Shadow Twin

July 9, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

twinShadow Twin by Dale Hoover

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For those keeping track, this is book eleven of my Abyss reading project. It’s also the eighth book that wasn’t completely worthless, but neither does it crack the top three. It’s a solidly mediocre book, and is ultimately forgettable.

The book started out well, with good prose and a strong start. It begged comparison to Koja’s The Cipher, since, like that book, Shadow Twin is about a mysterious hole that opens inside a house, but that’s the only thing similar to the two novels. Where Koja focuses on the two main characters and their obsessions and isolation, Hoover focuses in on the family and their inherent problems, projecting and enhancing them via the hole. I can relate better to Shadow Twin, but it’s not enough to make it the better book of the two.

Hoover doesn’t write like a typical ’90s horror author, with lurid violence and rampant sexism and misogyny. That’s definitely a plus, but she doesn’t capture her characters well, and her narrative rambles at time. It’s written in the first person, as a reflective look back on the main character’s decline, but she shifts to a third-person omniscient viewpoint at times, and makes too many references to the horrible things he is yet to do. It’s annoying, and doesn’t do much for foreshadowing since she keeps repeating that refrain, either at the beginning or end of her chapters.

Shadow Twin is a book that’s well written, but the story and plot aren’t that great. I prefer it to some of the other dreck that preceded it in the Abyss line, but I wouldn’t recommend it.

Started: May 29, 2018
Finished: June 13, 2018

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Tunnelvision

July 2, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

visionTunnelvision by R. Patrick Gates

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I’m up to book ten in the Abyss books, which means I’m about a quarter of the way through the entire line, and I was surprised to find that Tunnelvision is a pretty solid story. Maybe I had lowered my expectations after reading the Dee and Reed books, but Gates does a good job of telling a serial killer/police procedural story. The title comes from the gimmick he uses to define the killer, which is how he sees the world from the perspective of someone watching television. He’s created his own network of shows based on his own twisted upbringing and his current endeavors.

The story is a little tell-y, so the characters don’t spring from the page, but he does well enough with his pacing and plot to keep the story moving along. Tunnelvision isn’t the kind of book to wind up on any underrated or hidden gem lists, but it holds together well enough to keep the reader interested. I just can’t see anyone thinking much of the book after finishing it.

I feel like I’m damning the book with faint praise, but while Gates’ prose skills are solid, the story isn’t that memorable. I’ve read the book before, over twenty years ago, but I didn’t remember any of the details from the book. Given some of the other dreck that exists in the Abyss line, it stands above those books, but it doesn’t reach the heights that Koja or Tem brought to the line.

Fortunate Musical Connection: “Innervision” by System of a Down

Started: May 15, 2018
Finished: May 27, 2018

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Mastery

June 20, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

masteryMastery by Kelley Wilde

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Moving along in my Abyss reading project, Mastery is the next book in publication order. This is also a re-read for me, and I remember a handful of things about the book, but what stands out the most is Wilde’s obsession with lavender in this story. He uses it as an adjective to describe things like sounds and smells. I’m not even sure this is supposed to reference the color.

Wilde is a poetic writer, enough so that when I was thinking back to Kathe Koja’s unusual style, what I was actually remembering was Wilde’s style. He doesn’t paint a perfect picture with his prose; instead, he describes it more abstractly, making you pay closer attention to what he’s writing. The good thing is the style means he shows more than he tells, which is a nice alternative to some of the books I’ve been reading lately.

I’m a function-over-form reader, so I expected to be more frustrated with Mastery than I was. Maybe it was because it was in the middle of some other poorly-written books in the line, but I found myself enjoying it. It wasn’t easy getting into it, but I did end up hooked, and was interested in seeing how it played out. It’s a werewolf/vampire story (it feels more like the former, but other readers consider it to be the latter), set amidst a time-travel story set in early 20th-Century San Francisco, but it seems inconsequential against Wilde’s style, which is the real star of the book. It’s not the tightest book I’ve read, but I enjoyed Wilde’s imagery and themes enough to make it a solid middle-of-the-road book.

