Review: On the Trail: A History of American Hiking

On the Trail: A History of American HikingOn the Trail: A History of American Hiking by Silas Chamberlin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When I first started hiking as a kid with my family and later as a boy scout, I never gave much thought to how trails were made or who made them. Even as a teenager and then as a young adult, I had some vague sense that these trails were probably created by the CCC half a century ago. It wasn’t until I joined a local trail organization myself and started working to maintain and build new trails that I began to understand the sheer amount of man-hours (person-hours?) that go into keeping the trails open and enjoyable.

“On the Trail” describes the evolution of trail walking and hiking, from its inception of nature and rural graveyard strolls to organized clubs to the current incarnation of largely solo and ad hoc group hiking. Chamberlin’s history focuses on a few key groups and areas, such as the Dartmouth Outing Club, the Sierra Club, the Appalachian Trail, and (briefly) the Pacific Crest Trail, though many other organizations and trails get some coverage. His work nicely bridges the gap that seems to exist in outdoors-nature writing, which often goes “Thoreau > present.”

If you’re a hiker, backpacker, or outdoors enthusiast, this is a book I’ll happily recommend. It’ll give you something interesting to contemplate or discuss while you’re out on the trail yourself and make you wonder: “who built the trail I’m on now? Who takes care of it?” It might even make you feel inspired to get involved in a local trail organization of your own; always a good thing! Certainly, I felt a sense of vindication and pleasure knowing that I’ve shifted my hiking style from “net consumer” of trails to “net producer” (terms that Chamberlin uses to describe the shift).

If you don’t see what all the fuss is about when it comes to the outdoors or if your sense of what hiking should be is largely associated with forced family gatherings that are to be endured rather than enjoyed, there’s nothing here that’s going to make you want to strap on a pair of boots. But that’s okay, because this book is really aimed at the crowd of hikers who like to go out, enjoy the woods, but maybe haven’t thought too much more about how they can give back to their hobby. If nothing else, it’ll make you appreciate how much work went into, and still goes into, created all the paths we enjoy.

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Review: Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?

Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? by Frans de Waal
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Not all three star reviews are the same. Most of the time, 3 stars means “yeah, it was good. I liked it.” The PB&J experience in book form, if you will. Enjoyable, satisfying, but not something you’re going to recommend to someone to impress them (“oh man, let me make lunch for you, I’ll put together this amazing sandwich!”)

However, every once in a while, you’ll get a book that clocks in at three stars that manages to be full of amazing moments, but is tied up with such tangled problems that the three stars is really more of an average between two metrics: 5 stars for content, 1 star for readability.

I started this book on December 22. Completely coincidentally, I finished it on April 22. It . . . is not a long book.

Science books always have to balance two categories: the level of scientific content and the level of their readability to the layperson (someone like me). In the case of “Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are” (henceforth referred to as AWSETKHSAA), the science is good, and interesting, and fun . . . but the readability factor is all over the map.

It’s not that this is a difficult book, either. I’ve tried to read books that are basically trying to explain the physics of black holes to PhD students. AWSETKHSAA is . . . I guess the word I would use is “slippery.” Or “wandering.” I would start in on it, read ten or twenty pages, then my attention would meander off.

The author moves from one experiment to another, talking about this or that, various animals and experiments and results and discussions — and it’s interesting, it really is! — but it’s hard to follow him. If you asked me to briefly summarize each chapter of the book I just finished, I’d have a hard time doing it.

And that’s a shame, because there are great moments throughout. I read several sections aloud, both because they were interesting and fun! “In a recognition test, an octopus was exposed to two different persons, one of whom consistently fed it, whereas the other mildly poked it with a bristle on a stick.” How can you not love the mental image of a scientist poking an octopus with a stick FOR SCIENCE!

Ultimately, the question of recommendation comes down to how curious you are about the premise. There is a lot (a lot!) of great work being done in the field of animal cognition. It’s more complex than I personally had imagined and AWSETKHSAA will give you a great crash course in the work that’s being done across a variety of animal species. That said, this is the kind of book you’d seek out if you’re already interested in the topic. If you’re more of a dilettante with your reading habits (as I tend to be), this one might be too unwieldy.

