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Review: Patriot or Traitor: The Life and Death of Sir Walter Ralegh

Patriot or Traitor: The Life and Death of Sir Walter Ralegh by Anna Beer My rating: 4 of 5 stars Disclaimer: I won an ARC ...

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Review: Owney: Mascot of the Railway Mail Service

Owney: Mascot of the Railway Mail Service Owney: Mascot of the Railway Mail Service by James Bruns
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is Owney:


This view from the back gives you a nice look at all his tags which he gained as he travelled around the US with the mailway. Each tag represents a different Post Office (he had 1,017). His home post office was in Albany.

Owney was a VIP - very important pooch. Not only did he travel the US, he made his way up to Montreal, whose post office tried to keep him; to Japan. He not only rode the rails but rode the boats.

This short biography is easily readable by children but is also nice for adults. It includes photographs.

You can see Owney in all his tagged, but dead (he was around starting in 1888) at the Smithsonian National Postal Museum in Washington, DC. (Yes, I know that Postal Museum sounds boring, but it is actually very nice and has much more than stamps. Nicely interactive for the kids, less crowded for adults).
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Saturday, January 27, 2018

Review: Murder Strikes Pink

Murder Strikes Pink Murder Strikes Pink by Josephine Pullein-Thompson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Like most girls, I first encountered the Pullein-Thompson sisters by reading one of their horse books. In my case, it was the bound volume of Black Beauty’s Family, which is criminally underrated and includes a better horse in WWI story than Warhorse. The BBF was so good that years later when as an adult, I received two other collections by sisters from friend who was saying, “I know they are kid books, but”, I interrupted with, “awesome”. I wasn’t aware that they had written adult novels until this book was offered free for kindle (Endeavour press is awesome).

Murder Strikes Pink is a mystery about the death of a wealthy and waspy show jumper owner who no one seems to like and everyone seems to be in some fear of. The cast of characters is pretty standard for any British mystery. It has a Midsomer Murders type of appeal.

There is so disquiet and gloss over. Honesty, one problem is a bit too easily solved. Yet, it has the small English village charm of a Christie. What Pullein-Thompson gets much credit for her is her use of characters – no one is perfect and everyone is really human.
It’s a fun read.

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Sunday, January 21, 2018

Review: Wolf Sanctuary: The Wolves of Speedwell Forge

Wolf Sanctuary: The Wolves of Speedwell Forge Wolf Sanctuary: The Wolves of Speedwell Forge by Chuck Rineer
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Disclaimer: ARC via Netgalley

If you live in Pennsylvania, you might have heard of Wolf Sanctuary founded and run by the Darlingtons. The Santuacry is a rescue sight for wolves that also educates visitors, though it is wolves first and visitors second. In other words, you need to make a reserveration.

Rineer’s book is a photographer’s look at the various packs that reside on the property. It is not a history of the foundation or of the various packs and wolves (though a brief overview is given). What is celebrated in this volume is the beauty of wolves in wonderful, striking photographs. The book includes brief descriptions of the relationships between the wolves as well as some facts.

Truthfully, the book’s selling points are the pictures of wolves during wolf things. Like standing and sleeping the snow, playing, sleeping, being pups.

So beautiful.

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Saturday, January 20, 2018

Review: Regal Academy #1: A School for Fairy Tales

Regal Academy #1: A School for Fairy Tales Regal Academy #1: A School for Fairy Tales by Luana Vergari
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Disclaimer: ARC via Netgalley

I haven’t seen the series on Nickelodeon, so I am coming to this as a newbie.

The story is a high school for the children or grandchildren of famous fairy tale characters. We are introduced to Rose who has a thing for shoes and literally falls though the rabbit hole. She discovers her relationship to Cinderella and is introduced to new friends, including a young woman who likes creepy crawlies but can also turn into a frog. There is a male Snow White too.

In many ways, the story is a mash up of Harry Potter ideas and a show like Disney’s Descendants. The fairy tale kids learn how to use magic, including pumpkin magic, and there is even some dragon riding.

