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Loveless – Alice Oseman

September 18, 2020

In brief: Georgia’s never kissed, dated, or even liked anyone, which she’s sure is weird but fixable. Uni’s for reinvention, after all. If she tries hard enough, she’ll get her happy ending … right?

Thoughts: While I really wanted to like this book more than I did, I can say without a doubt that this is a good book and great aroace rep to boot. I think I’m too close to some of the issues it’s dealing with, but can absolutely see a lot of people really connecting with the story and Georgia in particular.

This is also without a doubt an Oseman novel. It features well-realized, frequently awkward and anxious teens who don’t fall into clichés and are allowed to be weird and complicated and hypocritical without being judged for it. It celebrates friendship and self-growth and has a lot of casual, positive queerness and other diversity. It’s funny and sweet and also dark and serious. The plot is unique. It covers issues that don’t turn up in a lot of YA novels, in this case figuring out sexuality, how bad relationships can twist people up, unlearning coping mechanisms and internalized narratives, and what makes a strong friendship. And it’s well-written.

But this is the first Oseman book that’s felt long. I know that working out sexuality and attraction is frequently very involved and Georgia’s journey needed to take a while to be believable, that the book’s trying to explain lesser-known orientations with nuance (which also takes time), and that the subplots are also not quick fixes. I get the whys. I just wasn’t expecting to feel like I was “pushing through” the book at points, especially not from an author I really like and a genre I’m used to being fast reading.*

I’m also in the odd position of saying Georgia might be my favourite Oseman protagonist though she isn’t the one I relate to most, and that I understood her a lot but also didn’t see a whole lot of myself in her. She’s possibly the most complex MC Oseman’s written, partly because Oseman takes the time to make her so (so that length I mentioned isn’t necessarily a bad thing), and I was barely introduced to her angst over relationships before I wanted to take her under my wing.** She’s not always likeable, but I liked her point-of-view and would be up for reading a sequel than for Oseman’s other books.

And a lot of her ace- and aro-ness is stuff I definitely connect with and understand deeply. There is so much truth to the rep here (and this is probably a good time to mention she’s not the only ace or aro in the book!). But Georgia’s need to date and be “normal” is not something I relate much too, which meant I wasn’t as absorbed in the story like I could’ve been. But like I said at the start of this review, I think a lot of aces and aros are going to relate to that, and I’m the exception to the rule here. Oseman even does a good job balancing the usual sorts of Ace 101 stuff with … let’s call it Ace 202. I’d totally hand this book to anyone wanted to learn more about the ace/aro experience.

So my feelings are complicated. Loveless does a lot of things really well—everything, pretty much—and is certainly a book I’ll be reccing, especially to aspec folks who want to see themselves, but I either wasn’t in the headspace to enjoy it or for other reasons just didn’t quite connect to it. Unfortunately, because I was really hoping I would.

*Goodreads says it took me a standard length of reading time for YA, however, so clearly this is in my mind and not the book being physically longer.

** Which might say something about how old I am compared to Georgia and the target audience of this book

To bear in mind: Contains club and drinking culture, one (1) aphobe, a whole lot of aroace angst, and some unfortunate, questionable, but relatable decisions related to relationships

7/10

Utopia Avenue – David Mitchell

September 17, 2020

In brief: Four musicians in 1967 London form a rock band. Part of a wider world but can be read separately.

Thoughts: Ah yes, David Mitchell! There’s just something about the way he tells a story—the wit, the language, the references, the literary plots about fun things, the celebration of mundanity and life—that I just like, and this book got me right from the start. It’s full of 1960s vigor and music and nostalgia, without ever forgetting the darker sides of the era, and the characters and their rise to fame are great to read about. 

Is it the best novel Mitchell’s ever written? Probably not. But I had the best time reading it, and it’s certainly not the worst. (I don’t know which that is though.)

This is an underdog story. The four main characters, and a few of the supporting cast, are down on their luck, striving for greatness, and playing bum gigs in third-rate pubs to pay (or not pay) the bills when we meet them, and you can’t help cheering as the band forms and starts to climb the charts. There’s more to the story than that, since each character has their own stuff going on and Mitchell slips in his usual science fictional psychology stuff for a subplot, but on the whole it’s a tried-and-true story.

