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A Note to My Daughter

On the fields of friendly strife are sown the seeds that on other days and other fields will bear the fruits of victory. — General Douglas MacArthur

My Darling Daughter,

I’m having fun following your battles on the debate circuit. General MacArthur’s quote applies just as well, I think, to this endeavor as to his original reference to sports like football and basketball. Your competition is on the gridiron of the mind, perhaps the “ultimate test of cerebral fitness,” in the immortal words of Murray Head.

In any competition, your adversaries will sometimes play dirty, and they’ll often get away with it. As you expected, someone finally resorted to a small-minded ad hominem attack that asserted you had no business talking about Topic X because you weren’t from Race Y and Class Z, as if ideas were somehow bounded by genetics and caste, or truth determined by the language employed to express it.

Of course, there's always *my* way...Any advice I might offer with regard to defending yourself in a debate would likely be as welcome as my thoughts on haute couture, and I don’t know anyone better equipped to handle themselves in an intellectual knife fight than you. Still, one of my jobs as your father is to remind you from time to time about things you already know that might be nice to remember when somebody is saying your arguments don’t count because you’re a white girl from Kansas.

1. If your opponent opts to call you names rather than engage the merits of your argument, you can be pretty sure they have no ideas of their own worth mentioning. It’s the rhetorical equivalent of wetting their pants. Call up that image the next time this happens.

2. Wisdom and sound reasoning aren’t a zero-sum game in which inspiration from one source necessarily comes at the expense of another. This broken planet needs all the good ideas it can get, from everyone, and we do ourselves no favors by telling one part of our global society to shut up because of the circumstances of their birth. Being born into a particular culture isn’t the only way to gain a deep understanding of it. Sometimes the perspective of an “outsider” can reveal truth invisible to someone on the inside.

3. If we banned people from our conversations because their formative years were too privileged or insufficiently oppressed, we’d have to discard the contributions of people like Siddhartha Gautama, Francis of Assisi, Katherine Drexel, Mohandas Gandhi, Eleanor Roosevelt, Albert Schweitzer, and more others than I care to list. Some employed their wealth to help the poor, some abandoned material prosperity to serve among people in need, but all of them made a profound impact that changed their world for the better through the force of their ideas and the power of their example.

I’m proud of you. Hang in there and fight on.

All My Love,

Dad

 
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Posted by on October 21, 2014 in Family, Opinion

 

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Drive By Sci Fi #4: The Andromeda Strain

AStrainposter

What do an alcoholic derelict and a fussy baby have in common?

This is the question posed by The Andromeda Strain, and the answer might just save the human race from extinction.

The Ebola outbreak currently ravaging West Africa and threatening to leapfrog across the planet brought Michael Crichton’s techno-thriller and its 1971 film incarnation to mind this week as another example of science fiction colliding with current events. In retrospect, it seems eerily prescient with regard to its depiction of bureaucratic dithering in crisis, the challenge of warding off an impending epidemic, and the unintended consequences that occur when precautions that seem bulletproof are put to the test in real life. When you’re trying to stop a contagious disease, the shadow of Murphy looms large and the laws of probability evaporate.

I’ve not read the novel, but the movie scared the living daylights out of me as a kid. Here’s how it all goes down, and I’ll try to avoid being spoilerific:

andromeda strain 3

Where’s Waldo? Right here.

A satellite crashes near a little community in a remote corner of New Mexico, and the government sends a recovery team, which almost immediately goes radio-silent. Another team goes in with full hazmat gear, discovering the first team and the entire population of the town is dead, their blood congealed into a nasty powder. Everybody is dead, that is, except for a crusty old wino and a squalling infant.

Team 2 collects the bum, the baby, and the satellite, and all are transported to Wildfire, a super-secret-secret-squirrel bio-agent confinement and analysis lab buried several hundred feet below the Mojave Desert. Wildfire’s scientific Dream Team sets to work, and they find a previously unknown, incredibly virulent, and very lethal microorganism contaminating the satellite. The plague is apparently of extraterrestrial origin, and it’s mutating faster than anything they’ve ever seen.

