Thursday 28 January 2021

Review: The Dream and the Muse

The Dream and the Muse The Dream and the Muse by Jake Burnett
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A delightful and original portal fantasy with a heroine who is not in any way conventional, in the process of discovering her potential.

Her mentor is an out-and-out rogue, but his caper turns out to be laudable. The whole thing is pretty much an ode to chaotic good.

Along the way, the characters visit a number of different worlds, including one where everyone is some kind of undead, a shattered planet where witches can each have their own asteroid, and a bastion of lawfulness/awfulness. Thirteen worlds are connected by a nexus, but we only hear about half a dozen by name, so there's scope for more adventures in this universe. The different worlds only really have one idea each - there's not much depth to them - but they're fun anyway.

The heroine's exploits are ingenious, her character is appealing, and all in all it's a good ride.

I received a copy via Netgalley for review.

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Monday 25 January 2021

Review: Merlin's Mirror

Merlin's Mirror Merlin's Mirror by Andre Norton
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Because the Arthurian legend is so well known and so established, we know more or less what's ultimately going to happen, but Norton makes the journey there interesting and unpredictable. It lacks any lightheartedness, which I miss, but that's not what she's going for. It's also told in a slightly elevated style, fortunately not as bad as some (looking at you, Vance), but just a bit distancing nonetheless.

It's presented as science fantasy. That aspect didn't quite work for me, because the effects are fantasy even where the causes are science (ancient aliens). While it does raise the stakes, it challenged my suspension of disbelief.

It needs more careful editing for scan errors. Mostly, these are full stops missing off the ends of sentences (and occasionally quotation marks, but that might have been in the original; it's a common fault). Sometimes, though, a word has been misread, and at least a couple of them looked as if spellcheck should have caught them. It's not anything like as bad as another Norton book I had from Open Road, though, which made me wary of their books for some time.

Still, when your business is reissuing old books, and scanning is the way you usually do that, you'd think that your editors would be better at fixing the inevitable errors than this example shows to be the case.

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Thursday 21 January 2021

Review: Fate Accompli

Fate Accompli Fate Accompli by Keith R. Fentonmiller
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I had to think about the four-star rating; the downbeat-but-somehow-vaguely-hopeful ending wasn't what I'd hoped for (though it was adequately foreshadowed by earlier events that things might not go well). The humour is definitely on the dark side, which isn't usually to my taste. Think Terry Pratchett's (or maybe Tom Holt's) hapless and somewhat nebbish characters, but in a less kind and generous universe. It was well enough done, though, to keep the fourth star.

Some interesting play with Greek mythology here. Quite a bit of anachronism (probably intentional, for purposes of humour).

I read a pre-publication version via Netgalley, and there were some shockingly basic homonym errors, but hopefully those will be fixed by the time of publication. The prose was otherwise decent, so I have to wonder if the book was written using dictation software.

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Review: Battle Ground

Battle Ground Battle Ground by Jim Butcher
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Excerpts from the mental soundtrack of me reading Battle Ground:

I like Murphy.

I like Murphy.

I really like Murphy.


This is intense.

This is really intense.

Whew, that was quite a ride, now we get the wind-down and wrap-up and OH WOW I did not see that coming.

It's a roller-coaster ride, if a roller-coaster ride started with being shot out of a cannon, and also shot at. By a cannon.

Right from Chapter 1, Harry is in big trouble, and he takes a lot of losses and a lot of damage along the way. But throughout, he retains his heart and his dedication to protecting as many people as he can, whatever it costs. Along the way, his complicated and extensive array of enemies, allies, and people who might be one or the other depending on the day and hour flexes and morphs and ebbs and flows and fights and, frequently, dies.

There are what feel like non-stop action sequences almost throughout, but they always mean something to the story; they're not just there to be set-pieces or fill in time. The best comparison I can make is that this is more like a Daniel Craig Bond movie than a Pierce Brosnan Bond movie. More Avengers than Transformers, if you prefer.

The several-year gap between Dresden books has not led to Butcher's writing powers waning, or to him going soft; this is as well-crafted and hard-hitting as any of the previous books (maybe not quite as hard-hitting as Changes, but what is?) It was dark in many places, and grueling, but I was 100% up for it, because of everything that's gone before and who Harry is and what he stands for.

