Monday, August 21, 2017

Shadowshaper (Daniel Jose Older)

Shadowshaper
(The Shadowshaper Cypher series, Book 1)
Daniel Jose Older
Scholastic
Fiction, YA Fantasy
***+ (Okay/Good)


DESCRIPTION: It started the day Sierra saw a tear fall from the eye of a faded mural, her first hint of a hidden heritage. She always felt close to her Puerto Rican roots and family, but she had no idea of the hidden depths in her Brooklyn neighborhood, the fading community of shadowshapers, able to infuse art and song with ancestral spirits... a community once led by her stroke-ridden grandfather and a mysterious figure known as Lucera. Now the shadowshapers are under assault as an outside force hunts them down - a force that believes Sierra knows how to find the missing Lucera. Facing reanimated corpses and twisted shadow beasts, Sierra must race to solve a riddle and harness her own shadowshaping gifts before her family and her community are forever destroyed.

REVIEW: This book was a deep plunge into a culture and community I'd never experienced before, New York City's Puerto Rican neighborhoods. Themes of cultural identity, generation gaps, racism, sexism, and gentrification run through the tale. They find embodiment in the antagonist, the white anthropologist John Wick, whose research into spiritual traditions around the world twisted his good intentions into a conviction that he alone was capable of safeguarding the future of someone else's heritage - a heritage he twists, abuses, and defiles in his efforts to preserve it. Once in a while, the themes could get a bit heavy-handed, but such issues are very much a part of Sierra's world, and need addressing. As for the main plot, it often moves at breakneck speed... almost too fast, as it piles on names and relationships even as I struggled to find my bearings. Shadowshaping itself is relegated to background texture for a good chunk of the story, particularly as Sierra reflects on what it means to be a Puerto Rican teen in modern Brooklyn (and deals with her first serious boyfriend - a Haitian, to the horror of her aunt Rosa), but eventually steps into the forefront. Once in a while it grew tiresome how most everyone know about the neighborhood secret but Sierra, holding out even when it's clear she's in direct danger. Something about the way things played out, alongside the character clutter, made me just unsatisfied enough to hold it back from a four-star rating, but overall it's a nicely different urban fantasy adventure, a refreshing dose of diversity.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Teller (Chris Howard) - My Review
The Rithmatist (Brandon Sanderson) - My Review
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Friday, August 18, 2017

The City Beyond the Sands (Michael K. Rose)

The City Beyond the Sands
(The Strange Lands Saga, Book 1)
Michael K. Rose
CreateSpace
Fiction, Adventure/Sci-Fi
*** (Okay)


DESCRIPTION: Will doesn't know what happened. One moment, he was watering his tomato plants, and the next he was in the middle of a vast forest, facing down a strange beast the size of a rhinoceros. Finding his way to civilization, such as it is, he learns that he's in a world known as Dushara, a rough approximation of Earth with some key differences... such as prehistoric animals, strange plants, and humans pulled seemingly at random from time. Daniel, his first friend and ersatz guide, came from the 1970's himself; he tells Will that he'd do well to forget his home on Earth and build a new life here. But Will has a son, and will do anything to get back home - even it it means crossing wilderness that even the wide-ranging Arab traders haven't dared enter, in search of a legendary city that may not even exist.

REVIEW: It was discounted, and it looked like a fairly quick adventure tale. In its favor, that's about what it is. The story is clearly inspired by old-school pulp novels, the sort of yarns H. Rider Haggard, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and others wrote. Indeed, Daniel makes his living as a writer, his adventure tales (inspired as much by a youthful love of pulp novels as the peculiar wonders of Dushara) making him a minor celebrity in a world with minimal widespread literary traditions. The world itself has potential, a mish-mash of misplaced cultures founded by temporal refugees, facing dangers from ancient Earth (and possibly elsewhere, as some things seem to have followed a different evolutionary path.) Unfortunately, it also was apparently inspired by the flaws in those old pulp novels, the ones that sometimes make them feel dated. Will and Daniel are the Great White American Hopes of Dushara; one character even explicitly tells them that their unique mindsets are crucial to preserving the "soul" of the people of the land, who too often lapse into barbarism and savagery. (Because, of course, no other culture could rise above superstition or rudimentary scientific principles...) Despite coming from a modern world and having no real training in self defense, Will quickly proves himself a fighting prodigy, and his convenient lifelong fascination with history marks him as equal (and often superior) to local intellectuals. Sidekick natives exist mostly to further Will's quest to find a way back home - even the one black character in the book, a spear-wielding native of 1902 Africa. (There is also one, and only one, woman character - naturally gorgeous, naturally talented, and naturally existing for one of the characters to fall in love with... because that's about the only reason women appear in these stories.) The cultures encountered are quick-sketch caricatures, with little sense of depth; the Arabs are the caravan traders, the Greeks live in fishing villages, the Mongols raid on horseback... all resembling popular culture impressions, which don't tend to hold up when one does deeper research. As for the journey, it's mostly setups for attacks, followed by the expected attacks, the expected survival of key characters, and then wandering on to the next plot point destination. For instance, shortly after Will turns up, signs are found of local barbarian raiders - preceding an attack on the town where he takes refuge. Later, they're warned of "ape men" in the mountains. They travel into the mountains - and the ape-men can't wait to attack. Another leg warns of Mongols... You probably get the pattern by now. At some point, it started feeling like a game, a map loaded with beasts and beings whose sole purpose for existing is attacking the heroes - but never in overwhelming enough numbers to do more than allow them to gain experience points and level up in combat. As for the titular "city beyond the sands"... well, without spoilers, I can only say I was rather underwhelmed by it, especially given the hype. Then the ending offers little conclusion, setting up the next novel in the series.
If you're a fan of old-school adventure novels, and don't mind the formula of such tales, I expect you'll enjoy this story. As for me, I'm afraid it's just not my cup of cocoa. Despite the promise and some moments of imagination, I just never felt it lived up to its potential, or pushed itself beyond its pulp roots.

