Spoiler-Free Thoughts on The Books I’ve Read In 2019 (So Far)

I made a promise to myself that I would try to read more books in 2019  since I didn’t feel as though I read that much in 2018.  Fortunately (and surprisingly) I’ve managed to keep this vow even with my turbulent schedule and lack of desire to be productive.

So here are some thoughts on the books I have managed to read thus far.

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The Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz 

Summary: After working with bestselling crime writer Alan Conway for years, editor Susan Ryeland is intimately familiar with his detective, Atticus Pünd, who solves mysteries in sleepy English villages. His traditional formula has proved hugely successful, so successful that Susan must continue to put up with his troubling behavior if she wants to keep her job. Conway’s latest tale involves a murder at Pye Hall, with dead bodies and a host of intriguing suspects. But the more Susan reads, the more she’s convinced that there is another story hidden in the pages of the manuscript: one of real-life jealousy, greed, ruthless ambition, and murder.

As someone who grew up on PBS British detective shows, I absolutely loved this book.

I was reluctant to read it initially because I knew it was a story within a story, nevertheless, I found both tales –the one written by Conway and by Susan–both equally captivating and I was just as eager as Susan to discover the conclusion to Pünd’s story.

It’s easy to see Horowitz has worked on many on-screen productions as the pacing is quick and engaging, leaving little room for superfluous details or fluff, but still dedicates enough time to developing characters and setting the scene.

Apart from the plot itself, what makes the story interesting is how it inwardly reflects on the genre of mystery as a whole. It asks why people are so drawn to the subject and provides interesting theories all without being overly sentimental.

It’s a quintessential love letter to Agatha Christie, G.K. Chesterton and many other mystery writers, all while keeping its own unique identity.

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The Woman in the Window by AJ Finn

Summary: Anna Fox lives alone—a recluse in her New York City home, unable to venture outside. She spends her day drinking wine (maybe too much), watching old movies, recalling happier times . . . and spying on her neighbors.Then the Russells move into the house across the way: a father, a mother, their teenage son. The perfect family. But when Anna, gazing out her window one night, sees something she shouldn’t, her world begins to crumble—and its shocking secrets are laid bare. What is real? What is imagined? Who is in danger? Who is in control? In this diabolically gripping thriller, no one—and nothing—is what it seems. 

I’m a fan of Hitchcock films and a self-proclaimed junkie for unreliable narrators so this book was a match made in Heaven for me. Apart from being a page-turning mystery, it’s also a well-crafted character piece.

Anna is more than just an unreliable narrator. She’s a completely sympathetic person that is as much the victim of her circumstances as she is the cause of them. She’s a three-dimensional character forced into a situation beyond her control and the unravelling of her past is as tragic as it is interesting.

When I learned the author of this book was a man, I was genuinely surprised. I know from first-hand experience how difficult it can be writing for the opposite gender, but Finn does so with such skill and sincerity you completely forget the author is not a woman.

I wasn’t 100% thrilled with how it ends as it comes off as a bit too cartoonish, in my opinion. Nevertheless, if you’re a fan of Hitchcock-like stories you will enjoy this one.

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The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah 

Summary: For a family in crisis, the ultimate test of survival. Ernt Allbright, a former POW, comes home from the Vietnam War a changed and volatile man. When he loses yet another job, he makes an impulsive decision: He will move his family north, to Alaska, where they will live off the grid in America’s last true frontier.

Kristin did an excellent job of showing the brutal beauty of the Alaskan landscape as well as the complexity of human nature. At times I thought it was a little too bleak, rife with almost Jodi-Picolt-levels of drama where one implausibly awful thing is followed by another implausibly awful thing, but the constant conflict was genuinely gripping and kept me going in spite of it all.

This is just a personal hang-up that I have with the novel so take it for what you will, but I found Leni’s love interest to be a bit unconvincing as a character. It was difficult to believe that a boy that grew up in such a harsh, unforgiving climate and had so much of his life devoted to survival would give a crap about poetry. Nor does it seem that plausible that he would have that much devotion to a girl he met when he was a little kid. That could be my own cynicism talking, but I did grow up in a very small town and absolutely none of the males I encountered were anything like this.