On the other hand, a scientist does poke an octopus with a stick. So, there’s that.

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Review: Encounters with the Archdruid

Encounters with the ArchdruidEncounters with the Archdruid by John McPhee
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book is a time capsule for the environmentalist. It’s a fossil. It’s a treasure.

“Encounters with the Archdruid” takes us back to 1970. The Environmental Protection Agency will be born this year. Climate change isn’t yet in the environmentalist’s lexicon; even its forerunner, “the greenhouse effect” is still a decade away from being a talking point. The greatest scourges are hydroelectric dams, mining, and housing developments. You can drink from the Colorado River, untreated, without worrying about giardia. The American southwest is still largely a remote backwater, with none of the explosive growth that it will see in the 80s and 90s.

It’s an entirely different world.

John McPhee writes about three different narratives with David Brower, the famous conservationist and former Sierra Club director. Part travelogue, part dialogue, McPhee captures the experiences and conversations as Brower explores different wilderness areas with men who are, quite possibly, his archenemies: a mineral engineer advocating for a copper mine, a developer who purchased a mostly pristine Atlantic island, and the Director of the Bureau of Reclamation who wants to build dams where ever dams can be built.

The discussions themselves are interesting and thought-provoking; should we aspire to be conservationists, who manage land wisely and responsibly, or preservationists, who leave the land alone entirely? Brower is firmly the latter, the other men the former, and in a supreme display of narrator neutrality, we never find out which camp McPhee falls into.

The fact that they’re able to go on these trips at all and argue while hiking or rafting before throwing back a beer shows that it was a different time. The things that Brower rails against, hydroelectric dams being his biggest bugbear, now seem quaint when we face the threat of global climate change and dams represent a cleaner, carbon neutral power source compared to fossil fuels.

And yet, though the book shows its age, it’s a marvelous look back, a tantalizing reminder of what was. It’s fascinating to look back on the thoughts, hopes, and fears from those in 1970 from my moment of time, here and now in 2017. Even if 2017 and the near future look horrifically bleak for the environment, far more grim than anything Brower could have imaginaged in 1970.

Regardless, this book is a gem. As a way of looking back at where we’ve come in the hopes of understand where we’re going, I would consider this book a must-read for anyone interested in the natural world and the environment.

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Thoughts On Today

There is a little path near my office that borders a bit of wetland and forest. I walk that path every day on my break. I like to look at the trees, the murky water, and the ducks that show up in the warmer months. It’s a little bit of nature in the heart of my city.

Along this path is an informative sign with information about wetland areas, the animals that live in them, and why they’re important. These signs are everywhere and they strike me as among the most earnest things anyone ever thought to make. Hey, the signs seem to say, here’s some interesting stuff that the people who made me think is pretty cool. Maybe you’ll think it’s pretty cool, too.

The day after the election, a person defaced this sign. He or she (but probably he) crudely painted the name TRUMP across the sign in blackish paint. The block letters made it impossible to read the text beneath. The sign was ruined and the message was clear. The hour of things that are green and good is over. Make way for the bulldozer and the destroyer.

I’ve looked at those crude letters every day since then, because I still like to walk that little path. Each time I passed the sign, I felt anger and frustration. The sign was ruined and would have to be replaced by the city at some point, but let’s be honest; even earnest little signs are not exactly top priorities for most municipalities.

Today, I noticed something had changed. The paint the vandal used had started to flake off, perhaps in the rain. The damage was not as permanent as I had imagined. The vandalism could be cleaned.

Later, I returned to the sign with my wife and together, we started to scrape off the rest of the paint, carefully so as to not damage the text underneath.

Soon enough, the sign was restored, with only the faintest outline of dirt and grime where the vandalism once was. In time, even that outline will be gone (perhaps sooner, as we’re planning on coming back with a bucket and some soap to see if we can finish the job next week).

Either way, the earnest little sign about wetlands has been restored and TRUMP is little more than a faint, dirty outline, visible only in contrast.

I’m writing this not because I want to brag about what we did. This is, quite literally, a token act. Other people are doing more, risking more, and will achieve more. In the grand scheme of things, one restored sign will not change much of anything.