Dresden is back. And, just like every other time, it's personal.

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Tuesday 12 January 2021

Top Books for 2020

So, 2020. It's been a year, hasn't it? A terrible year in a lot of ways. But in terms of me reading books I liked, actually a really good year, so there's that.

This is my seventh annual roundup of the books I read in a year. Earlier instalments are here: my top 20 books for 2019, my top 19 books for 2018my top 17 books for 2017,  my top 16 books for 2016 (actually only 15), my top 15 books for 2015, and my top 14 books for 2014. Note that these are books I read in those years, not books published in those years - though these days I am reading a lot from Netgalley, which are often advance copies of books that haven't yet been published, so a higher proportion of my reading is books published in the year I read them (or, occasionally, even the following year).

I noticed just recently that the total of the first six years comes to 100 books, a nice round number. This year, I added 32 more books to that total, which is significantly more than past years. I stopped arbitrarily tying the number to the last digits of the year a couple of years ago, and now if a book reaches a certain standard - basically "I would recommend this" - it goes into the Top Books list. Five-star books automatically go on the Best-Of list, and it also includes a selection of four-star books that I think are worthy of mention.

No Most Disappointing Book of the Year anti-prize this year. Maybe that only happens in odd-numbered years? So far I've awarded one in 2017 and another in 2019, for books that, based on the author's other work, should have been much better than they were. I did read several books by Carrie Vaughn that I thought were not up to her usual standard, but they weren't so bad as to be award-worthy.

I will mention a series that, if it didn't have such terrible copy editing, would have had representation here: Arthur Mayor's Superpower Chronicles. The first book did actually make the 2019 list, but despite their excellent banter and a main character determined to do the right thing and struggling believably with what the right thing is, the sad state of the copy editing kept the subsequent books off this year's list. It does improve a little by the fourth book, though neither author nor editor appears to have run spell check on any of them, including that one.

Overall Statistics

I read and rated 82 books in total in 2020, back up from the unusually low 65 of 2019 and closer to the kind of numbers I've logged in previous years. I may have spent more time reading because I spent less (almost no) time commuting. I started and abandoned a few books that aren't reflected in the total, as usual. I also read some books this year that I didn't rate for various reasons; some because they're comic books and I'm not sure how I'd rate them, some because they're cookbooks and you never truly "finish" reading a cookbook, some because I wrote them and I think authors rating their own stuff is tacky (I re-read the Auckland Allies series to prepare for writing the next volume, since it's been a few years since the last one), and one because I read an extended sample (that's issued as its own book) and decided not to read the whole thing. There was also one that was in a Storybundle that I also participated in, and I didn't want to rate it because of conflict of interest. I've only counted the books I rated in the total, to keep the numbers simple.

I did re-read a few books this year, including one (Jim Butcher's Skin Game) that I first read in 2014 but did not include in the 14 best books I read in 2014. Since inclusion is now based on meeting a standard rather than fitting into an arbitrary number, I decided to include Skin Game in the 2020 list. I've already decided, though, that if I re-read a Best Of book in a subsequent year, it doesn't qualify to go into that year's Best Of list as well (though I will mention it).

Here are my figures in a table:

5 star4 star3 star2 starTotal

The 5-star book number is close to my historical average, which eases my concern that the 32 books on the top list represent grade inflation. Probably what I should do is realign my star allocation system, so that 5-star is outstanding, 4-star is good enough to get on the top list, 3-star is a bit disappointing or flawed, and 2-star is significantly disappointing or flawed. That would move 21 books down from 4 stars to 3, and the existing 21 3-star books would go down to 2-star. How I do it currently is I start out at a nominal four stars, and boost it up one if the book is especially good or drop it down one if there's something that hindered my enjoyment. Two stars indicates that, while not lacking any redeeming qualities at all, for me the book was a failure. But that does leave a two-tiered system at the four-star level; there are some that make it to my Best of the Year and some that don't. I might or might not change my approach next year.