I will say this in the novel’s favor, I genuinely didn’t know where it was going and yet I  trusted the writer to lead it to it’s rightful destination. Some suspicions I had early on were confirmed, but Hannah threw many unexpected curveballs that made it damn near impossible for me to put the book down.

I won’t say what happens as I don’t want to spoil it for anyone that wants to read it, but it’s worth all the emotional torture the reader has to go through to reach the end. 

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The City of Z by David Grann

Summary: A grand mystery reaching back centuries. A sensational disappearance that made headlines around the world. A quest for truth that leads to death, madness or disappearance for those who seek to solve it. The Lost City of Z is a blockbuster adventure narrative about what lies beneath the impenetrable jungle canopy of the Amazon.

After stumbling upon a hidden trove of diaries, New Yorker writer David Grann set out to solve “the greatest exploration mystery of the 20th century”: What happened to the British explorer Percy Fawcett & his quest for the Lost City of Z?

I’m typically not a fan of nonfiction, but I made an exception for this book since the subject was intriguing to me.

I picked up this book to learn about the City of Z, but I stayed for the man that tried to uncover its mysteries. Fawcett was a character straight out of myth, both seemingly impervious to hostile-climes and disease as well as endlessly tenacious in his willingness to see a journey through to its end. He was instrumental in increasing our understanding of the Amazon, sacrificing almost everything he had to find Z, even when many scoffed at the notion that such a place ever existed.

I admire Grann’s ability to weave such an interesting narrative all while unloading boatloads of information on the reader without making them feel as though they are trapped at a boring lecture.

The intimate details, journal entries, the attention to socio-political climates at this time really made this story come to life.

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His Bloody Project  by Graeme Macrae Burnet

Summary: A brutal triple murder in a remote Scottish farming community in 1869 leads to the arrest of seventeen-year-old Roderick Macrae. There is no question that Macrae committed this terrible act. What would lead such a shy and intelligent boy down this bloody path? And will he hang for his crime?

This book is a novel disguised as a true-crime book, written by a supposed descendent of the murderer in question. It’s part “memoir” told from Roderick Macrae and part compilation of “historical documents” that describe the events leading up to and after the murders.

Roderick is an interesting character in that he’s surprisingly intelligent in spite of his limited education as well as a seemingly perplexing narrator. The story begins with him explaining his backstory, life and misfortunes and then slowly delves into the crime itself. From the tale Roderick weaves it would seem he was merely a victim of his circumstance, however, the reader will notice several inconsistencies with Roderick’s version of events and the accounts that are later brought to light at his trial. This forces readers to re-evaluate all they thought they knew.

Is Roderick a good person that was driven to murder by his hopeless situation as a tenant farmer? Is he criminally insane? You’ll have to decide for yourself.

There was a lot of research that went into the making of this book. The rural landscape and lifestyle of the average 19th century Scottish Highlander was very vividly depicted. I also appreciated the incorporation of the prevalent sociological theories that existed around that time period. Criminology was in its infancy in the 1800s and it was interesting to see how the school of thought in regards to criminals has evolved over the years.

If you’re a historical fiction lover like I am, you’ll really like this.

Damn you, Outlander Series: Thoughts on A Dragonfly in Amber

WARNING: POST CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR THE SECOND BOOK IN THE OUTLANDER SERIES, A DRAGONFLY IN AMBER. READ AT YOUR OWN DISCRETION. 

My relationship with the Outlander series so far is mired by indecision.

There’s so much to adore about these books: the remarkable characters, the rich descriptions, the sexy-fun times, the action-packed storyline that constantly keeps you on your toes.

However, there are also problems with it as well. Problems that are often very difficult to overlook.

For example, the distinct lack of plot that seems to dog each story from the get-go.  Plenty of things happen, mind you, and there is conflict for days. Nonetheless, it just doesn’t always feel as if it is working towards something.