And I’m okay with that, because this is as much about Mitchell portraying the rock scene of the era, with a side of revolution and rebellion and hope for the future, as it is about following the band and its members. It honestly feels at times like Mitchell was there, he’s able to write the vibe that well, but I don’t know how much of that’s from research, of which there was clearly a lot, and how much is from a desire to make the 1960s feel like the 1960s. (There are, among other things, musician cameos and some very ‘60s set pieces.) (Is he lampshading the more ‘60s elements? Probably.) It certainly helps that he’s seriously great at descriptions and metaphors and twisting language into interesting mental shapes.

Mitchell’s style also made the characters feel real, main characters, supporting characters, and walk-on parts. (Maybe a little larger than life at times, but still.) He does this thing with lists, and is really good at small moments and close-POV, and I wound up about as invested in their lives as if I’d been following them as a fan. Elf resonated. Dean is living the rocker dream. Griff Is A Drummer. Jasper was just … interesting and I liked how the SF-y elements interacted with his life. Every time I hit a new chapter, I got excited to be visiting whichever POV it had.

The only thing I didn’t really care for here was how much the SF stuff took over Jasper’s story at points, because it didn’t quite fit with the rock’n’roll parts of the story or, really, the themes of the book and I got impatient at a few points to get back to the “actual” story. There are a lot of references to other books where Mitchell’s dropped in the same elements—notably The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet—and those were fun call-backs and easter eggs, but parts of Jasper’s story felt more like Mitchell was setting up something for another book rather than really integrating anything here.

But then again, as much as I love what Mitchell does, I’ve yet to read a novel by him that hasn’t had a “this doesn’t fit” moment or other oddness, so that’s just the way of things, I guess? I still had a blast reading this book and immersing myself in the ‘60s, and I want to listen to Utopia Avenue’s albums so badly.

Definitely rec this to Mitchell fans, people who want an entertaining literary novel, or as I think I’ve said elsewhere, people who liked Daisy Jones and the Six but wanted more of a sense of the era.

To bear in mind: Sex, drugs, rock’n’roll, sexual harassment, external homophobia, internalised homophobia, one scene with an anti-Semite, mental illness, mental institutions, suicidal ideation, terrible boyfriends

8/10

Roanoke Ridge – J.J. Dupuis

September 16, 2020

In brief: A science journalist travels to Oregon to help with the search and rescue for a family friend—who’s also a Bigfoot researcher. Is Roanoke Ridge really hiding Sasquatch, or is something else going on? First in a series.

Full disclosure: This was a book that my manager asked the publisher for on my behalf, despite me telling her not to.

Thoughts: This was a pleasantly satisfying mystery with bonus cryptid content! It’s tightly written and plotted, just as long as it needed to be, and it goes in some interesting directions. I was not expecting as much actual science fact as I got, for instance, or as much nuance when it came to Bigfoot believers. It wasn’t a perfect book (see below) but it was entertaining and I’m hooked enough to look for the sequel when it comes out.

While Dupuis is honestly great at setting, and good at sketching out secondary characters, mannerisms, voice, and all, I found Laura, our narrator/sleuth, to be kind of bland. She’s distinct enough to be her own person, but I never got a real sense of who she was, just what she was interested in or was doing at the moment, with enough backstory to explain her presence in the story. Otherwise, she was just kind of there to be the protagonist, if that makes sense?

The other thing that said “debut novel” is some plotting quirks. For the most part, I liked that this followed the usual mystery beats but never really felt like it did, and that Dupuis continues that off-beatness with the obligatory romantic subplot. (Okay, maybe especially that.) I also liked that there was a missing person and a murder and the question of Bigfoot, so that I was constantly guessing on some front. But it did also feel like some things got dropped in favour of others, most notably that Laura’s partly there to support the missing researcher’s wife but then she’s driving around town instead of keeping her company or even checking in at night.

All in all, this was a well-done mystery that, for its flaws, was just good enough to keep me going, though I’m not sure that would still be the case if “cryptids” and “cozy mystery” weren’t both so much my thing. It’s a good small-press debut, I have hopes for the sequel, and I’m actually glad my boss ignored me because I enjoyed the read.