Where did I get these books? This year, 41 - exactly half the total - came from Netgalley: 3 of the 8 five-star books, 23 of the 53 four-star books (including 14 that made it to the Best Of), and 15 of the 21 three-star books.

Six came from BookBub (fewer than I'd thought): 1 five-star, 2 four-star including 1 Best Of, and 3 three-stars. Two of the BookBub titles went on my Needs Editing shelf, 0 on my Seriously Needs Editing shelf, and 4 on my Well-Edited shelf, which is nice.

Two came from the library (basically ones that I wanted to read but wouldn't pay the exhorbitant price of the ebook, both by Jim Butcher, both making the Best Of).

Eight came from my Await Ebook Price Drop wish list on Amazon, where I park the books I hear about from various sources and want to read, but that are (for me) overpriced. Yes, I'm cheap. The New Zealand dollar doesn't buy much in USD, and I only read most books once, so I'm willing to wait until they're on sale. Of these 8, 2 were 5-star, 5 were 4-star (including one that made the Best Of list), and two were 3-star, which I think justifies my strategy of waiting until they didn't cost me much.

The remainder were either found browsing Amazon, came from Amazon's recommendations, or were continuations of series I'd read previously. This year, I adopted the strategy, when short of good books, of going back over my previous Best Of lists and looking for sequels to those books, and I found 6 books that way, all of which themselves ended up on this year's list.

Top-Rated Books

So, here is my list, ranked in ascending order. Your taste may well vary, and on a different day, my rankings might vary too.

Links are, as usual, to my Goodreads reviews.

First, the books that didn't quite make it to five stars, but were strong four-star books. Honestly, most of these are much at a level; don't take the order too seriously apart from the first few.