And yet.

Yesterday, there was something ugly there. An hateful word, a taunt, a mockery.

Today, it is gone.

It is worth remembering. Damage can be repaired. Wounds can be healed. A little sign about wetlands can be cleaned up.

My reverence for nature and the natural world comes from many of its qualities, but foremost of those is its ability to heal and recover from the harm inflicted on it.

A lot is going to happen that is ugly and painful and destructive, but for all that the new president will talk about erasing the legacy of his predecessor,  his is written in cheap paint; filth that can and will be scraped away when he is gone.

Cleaning up a vandalized sign is a small thing.

And it is everything.

Review: The Princess Diarist

The Princess DiaristThe Princess Diarist by Carrie Fisher
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It’s hard to know what to write, with Carrie Fisher’s death still so recent in my memory. I didn’t like “Wishful Drinking,” one of her earlier books, though know my scathing feelings towards the book feel sour and wrong somehow, and I have to resist the urge to go back and revise that old opinion. And I know that instinct is wrong, because it goes against my core belief that all books should exist independently of their authors and that, even for a memoir, it’s nothing personal. It’s just the book.

Fortunately, I’m happy to say that I enjoyed “Princess Diarist” much more. It’s a trim little volume at just over 200 pages (and several of those pages are diary excerpts, so it’s even shorter than you might think), but it broaches on a subject that I’ve been eager to read about and was, in my opinion, conspicuously absent in “Wishful Drinking,” which is how Fisher felt/feels about Star Wars. This is a book largely dedicated to that question.

It also has the benefit of having been written post-Episode VII, which saw a return of Leia as a character . . . one that I think Fisher, had she lived, would have been even more proud of. General Organa is an evolution of Princess Leia, an older, wiser, grizzled veteran who’s been fighting wars her entire life, who matured away from the metal bikini sex symbol eye candy role into a tough, capable leader. It’s a good evolution of the character and it’s a profound loss that we’ll never get a follow-up book to hear about that evolution in Fisher’s own writing voice.

So, if you’re wondering, should you read this book? Yes, you should. It’ll give you a lot to think about with Star Wars, character, and fandom, and it was already a great book even before Fisher’s death. Now, it’s a chance to hear her voice one more time and appreciate the insight she’s gleaned over her life and the perspective that she had.

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Review: Who’s Your City?: How the Creative Economy Is Making Where to Live the Most Important Decision of Your Life

Who's Your City?: How the Creative Economy Is Making Where to Live the Most Important Decision of Your LifeWho’s Your City?: How the Creative Economy Is Making Where to Live the Most Important Decision of Your Life by Richard Florida
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

SimCity 2000 was a computer game in the late 90s that I absolutely loved. I played it for hours and hours, building city after city, destroying them and rebuilding them like so many sand castles. There have been more recent versions of that game, newer ones with better graphics, but none have ever managed to evoke the special feeling that this one did.

There was a neat little easter egg in the game; if you built a library and clicked on it, you had an option to “ruminate” which would display an essay by Neil Gaiman about cities. I’d like to quote part of it here:

“Occasionally I idle time away by wondering what cities would be like, were they people. Manhattan is, in my head, fast-talking, untrusting, well-dressed but unshaven. London is huge and confused. Paris is elegant and attractive, older than she looks. San Francisco is crazy, but harmless, and very friendly. It’s a foolish game: cities aren’t people.”

I’ve never gotten that particular image of my head, the idea of cities as people, with their own personalities and quirks.

I’ve lived in three cities throughout my life, each one about as far from the others as you can get. I started in upstate New York before moving to southern Arizona and now I find myself in the Pacific Northwest. The move to the Northwest happened only a few years ago and while “Who’s Your City” contains a lot of information that would have been helpful in making that decision to move, it ultimately confirmed and validated my decision. So, that’s good.

This is a good book. We don’t think about where we live often enough and just how much of a role that this plays in our lives. Author Richard Florida eloquently makes his point about just how much where you live will affect all aspects of your life, from what job you might have to who you might marry to how you’d raise your kids. This is information that I think everyone needs to consider; don’t just let your city be your city because it’s where you grew up. Even if you choose to stay in that city, it should be your conscious choice, not just the result of “well, here’s where I am.”