I would recommend Mastery, but with hesitation. Horror readers would probably get the most out of it, but readers who like stories that are told non-traditionally might enjoy it, too. I don’t think readers of Faulkner or Joyce would like the story that much, but Wilde’s style reminds me more of their styles than, say, Stephen King’s.

Started: April 17, 2018
Finished: May 5, 2018

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The Two-Bear Mambo

June 1, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

mamboThe Two-Bear Mambo by Joe R. Lansdale

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I’ve been reading the Hap & Leonard series for over twenty years, which is long enough to be excited about the TV show based on the series. After the first two seasons ended, I went back and re-read the books on which they were based, and I did the same with the third season. While I wasn’t reluctant to return to the story, I remembered enough to know it was going to be a dark, depressing journey.

Florida Grange, lawyer to Leonard and one-time-lover of Hap, has gone missing in the town of Grovetown, a town known for being stuck in the Jim Crow days. Hap and Leonard, fresh off of burning down another crack house, get stuck with going to Grovetown to find her. Leonard, being black, makes that a daunting enough task, regardless of how little the residents of the town care to share about Florida. What they face there is grim enough to run them out of town.

The show takes more liberties with the story than it did with the previous seasons. I can’t say what those differences are without spoiling the plot, but they’re significant enough for me to prefer the book to the show. Suffice to say, if you’ve only seen the current season of the show, it’s worth your time to read the book to get another take on the story. They’re not so different as to be unrecognizable, but different characters get different development between the show and the book.

Started: April 14, 2018
Finished: April 15, 2018

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Prodigal

May 24, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

prodigal

Prodigal by Melanie Tem

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Two names seem to still have some clout from the Dell/Abyss line: Kathe Koja is one; Melanie Tem is the other. Both are known as authors who write unusual books that are more about unsettling than scaring, and are (so far, at least) closer to the “cutting edge” that the publisher claimed these books would be. Prodigal was Tem’s first novel, and it shows what to expect with her career.

The story is about a family of nine who, as the story opens, is still recovering from their oldest son, who has run away. Told from the point of view of Lucy, the third-oldest child who is eleven years old, we get a somewhat skewed look at the state of the family. We see the grief and the denial of the parents, the anger and confusion of the children, and the interference of the family’s therapist, but through the eyes of a character who doesn’t have the maturity to understand much of what she sees. She’s still in the “I hate you!” stage of her emotional development, and as her family slowly crumbles around her, we see a pattern emerge among the oldest children and how they relate to their parents and their therapist.

Prodigal is not out-and-out horror. It contains disturbing imagery and characters, but Tem gives us hints at things being not right, as opposed to giving us the shock of the monsters fully revealed. Events are ordinary, but hardly mundane, and when Tem does show us events that aren’t normal, or even natural, they stand out even more against the backdrop of the family. Her horrors stand in as representations of the Brill family dynamic, but since they’re told to us from Lucy’s perspective, we know that they’re actually happening, since she’s not old enough to understand allegory or metaphor.

This book is another re-read for me, but I didn’t remember any details of the story as I read it. This doesn’t surprise me; when I read this book for the first time, I was looking for out-and-out horror, and I’m sure it disappointed me. Like Lucy, then I didn’t have the maturity and experience to recognize the book for being as effective as it is, but now, I can recognize it as the achievement it is. Prodigal, almost thirty years after its first publication, is still relevant.

Started: April 2, 2018
Finished: April 8, 2018

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The Cipher

April 19, 2018 at 5:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

cipherThe Cipher by Kathe Koja

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For me, Dell/Abyss defines what horror was in the early 1990s. Stephen King blurbed the entire line, and the publisher swore the books would be cutting-edge. They could have done no better than to start with The Cipher, Koja’s first novel, featuring outcast characters and surrealistic imagery and horror.