The survival of the bum and baby remains a mystery, but it’s clearly the key to stopping this terror.

Until it mutates the ability to eat plastic and breaks free from containment.

That's right, Doctor. Have the wino carry the baby.

That’s right, Doctor. Have the wino carry the baby.

Not to worry—our best minds designed this facility. It’s foolproof. Wildfire’s automatic failsafe starts the clock on a nuclear bomb meant to sterilize the site if security should somehow be breached. Our heroes, however, realize an atomic detonation will both accelerate this particular disease agent’s multiplication and launch it skyward, where the upper atmosphere’s gentle zephyrs will waft it across the globe.

Oops.

Nervous yet? This is as far as I’ll go with a recap. Many other things go badly wrong, and much perspiration is perspired. Watch the movie. It goes well with carefully sterilized popcorn and stars some fun acting talent like Arthur Hill, James Olson, Paula Kelly, and David Wayne. There’s even an uncredited cameo by Mr. Crichton himself.

I suppose this movie made such an impact on my younger self because it so clearly portrayed the idea that many of the people I relied upon to keep my world safe and orderly might not be so reliable as I imagined. Leaders confronted with the unknown in The Andromeda Strain didn’t make good decisions under pressure, and scientific knowledge, though important and helpful, was far from comprehensive or infallible. Smart people could and did screw things up royally.

Plus, Space Germs.

Ebola, meanwhile, isn’t our first plague and certainly won’t be our last. It’s a horrifying disease, but with regard to virulence, it pales in comparison to the Black Death or the Influenza Pandemic of 1918. It’s containable, although, given our current level of bioscience skill and technology, it’s a bit surprising we haven’t come up with an effective treatment yet. We’ve known about this savage little bug since 1976.

Perhaps if it had arrived in New Mexico on a satellite, we’d have shown more of a sense of urgency.

 
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Posted by on October 5, 2014 in Opinion, Technology, Writing

 

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Post-Hiatus

Hiatus. It’s an ungainly word that means “a break or interruption in continuity.” If you’re one of the five faithful readers of this blog, or anybody with whom I correspond more or less regularly, you know I’ve been mostly off the net for a while without explanation. It was due to a convergence of issues, some under my control, others not so much.

No major crisis, no emotional breakdown, no terrorist kidnapping. Just a conglomeration of stuff. Broken computers, stricter protocols on private use of the internet at work, moving my daughter to her new college, birthday celebrations, job assignments, drained mental batteries, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

Anyhow, like Noisy Nora, I’m back again with a monumental crash.

Here are a few things that happened while I was away that seem to deserve comment, in no particular order of time or priority:

"I deny your reality and substitute my own!"Meep-Meep: The Darling Daughter is now enrolled as a sophomore at the University of Texas San Antonio, Home of the Roadrunners, where she secured a debate scholarship and is studying college stuff when not arguing the merits and demerits of the War Powers Act, legalized gambling, fracking, and other urgent social controversies, ad nauseam, with ruthless precision. She and her partner won their division in this year’s first tournament, so she’s off to a good start. She likes her classes (with the possible exception of the mandatory Texas Politics course), she’s got a good job that flexes with her school schedule, and San Antonio seems to agree with her.

I’ve posted previously about her two rounds of Basic Cadet Training at the US Air Force Academy, where she was stymied by a pair of freak accidents that resulted in a torn knee ligament and a broken ankle.  After much soul-searching and prayer, she decided that two tries were enough, and perhaps she was being guided in a different direction. Having gone through Basic just the one time myself, I agreed she’d given that opportunity more than a fair chance. There have been some dismaying changes at USAFA over the past several years, and I can see that what might have been the right place for her at one time probably isn’t so any longer. She learned some important things from her experience there, and she’s the stronger for it, so it certainly wasn’t wasted time.

mangalyaan-probeSadly, There Is No Curry on Mars:  India’s space agency, ISRO, successfully placed its Mangalyaan  satellite (aka Mars Orbiter Mission, or “MOM,” gotta love that) into Mars orbit this week, on a modest budget and a whole lot of ingenuity, right behind NASA’s considerably more expensive MAVEN probe. Good on ‘em, and the more the merrier. I’m anticipating some spectacular images of Comet Siding Spring, which brushes by Mars within 82000 km on October 19. China, meanwhile, issued a press release stating  that they are NOT jealous of India’s accomplishment, no way, no how. Mm-hmm.