To bear in mind: may be somewhat dodgy on the mental illness front but I’m not versed enough in the issues with the specific rep to truly weigh in

6.5/10

Beach Read – Emily Henry

September 15, 2020

In brief: January Andrews owes her publisher a book but her life has imploded. She’s hoping cleaning out her father’s secret beach house (don’t ask) will help get the creativity flowing. Then she learns that Augustus Everett, her writing school nemesis, lives next door.

Thoughts: I’m used to bright primary-coloured covers like one signalling fluff. Books with maybe a little seriousness, but that never get real. Pure romantic shenanigans from cover to cover. This isn’t what I was expecting at all.

Oh, there are shenanigans, from meet-uglies to book club embarrassment to the drive-in movie. The plot revolves around a dare to write the other person’s genre. There’s a running joke-gag-romantic moment with notepaper that’s just great. It’s enemies to lovers with a vengeance. But this is a novel with a lot of depth and heart and realness, with a female lead who’s a complete mess and allowed to be, that has a lot to say about romance as a genre and in life itself.

I liked pretty much everything about this. I liked that January was flawed and angry and dealing with a lot of stuff in relatable ways (i.e., not dealing much at all). I liked that Gus had his own issues. I especially liked the romance didn’t exist to fix their problems and that it felt a lot more natural than a lot of romances I’ve read. I think that’s Henry engaging with the literary fiction side of the story, because this isn’t just a novel about a romance writer and a literary novelist. It actually pulls tropes and style out of both genres too! (Which is, yes, another thing I liked.)

Henry’s also not interested in sugar-coating the writing process or playing into the “writers are perfect beings whose stories appear on paper like magic” trope-space that I’ve seen elsewhere. She’s happy to talk about the joy of creative flow and best-seller status, but she’s also happy to point out that writing is hard, meeting reader expectations is hard, and that best-seller status isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. There’s a lot of other stuff about stories and writing, and references, and things you might not catch if you aren’t familiar with both genres, and yes. Just yes.

She’s also not sugar-coating life itself. Neither January or Gus has a perfect family, a perfect past, present, or future. They’re struggling with believable things in believable ways, a lot of their “dates” and moments and discussions have a seriousness to them, lack that “omigosh! yay!” feeling that fluffier romances give me. This is also because of the literary elements in the story, I’m sure. Gus’s admonition to put in details that are so weird you have to believe them. This is Henry celebrating how weird and complicated life and love can get, and pushing what a romance can be.

Other things I liked: January has an amazing bestie. Gus has fantastic aunts. The small town didn’t feel too small-towny. There’s some great character growth on both sides. Pretty much every poignant moment made me cry. It was very satisfying.

Could’ve used a few more scenes with the aunts’ dogs though.

To bear in mind: an abusive father and the fallout of suicide cults (but not like that)

7.5/10

The Book of Koli – M.R. Carey

September 14, 2020

In brief: Koli’s dying to become a Rampart, the wielders of ancient tech who fight back the forest and protect his village. How he goes about that, and what happens after, will change everything. First of a trilogy.

Thoughts: I like Carey’s writing for two main reasons: he has very simple, very cool world-building and his stories are fun but thought-provoking. This book is no exception.

On the one hand, there isn’t much to this book. It’s a story of a teenager 500 years or so after our current civilisation annihilated itself, and his journeys across what used to be Scotland. It’s entertaining, full of familiar tropes and characters, and told in a future English that I really enjoyed. Koli gets himself into and out of trouble, while the reader learns about how his world works and how humanity got from here to there. It’s also surprisingly funny because Koli’s outlook is great, in time with the story and with the benefit of hindsight, and also Monono. Everything with Monono.

On the other hand, Carey’s apocalypse is/was full of genetic manipulation gone wrong, climate change, and next-gen tech that feels a step away from what we have now. (My favourite is the robot that’s basically walked out of Boston Dynamics.) The way all of that changed Koli’s world to what it is, and the ways the tech gets used, are really cool. This is definitely a warning to humanity, about a path we don’t want to go down, but it’s ultimately hopeful. Humanity survives, after all, and Koli’s young enough to believe in a better life.

I really admire how Carey balances these aspects—the future adventure story and the warnings with a side of gut-punch. It’s incredibly deft and subtle until it isn’t, and he does the thing where the reader understands a lot more than the narrator most of the time, which I enjoyed. There are also moments where I sort of had to groan because of course Carey’s put that thing in the story, he’s told that joke, and so on.