This is a re-read for me, and I went into it with some trepidation. I remembered the book as being avant garde, Koja’s style unorthodox and confusing. It definitely remains avant garde, even twenty-plus years later, but Koja’s style was more straightforward than I recalled. She definitely breaks some grammatical rules, but not in such a way as to interrupt the flow of the story. I just found it odd that I remembered something far more unusual.

Part of it, I think, is the content of the story. Koja’s main characters, Nakota and Nicholas, aren’t likeable; Nakota is a bully, and Nicholas has no motivation. The story, though, hums along with a high level of interest when they discover a hole in their apartment building, which leads into another dimension. Koja avoids the usual tropes this would present for a science fiction story, and instead focuses on the lengths the characters go to discover more about the hole’s effects. Nakota’s interests are dark and perverse, so her obsession with the hole is in how it deforms reality, and since Nicholas is obsessed with Nakota, he follows in her interest. This is where the horror enters, since the imagery and theme do more to mess with our heads than the actual progression of the story.

The story, for all its darkness, is about the search for meaning. Nakota looks for it through the hole, and Nicholas looks for it through Nakota. This microcosm is affected by the hole, and as this relationship grows more complicated, so do the effects of the hole, and their search for meaning becomes more important. It’s hard to say whether or not they find it, but the story doesn’t feel incomplete as a result. I give it 3.5 stars, rounded up to 4 because it was so far ahead of its time.

The Cipher could easily be a part of the modern new horror, with its surrealism and nihilism. Koja definitely started, or was part of, that revolution, and she tells an effective tale here. It’s hard to recommend it because it comes at the reader so strongly, but folks who like stories about characters on the fringe of society would find a lot to like here. At the very least, it’s affirmed my decision to read through all of the Abyss books to see how they hold up so many years later.

Started: January 31, 2018
Finished: February 3, 2018

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Wizard and Glass

November 27, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

glassWizard and Glass by Stephen King

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A few years ago, I saw a comment online where someone asked why there had been so much outrage over the ending of The Waste Lands. Sure, it was a cliffhanger ending, he said, but the next book picks right up from that point. What’s the big deal? What he didn’t know, reading the books so long after their original publication date, was that Constant Readers had to wait six years to have that cliffhanger resolved. I would have been okay with the ending had King started the next book ASAP, and we got the answer in a year, but six years? Just no.

Wizard and Glass does resolve that ending, and then gives us another glimpse at what’s happening due to the Tower failing, and introducing a (sorta) new villain to the mix through Randall Flagg, but the bulk of the story is Roland’s first task as a gunslinger, which not only defines his character, but also introduces him to the idea of the Tower itself. It’s also a love story framed around an investigation, and both parts of the story are intriguing and compelling (much more so than the framing story that is actually about the Tower). The usual King traits are there — the characterization, the easy-going style, and the plot slowly developing over the course of hundreds of pages — and if the outer bits are a bit ridiculous (The Wizard of Oz? Seriously?), the inner parts are worth the read.

The central problem here, though, is something I can’t address without spoiling this book (and the whole series), so turn away now if you’re still new to the stories.

The entire series ends by coming full circle, with Roland stepping through the door at the top of the Tower and starting his journey again, with the famous line: “The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.” It suggests Roland’s story is infinite, with him reliving the journey over and over again. Does it change? Does he go through the same process every time, or does he find new people to draw into Mid-World on his journey? Has it happened since the beginning of time, or is this his first time reliving the journey? Does he always complete it, or does he sometimes fail, and if he does fail, does it stop the cycle, or does it begin again, regardless? When word came down that The Dark Tower (the movie) would be a sequel to the series, I was giddy with the idea that we would finally get answers to these questions.

The important part of all that, though, is: Where does Roland’s story begin? Is he limited to this loop, or did he live a life previous to that opening line and the the loop begins when he pursues the man in black across the desert? If the loop is everything Roland experiences directly, then are the events of Wizard and Glass an implanted memory to make him the person he is? If so, then how much of the entire series is true, including the question: Is the Tower even under threat to begin with? If not, then what’s the point of the series and all its interconnected works, other than to support Roland’s own manias?