Unfortunately, aside from pointing out all the details about where you live being important for your life, aside from stats and graphs about who’s going where, there isn’t much more that’s done with the question of “who’s your city.” I came to the book hoping for profiles, maybe even write-ups about “who” some of the most populated cities really are. I might have even been hoping for a continuation of the little game that Gaiman’s essay started, imagining each city as having its own personality.

We don’t find anything like that here and while Florida is the consummate scholar who leaves no stone unturned and provides copious research to affirm his thesis, after the first few chapters, you get where he’s coming from, you’re likely in agreement, and if you’re like me, you were probably hoping for more time spent with the cities themselves. Unfortunately, that desire will need to be filled by another book.

Nevertheless, there’s a lot of good information here. If you’re thinking of moving in the near future, I’d bump this one up to a strong recommendation. If you’ve already moved or you’re planning on sticking around, read it anyway, if only for the satisfaction of feeling validated after the fact.

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Review: Star Wars: Aftermath: Life Debt

Aftermath - Life DebtAftermath – Life Debt by Chuck Wendig
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Looking over other reviews of this book, it seems folks are very hot or cold on “Life Debt.” As the second book in the new Aftermath trilogy, “Life Debt” has a lot to prove. We’re past the point of being able to say “well, this is an introduction to a brand new expanded universe, so give it some time.” At this point, we need to start seeing some payoff. The question is; do we?

Yes. And no. Man, this book is all over the place.

First, I have to say; I really can’t stand reading fiction in the present tense. I’m sure this isn’t the first book I’ve read in the present (pretty sure Aftermath was like that too, though I listened to that one on audio, so it wasn’t as distracting), but man, it was a problem here. My attention kept sliding off the text; I likened it to the feeling of stepping on a slick rock in a stream. I just could not stay on the page. Present tense. Not a fan. Let’s move on.

There are some amazingly good things here, even so. Let’s talk about Han Solo. I’m not sure whether author Chuck Wendig (who seems like a really cool guy, I follow him on Twitter and usually like his content there) watched Harrison Ford’s entire body of work on DVD repeatedly or if Disney let him follow Ford around for a month with a tape recorder or what; but when it comes to Han Solo’s dialogue, Wending FUCKING NAILS IT. And he nails it so well that it’s made me realize just how much previous authors struggled with Han’s voice. Wendig’s Han sounds like movie Han. It’s incredible. It makes me wish I’d listened to this on audio. I still might anyway.

Wendig’s original characters are back and I like them, especially Sinjir, who adds a good amount of snark every time he shows up. But here’s where “Life Debt” runs into a rather strange problem and I’m not sure it’s one anybody could have predicted or could do anything to fix.

I read my first Star Wars novel in 1994 (I think). It was only a few years into this idea of there being such as thing as an “Expanded Universe.” The prequels had yet to be announced, ditto the “Special Edition” of the original trilogy and the feeling at the time was that the novels were going to be Star Wars going forward. And I read them all and devoured them, and I promise you, this is not going in the direction that you most likely think it is.

This is not nostalgia for the old EU. I still have all my old Star Wars books. I’ve gone back and paged through them as an adult. You know what? A lot of them are fucking terrible. Absolutely awful. There are gems there, but they are few and far between (no surprise, Timothy Zahn’s work stands out as a solid gem). So it’s not as though I’m nostalgic for the old EU.

But there’s this weird feeling that results; the fact that the old EU is there and that it formed at a more impressionable age for me, and the fact that there’s just so damn much of it, all that contributes to a feeling that it’s “what’s real.” And that makes a lot of Aftermath feel like, well, fan fiction, for lack of a better term. I keep having this feeling that “Rae Sloane” can’t be the person who tries to pull the Empire together, because that role was supposed to go to Thrawn or Daala (even though I hated Daala). I know that Disney owns Star Wars now, I know that “canon” (which is a term I don’t like anyway) is whatever the creative director of the IP says that it is, I know that all of this will tie into the new movies eventually, I know, I know, I know. And yet. I feel like I’m reading fan fiction. Fan fiction written by a professional, mind you, and even with the annoying present tense, Wendig on his worst day is better than the atrocity that was the last original EU novel “Crucible.” Even so, the feeling persists.