UPDATE (22 Oct 14): The Siding Spring images were good, but not spectacular. Here’s a link to NASA’s archive of photos from its various satellites and rovers, plus some misleadingly bombastic conceptual art.

2305952Bon Temps Bonté: This has been in the works for over a year now, but my short story “Not So Vast a Space” debuts this month in the preview issue of Port Yonder Press‘ new literary journal, The Bonté Review. You might remember that the story was originally written for Book of Sylvari – An Anthology of Elves, but Port Yonder Press decided to go a different direction with its approach to short stories. Happily, my story was not left behind. The Bonté Review includes a variety of genre fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and art, and provides a nice taste of the realistic, thoughtful writing focused on the human condition you can expect from Port Yonder, though my story subverts that approach, just a bit. The preview issue is currently offered only to Port Yonder Press supporters, so inquire at their webpage if you’d like a copy.

Pulling the Hydra’s Teeth: I was gratified to see the U.S. government muster the wherewithal to mobilize a multinational coalition for the purpose of stamping out ISIS, or ISIL, or IS, or whatever we’re calling it this week. I expected some World Heritage Site plus a few thousand civilians would have to explode before anyone took substantive action, so that’s a plus. I’m skeptical we’ll be able to shut ISIS down entirely from the air (and I’m an airpower guy), but this particular brand of thug isn’t as circumspect as some of its predecessors with regard to operating out in the open where precision-guided munitions work best. They’re not at all cautious about chattering on social media, either, which should be saving our intelligence community a ton of effort locating them. One interesting press release described our attacks on “mobile refineries,” a sort of kit-car approach to oil processing that generates a large chunk of ISIS’ revenue. I’d never heard of these before, but they seem to be a big thing now, ironically touted as a way for countries with oil resources in “danger zones” to refine their crude at lower risk and cost. Anyhow, we’ll see how well the “caliphate” holds up when it can’t pay its cannon fodder or provide them bullets, beans, and shiny new Toyota Tacomas to replace the ones we’re blowing to smithereens. Takes a bit of the gloss off “terror tourism.“

equoidCredibility Lost:  In catching up on a few of the winning stories from this year’s Hugo Awards, I encountered Charles Stross’ novella, Equoid,* which begins as a clever pastiche of H.P. Lovecraft and his tales of eldritch horror but devolves into something else entirely and resorts to one of the most offensive clichés of back-alley pulp spec-fic and hentai manga: the tentacle rape of a young woman. It’s ironic…Lovecraft is routinely lambasted for being a misogynist, but he never exploited sexual assault on a female character to embellish an atmosphere of horror. Stross’ fans assert this explicit content isn’t necessarily representative of his work in general or other stories in his Laundry Files series about a British agency fighting “occult threats from beyond spacetime.”

Popular science fiction writer and pundit John Scalzi, de-facto leader of a faction that has spent much time over the past couple of years crusading against misogyny and patriarchal culture in the speculative fiction community, lauded the story and affirmed Stross’ credit for inspiring it during a 2008 bar conversation about an idea for an anthology that mashed-up unicorns and a degrading sexual act. Both authors seemed to think the concept was rather amusing, and Stross took up Scalzi’s challenge to write a story about it.

So, the whole thing began as a dirty joke between a couple of fraternity bros, which is banal enough, but after the story’s written, after the award is presented, they’re still laughing about it.

Responses to Equoid’s public posting on the Tor website were celebratory, for the most part. A few readers expressed some discomfort with the subject matter without directly criticizing the story. One ventured that, in light of Lovecraft’s literary restraint, Stross’ portrayal felt a bit gratuitous.

The reactions seemed oddly subdued, considering the recent uproar over things like chain mail bikinis in the American Science Fiction Writers’ newsletter artwork, Golden Age authors reminiscing admiringly about their attractive female colleagues, and the British Science Fiction Association’s perennial failure to gender-balance its award nomination lists.