It’s also a world with multiple characters of colour, trans characters, people with disabilities, and a pretty impressive deconstruction of the manic pixie dream girl, in case anyone was wondering.

This is fun sci-fi that makes you think, and having read other books by Carey, I can’t wait for him to double-down on pretty much everything he’s poked at here and for things to get properly scary, not just tense and creepy. I think I’ve worked out where the trilogy’s going, at least roughly, because again, the tropes are familiar and he’s dropped enough hints, but I don’t care. Following Koli on his way to book three is going to be a lot of fun.

To bear in mind: Violence, gore, cults, characters experiencing transphobia, language change that probably wouldn’t really work like that

8/10

Or What You Will – Jo Walton

September 6, 2020

In brief: A meditation on art, beauty, stories, memory, love, and the creation of characters. Also a novel about the relationship between a muse and his author. Oh, and there’s Shakespeare.

Full disclosure: This was a reading copy I requested through work because I had a Mighty Need and could already tell from the summary that I’d be recommending it as soon as I finished reading it.

Thoughts: So yeah, as soon as I heard this book was coming, I knew I was going to love it. I mean, a writer protagonist? Shakespeare and the Renaissance? Characters who interact with their author? And I’ve read enough Walton to know that she’s impressively inventive, never tells the expected story, and at the top of her game, is exquisite. What I wasn’t expecting was for this book to be so intricate and powerful, or to actually be giving a 10/10 rating for once.


There’s nothing about this I didn’t love. The characters are wonderful, especially the two mains, and every person and relationship in the book feels real, even the ones in the deeply metafictional bits. The descriptions are sparse but gorgeous. The humour is perfectly measured and very relatable. The novel-in-the-novel is exactly the sort of book Sylvia would write, right down to the rocky parts. The themes, the question’s Walton’s asking, the undercurrents of the novel are … powerful, multifaceted, and more tied into the surface of the book than I might have ever seen.

Reading this was absolutely an experience. The structure! The ideas! The feels! It’s Walton setting the bar, pushing the envelope, upping her game, any of those sorts of metaphors, and one of those books that resets what a novel can be and forces me to ask, “How did she do that?”

Is it going to hit this hard for everyone reading it? I doubt it, as pretty much everything in it was tailored to my tastes. It’s a complicated book, in terms of structure and message, and Walton isn’t pandering to her readers so drops in-jokes and references that not everyone is going to get. (I didn’t.) It’s also one of those novels where nothing’s out of place and where the themes and story almost seem to spark off each other. In other words, it’s a book you need to pay attention to, but will absolutely reward you if you do.

This was an easy 9.5 for me, but I’m upping the rating because, again, how did Walton do that? I didn’t think a book like this was possible.

To bear in mind: protagonist is an abuse survivor, is a widow, is fighting cancer

10/10

The Falcon Thief – Joshua Hammer

September 5, 2020

In brief: The arrest of a serial wildlife smuggler opens the door for a deep dive into wildlife crime, those who fight it, and the harm it causes.

Thoughts: I really can’t blame Hammer for getting so fascinated by a news article that he wound up writing a book, because wow. This criminal. This story. The twists. The context. The crime itself. You can’t make this stuff up. It should be a movie.

I love long-form journalism like this, that uses a hooky main story—in this case, a guy caught in an airport with falcon eggs taped to his chest “for health reasons”—to explore a much larger topic, and that’s well-written to boot. Hammer reeled me in right away, kept me turning pages, tossed in all kinds of facts and characters, threw the wildest jags into the narrative, and basically wove a compelling tale that’s equal parts fascinating and horrifying.

Hammer has a really light, readable style that brings the scenes and characters to life while also conveying the seriousness of the subject matter and Hammer’s own personality. He’s pretty even-handed but also damning where damning is due (see: justice systems, cracks therein), and his research is very thorough and wide-ranging. He does play up some of the weirder and more cinematic elements, but I get the impression that’s more from his own crogglement than a desire to sensationalise, and also, like, I’d have as much fun with a covert helicopter mission to northern Quebec as he does.