It’ll give A Dragonfly in Amber some credit in that it is a lot better than it’s predecessor at having some direction. The Frasers’ plan to stop Bonnie Prince Charlie’s rebellion counts as a plot…I suppose. Unfortunately, it’s often thrown by the wayside in favor of entertaining weird diversions that have nothing to do with anything. Hell, you could make trading cards out of all the pointless interludes these books dole out: random sword fights, Jamie being dared to piss into a bucket but then being unable to after suffering a trampling by a horse, some argument between Jamie and Claire about him getting horny over some hookers.

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Oh, speaking of Clarice and Jamie.

To add to my list of grievances, there is one exchange between Claire and Jamie that’s a bit too Freud-like for my taste. At one point, Clarice mentions to Jamie that she wishes she could –I’m not making this up, I swear– put him in her womb to keep him safe. 

Let me repeat that:

Claire wanted to put her grown, adult husband inside of her womb to keep him safe.

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Um… I haven’t had an overwhelming amount of romantic entanglements in my life, but that does not seem like a normal compulsion for someone to have. Especially not a compulsion that the layman would voice out loud to anyone for any reason ever.

Not to mention Jamie’s reaction to it is fondness bordering on indifference. Look, I know you’re used to her saying weird shit to you, what with her being a time-traveler and all, but that has to give you some pause, doesn’t it?

Pretty much any  sentence that could be formed in the english language would be less awkward than that one. If she said she wanted to shrink him and put him in her pocket that would be kind of cute. But her womb? Her baby-holder? Her Dutch oven? She wants actually put him in-

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It doesn’t help that they shared a quasi-incestuous moment in the previous novel. When Claire is trying to snap him out of his rape-induced depression, he literally calls her “mother” and she encourages him to come to her bosom and-

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Okay, moving on.

So, Captain Randall should be renamed Captain McGuffin as his only function seems to be to get things rolling again once the story has become stale.

No, really, he shows up everywhere they go: France, Scotland, your closet. I know he’s important since he’s the great-great grandaddy of Claire’s husband, but come on.

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What are the actual odds? They could be sitting on a park bench feeding the birds and all of the sudden weeeep a Wild Randall appears!

Randall uses Creep Attack.

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It’s super-effective!

Bearing all of this in mind, what nice things do I have to say about this book? Well, it kept me guessing, I suppose. Although I already knew they would lose the battle, you know, because the story began with Claire in the future having already been through-

Okay, good things dammit.

Claire’s reactions seemed quite a bit more realistic in this book than in Outlander. When she and a friend are set upon by rapists, she has a breakdown and doesn’t just shrug it off and shag her husband like she did in Outlander. There’s also a reference to when she murdered a 15 year-old soldier who was just trying to do his job, which had previously gone unobserved until this book. I found it pretty disturbing it hadn’t gotten much of a mention before since, you know, she committed murder of a child.

Uh….in spite of the many distractions, the pacing overall was a lot snappier than the previous novel and from the beginning it jumped right into the action instead of lolly-gagging around forever.

As usual, Jamie is wonderful in every way as is his inability to understand modern beauty standards such as waxing your private parts.

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The chemistry between the two main characters continues to be engaging and a joy to read about (at least when they aren’t going full Oedipus on us, that is). Truth be told, I think the story shines the brightest when it’s focusing on their relationship with each other. I appreciate the Bonnie Prince story line for giving these stories a reason to exist, nevertheless, I never found it as enjoyable as reading Claire and Jamie simply being in each other’s company.

Another point in this book’s favor is that Gabaldon doesn’t particularly romanticize the past (apart from, well, the actual romance, of course.) She is unflinching when it comes to describing the horrible living conditions and bleakness that comes with 18th century living. It’s not all fancy dresses and handsome heroes. There’s a sinisterness and hopelessness about it as well. I also appreciate the fact that none of her characters necessarily make it out unscathed. When they aren’t being raped (which happens quite often) they are being tortured, or captured, or dying. The pain they feel is quite real and, unlike in the first novel, isn’t glossed over as much.