While the mean girl and crew trope is used here, the story is largely about friends working together to succeed. Additionally, while the female characters are stereotypical drawn (in some cases without enough room for a stomach), there is no emphasis on looks. While Rose’s parents don’t look old enough to be her parents, her grandmother at least has wrinkles.

The stories are engaging, and the female characters do not need saving. In fact, it’s fun to read stories where female leads are feminine, friends, and not simply guys with boobs.

There are some nice cute nods to other versions – including a wonderful mouse character, Rose’s intense desire for shoes, and Rapunzel’s hair.

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Review: Queer City: Gay London from the Romans to the Present Day

Queer City: Gay London from the Romans to the Present Day Queer City: Gay London from the Romans to the Present Day by Peter Ackroyd
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Disclaimer: ARC via Netgalley

One of my closest friends is a gay man who is twenty plus years older than me. Most days, we take a walk though the local cemetery, The Woodlands (where Eakins and Stockton are buried among others). Early on in our ritual, we noticed a headstone for a couple, but the couple in this case were both men. Sadly, it was one of those couple headstones where one partner is still alive, and the other has died years ago. My friend said that it was likely that the husband had died of AIDS. When I asked him why, he pointed out the death date and the link to the AIDS epidemic. Seriously, after a conversation like that, you never look at tombstones the same way.

I found myself thinking about that as I read Peter Ackroyd’s Queer City.

Queer City is another entry into what I call Ackroyd’s London History series (London, The Thames, London Under), and, as the title indicts, follows the history of London’s Queer residents and culture. Queer here meaning homosexual and trans, which dates further back than you would think. Ackroyd’s Queer City is a bit close to a chronical history, in a way that the other London books are not, though much of the flow and hither and there is still present. You are either going to love this poetic style or hate it.

There is a level of almost catty gossip and sly humor to Ackroyd’s non-fiction books. Even a massive tome that is London doesn’t feel anyway near that long because of his tone. It engages the reader, moving the book far past a simple history book. So, we have observations like, “They were a tribe of Ganymedes and he was their Zeus”.

Yet, the book covers so much. Ackroyd starts during the Pre-Roman/Roman era, detailing even how gladiators weren’t perhaps quite the men we think they were (apparently, they really like perfume). He then moves to the advent of Christianity and the Anglo -Saxons. He does discuss not only homosexual men but women as well, noting that society’s view of women was also reflected in how society (not law, but society) viewed homosexual relationships.

Being Ackroyd, he is particularly interesting when discussing literature. There is a detailed look at Chaucer’s homosexual pilgrims as well as the view of the erotic theatre of Elizabeth’s time (“the codpieces were padded so the cods looked plumper”).

But he also doesn’t hesitate to describe punishment dealt out to those who did not fit the norm. We learn not only of whippings and beatings, but also of women slicing off a penis of an accused homosexual. We hear of what happened to two women, one of whom had married the other while disguised as a man. We learn more about those women who Waters wrote so well about in Tipping the Velvet. As well as certain Mrs. Bradshaw, who will get approving looks from Disc fans. We learn about the view of homosexuality and the arrival of AIDS in Britain. This last section of the book is perhaps the quickest and almost glossed over. I found myself wondering if this time period was too personal for Ackroyd to comfortably write about, at least in times of his story (Ackroyd’s long term partner Brian Kuhn died of AIDS in the 1990s).

It is this last section of the book that is at once the most hopeful and most touching. In the same chapter where he discusses the AIDS epidemic, he looks at the legislation of gay marriage as well as the phrase “check our privilege”, and this too made me think about the differences between then and now. How some younger members of queer culture (or transgender culture) are somewhat dismissive of those that came before. A trans person was dismissive of older homosexual because of lack of awareness of what that generation had endured. He was not aware of men and women being unable and even forbidden to attend the sick and death beds of loved ones. The word Stonewall to this young person meant little more than a Civil War Reference. The student lacked awareness and inability to see beyond or outside his own pain/frame of reference. It is also possible that this young man (his preferred description) had been condensed to by older homosexual/trans population. One can sense a missed discussion between groups. It is case like this that Ackroyd seems to be thinking about when he talks about checking privilege. He doesn’t claim immunity, but he is pushing towards an ability to talk, to discuss, to learn, to be better. Ackroyd is making a cause of understanding each other, in a way that the city he writes so passionately about seems to understand its residents.