Other things he touches on, beyond the life of a career criminal who’s either pretty dumb or really smart (or maybe both):

  • African conservation efforts of the 1960s
  • Saudi Arabian racing falcon breeding programs
  • the Victorian passion for egg collecting
  • the breeding habits of various raptors
  • the career trajectory of a classic British policeman turned national wildlife cop
  • the history of medieval falconry
  • the role of egg collecting in species endangerment
  • the global black market for live birds
  • marital infidelity
  • African gift shops
  • a very observant Argentinian hotel clerk
  • that one guy with an egg fetish

Really, the only way this could’ve been a better read for me is if there’d been a small, illustrated field guide somewhere. I’d like to have known what some of the rarer birds looked like beyond Hammer’s descriptions, and maybe some of the scenery too. (But that’s small beans; I have Google.)

If you’re looking for a compelling non-fiction read on an unusual subject, interested in environmentalism, or bored with the usual sorts of true crime, I don’t hesitate to recommend this!

To bear in mind: contains cruelty to animals and the complete disregard for the environment

9/10

The Lost Future of Pepperharrow – Natasha Pulley

September 4, 2020

In brief: War is coming to Japan and so, therefore, are Thaniel and Mori. (Well, Thaniel’s mostly there for the ghosts. Don’t ask.) Unfortunately the Japanese Prime Minister believes precognition can be weaponised. Second of two, third in a world.

Thoughts: I don’t know whether this book was genuinely weaker than The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, whether I read it at the wrong time, or whether I fell so hard for Watchmaker that no sequel would ever hold up, but I didn’t enjoy this nearly as much as I thought I was going to. Which is to say this is a perfectly entertaining story and a lovely return to the world, and has some marvelously inventive bits, but I wasn’t swooning.

People who like Thaniel, Mori, Thaniel-and-Mori, Pulley’s plotting, her asides and general quirkiness, or who want to see more of Six, will close the book happy. So will the people who liked the aether and steampunk stuff from Watchmaker, or want more timey-wimeyness and precognitive and/or gay angst. There are some very tense sequences, some painfully sad moments, a lot of wondering what is going on, and enough sweet, cute moments to balance things out. It is, basically, a fitting sequel and a good cap to Thaniel and Mori’s tale. (At least, I assume it’s the end.)

I also liked that Pulley doesn’t truly lean into the idea that 1880s Japan was somehow better than either modern Japan or the rest of the 1880s world. Yes, there are scenes and settings that are beautiful, gentle, and feel distinctly … Miyazaki, shall we say, but there are also grimier, working class settings, and discontent and inequality on several levels. That’s another continuation from Watchmaker, by the way, but done on a wider scale simply because Japan is larger than London and so Pulley has more scope to work with.

Also: the stuff with the ghosts was very cool, even if/because it was kind of weird and creepy, and the final reveals were great. Six, who’s basically confirmed here as autistic, was an absolute delight, as was watching Thaniel and Mori be her dads. A lot of stuff about Mori’s personality makes much more sense now too. So lots of wonderful things! Yes!

But, I don’t know…. I think I was meant to like one of the main Japanese characters more than I did, and I remember connecting to Thaniel more in Watchmaker, and I feel like some of the foreshadowing was overdone and I could have stood to know less about what was coming. Overall, the reading experience didn’t feel as rich in general, either, for all that there’s still plenty of detail and Pulley’s style hasn’t really changed—but maybe that just means it’s been a few years, my taste have changed, I’ve forgotten things, it might be time to mount a reread, etc.

Still, this is a solidly plotted novel, a good sequel, and an enjoyable read with a lot of lightness and humour as well as tension and tragedy. It’s definitely a Pulley novel and I’m glad I picked it up. I just can’t shake the feeling it could have, somehow, been better.

To bear in mind: Contains depictions of anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts, jail, riots, and people who think they’re justified treating others as less-than.

7/10

The Lost Child of Lychford – Paul Cornell

September 3, 2020

In brief: Christmas in Lychford should be a time of celebration, but for the local coven, it really isn’t. For one thing, they’re seeing the ghost of a boy who’s still alive…. Second in a series.

Thoughts: I’m sitting here rewriting sentences about how well Cornell does dark fantasy, and how he’s able to infuse modern British culture, especially aspects that are usually treated as comforting and familiar, with terror and critique, when really I should be talking about this book, this story, and not his general way with world-building. So. Let’s just accept the setting and vibe are great and also My Thing, and move on.