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I was afraid after reading the ending of the first book that the horrible torture Jamie experienced at the hands of Captain Jack Randall was going to be brushed under the rug, however, I was pleased to learn that this was not so. Jamie’s experiences still haunt him and has a visible impact on who he is as a person. I’m grateful that his rape had a lasting effect and wasn’t just used as a plot devise to create more tension.

I loved that more of Clarie’s psyche was explored in this novel. In fact, the dream she had about being in Frank’s classroom while he was lecturing may have been my favorite part of the entire book, oddly enough. It just made her seem more three-dimensional as we don’t often hear that much about her past aside from the odd parcel about being raised by her uncle and such. I would actually be interested in reading a chapter or two dedicated to describing a scene that occurred in her formative years or during the War. We get a snippet here or there, but I’m always left hungry for more. We hear quite a bit about Jamie’s past, but not that much of Claire’s.

Overall, I enjoyed reading A Dragonfly in Amber even as I mentally criticized it. There’s just something about Gabaldon’s writing that sucks you in.

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I told myself in the past that I was going to give up on this series, but I don’t think I can bring myself to do so. Maybe it’s the romance, the fascinating historical backdrop, the characters, or Jamie’s sexiness. I don’t know, but whatever foibles this series may have, it’s still a damn enjoyable story and I don’t believe it will be long before I begin the next one.

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Thoughts on “My Cousin Rachel” by Daphne du Maurier

WARNING: CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR THE NOVEL.

As an avid fan of du Maurier’s Rebecca, I have to confess that I was a bit disappointed with My Cousin Rachel.

It started off very strong with little Philip coming face to face with the corpse of a man who had been hanged for murdering his wife, a scene which instantly hooked me into the story as it seemed to indicate that shit was going to go down.

Unfortunately nothing that happens in the novel thereafter really has as much of a punch as the beginning would seem to indicate.

What I did like: 

Du Maurier does a fantastic job of setting up atmosphere and generating feelings of unease as well as mystery. I think she also does a magnificent job of creating characters and relationships. None of them came across as flat or one-dimensional, even the side characters who didn’t do all that much.

I award du Maurier bonus points for writing a male for the lead. As someone who often struggles writing for members of the opposite sex, I thought du Maurier did an excellent job of capturing the mindset of a 19th century Englishman. If I had no indication as to who the author was, I would have thought this book had been written by a man.

The pacing is excellent too, never focusing on any one scene for too long.

What I didn’t like: 

As I mentioned earlier, there was a lot of build-up for not a lot of pay-off. It became clear as soon as Philip recovered from his “illness” that du Maurier was not going to go balls-to-the-wall as I was hoping she would do.

What puzzles me is why Rachel allowed him to get better. Did she have second thoughts? Was it because the writer needed him to? I’m so confused.

Also I’m disappointed there was no final confrontation between the two of them where Rachel dropped all pretense and showed Phillip her true colors. Perhaps that would have been a little too soup opera, but it would have been more satisfying for me to see the real Rachel for a moment, instead of just the repercussions of her actions.

It  would have been so interesting to see how she interacted with someone who has her confidant, a.k.a the doctor. You could make the argument that it’s creepier because we don’t know but I disagree. I think more would actually be better in the case of this story.

Overall opinion: 

This was by no means a bad book, I’m just disappointed because I know it could have been better. If it had been just a little bit more I would probably rank it up there along with Rebecca which is one of my favorite horror novels of all time.

I’m curious to see if the movie does a better job on delivering on scares. Based on Hollywood’s track record, I wouldn’t hold out much hope.

Book Review: “My Salinger Year” by Joanna Rakoff

WARNING: CONTAINS MILD SPOILERS FOR THE AFOREMENTIONED MEMOIR. 

