Arnolfini Portrait.

Being one of those art enthusiasts, he had a vague idea about the Flemish school and Van Eyck, but his knowledge of the 15th century was far from vague. All those bits and pieces of information, some larger, some smaller, coagulated in his brain to form an idea that will take the form of The Flanders Panel.

The Best Productivity App

This post will be about the best productivity app ever – Any.do. People I work with know just how much I love this app. I think they might know it all too well. Note, only one of my co-workers actually installed it and is using it, which I consider my personal (and professional) failure. I have tried out pretty much every to-do app there is, and this is the only one which met all of my finicky requirements – basically when it comes to any app, I can tolerate only one thing that bugs me. Any.do has zero.

Why do I like it?

General app observations

  1. No ads

I hate ads. Hate them (if they don’t serve an actual purpose, which they rarely do). I don’t care if the app if free. I want those ads to fuck off and leave me alone. That’s why the “no ads” feature of the app is no. 1. Sometimes (veeeeery rarely) you’ll be offered an option to buy the full app for a discount or something, but it does not interfere with the reason why this app exist – and that’s productivity. The “buy the premium version” is not constantly visible – you have to search for it in the section of the app you (I) never use.

  1. It’s pretty

Superficial, you say? Irrelevant? No, I say. It’s no.2 thing among general requirements the app needs to fulfil in order to stay on my smartphone. Come on, if I’m going to use it every day and look at it, the least it can do is look good, right? Right.

  1. No “I could buy the premium version” thoughts

I’ve never considered buying the full version. Yeah, it has some cool shiny features, but I do not need them (see no.1 and no.2 on the list).

IMPORTANT UPDATE: I’ve discovered (after finding a victim who responded positively to: You really should install Any.Do) that the option to share tasks is limited in the free version . Now, the support.any.do says:

  • Regular users can share one task while Premium users can share an unlimited amount of tasks.

However I currently have two shared tasks, and I have previously shared some tasks, so I’m not sure about the limit. Btw, is it really correct to say “amount of tasks” shouldn’t it be “number of tasks”?

(I’m currently exploring the “share list” option.)

  1. Works on my computer and tablet perfectly

A perfectly functional and good looking extension for chrome is available, which makes it much easier to follow your tasks. The app available at the Windows Store (I think that’s its name) is also usable.

  1. It’s simple stupid

There is no useless feature in this app. None. It doesn’t offer a million of useless options which make the app which makes you feel like using the app is a task in itself.

  1. Widget in the Today View

For an app to fall into the “productivity” category, in my book it has to have a widget available for the Today View. I start my day by opening the Today View, checking out the weather, seeing what’s next on my calendar and seeing if there’s any interesting words of the day on Merriam Webster and The Free Dictionary. Of course, this includes seeing which tasks I have to complete that day and which ones I might postpone. Because a good productivity app has to also allow you to procrastinate.

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Functionality

Any.do gives you everything you need; nothing more and nothing less.

  1. do@any.do

The number of shit e-mails I get is immeasurable, those e-mails with minor tasks which I can do with my eyes closed, using only my left thumb. Those bitches are the worst because it’s so easy to forget about them. That’s why I forward them to do@any.do, I edit the subject and they appear on my to-do list. The text of the e-mail is available in the notes section of the task, so I don’t have to dig through my inbox once the task is on my immediate agenda. Awesome feature. Love it. Thinking about marrying it.

  1. No proliferation

If you have a task which requires you to do several additional things, you can add subtasks and notes to it. I like to keep my to-do list clean and unencumbered because I don’t want to see my to-do list in the morning and decide to off myself rather than going to work. Of course, you organise your tasks in lists – I have a separate list for each of my clients and for bigger projects and campaigns. There’s an option of adding photos and files and what not to individual tasks, but I have rarely used this.

  1. Procrastination

Any.do allows you to procrastinate, which is a very important thing in my book. You can schedule your tasks and you can nicely push them back if you they don’t require your immediate attention. The fact that there is a desktop version of the app helps fine tuning the art of procrastination.

  1. Badge

This is the only app on which I tolerate badges because they remind me that I tasks to complete and it tells me how many there are for the day. Yeah, sometimes it freaks me out, but it also helps me to say on my toes. The “No proliferation” part is what allows me to stay reasonably sane.

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What about Android?

I use Any.do mostly on my iPhone, so I’ve decided to give it a go on Android, just to see how it compares. It’s pretty much identical. I like the fact that the Android version separates subtasks from notes and you can follow how many subtasks you have left. As much as I can remember, most Android phones don offer badges, which is a big minus for me in this case. I’m sure there are more differences, however I will not find out before publishing this post because Googling it would be like cheating.

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Shape without form, shade without colour

I was considering writing something really profound and revealing. I’d reconsidered. I’m not very good at written honesty. It bugs the shit out of me.

I wish I just could, you know, rip myself apart on a piece of paper or in a Word document. It’s an itch I cannot bring myself to scratch. I used to do it – for my eyes only – but that’s shit. If you write something and no one reads it – it’s like it didn’t happen. It’s like that famous story about a tree which fell and no one heard the poor thing. If I fall, I want people to hear about it.

It doesn’t have to be a bang, I’ll be satisfied with a whimper.

This is the part where I stare at the screen, willing myself to do the brave thing. To spill my guts, idiomatically. The wall in my brain refuses to cooperate though, because I cannot, I will not write down something I don’t have the balls to publish.

Am I afraid to put things in writing because I know that once you infuse emotional reality with linguistic structure you’re forced to face the truth? Probably.

Maybe I just prefer it that way. Uncondensed and unbound, wreaking everyday havoc, making life more fun and exciting. Yawn.

I keep searching for a way to structure my life in a way which will stop me from thinking about all the glorious ways I could set fire to the flimsy reality I cling to.

Title courtesy of T.S.Eliot 

I Cannot Bitch

Expect the unexpected is not exactly what comes to mind when you’re looking for a frivolous summer read. It most certainly is not something you expect to be applicable to a book titled Lord of Scoundrels with such a cover (urgh).

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And yet… Mind. Blown. My mind is also blown by the fact that my mind was blown. So, Mind Blown Squared.

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Lord of Scoundrels (praise the Lord, it’s not Lord of Rakes!) is 171 pages long (short?) and on each page shit happened which I did not see coming. I’ve never read a romance which felt like a thriller – the suspense was killing me because I just could not foresee how things would unfold.

I’m still shocked by this book. It’s fun, intelligent and witty, well-written with awesome protagonists who just go around doing stuff protagonists in a book of this sort are not supposed to do.

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I have nothing to bitch about. I cannot bitch about Jessica Trent’s ineptness. I cannot bitch about idiotic and unnecessary sex scenes. I can hardly bitch about long-winded descriptions of characters’ appearance and/or attire. I cannot bitch about dimwitted dialogue nor rudimentary language skills. I could try to bitch about the presence of an actual plot, but in truth the only thing I can bitch about it the fact there is nothing to bitch about.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m gonna go and find out if this book is an aberration of cosmic proportions or something Loretta Chase does as a matter of course.

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