It seems like a ridiculous waste of energy and pages to say that this is all something that never happened outside of Roland’s memories, but at the same time, King was still two years away from his near-fatal accident that inspired him to finish the series and insert himself into the book. Had he been entertaining the idea of making the series cyclical by then, or did that only come to mind after his accident? That the story comes full circle feels like a direct response to King being a character in the series, but who knows other than King? I’m not asking this rhetorically; has he ever said whether the cyclical nature of the story was always his intention?

(All of this speculation is based on my not remembering all the details of the seventh book, just the broad stroke of how it ends. Maybe these questions will all get answered along the way.)

When I first read this book, I rated it five stars because it felt so powerful. I rated it based on the central story (e.g., not the Dark Tower part of it), but I also rated it out of context with the entire series. I still find the story of Roland and Susan and Alain and Cuthbert to be the best part of the book, though I also see that readers are divided on which volumes they prefer, the personal ones or the ones that advance the mythology. I’m firmly on the personal side of that divide, so Wizard and Glass is still among my favorites of the series.

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The Waste Lands

November 21, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

wasteThe Waste Lands by Stephen King

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There’s a curious thing about The Dark Tower that I’ve never really noticed before: Much of the mythology and legend of Mid-World and End-World and What-Have-You-World exists outside of the series proper. I think it started with Insomnia, which fell between this book and Wizard and Glass, and then started leaching out into everything else King wrote. As such, the books in the actual series so far touch on some of what defines Roland’s world, but the bulk of it resides elsewhere.

What’s left, then, in the series proper is to tell the stories of the main characters — Roland, Eddie, Susannah, and Jake. We get some of Roland’s story in the first book, and Eddie’s and Susannah’s stories in The Drawing of the Three, and now in The Waste Lands we get Jake’s story. It’s hinted at in the first book, but here we learn the details of his life and what draws him to the Tower and Roland’s world (quite literally). King writes best when he writes personal stories, so these have been among the best parts of the series for me.

Jake’s story only takes up half of the book, with the second half comprising their journey to and through Lud to find Blaine the Mono. This half was much less interesting than the first half, because we go from the personal to the journey, and I was surprised that, before re-reading the series, I had forgotten about this part of the journey to the Tower. I had expunged this part of the story from the chronology all together, putting the trip across the bridge right up next to the ka-tet boarding Blaine. I remembered it all as I was re-reading it, but it was such an unmemorable part of the story I had blocked it, partly because it has nothing at all to do with the Tower.

By now, we understand what the Tower is, and what it means to protect it, but so far the story hasn’t been about the Tower, save to establish its importance. All the journey through Lud does is support the idea that the world has moved on, and that it shares some similarities with our own world. King has already suggested this, but here he drives the point home with the George Washington Bridge and “Velcro Fly” by ZZ Top (which, unfortunately, dates the story quite a bit).

I’ve been making a concerted effort to keep each book in the series in its place in King’s ouevre, seeing how it sits in context with this other works, and I see this volume was published a year after the revised, uncut version of The Stand. It shows,  because his inclusion of the Tick-Tock Man suggests some similarity to the Trashcan Man, in name if not in character. Sure enough, King uses this book to introduce the idea that Randall Flagg exists here, too, though this is before King retcons the story to make him Walter, too (though I expect it was on his mind by now).

So far, my ratings now reflect my ratings from when I last read them. I suppose this is good, since it suggests the stories have held up well, but I’m starting to see some of the holes in the story. Reading the first book strongly suggests King didn’t have a firm idea of where he was taking the story (even without his afterwords in all the books telling us, it’s clear when you look at it in context to the entire series), and I expect the further I read, the more I’ll find his other books encroaching on the story. I know I’ll see further connections to The Stand in Wizard and Glass, and to ‘Salem’s Lot in Wolves of the Calla, and the concepts of the Crimson King and the Breakers will come from Insomnia and Black House, respectively. I’m not wild about the series being so dependent on books outside of it, but I’ve accepted it.