32. A Hat Full of Sky, Terry Pratchett (re-read). Though I enjoy the Nac Mac Feegles, I don't love the Tiffany Aching books as much as some of the other Pratchetts, and re-reading them this year showed me why: the main character lacks protagonism sometimes, relying heavily on the help of others to resolve the plot, and the plots tend to be put in motion in the first place by bad decision-making on her part - which, given that she's depicted as an almost pathologically sensible young woman, is ironic, at best. Still enjoyable despite this.
31. The Midnight Queen, Sylvia Izzo Hunter. Points off for excessive coincidence, but big points back for thinking through the names. Deep, beautifully literate, and with well-paced romance and thriller plots.
30. Superior: The Return of Race Science, Angela Saini (non-fiction). This author's first book covered how scientists have tried to prove that women are inferior to men, and failed; this one does the same thing with the kinds of race theories that are re-emerging along with a resurgence of white supremacy. Thought-provoking in its well-argued challenge to widespread assumptions about race, and in its warning about the potential hijacking of the scientific enterprise.
29. Among Others, Jo Walton. Somewhat autobiographical, but with fae, this tale of an intelligent Welsh teenager growing up in the 1980s is wonderfully written, if lacking a little in clarity of purpose.
28. Or What You Will, Jo Walton. Plays with the idea of fictional characters being real, portal fantasy, and bits of research left over from the author's other novel set in Renaissance Florence. A bit too clever for its own good in the end, but still enjoyable.
27. Corpselight, Angela Slatter. Strong urban fantasy, flawed slightly by making everything about the protagonist, but still a good read, with a strong theme about motherhood.
26. Now, Then, and Everywhen, Rysa Walker. Well-researched time travel novel involving the Beatles and the Ku Klux Klan fighting the culture wars of the 1960s, while the time travellers battle an incursion from another reality that threatens to wipe out their own time.
25. The Left-Handed Booksellers of London, Garth Nix. Few authors are as original and inventive as Nix, and this book shows him in fine form, writing one of his trademark capable young female characters as she encounters the supernatural underbelly of England.
24. Spellbreaker, Charlie N. Holmberg. A young woman with a Robin Hood complex and the power to undo spells discovers all is not as it seems and meets a sympathetic magician in a fantasy version of 19th-century England.
23. Haunted Heroine, Sarah Kuhn. Not quite the superhero story I was expecting, but it's a completely different kind of good thing, with plenty of character growth as well as a strong mystery plot. Has some insightful and non-preachy things to say about what it's like to be a young non-white woman in today's US, and how people might deal with that, that are worth listening to. Sequel to a book that made my 2018 list.
22. Kitra, Gideon Marcus. Well paced, adventurous, emotionally satisfying space opera that's also more than usually plausible as SF.
21. Rediscovery: Science Fiction by Women (1958 to 1963), Gideon Marcus. Some excellent stories by writers you've probably never heard of that are, indeed, ripe for rediscovery.
20. Red, White, and the Blues, Rysa Walker. Sequel to Now, Then, and Everywhen; the tension escalates as the time travelers try to reverse a change to the timeline that kept the US out of World War II. There's plenty of research, but we're not battered over the head with it; it's all relevant.
19. Defending the Galaxy, Maria V. Snyder. If you're going to have a Chosen One, let her be like this Chosen One, who is smart, principled, competent, and works hard and makes good decisions. Original premise, good execution.
18. Brief Cases, Jim Butcher. Short stories, giving Butcher an opportunity to show us his world from the viewpoint of other characters in addition to Harry Dresden. The concluding story, which was written for this volume, takes particular advantage of this opportunity, giving us three different perspectives on the same seemingly innocent father-daughter-dog trip to the zoo.
17. Skin Game, Jim Butcher (re-read). A glorious supernatural heist drawing on most of the developments from the entire series up to this point, which I re-read to prep for the next book. Reminded me why I enjoy Butcher so much.
16. Spellmaker, Charlie N. Holmberg. Sequel to Spellbreaker, also on this list, and you need to start with the first one; a satisfying romance subplot and a strong fantasy adventure as the main plot.
15. Windsinger, A.F.E. Smith. Third in a series; the first made my 2016 list. Noblebright characters in a dark world, and excellent prose.
14. Nucleation, Kimberley Unger. A gripping near-future mystery/thriller in which the SF premise is essential to the plot.
13. The Last Uncharted Sky, Curtis Craddock. Third in a series; the first featured on my 2017 list, and I somehow missed the second, but managed to keep up. Original setting full of wonders, noblebright characters in a cynical world who win by being kind, swashbuckling and adventure... I was always going to love this.
12. Peace Talks, Jim Butcher. A clever piece of writing; instead of focusing on the scary cosmic-level problem that progresses only a little in the course of the book, focuses on the family-level problem(s) Harry faces, and so builds a complete story with a resolution within this volume.
11. Pundragon, Chandra Clarke. Genuinely funny fantasy with a brain, a heart, and some courage.
10. Gods and Lies, Elizabeth Vail. A fresh and interesting fantasy setting based loosely on Greco-Roman mythology, but also a contemporary police procedural, with a lot to say about people who think themselves above the law.
9. The Best Thing You Can Steal, Simon R. Green. A heist book, which I love, and with the Robin Hood trope (the crew is stealing from the worst man in the world). The offbeat, mostly supernatural characters and the excellent action more than make up for Green's signature dark content.

Now the 5-star books:

8. The Legend of Eli Monpress, Rachel Aaron (re-read). I do love a fantasy heist, and this is another one (or several, since this is the first three books of the series in one volume). I only re-read the first two, since after that it took a left turn away from the heists into something else, also good but not as fun.
7. The Wee Free Men, Terry Pratchett (re-read). Tiffany has more agency, and there are more Nac Mac Feegles, in this book than in any of the later ones in the series; it's crisper and has more clarity, too.
6. Doors of Sleep, Tim Pratt. A multiverse story with a well-intentioned protagonist, some good supporting characters, and something to say about power.
5. The Sol Majestic, Ferrett Steinmetz. Insight, drama, bravura writing, and a high-end restaurant as the background. Pulls off the difficult Glorious Ending feat.
4. Shorefall, Robert Jackson Bennett. Original setting and magic system, capable prose, spectacular set-pieces, compelling plot, noblebright-ish characters in a dark world, heists, fights, teamwork, and reflections on how connection with people is more important than power over them. Pretty much everything I love in a book, though it's also darker and more downbeat than I prefer.
3. The Eye of Night, Pauline J. Alama. Not your usual epic fantasy, and the nobles are a scurvy lot; but it's not your usual sword-and-sorcery either. Not usual in pretty much any way, in fact. Noblebright characters in a dark world.
2. The Iron Will of Genie Lo, F.C. Yee. Sequel to a book that made the 2018 list. A good blend of action and depth; self-reflective and explores identity issues, without being self-indulgent, precious, or brittle. Flawed characters that are full of heart.
1. The Midnight Bargain, C.L. Polk. An intelligent fantasy Regency-style romance, with a premise that reinforces the theme extremely well.