A synopsis taken from the writer’s website:

At 23, after leaving graduate school to pursue her dreams of becoming a poet, Joanna Rakoff moves to New York City and takes a job as assistant to the storied literary agent of J. D. Salinger. She spends her days in the plush, wood-paneled agency, where Dictaphones and typewriters still prevail and old-time agents doze at their desks in the late afternoon, and at night she goes home to the tiny, threadbare Williamsburg apartment she shares with her socialist boyfriend. Precariously balanced between glamour and poverty, surrounded by titanic personalities, and struggling to trust her own artistic talent, Joanna is tasked with responding to Salinger’s voluminous fan mail. But as she reads the deeply candid letters from his fans, she finds herself abandoning the agency’s form letter and writing her own responses. Over the course of the year, she finds her own voice by acting as Salinger’s, on her own dangerous and wonderful terms.

Pros:

The writing style. While the premise intrigued me, what drew me in was the author’s voice. From the first page, Rakoff grabbed my attention and held it tight for the duration of the novel. I’m not much of a non-fiction reader so I was entranced by the novel-like style in which it was written in.

New York City. I loved how she describes New York in all it’s hipster-y splendor. She talked about the shops, the club scene, the restaurants, just the attitude of the city. Admittedly, I think New York tends to be over romanticized (particularly by those that live there), however, she was able to capture my awe and attention. It wasn’t an overblown love, but it was enough to show me why this city is considered so magical to some.

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It’s a story about growing up. I am around the same age Rakoff was when these events took place, so I found myself in her. She addresses many of the drawbacks of growing up such as paying the bills for the first time, growing apart from friends, watching other people make it big and become successful, and the doubt you experience in your own abilities. More than this, however, she accurately describes the loneliness of going through life, feeling as if nobody cares about you. It’s a relatable book, particularly if you’re in (or have recently graduated from) college.

Cons: 

The dust-jacket is misleading. While Rakoff’s job of responding to the Salinger’s fan letters is an important part of the memoir, the description makes it sound like it’s the crux of the story, or that she somehow mislead people into thinking she was Salinger when this is not the case. As I mentioned before, this story is more about growing up and figuring out what you want to do with your life than it is about Salinger or her acting as his mouthpiece.

Why Don?  Rakoff was never able to convincingly explain to the reader  why she stayed with Don, her roommate/boyfriend. From what I’m given to understand, she had a phenomenal boyfriend who went to California for school and….for some reason she didn’t go with him. She then decided to cheat on said boyfriend with Don, a egotist with little regard for Rakoff or her feelings, and even moved into a crappy apartment with him. My question is why? Why did she stay with him if she had a much better option? If Don had been the college boyfriend and she was just reluctant to let him go because of their history, I would be able to understand her thinking. However, that was not the case. I think it would have been important to discuss considering it probably reveals quite a bit about Rakoff as a person.

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Rushed ending. If I had to chose which part of this book was the worst, then I would easily say the ending. Up until this point, everything was well paced and shaping up nicely. However, there is no real emotional pay-off with her boyfriend Don. We don’t see or hear about the death throes of their relationship, the narrative just says she left him at some point for her much more desirable college boyfriend. There’s a jarring jump into the future where she learns about Salinger’s death and…nothing else about her life. We know she had kids and that she’s married to someone (she doesn’t tell us if this is the angelic college boyfriend of yore or not), but she doesn’t go into any detail about her life in the future. I wish we could have seen more since it would have been nice to know how her relationship with Salinger altered her adult life. Otherwise there’s not much point in including it other than to say “wow, sucks that Salinger is dead and stuff.”

Overall opinion: 

While I had a few problems with this book, my overall impression of it was a positive one. I was able to really connect with the writer and her experiences working at The Agency. It’s difficult to put down and I definitely think it was worth the read.

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“The Infinity Doctors” a Doctor Who Novel Review

WARNING: The following contains spoilers for the novel. It’s been out since the 90s, but I thought I should give you a heads up anyway. 