How am I supposed to take seriously the moral outrage of writers and fans who tut-tut about failed Bechdel Tests and sound loud alarms over the tiniest gender-bias transgression, when a story inspired by abusive sexual behavior, showcasing the brutal violation of a female character, gets a free pass?

The answer, of course, is that I’m not. The difference between moral conviction and social expediency is displayed in the living, and the writing, and the conversations held behind closed doors, and the jokes swapped at the bar after a couple of beers when you think nobody’s listening.

Not that I expect they’ll care much, but Scalzi and Stross will get no recommendations from me now or ever, no matter how exquisitely crafted and popular their stories. Everybody has their lines, and Equoid blasted through one of mine.

*Link to Equoid provided for reference. As the Tor website cautions, the story contains material that may be upsetting or repellent. Fair enough. Color me repelled.

 
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Posted by on September 25, 2014 in Family, Opinion, Space Exploration, Writing

 

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Tears of a Clown

A few words today about actor and comedian Robin Williams, who died yesterday in tragic circumstances. He was a fixture of my entertainment landscape since childhood, a mercurial clown who seemed to pop up everywhere with the right quip on the tip of his tongue, the funniest and smartest guy in whatever room he happened to occupy. I didn’t enjoy all his work, but when he was good, he was very, very good. He made me laugh, and he made me think, usually at the same time, just trying to keep up.

This is a moment I particularly enjoyed, from the film Dead Poets Society, in which Williams portrays a teacher with a singular talent for inspiration:

 

Robin Williams was a man blessed with a genius for assuming a thousand identities in rapid succession, at a moment’s notice, but it seemed to me as I watched him over the years that he was unmoored from his own identity—a brilliant chameleon struggling to remember the original color and pattern of his own skin. He battled addiction and depression, common hazards of his chosen profession.

Here’s another humorist who was battered by depression, and an image of how it might have felt:

 

masksComedians, in their private lives away from the spotlight, are often profoundly unhappy people. Not always, but often. Part of what gives comedy its satiric bite is a keen awareness of all that is fundamentally wrong with the state of mankind. The injustices. The petty indignities. Promises unkept and expectations unmet. Routine evil and casual horror. The savagery lurking beneath our thin veneer of civilization.

It’s no accident that the iconic symbol of the dramatic arts pairs comedy with tragedy.

Comics are the little child who, alone among the multitude, ridicules the naked emperor. They’re the Shakespearean fool who deals in snide, ugly insights the king’s advisors could never dream to utter. They’re the wild-eyed eccentric standing on the corner in tattered clothes, waving a dirty square of cardboard with a greasy black scrawl: Repent, for the End is Nigh.

They force us to confront that from which we turn away, covering our eyes. They dispense harsh realities in tiny, colorful pills, candy-coated with laughter. We’ll comprehend the bitter truth later, after a season of digestion, but it will do us good. The best comedians lift a measure of life’s burden from our shoulders for a moment, even as they open our minds and prick our consciences, and we love them for it.

But who bears their burden after the show’s over, after the crowd’s gone home and the floor’s swept, when they’re left alone in the darkness and the silence on an empty stage to contemplate this broken world they see all too clearly?

Who offers laughter to the clown?

 
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Posted by on August 12, 2014 in General, Opinion

 

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Random Randomness, 8/8/2014

“Lord, what fools these mortals be!” – Puck, A Midsummer Night’s Dream

This has been a grim couple of weeks, no matter how I stack it up. It’s hard to get excited about writing random little escapist fantasy stories or even generate the minimal wit required to frame a few clever anecdotes when there’s so much real life going on in the world right now. Take your pick: war, genocide, epidemic, storms, revelations of discord among the cast of Saved By the Bell…there’s no end to it.

However, I suppose this might be when we most need the frothy stories and a healthy appreciation of the absurd. On to the comic relief!

CAM00963Kids, Don’t Try This at Home—I’m a Professional: Speaking of disasters, this is what it looks like when you break a tablet.

In your driveway.

With a Jeep.