Author Gender Breakdown

I started compiling figures for author gender (based on what's on their Goodreads profiles) for my top list in 2018. Without operating a quota system of any kind, I've tended to find myself reading about 50/50 male and female authors overall, though I think that's slowly changing; by my count, I read 38 male and 43 female authors across 82 books in 2020 (one author doesn't disclose their gender). The numbers in my top lists skew female most years, though, including this one. Note that the following table adds to more than 132 because some books have more than one author. I count an author each time they appear on the list.


Protagonist gender is even more skewed towards female, which is a conscious choice (I just find women more interesting protagonists). There are roughly 23 female protagonists and 14 male protagonists (depending how you define protagonist) in this year's top list. Some books have more than one protagonist, and I have ignored short story collections for the sake of simplicity.

What Makes These Books the Best?

Clearly this has been a year of many fantasy heists with noblebright characters in a dark world, as far as I'm concerned. I could probably draw a parallel with real-life 2020, in which many clever, good-hearted people did their best in dark times to pull off complex things for the benefit of others.
But that's about my taste. Why are these 32 books, out of the 82 I read, the ones I'd recommend? It's because they all do something well, even if they don't all do everything well. Sometimes it's prose, sometimes it's setting, sometimes it's character or plot or theme, but all of them are above average in at least one aspect, often more than one. Also, many of them are original, often startlingly original, in their premise or worldbuilding, and none of them just coast along on a well-worn set of tropes.
I've started using a new tag (or "shelf") on Goodreads this year: "made-from-box-mix". What I mean by that is that it's a book that's written so much to a formula that it's completely interchangeable with any of a thousand others; it brings nothing new or unique to the table. I know some people just want to read variations on the same book over and over again, but I don't. I want something that I haven't seen before, that will challenge me to think and feel new things. And these 32 books provided that, in many different ways.
It's been another good year for books, even if it's been a crap year overall. I hope you can join me again next year.

Monday 11 January 2021

Review: A Master of Djinn

A Master of Djinn A Master of Djinn by P. Djèlí Clark
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A strong adventure story with a postcolonial sensibility; the stupid/nasty English people approach the status of caricatures, but unfortunately are probably pretty accurate.

I've read a previous story with the same main character, and enjoyed it, so I requested this one from Netgalley - thanks to the publisher for granting my request. The pre-publication ARC I had included some mangled idioms and vocab glitches, something that will hopefully be polished up before publication. The author also has a bad habit of "said bookisms"; people don't just say things, they "speak" them or "relate" them or "voice" them.

There were one or two setting details I didn't quite believe, like most Western countries rejecting the use of magic despite the power it offered. I also didn't believe that the protagonist could afford so many high-end suits on her salary as a government employee. Also, the agents seemed slow on the uptake, only figuring key plot points out long after they'd become obvious to me. But the action was good, the main character's determination, competence, and dedication to doing the right thing made her appealing to me, and the setting was well evoked.

I do hope that the published version includes (perhaps in X-Ray or in back matter) some assistance with Egyptian vocabulary, since there were quite a few words that neither my Kindle dictionary nor Wikipedia could explain to me. I was often left assuming from context "this is some sort of garment" or "this is some sort of food" without any really concrete or specific image.

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Review: Sense and Scent Ability

Sense and Scent Ability Sense and Scent Ability by Renee George
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A mediocre example of a genre that, in my experience, tends to mediocrity. The mystery is largely progressed through the main character's unexplained superpower, but the solution ends up basically being dropped in her lap anyway. The romance subplot is even less developed, and seems to exist basically because it's expected to, not because the couple is particularly likely; there's little if any justification on the page for their romance.