Which is hard, since this is a novella, and I can’t say a whole lot or I’ll spoil it. I still like the witches and the way Cornell’s written them as the traditional coven triad but also not. I think the vicar’s my favourite, though. She’s so much the heart of the group, and definitely the main character here. I also loved seeing the magic system elaborated on, and the way the interdimensional weirdness manifested this time, and by “loved” in that last case, I mean “hated and could not look away because what?” Again, I have to say, Cornell does fantastic horror.

I’m not sure how I feel about the pacing, though I often have that sort of complaint with novellas. It’s exactly as long as it should be, but the “levelling up” moments didn’t hit the beats I expected, the antagonists are essentially creating side plots for funsies and it took me a while to pin down their goal, and the moments of recognition and taking charge felt a bit muted. I honestly feel like was a) reading too fast b) missing some deeper knowledge of, say, the Christmas ghost story genre c) both. So likely at least partly a me-problem, but keep in mind that plot is a bit unusual.

And I was more aware reading this than I usually am that this story was an installment in something greater. It’s perfectly satisfying and complete on its own, but the characters start out partway through their development and their growth isn’t finished at the end either, and neither fact can be ignored or written off. There are elements within the world too that are clearly building to something greater. I liked reading this, I really liked what Cornell did from a writer’s standpoint, but I think this series is really going to shine when taken as a complete whole. You’ll be able to see the shape of it better then, I suspect, and I think there’ll be less sense of things left hanging.

This is definitely a series (and an author) I rec, especially if you like to be unsettled by mundane things or want a modern take on witches, but prepare yourself to start at the beginning and binge, or reread the previous book, neither of which I did. Unfortunately. I’ll have to remember that advice for when I pick up the rest of the series.

6.5/10

To bear in mind: Scroll for spoilers

Climax features child sacrifice.

Resistance Women – Jennifer Chiaverini

September 2, 2020

In brief: Mildred, Greta, Sarah, and their friends are horrified by the rise of the Nazis. Going with the flow is unthinkable. Resistance is the only way forward. Based on a true story.

Thoughts: About halfway through reading this, I decided it would have worked better for me if it had been non-fiction. Chiaverini has done an absolutely incredible amount of research and she’s certainly found a compelling story to tell, but she seems more focused on relaying that detail and sticking to established facts than she is about bringing these women and their times fully to life. I might have learned a lot and kept reading to see how the women made out, but it often felt like a slog.

I liked that Chiaverini started the book as early as she did, when Hitler was barely a politician at all, because the slow build of creeping Nazism really did raise the tension and level of oppression. (It also provided parallels to and commentary on, uh, a certain Western country that, I’m sad to say, also helped to bounce me out of the story. I read for escape and some of the politics and activism were just a little too real.) Starting that early in the 1930s also allowed Chiaverini to really establish her characters as normal people—writers, teachers, students, social butterflies—who wanted normal things—a job, publication, graduation, love. For a book whose message is largely that everyone has a duty to stand up and fight for what they think is right, that was necessary.

Unfortunately, for me to really connect with characters, I need to be able to feel their emotions, and Chiaverini’s chosen a narrative style here that has a lot of telling. There’s a lot of “Mildred felt” and “Greta thought that” and “Sarah watched as”, which felt kind of distant and like she was maybe pulling from letters and diaries instead of getting creative to make the reader feel that catch of breath, that sense of being watched, that excitement that maybe this mission will be the one. This isn’t just for our protagonists, either. There are characters whose dedication to their job is largely conveyed by people saying how dedicated they are to their job, and Chiaverini will sum up months’ worth of history in a page or two, in a very “then this, then that, then this” way. I respect that she’s got a lot of ground to cover and a lot happened that couldn’t really be cut out. I just found myself wishing she’d chosen some other method.

I do appreciate Chiaverini’s adherence to history, though, and the fact that she stuck to it even when the story didn’t fit into a standard narrative structure. (Twists and drama don’t come at expected places. The climax isn’t what you’d expect either.) I might not have connected with the characters but I could get behind what they were doing, and like I said, I learned a lot. This is a part of European history we don’t hear much about, which is unfortunate, and the themes of the book are definitely important. It’s really too bad that I couldn’t get into it more.

To bear in mind: Contains Nazis and the things Nazis do. All the things.

6/10