This was a textbook-worthy example of a seemingly-random chain of mundane events leading inevitably to a shattering mishap, facilitated by a dunderhead.

Dunderhead: airhead, birdbrain, blockhead, bonehead, bubblehead, chowderhead, chucklehead, clodpoll…

comet_CGSome Things are Best Appreciated From a Distance: One bright note in the news was the arrival of the ESA Rosetta probe at Comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko (try saying that three times fast) after a ten-year voyage that required some sophisticated gravitational slingshotting to match the comet’s velocity and put the spacecraft into a 100 km orbit around it. Rosetta is the first spacecraft to complete a rendezvous with a comet rather than fly by, and none have come closer to the nucleus. Rosetta will follow Churyumov-Gerasimenko on its journey around the sun and deploy a tiny lander in November to explore the comet’s surface and collect samples.

Unfortunately, Churyumov-Gerasimenko resembles some random oddment my dog hacked up, but let’s try not to think about that. Slate has posted a nice gallery of images collected by Rosetta.

sparkI Need a Hero(ine): There’s been a clarion call of late for more “kick-butt” heroines in literature, comics, videogames, and film, which has me scratching my head because I had no idea there was a shortage. I could offer a long list of my favorite posterior-smiting women of valor (hmm, that sounds wrong, somehow), but there wouldn’t be room left on the page for my deathless prose.

Anyhow, this comic seeking a Kickstart looks like fun—it’s called Spark, and it features 9-year old Lucia Marquez-Miller as the newest superhero on the block, taking down the bad guys and gals with her radical telekinetic gadgetry powers. And here’s another one for a slightly older audience, The Adventures of Superhero Girl, which just won an Eisner Award for Canadian artist Faith Erin Hicks. And yet a third, Rocket Girl, about a time-traveling teen cop, a tale very impressive in both artistry and storytelling—and which I would have reviewed in full by now if a random goof hadn’t run over the tablet where my review copy resides.

Not the goof I'm talking about, though there's an uncanny resemblance.

Not the goof I’m talking about, though there’s an uncanny resemblance.

Goof: dolt, ignoramus, knucklehead, lamebrain, meathead, moron, nimrod, nincompoop…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Book Review – Escape, by T.M. Hunter and Lyndon Perry

escapeAfter Max McCannor’s father departs for California to seek new markets for his inventions, leaving Max in the care of his grandparents, a tragic accident lands Max in the New York Charitable Orphanage for Wayward Boys and Girls. This institution is even less hospitable than it sounds, and after several years of cruel abuse from its caretakers, Max plots an escape, planning to make his way to Chicago and the home of his Aunt Maggie, his only remaining relative, whom he hopes will provide safe haven and some clues to his father’s whereabouts.

Max and his friends break out of the orphanage and begin their desperate journey to find his long-lost father, dodging the local authorities and running afoul of a thug in the pay of the orphanage keepers along the way. A few narrow escapes later, they find themselves in an explosive showdown aboard a dirigible bound for Chicago. Will they make it to safety? Even if they survive, will they be captured and sent back to the orphanage? Is there any hope Max’s father is still alive?

Escapeby T.M. Hunter and Lyndon Perry, is the first book in their series, The Adventures of Max McCannor, where we meet Max, his friends, and his enemies, and are drawn into his quest. The story quickly sets the stage and drops a few hints that this isn’t quite the history of Victorian-era America we know. It moves at a brisk clip without minimizing the hardships Max and his friends endure at the orphanage, nor the greater dangers they face after their escape. Max quickly steps into the leadership role for his group, though not without a few challenges along the way—and his adventure has only just begun.

Some details of the technology are a little hazy—the orphans manage to accidentally start up a disused steam-powered generator without stoking a coal-fired boiler or other visible heat source, and there are some lift-to-weight problems inherent in using a steam engine to power an airship (not to mention the hazard of igniting the lifting gas). There have been small steam-driven airships in our world, so a larger one’s not unreasonable given some differences in physics or technology in this alternate Earth, and I expect more information will emerge in later episodes. Anyhow, part of a steampunk story’s fun is the plethora of rococo steam- and clockwork-powered gadgetry spawned by mad science somehow gone right, and paying too much attention to how it all might or might not work in real life isn’t really the point.