Despite all of that, The Waste Lands comes from King’s best era, and it shows. It wasn’t until The Dark Half and beyond that it started to feel like King was writing without a destination, and the start and finish of The Waste Lands surrounds that point. In that way, the book is a perfect balance of his two styles, for better or for worse.

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The Gunslinger

November 15, 2017 at 7:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

gunslingerThe Gunslinger by Stephen King

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This will be my (at least) third reading of The Gunslinger. I read it a few times in high school, and then again when Wolves of the Calla came out, and I figured re-reading the preceding books would be a useful exercise. At that time, I read King’s revised version, which annoyed me. I don’t begrudge him correcting the small continuity errors, like removing the magazine he reads because King later suggests paper is as valuable as gold, or adjusting Jake’s age to match his age in The Waste Lands, but he went and retconned a lot of other parts of the story to match up with what he wanted it to be by the time Wolves was published. It annoyed me, enough so that when I decided to re-read the series leading up to the movie, I opted to read the original edition, warts and all.

With the series, I want to review them in light of the total story, and in the case of The Gunslinger, I also want to review the book as a series of stories, as they were originally published. The first section, “The Gunslinger”, is the only one in the book that can be considered a short story. It establishes the gunslinger’s character (he remains unnamed here), and presents him as something old and revered. The man in black is also unnamed, and is presented as someone magical and mystical. The story serves to build the world they live in, and makes suggestions that this is our world in a much later time, and presents a showdown between the gunslinger and the man in black, though they don’t meet in person. It’s a good story, by itself, and even though it suggests a larger story to come, King could have ended it here and had a compelling, interesting story.

It wasn’t until two years later that King returned to this story, publishing “The Way Station”, the story that introduces Jake and gives us our first look into Roland’s life before the start of this book. Roland is named in this story, and the Tower is mentioned for the first time. King continues to build the world, making further indications that this is our world, or at least one similar to it, but there’s not much conflict happening here to define it as a standalone story. Instead, it serves as a start to the larger, overarching story that would become The Dark Tower.

“The Oracle and the Mountains” (and the remaining two stories in this book) were published the same year as “The Way Station”, and continue to serve as a setup for something larger. King expounds on that plot, and shows an indication that he’s already plotting out The Drawing of the Three, since the Oracle makes a prophecy about those he will draw into his world. This is also the story where we learn more about Jake and Roland’s relationship, and it’s the time when Jake comes to know he will die on this journey.

That story segues straight into “The Slow Mutants”, the longest story in the book, and nothing at all like a standalone story. Roland tells his coming-of-age story in the middle of the story, which could serve as the plot here, but it doesn’t do much to progress the story, other than to give further insight into Roland’s character. It foreshadows Wizard and Glass, in that it’s more a story about Roland than it is one of the Dark Tower. The parts of the story that take place out of flashback do more to build the world and cement it as ours in the future (though, honestly, his use of “Hey Jude” is a subtler, more effective way of doing it). There were some odd word choices in the similes here, especially when you consider that the story is told from Roland’s perspective: once he compares something to baseball, and another time he references deep-sea creatures. Does Roland’s world have either of these things? My guess is no, so why would he think this way?

Finally, the book closes with “The Gunslinger and the Dark Man”, the story that paves the way for The Drawing of the Three. The prophecy from the third story is reiterated through the Tarot reading, and even though King’s afterword suggests that he didn’t have clear ideas of how the story would proceed, he at least had ideas for the second book. It doesn’t define the Tower, nor the Dark Man, both of which he defines later in the series to suit his purposes. Here, the Dark Man is Walter, but I know later he’ll become Randall Flagg. It’s more retconning and hand-waving, even though I feel like King manages to pull in all of his points well enough to support his story, but to suggest he knew where the story would go at this point makes as much sense as suggesting George Lucas knew what he was going to do in Return of the Jedi when he was filming Star Wars. He may have had ideas, but there’s no way he had the details of the plot formed, especially when the later books reference 9/11 and King’s own auto accident as major plot points.