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Saber Tooth (Lou Cadle) - My Review
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Sunday, August 13, 2017

Paper Girls Volume 3 (Brian K. Vaughan)

Paper Girls Volume 3
(The Paper Girls series)
Brian K. Vaughan, illustrated by Cliff Chiang
Image Comics
Fiction, YA Graphic Novel/Sci-Fi
****+ (Good/Great)


DESCRIPTION: The four paper girls from 1988 Stony Stream have finally reunited... but just where, or when, they have no idea. A primeval forest full of beasts surrounds them - but is it the future, or the past? The discovery of a primitive girl and a futuristic scientist further complicate matters, as the polluted timestream once more threatens the lives of everyone and everything.

REVIEW: The paper girls are in entirely foreign territory, quite literally, through this volume, stuck in the distant past with a young woman who may be pivotal to the future of the human race - but even the past has been corrupted by the "foldings," the temporal rifts that have caused so much havoc everywhere and everywhen the girls end up. They have hopes for answers from Doctor Quanta, the time traveler from a future not too far from their own, only to find more questions and more problems. The characters continue to develop nicely, and the story remains interesting. The ending leaves me eager for the next installment, whenever it appears on Hoopla.

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Sky Coyote (Kage Baker) - My Review
Saturday, the Twelfth of October (Norma Fox Mazer) - My Review
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Paper Girls Volume 2 (Brian K. Vaughan)

Paper Girls Volume 2
(The Paper Girls series)
Brian K. Vaughan, illustrated by Cliff Chiang
Image Comics
Fiction, YA Graphic Novel/Sci-Fi
****+ (Good/Great)


DESCRIPTION: Paper girls Mac, Tiffany, and Erin just escaped the strange nightmare enveloping 1988 Cleveland - only to land in 2016, right in front of a car driven by a grown-up Erin. As younger Erin and older Erin struggle to deal with each other, the question of what happened to KJ remains... and it's not long before time-traveling pursuers turn up, along with more terrible monsters. What's going on? Who can be trusted? And why are the four girls seemingly at the heart of it all?

REVIEW: This second volume sees the paper girls split up; KJ is missing, while the other three contend with the wonders and dangers of the future, not to mention the ongoing threat from the time-travelers. They each react differently. Erin is disappointed to see that she never got out of Stony Stream, while Tiffany can't help being fascinated by 2016, and tomboy Mac faces a devastating revelation about her own family and probable future. Meanwhile, older Erin confronts her past self and the dreams she lost on the way to growing up. The extra levels of character development underlay the main plot threads, which continue to race along at a brisk pace. It remains intriguing enough to keep me reading through the third volume.

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Flight (Sherman Alexie) - My Review
Found (Margaret Peterson Haddix) - My Review
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Paper Girls Volume 1 (Brian K. Vaughan)

Paper Girls Volume 1
(The Paper Girls series)
Brian K. Vaughan, illustrated by Cliff Chiang
Image Comics
Fiction, YA Graphic Novel/Sci-Fi
**** (Good)


DESCRIPTION: In the wee morning hours after Halloween in 1988, paper girl Erin runs afoul of a trio of teenage bullies - only to be saved by three other paper girls. Tiffany, KJ, and Mac invite her to join their group, saying there's safety in numbers. Usually, they're just up against the odd thief or rowdy. This morning, however, they find themselves up against something stranger - and much more dangerous. Suddenly, most of the people in the neighborhood have disappeared and the skies fill with pteranodon-like beasts. What is going on... and why does Erin feel it's somehow familiar, like the nightmares that have been plaguing her?