Escape is an exciting adventure written for young-adult / middle school readers, but anyone who enjoys a perilous romp through the Age of Steam will find it a fun read. Some parental guidance may be appropriate for younger readers—there are some potentially disturbing descriptions of abuse at the orphanage and a few other situations where children are threatened or injured.

Link to purchase Escape

T.M. Hunter’s webpage

Lyndon Perry’s webpage

>>This review is based upon a copy of the book provided to me free of charge by the publisher, a courtesy I appreciate, but which does not guarantee my recommendation. I strive to evaluate every book I review purely on its intrinsic merits.<<

 
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Posted by on July 24, 2014 in Book Reviews

 

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Review – Manga Classics: Les Misérables

lesmiz2Though most of us by now have at least a passing familiarity with Victor Hugo’s epic multi-volume tale of post-Revolution France via the theater and cinema, or perhaps a few foggy memories from a week or two of high school literature class, far fewer can truthfully claim to have read the work cover-to-cover. That’s a shame. It’s a masterful study of perseverance through suffering—a searing image of the plight of the poor and the innocent victims of sweeping social strife. We witness the eternal tug-of-war between mercy and justice. Obsessive vengeance wrestles with unconditional forgiveness. Avarice mocks sacrifice. The heavy hand of past misdeeds overshadows the hope of redemption and transformation. Debts are incurred and debts are repaid—in triplicate. We meet characters who grow extravagant in their complexity as we journey with them: Jean Valjean, Inspector Javert, Bishop Myriel, Fantine, Thenardier, Eponine, Marius, Cosette, and many more.

jean valjeanHow can anyone condense such a vast story and hope to do it justice? The Broadway production and various movie adaptations have tackled it with varying degrees of success, using visuals and music as a shorthand for Hugo’s expansive narration. While this isn’t the first attempt to adapt Les Misérables into a comics format, I thought Stacy King, Crystal Silvermoon, and SunNeko Lee did a fine job of expressing this story in the distinctive Japanese manga style while preserving its essentials and communicating its powerful emotion. Manga Classics: Les Misérables is one of a forthcoming series of classic literary tales adapted to manga, and its publication debut will be accompanied by Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.

This version of Les Misérables is very accessible to its intended young adult / middle school audience, yet it skillfully avoids dumbing-down or sugarcoating the story, and adult readers can enjoy it as well. I did. It’s certainly not a substitute for the novel itself, but it can provide a stepping-stone for younger readers and anyone who would like a reader-friendly warmup. All the key moments are captured, and the story’s continuity is preserved without annoying jumps, gaps, or clumsy interpolations. Difficult episodes, like Fantine’s descent into prostitution, and the carnage at the barricade, are handled with careful reserve and consideration for young readers while faithfully depicting the characters’ desperation and horror.

fantine2The artwork is nicely done, with beautiful detail in the background environments and building interiors where appropriate, but the focus is always on the characters, and I liked the artist’s vision of them. Cosette is a bit prettified, but that’s typical of the manga style for heroines, and she gets a similar waif-ish treatment in the Broadway and movie posters, so not a huge gripe there. Most of the art is black-and-white, though there are a few color panels.

Something I especially enjoyed was the bonus material at the end, which included character development sketches and short articles from the scriptwriter and artist (also in manga form) that provided insight into their creative process and approach to this project. A couple of 4-panel “gag” comic strips offer a lighthearted perspective on scenes from the story. The book is printed in the traditional manga style, which reads right to left, opposite to the way western readers are used to handling a book. A helpful cartoon at the beginning shows how to do it, and after a few pages, it’s not a distraction.

Published by Udon Entertainment. 336 pages, hardcover and paperback, to be released later this year. Available for pre-order at Amazon.com.

Here’s a link to the Facebook page for Manga Classics, where you’ll find more information about the series and additional sample pictures from both Les Misérables and Pride and Prejudice.

Review based on a limited-time-access advance digital review copy provided free of charge by the publisher via NetGalley.com

 

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