We’re talking about fictional universes and yet, my mind wants to draw a distinction between the “real fiction” and the “pretend fiction.” Even being aware of it isn’t enough to stop the feeling. It’s very odd.

It might be that the new stuff will continue to accrue and eventually supplant the old EU. Maybe it’s just a question of time and the amount of content. I’ll be interested in seeing where it all goes.

So, should you read “Life Debt?” I’d say yes. It’s a good book, with great moments, and a few problems. But this is Star Wars now and there’s a lot more to come. I think it’s worth sticking around to see how it goes.

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An Anecdote About How I Review Books

When I was in college, I studied Creative Writing, which had a fair number of literature classes required, as you might imagine (thought perhaps not as many literature classes as a literature degree would require). In fact, it’s only my years of extensive education that allow me to craft such complex sentences as the preceding one; my education in this area also explains my love of the semicolon.

There’s a lot about college that I don’t really remember. Sometimes, for fun(?), I try to remember all the classes I actually took. For the classes that I do remember, I try to remember my professors’ names. And eventually I arrive at the conclusion that my memory sucks, I’m bad at paying attention, and what’s the point of any of this! But there are things that I remember from college, in particular, the following anecdote:

It was a literature class, although fuck me if I can remember what the actual focus was. We studied Moby Dick for a while, which narrows it down marginally (I took an African American literature class once and can confirm Moby Dick was not part of the curriculum.) At one point in the semester, my professor showed us one of those videos you can create, the ones where there are two animated characters that can discuss whatever you like, and all you need to do is fill out the text bubbles so they’ll talk to each other with appropriate animations and camera angles. It’s the kind of thing that’s a novelty for exactly the first video you see, maaaybe the first video you try to create, and then never again. I wonder if I can find it. Hold please.

And we’re back. For you, dear reader, the transition was instantaneous. For me, it was 45 minutes of getting sucked into YouTube videos. I forgot what I was talking about. Oh, right.

I was not able to find the video itself, though I did the original video that created the meme. Take a look if you’d like to see the style; it’s exactly the same as what my professor did, down to the robot voices and two bears.

In the video my professor created, the title was something like “the problem with reading difficult books.” And one of the bears (the one with the vaguely feminine voice) expresses frustration with how hard it is to read certain books and how she often has to read them several times to understand what they are saying.

Then the other bear points out that you don’t really need to do that. “Simply stare at the book for an appropriate length of time. Say ‘hmmmm’ a lot. Then in class, instead of talking about the book, talk about how the book made you feel. Other students will think you are attractive and interesting. You will go on many dates with other students who also did not read the book. And perhaps one day you will have children of your own, who will grow up not reading the book.”

And at the time, I was like daaaaamn, this guy is way too young to have that level of despair regarding the worth ethic of his students. And that video was the one thing I remembered from his class, so, hrm, maybe he was on to something.

The reason I bring up this little trip down memory lane is because when I write reviews for books these days, I basically just talk about exactly that; how the book made me feel. And every time I do, there’s this little voice in the back of my head telling me that I’m letting Professor (sorry, can’t remember your name) down, because I’m just talking about how I feel. The little voice tells me that I should be doing more rigorous analysis, more detailed examination, more critical thinking, instead of something I type up during a fifteen minute break or during lunch.

I tell myself that I don’t actually have to do anything I don’t feel like doing; I’m not a professional reviewer and I don’t think my little reviews are going to earn me any actual career advancement. So I can do them however the hell I want. But there’s always that voice telling me that I should do more, that I owe it to the author and to my own ridiculously over-priced degree to do work at the level I’m capable of doing.

But I don’t. I just talk about how I feel after having read it and take comfort in the fact that in my mind, I’m always just talking to myself and if you’re actually reading this now, it’s entirely an accident of fate and not by my design.

Also, there’s the fact that I originally didn’t even bother writing reviews; I’d just slap a few stars down on Goodreads, grunt, and go on my way. So the fact that I’m actually leaving thoughts at all is a big step forward, if you think about it.