"Expected" describes the book pretty well, in fact. The love interest even has green eyes - that's the level of cliche we're dealing with. The main character (I hesitate to say "protagonist" - she does try to solve the story problem, but as I mentioned doesn't really resolve it, instead being handed the solution) is the usual small-town small business owner. She can take extended time away from her business without issue in order to deal with the plot, though, because she has a faithful assistant. Her BFF doubles as the murder suspect. There's a hot cop as the love interest. It's all made from box mix.

If you have an endless appetite for books exactly like this, this is one. If you're looking for originality and capable execution of mystery and romance plots that work in their own right, which I was, this is not the book for you.

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Review: Half a Soul

Half a Soul Half a Soul by Olivia Atwater
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The first entry in my Best of the Year for 2021 is a rather delightful combination of Regency romance and fae-based fantasy. The latter part is somewhat reminiscent of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, though the tone is much lighter.

All the usual Regency business of women's economic security being inextricably tied to making a good marriage is there, but with the added complication of the protagonist being under what is effectively a fairy curse that leaves her largely unemotional and inclined to say and do socially inept things. When she meets a magician who despises the pretense and pretensions of society, an unlikely romance ensues. It's not just a romance story, though; there's a social awareness a lot deeper than in a lot of Regency fare, and a strong plot involving sacrifice for others' benefit.

The author does have a few vocabulary stumbles (common for books with an historical setting), using, for example, a couple of words ("brunch" and "couth") that were not invented until the late 19th century, the second of which is used in an unlikely context. She also hyphenates where she shouldn't, and doesn't always capitalize where she should, and there are a couple of mislocated commas. Overall, the copy editing is average.

The execution of the story, however, and the originality of the concept are both above average, and I recommend it.

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Review: The Left-Handed Booksellers of London

The Left-Handed Booksellers of London The Left-Handed Booksellers of London by Garth Nix
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I generally enjoy Garth Nix's writing, even though he tends darker than I prefer, and this is no exception (though it's not especially dark for the most part).

A determined and competent young female protagonist is always going to get a good rating from me, all else being equal, and in Susan we definitely have one of those. The hidden world of the Booksellers is delightful and full of wonders, reminiscent not only of Rowling's Wizarding World but also Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere. The authentic 1980s setting (the author lived in London in the 80s) reminded me of Jo Walton's Among Others. But despite those comparisons, this is very much an original, and I hope it becomes a series.

It strikes a good balance of setting, character, and plot, there's both action and contemplation, and overall it deservedly became the final entry in my 2020 Best Of list when I finished it on New Year's Eve.

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Review: Spell of Intrigue

Spell of Intrigue Spell of Intrigue by Mayer Alan Brenner
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The unfortunate thing about books from pre-ebook times being made available as ebooks is that it's astonishingly rare for the publisher to proofread them properly to sort out all the errors made in scanning - even though, often, spell check would catch a good number of them. This one is an example of the problem, with lots of commas misread as periods, some odd spacing that often turns the quotation marks in the wrong direction, and several outright misreadings of individual words. See my notes and highlights.

It's a little too slow-paced at times, and the plot is convoluted (as the title suggests), which, along with the need for proofreading, kept it off my Best of the Year list. I did enjoy it, though, and I plan to read the sequel - which, like this, I bought on sale, as $7.99 is too much to pay for an old, not outstanding book that has been poorly proofed.

Repeats the error from the first book of using the word "omnipotence" where it means "omniscience".

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Monday 4 January 2021

Review: I Pose

I Pose I Pose by Stella Benson
My rating: 0 of 5 stars

Tremendously popular and widely praised when it came out just over a century ago - and I'm not sure why. It's self-consciously self-conscious, with a highly intrusive narrator who reminds the reader frequently that it's a novel, and judges the poor characters constantly. It's like a postmodern novel before its time - and from me, that isn't praise.

All the characters are small-minded, small-souled, and small-hearted. The author gives the impression that she doesn't believe in the existence of large minds, hearts, or souls; a couple of the characters have large bodies, though, which she mocks.

I stopped a third of the way through, after some passages that, while they might have been considered acceptable a hundred years ago, read as vilely racist today.

Historical interest only.

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