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Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Review: The Haunted History of Huntingdonshire

The Haunted History of Huntingdonshire The Haunted History of Huntingdonshire by Mark Egerton
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Disclaimer: ARC via Netgalley

In fairness, I should not that this book committed one of my pet peeves – the use of whilst. Seriously, people need to stop with that.

That aside, this is a pretty good little book about the haunted areas of Huntingdonshire. Egerton covers a wide variety of places and different types of haunts. He also does the research and leg work into the stories, spending as much time the library or with local historians as camping out for the ghosts.

The style is light and enjoyable. You never feel like you are being given a history lecture or trying to be convert to “ghosts are real and you better believe”. There is a certain joy and wonder to Egerton’s style that transmits quite easily to the reader. He also gives you enough information for a reader to find the places.

Nicely done.

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Monday, January 8, 2018

Fire and Fury by Michael Wolff - 3 stars

Honesty, this really doesn't shed any new light on the shit storm that the White House.  For much of the book, you are really going like "no shit".  Wolff's writing is good, but at times you do wish he gone deeper - he's no David Simon, for instance.  But he does address the role of the media to a degree.

Highlights of the book's claims include

- no one liked the nightly dinners with Trump, they were torture.  Wolff doesn't say why, but I'm sure it was because everyone wanted two scoops of ice cream.

 - Trump is a spoiled actor (I would've added without the good looks).

-Kushner's family is not happy with him.

"Media is personal. It is a series of blood scores. The media in its often collective mind decides who is going to rise and who is going to fall, who lives and who dies. If you stay around long enough in the media eye, your fate, like that of a banana republic despot, is often an unkind one—a law Hillary Clinton was not able to circumvent."
-The Trumps do not share a bedroom, the first couple to have seperate bedrooms since the Kennedys.
- He eats Micky D's because he is fearful of getting poisoned
-Orange thinks all women in the DOJ hate him (called Yates a cunt might have something to do with this.  Being an accused rapist might be another reason).
-The Battle Flags in the Oval Office was Orange's idea
-we have confirmation that  Trump doesn't read and apparently did  buy text books or do homework in college.  Professor is a slur to Trump.
 - Another quote "Trump’s extemporaneous moments were always existential, but more so for his aides than for him. He spoke obliviously and happily, believing himself to be a perfect pitch raconteur and public performer, while everyone with him held their breath. If a wackadoo moment occurred on the occasions—the frequent occasions—when his remarks careened in no clear direction, his staff had to go into intense method-acting response. It took absolute discipline not to acknowledge what everyone could see."
- a description of Orange man - "An overweight seventy-year-old man with various physical phobias (for instance, he lied about his height to keep from having a body mass index that would label him as obese), he personally found health care and medical treatments of all kinds a distasteful subject"
- There's this gem "Women, according to Trump, were simply more loyal and trustworthy than men. Men might be more forceful and competent, but they were also more likely to have their own agendas. Women, by their nature, or Trump’s version of their nature, were more likely to focus their purpose on a man. A man like Trump."
-How Trump remembers the guy from China - "(This required some tutoring for Trump, who referred to the Chinese leader as “Mr. X-i”; the president was told to think of him as a woman and call him “she.”)"
-Kebbler the elf (Sessions" description: "A small man with a Mr. Magoo stature and an old-fashioned Southern accent, Sessions was bitterly mocked by the president"

Saturday, January 6, 2018

Review: The Belles

The Belles The Belles by Dhonielle Clayton
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

4.5 rounded up.

Disclaimer: ARC via Netgalley

We are constantly told that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and that is because there is some truth to the statement. Tastes are different after all. But the only time that phrase is trotted out on a regular basis is when talking to someone who is not the standard of beauty (or even okay looks) in society. A bit too heavy, a bit too skinny (less common I know), a nose that is a bit wrong.

Society and people can be cruel to those who don’t met or even care to met beauty standards, ever changing beauty standards too. While currently, body shape might be a consistent, hair styles, dress styles, make-up, and such always seem to be changing.