I liked this book when I was younger, but it isn’t the strongest book in the series. It sets things up for the rest of the story, but it has a few foibles due to the uncertainty King had regarding the story at this point. It’s where everything begins, so of course it’s required reading for anyone wanting to read the story, but for new readers, I’d suggest getting the revised edition to read first, and then coming back to read this if they want to see how they compare.

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American Gods: The Tenth Anniversary Edition

October 24, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

godsAmerican Gods: The Tenth Anniversary Edition by Neil Gaiman

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I first read American Gods in 2001, right after its release. I remember surprisingly little of it. I mostly remember images, scenes, quotes, and ideas, with the plot going right out of my head. I just finished watching the television show, and figured I should refamiliarize myself with the entire story, and was surprised to see there was a “preferred author’s text” edition. Naturally, I decided to read that version. I toyed with the idea of re-reading the original printing, but after looking up the answer on Google, I discovered the changes appear to be small, incidental ones that make little difference in the plot, along with a new foreword and afterword, as well as a deleted scene that appears outside of its context in the story.

The story is about Shadow, an ex-con who has just been released from prison a few days short of the end of his term when his wife dies in a car accident. On his way back for the funeral, he meets an odd man who wants to hire him as a bodyguard/errand man/assistant sort of position. This encounter is the first in a series of odd, otherworldly encounters with a series of characters, none of whom are what they appear to be.

The story is also about gods, religion, faith, and belief. This, I think, is the reason why I remembered images, scenes, quotes, and ideas more than anything else: The bulk of the story is about ideas. Gaiman peppers the story with old gods in the same way Kim Newman peppers Anno Dracula with other fictional vampires. The novel is its own Easter egg hunt, enough so that I was hitting Google every time a new god showed up (and enough so that I can see real value in an annotated edition of the book).

When I first read the book, I was impressed with its premise, but less so with its execution. I still don’t see it as the quintessential Gaiman book (I still point to Stardust for that), but my take on the novel improved with this read. I think it helps to have seen the show, since it helped anchor some of the characters in my head. They’re not as difficult to place as, say, the characters in A Song of Ice and Fire, but having Ian McShane and Ricky Whittle in my head definitely helped (even if their physical appearances in the book were different).

I saw some new aspects of the story, too, which is typical of a re-read. Knowing some of the secrets that were to come later in the story helped me isolate some of the foreshadowing and uncover the clues. Most important, though, was the way Gaiman wove the Native American gods into the story. I missed that the first time around, which is surprising, since there’s a recurring theme and character who makes it pretty obvious.

Plot-wise, the story still seems a bit thin, especially for a 750-page book, but there’s a lot to pass through on the way to the conclusion. The middle of the book feels circuitous and almost pointless, but it’s Gaiman’s way of introducing us to more gods and tying them to the main theme of the novel.

I’ve read a lot about how the showrunners have gone off-book, but I was surprised to see how faithful the show has been, even with its changes. The biggest change seems to be in Laura, Shadow’s wife, and Mad Sweeney, a six-foot-tall leprechaun, in that they expand their back stories. It seems like they’re also playing around with the plot, though, based on the conclusion of the first season, which doesn’t exist at all in the book. I’m intrigued to see where it goes, though, especially considering that Gaiman is also one of the producers of the show, and presumably signed off on the changes that have been made.

I’d recommend American Gods to anyone with an interest in mythology or anyone who hasn’t yet read anything by Gaiman. Given that this edition exists, I don’t see why someone wouldn’t choose the expanded edition over the original text, unless they’re just curious to do the comparison. I expect a lot of people will be reading it, thanks to the show.

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