Pros:

Gallifrey. Firstly, I would like to say I love how in-depth the writer is when describing Gallifrey in this novel. You would think that it would bog down the plot, but if anything it enriches the reading experience. Precious little is revealed about Gallifrey in the show so being introduced to the culture in all its complexities was a thrill for me. In fact, I would go so far as to say that is the best thing about this book.

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The Sontarans and Rutans. I was surprised by how invested I was in the conflict between these two races. They were just a tiny subplot that was mostly abandoned after the second act, but the resolution to their conflict was hilarious. I honestly laughed out loud. I loved how Sontar and the Rutan leader interacted with each other and the way they finally made peace was the cherry on top.

The plot. The book was pretty heavy on techno babble and, admittedly I got a bit bored with all the sciency speak. However, the plot itself was pretty solid and it introduced a lot of interesting concepts like people who remember the future instead of the past.

The characters. I won’t say that I was heavily invested in these people, but I did find myself a great deal more interested in the original characters than I normally am in DW novels. Most of the time I just want to skip to the parts with The Doctor, but this time I was actually interested in hearing Larna’s perspective and what it was like being a recently initiated Time Lord. They also seemed more organic rather than stock characters as is custom in most of these EDAs. I even found myself liking the Chancellory Guards Peltroc and Raimor even though they didn’t play that big of a roll in the grand scheme of things.

Cons:

Shot through the heart and you’re to blame. I will admit, there was one scene in particular that nearly made me stop reading the book. If you haven’t read the book, I would suggest you not continue with this post. Still here? Okay. Larna, a bright Time Lady and The Doctor’s favorite student, tries to stop The Doctor from entering the Station and The Doctor decides to retaliate by stabbing her in the heart.

No. Literally. He stabs her in the heart

He knows she’ll be able to have a surgery that will reverse any negative side effects that such an injury would create, but um…he stabbed her!!!!

This girl trusted him with her life. They were very close friends. And he stabbed her.

And then what happens? She moves the blade so it severs her spinal cord.

And she dies.

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I mean, sure, he asks Omega to bring her back to life later, but that’s beside the point. He stabbed an innocent person who got in his way. This leads me to another con.

No long-term effects. So my second biggest problem with this book is a bit ironic, especially if you’ve read the conclusion to this little piece. One of the largest issues with The Infinity Doctors is there are hardly any consequences.

What’s funny is the book openly admits that this is what happened:

“Nothing had changed, because nothing ever changed on Gallifrey except over geological timescales. Nothing was better, nothing was worse”  (pg 279-280)

There are no consequences for The Doctor having tried to play God and there are no consequences from him having murdered Larna. Yeah, the Doctor Who Wiki classifies it as suicide, but for all intents and purposes The Doctor killed her. There’s no confrontation, their relationship doesn’t suffer, she doesn’t remember it…it’s basically brushed under the rug.

Um…excuse me but…THIS IS A BIG DEAL!

He murdered one of his friends. And not because of some Save-The-Universe issue. He did it because he wanted to get with his dead wife whom he ditches after, like, two chapters.

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But no, no. Lance Parkin says it’s cool, guys. It’s cool. Just have a jelly baby and push the undo button.

The Doctor, himself, said that a universe without consequences is devoid of meaning and yet all of his actions go unchallenged. Maybe it’s addressed in the next book? I don’t know. All I know is that at the end of this one, Larna and The Doctor are totally cool with each other and The Doctor going all stabby-stab on her is never addressed again.

He doesn’t have an Oh-God-What-Have-I-Done moment, nor does he reflect on what such an action says about him as a person. It’s just kind of…forgotten.

Conclusion:

I did enjoy this novel even though the zero consequences thing kind of irks me. It did quite a bit considering how short of a book it was. However, I felt that everything moved along at a decent pace, not too long but not too short. I loved how fleshed out Gallifrey is in this novel considering how criminally underdeveloped Gallifrey is as a society in the TV show. I also found myself enjoying the side characters as well. I haven’t forgotten you Magistrate…even though everyone else seems to have done so.

Overall, I would give this book a B+ or an A-.

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