And the people judged most harshly for not meeting such standards due tend to be women. This isn’t to say that men (and boys) don’t feel the pressure to. But can you name me a movie where an overweight, unattractive woman got the hot stud? Or how about that version of Beauty and the Beast where the beast female?

Still waiting.

In part, this is because girls and women are bombarded with images from the start. As much as you love Disney movies, you have to acknowledge the princess mostly look like and barely have room for a stomach. Want a lower percentage, look at how many are not white. Do the same for pretty much any tv show, movie, or even singer.

Hell, the dancers on any dance show have been called fat by some jackass because they actually have hips.

We have ads that depict young girls dressing as adults. Not playing dress up but actually dress like they have double ds. We have clothes for young girls that say things like future trophy wife.

Clayton attacks society and culture’s obsession with beauty head on in this book.

The Belles takes place in a world where everyone is born grey. Th expectations to this seem to be the Belles, women (seemingly always women) have power. They are basically plastic surgeons who use magic (surgery is still painful, just done by magic). Every three years, a group of Belles is introduced to the court and then sent to severe the royal family and various houses. Camellia, as well as most of her five sisters, aspires to be the Royal favorite, to severe the royal family.

Hence the story starts.

At first, the novel seems to be standard YA. Cameilla is the most powerful of the current crop of Belles, she is a bit rebellious, and her closest rival is her closest friend. Of course, their friendship suffers in the competition to be the Royal Favorite. At the beginning, the only Belle that truly stands out besides Camellia who is telling the story, is her fellow Belle Edel who seems to have the most spirit.

But then Clayton does something that is absolutely brilliant. Usually in many YA and even in adult books, the heroine who tells the story is practically perfect. Clayton doesn’t do this. It’s true that Camellia is clueless in some places about her behavior, but the reader is aware of this. Clayton does this so well, so in part of the story is the mystery and part of it is rooting Camellia on to be a better person. Such change fits the character because there are flashes of it in the very beginning of the story.

This is also true about the world building which in the beginning seems a little confusing, but this is in part because of the Belles’ sheltered existence. Many times, both Camellia and the reader experience something for the first time. While the world is run by the idea of beauty, it is also a relatively open world – gay marriage, for instance, does seem to be allowed. At times, too, Camellia is aware of the different classes and different issues outside of her privilege position.

Slowly, she awakens to what her position really is. At first, one wonders if the Belles are really priestesses, but very quickly the parallels to slavery are shown, and Clayton does not really pull any punches with this connection. She may not be as direct as Whitehead’s Underground Railroad, but the point and setting are far different. Yet, Clayton does seem to draw in much in reference to actual historic slavery.

Another thing that send out in this book is the use of color. Everyone is born grey, and the skin color of a person can change. And before I go any farther in this paragraph, I need to point out a few things. One, I am a white woman who is overweight. Two, I never paid that much attention to people on the covers books until I became friends with Fountain Pen Diva on Goodreads. It would be fair to say that she woke me from my privilege and got me to notice how few people of color are on covers (she didn’t have to get me to notice how few people of color are in books as well, at least as the central figure). It was because her that I noticed this book. Clayton’s characters run the gamut of skin color, yet it is a legitimately varied existence. It isn’t like the all-white New York that seems to exist in so many forms of media. Camellia isn’t the only Belle (or central character) with dark skin, and all skin color, except grey, is shown to be equally admired and desirable by society. Clayton’s book is one of the few where I have seen this, Max Gladstone’s Craft books are another (maybe I am reading the wrong books). In many ways, this detail made me think of Coates’ comments about race.

Looks and race all in one book? And done well, too. Seriously, Clayton needs to win some awards by the end of the year. I give bonus points to Disney and Freeform for publishing this. And it passes the Bechdel test. This isn’t to say there isn’t a love triangle, but the ladies have more important things to worry about, like that mysterious crying.

Is The Belles a perfect book? No. I had some questions – for instance if the ruling line is matrilineal, then wouldn’t the Queen have lovers in addition to or even instead of the king – and the beginning of the book is a little slow, but with some very good, brave narrative choices. Still, despite the flaws, the book is quietly brilliant and stays with reader.