All I’m saying is that I’m aware of what I’m doing. But I also know that I don’t really like reviews as a thing. I don’t trust reviews if I don’t know anything about the reviewer. This is true for reviews of everything other than washing machines (for those, I just need to know if it’s going to wash my clothes). But for everything else, for books, movies, video games, I don’t actually care about the professional reviews. I need the reviews from people that match my particular profile: people who think that (motorcycle + velociraptor) x Chris Prat = awesome is an equation that leads us to the highest echelon of entertainment. I’m aware that Jurassic World was not actually a  good movie. I’m just also saying that I don’t care.

So, that’s why I do what I do.

Review: The 5th Wave

The 5th Wave (The 5th Wave, #1)The 5th Wave by Rick Yancey
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I’m not one who tends to pick up YA novels too often, but every once in a while I get a recommendation from a colleague and it sparks my curiosity enough to dip my toe in the waters for a while. It’s interesting, because I know that the YA market is very hot right now among adult readers and especially among librarians and since every single person I know is a librarian, you can see how this sort of thing happens from time to time.

So, the book itself. For me, there were some great bits, some okay bits, and some ‘meh’ bits. I’m not much for the YA romance angle, especially the “girl with a crush on one boy who is liked by another.” There’s a good bit of mystery about the “Waves,” what they are, what they will be, and what the titular “5th Wave” actually is. I also enjoyed the speculation early in the book about what the “Others” actually were and there’s a good bit of tension regarding just how, well, alien they are.

There are multiple points of view throughout the book and they shift around often enough that it was, at times, tricky to keep track of who I was reading. A few times I started in on a chapter and thought it was from one character’s point of view, only to realize that I was wrong a few pages in. It’s certainly not the kind of thing that breaks a narrative for me, but it’s . . . inelegant. I liken it to a transmission that clunks whenever you shift gears. It still works, but you notice it when you’d prefer everything to be smooth. It’s also the kind of thing that would be easy enough to fix; slap a Game of Thrones-style chapter header “Chapter 5: Cassie,” for instance, and you’d clean that right up.

Regardless, overall, I enjoyed the book. I like aliens, I like invasions, I like dystopias, and I like survival; there’s a good amount of each here. I’m less interested in teenage romance and the angst therein, but I recognize that this genre has certain conventions that are quite popular, so I’m not convinced that it’s bad. It’s just not to my taste. Your mileage may vary accordingly.

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Review: Unlocked: An Oral History of Haden’s Syndrome

Unlocked: An Oral History of Haden's SyndromeUnlocked: An Oral History of Haden’s Syndrome by John Scalzi
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Fun fact: the copy that I read was part of a limited print run of 1500 copies, all of which were numbered and signed by the author. Mine was 1384, which found its way to the King County Library System’s collection. Anyway.

This book is a companion novella to the novel “Lock In” and as such, it’s a slim, quick read. And you know what? That’s a goddamn shame! I enjoyed “Lock In” quite a bit . . . but “Unlocked” is something really special and it manages to hit all the right buttons in my brain.

I attribute this largely to its format, which is entirely done in an interview style of various individuals discussing the spread of “Haden’s Syndrome,” the effect which causes the “Locked In” condition that sets up the rest of the world. This interview style is very, very reminiscent of “World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War” by Max Brooks, although without the zombies.

There’s something powerful in telling a story entirely through interview, which I suppose might be why interviews as a thing are reasonably popular. But fictional interviews are even better, because you’re not limited to how people actually talk, but can craft interesting, narrative driven responses that paint an entire world piece by piece. It’s considerably more interesting, which might be one of the reasons I never pursued a major in Journalism.

This novella was released before “Lock In” was published, so if you haven’t read either yet, do yourself a favor and read this one first. I’m more than willing to imagine that some of my concerns about the full novel would have been assuaged had I actually done things in the proper order. Even if you’re not planning on reading the full novel, “Unlocked” is an interesting little book that will occupy your mind far longer than it takes to get through it. Always a good thing, in my opinion.

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Compulsively iconoclastic!

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