And I find myself waiting for a second book in a YA series.

And a new author to read.

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Monday, January 1, 2018

2017 Year End Awards

According to Goodreads, I read 685-689 books in 2017, for over 90,000 pages (my tally and GR’s differ slightly, and I’m not tracking down where the difference is).  The shortest book was the Moon Girl Devil Dinosaur Legacy Primer at four pages, and the longest was a Walking Dead Compendium Vol 1 at over a 1000.  My average rating was apparently 3.5.  A great many that I read were comics and short kindle eBooks, so 600 plus is a rather inflated number.

                While my reading list was higher this year, my time on some reading sites was less, and this is something I want to change.  Additionally, I failed to read later in the year to read the monthly installments from New York Review of Books and MyBookbox (this one only in Dec).  I aim to change that next year.

                Without further ado, this year’s reading rewards.  Please note, unless noted by a specific award title, any book read for the year is up.  (So older published works are in the running).

Best Book of the Year: This award is a three-way tie, and strangely all the books are non-fiction.
                                                Seven Fallen Feathers by Tanya Talaga
                                                Border: A Journey to the Edge of Europe by Kapka Kassbova
                                                The Infernal Library by Daniel Kalder

                                The Infernal Library isn’t going to being released until March 2018, but I read an ARC via Netgalley in the fall.  It is about doctor literature and Kalder is quite amusing.

                Talaga’s book is about the unsolved deaths of First Nation teens in Thunder Bay, Ontario.  It is also about the treatment of the indigenous population.  While Killers of the Flower Moon got more attention here in the US, Talaga’s book is actually a tad better.  I’m not saying Grann’s book isn’t good, it is, but Talaga’s is better.

                Kassbova’s book is about the border between Eastern and Western Europe, but in Bulgaria not Germany.  It is part folklore, part oral history, part love letter, and part poem.  I cannot think MyBookBox enough for making this one of the selections for this year.

Worst Book of the Year – Well, if I am counting DNFs (counted as a read if I read more than 50%), it is
                Nutshell by Ian McEwan.  Hamlet told in utero, I wanted the mother to have a late term abortion just to shut the fetus the hell up.  McEwan makes wonderful use of language, his sentences are beautiful, but of the three books I have read by him, two have made me wish violent harm on the characters simply so the book would be over.  The third both characters took each other out, which I found highly amusing.

                If I am not counting DNFs, it would be How to UnLock Her Legs Make A Woman to Have Sex With You and Do Anything For You.  I think the title tells you everything you need to know. 

                There are two close seconds here, Executive Assistant Isis vol 2 simply for the camel toe on the cover, and Spirits of Bondage by C. S. Lewis (yes, that one), which shows there is a reason why we never say “the well-known poet C. S. Lewis”.

Best Comic Series – I actually rediscovered comics this year.  I blame Wonder Woman because I got freebie Comixology books when I brought tickets. Its close but the top there are Beasts of Burden, Heathen, and Murena.

                Beasts of Burden is about a group of dogs and cats that solve supernatural mysteries.  Considering some of the subject matter it is not for children. Heathen is lesbian Vikings taking on Odin. Murena is about a young man in the Rome of Nero.  Think I, Claudius with equal nudity.

                Honorable mention to Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur.

Worst Comic Series: Witchblade.
                The two issues I read of this series really did nothing for me.

Still Good After All These Years: Rhinegold by Stephen Grundy.  It’s been at least a decade since I read this book, and it still stands the test of time. Grundy retells the Ring Cycle in epic form.

I Want This Comic Book Lead to Be Alive and Date Me: Super Sikh (yummy)

Andersen Retelling Award: Damsels: The Little Mermaid.  This is a retelling of the famous story.  Quite nicely done.

Grimm Retelling Award: Erstwhile Vol 3 – simply because of the use of minority characters.

So Bad Rolling Over in the Grave Retelling Award: Kill Shakespeare #1

This is Slow . . . wait, where did the Day Go Award: A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James.  The book is neither brief or about just seven killings.  It starts story, but picks up around 75 and then you cannot but it down.
This is Good . . . wait, what the hell happened Award: The Tiger’s Daughter by Rivera Arsenault.  Beautiful writing but several problems with plot, world building, and characters.  Beautiful cover too.

Why the F**k Did People Rave About This Award: Hillbilly Elegy by J. D. Vance.  I don’t blame Vance, he’s honest.  I blame reviewers.

Why the F**k Aren’t People Raving About This More Award: The Mice Templar series.  Mice with swords.  Eat your heart out rats of Nimh.

If Only I was Younger Award: Casquette Girls by Alys Arden.  I have feeling if I was part of the audience that this YA book was for, I would have enjoyed it far more.  As an adult, I found it a little slow and eye brow rising.  Yet Arden does a wonderful job with her female characters and the book safely passed the Bechdel test.

Made Me Laugh After a Day Spent Grading: Do or Die by E R Baine.  The heroine is wearing a pink fur coat in a tropical rain forest and it just goes downhill from there.

You Are Giving Romance a Bad Name Award: Gender Swap Group Love Pyramid by Jessica Nolan (who I am sure is a frat boy) tied with Misbehaving in Miami by Aimee Duffy.  These are the romances that Hilary Clinton was talking about.

Romance Reward: In Skates Trouble by Kate Meader (who should give Xio Axelrod a commission because she recommended the book).  I’m not a big hockey or a romance fan, but this is a damn fine book with nicely written characters, humor, and people acting people.  I actually brought the following book after reading this one.  This is a romance Hilary Clinton should read so she knows what real romance books are.
Everyone in America Should Read This but Orange Man Won’t Award: Stamped from the Beginning by Ibram X. Kendi.  A history of race in America.

Book Every Woman in America Should Read: Boundaries of Her Body by Debran Rowland.  A history of the laws effecting women in America.

Feminist Fiction Award: Camille Claudel by Anne Delbee.  The ground breaking autobiographical novel about the artist.

YA Award, and Use it in School: The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

Children’s Award: Scratch 9 FCBD

Interesting Point to Think About in Terms of Writing Award: Macho Paradox by Jackson Katz.  The section about passive voice should be used in every single writing class.

This Will Probably Suck but it is Free.. Wait, It’s Good:  The Overwatch Comic books series.  Seriously, nicely done with a variety of characters.

Can’t Wait for the TV Series: I hear Wayward is being made into a Japanese series.

FUNKO POP Do This Character Award: Margert from Curse Words.  She is a talking kola bear 
familiar who use to be a rat.

Mash Up Award: Mr. Men/Dr Who

Audio Book Award: Lincoln at the Bardo by George Saunders

Non-Fiction Award: Squid Empire by Danna Staaf

Memoir Award:  The Upstairs Wife by Rafia Zakaria

Art Book Award: She Who Tells a Story tied with Shirin Neshat Facing History

History Book Award: Dark City: Crime in Wartime London by Simon Read

Poetry Award: the various collections of Alice Walker and Magic with Skin On by Morgan Nikola-Wren

Best Start to a New Series: Terminal Alliance by Jim C Hines

Tie in Reward: The Star Trek Comics by IDW

International Award: Samskara by U. R. Ananthamurthy

Rage Inducing Award: The works of Ida B Wells tied with Unbelievable by Katy Tur

World War II Honor Award: Violette Szabo: The Life That I Have by Susan Ottaway

The Damn (in a good way) Award: The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor Lavallee

The Damn (in a bad way) Award: Ares the Origins and History by Charles River Editors.  Achilles was not frightened of Diomedes.

Multiple Good Installments in a Series Award: Peter Grant/Rivers of London.  Peter Grant is the novel, Rivers of London the comic series with same characters.  Also, the audio series McLevy.

Christmas Story: A Dangerous Nativity tied with Bespoke

Disappointing Award: On a Hoof and Prayer.

Don’t Judge a Book by Its Cover: Water and Fire by Demlza Cartlon

Amazon Should Do this Series Instead of LOTR Award: The Craft Sequence by Max Gladstone