REVIEW: This award-winning graphic novel begins the journey of four young teen girls from a small Cleveland suburb, thrusting them into a bizarre and dangerous adventure. Distrust of grown-ups takes on a whole new meaning when visitors from the future begin decimating the past... and, somehow, the four girls are caught right in the middle, pivotal players in a temporal nightmare. It's a fast-paced adventure with interesting, distinctive characters.

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The Dragon Quartet (Marjorie B. Kellogg) - My Review
The Time Keeper (Barbara Bartholomew)- My Review
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Saturday, August 12, 2017

A Natural History of Dragons (Marie Brennan)

A Natural History of Dragons: A Memoir by Lady Trent
(The Lady Trent Memoirs series, Book 1)
Marie Brennan
Tor
Fiction, Fantasy
**** (Good)


DESCRIPTION: Lady Trent, widely recognized today as one of the leading dragon researchers in the world, at long last presents her personal memoirs, which tell a rather different story than her official papers. As a young girl in Scirland, Isabella was always drawn to the world of science in general and dragons in particular, interests that amused her father but horrified her proper mother. Try as she might, though, she cannot become a properly tame young lady, culminating in her joining her husband Jacob in an expedition to the mountains of Vystrana to study rock-wyrms in their native habitat. She was supposed to keep herself out of trouble, but problems with the locals - and with the dragons - soon land them all in danger.

REVIEW: Pseudo-historic fantasies with dragons aren't uncommon on the bookshelves these days, but Brennan offers a world that is both less familiar and more detailed than many. Her "Scirland" and other nations resemble Victorian-era Earth only in the broadest strokes, and her dragons become real creatures full of intriguing puzzles for a young natural scientist like Isabella to explore. She herself is a rebel against society only insofar as her passion for dragons and unladylike research; in other aspects, she's well entrenched in her class and culture. She even attempts to set aside her desires for the sake of her family and her future, but there's only so far she can make herself bend to society's will - and, fortunately, she finds allies to help her. The tale takes some interesting twists as the pursuit of rock-wyrms entangles with smugglers, thorny international politics, and other dangers in a foreign and increasingly hostile land. While the tangle of geographic names and relations grows a bit thick and the end has a couple twists that felt a little too convenient and subtly unsatisfying, overall I found it an intriguing start to a series I'll probably pursue through at least the next book.

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The Book of Dragons (Ciruelo) - My Review
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Thursday, August 10, 2017

Fool Me Twice (Shawn Lawrence Otto)

Fool Me Twice: Fighting the Assault on Science in America
Shawn Lawrence Otto
Rodale Books
Nonfiction, Science
**** (Good)


DESCRIPTION: Since its inception, America has been a paradox. The Declaration of Independence was written on foundations of reason and science and personal education, a deliberate break from the faith-based authoritarian nations of Europe - yet, from the outset, Americans seemed to value personal opinion over objective fact and practicality over the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake. Science and anti-science have been in conflict from the start, and lately the latter has gained a worrisome upper hand, backed by powerful interests that play on the most divisive aspects of human nature and religion (and the worst mistakes of science's own history) in a way that actively endangers the future of our country, not to mention our world. The author discusses the history of science, the disasters that historically accompany its rejection in favor of misguided and selfish ideals, and what might be done to correct course before it's too late.

REVIEW: Written in 2011, Fool Me Twice sounded an alarm over the increasing hold on political power that those with anti-science, authoritarian agendas have gained over the past decades - an alarm that, given recent developments, fell on deaf ears. Even reasonably progressive leaders like Barack Obama proved reluctant to openly debate science or campaign on a pro-science platform, recognizing how many Americans have been led to view it with skepticism. What we're seeing, Otto convincingly argues, is the end result of at least a generation of effort by those with vested interests in a less educated, less questioning populace. How we got to this point is a long (and sometimes long-winded) tale, the creation and fomenting of divisions playing out age-old schisms, not to mention the exploitation of flaws in both the political system (which has always valued rhetorical debate over scientific exploration of ideas) and the human mind. One could blame Big Money and the weaponizing of  fundamentalism (a force that didn't used to conflict with science; indeed, many great scientists, past and present, find no conflict between faith and logic), but Otto points out that scientists aren't entirely blameless; not only did science perpetuate some serious problems, but it failed to engage with the public even as the anti-science forces became adept in media manipulation. It failed itself by not recognizing that science, like all human endeavors, is inherently political - particularly in modern times, when science is essential to sustaining civilization. Now, scientists scramble to play catch-up - but, in a country where elected officials openly mock the scientific process, where facts take a back seat to provably invalid opinions on reality, where the public has limited access to (let alone understanding or appreciation of) science, they're fighting uphill against an entrenched opponent, one with very deep roots, deeper pockets, and far more experience on the battlefield.
Otto sometimes uses a heavier (and more verbose) hammer than is necessary; his condemnation of the equal rights and feminism movement, while valid insofar as condemning the extreme ideas that arose from it, ignores the human biases and inequalities that necessitated the movements to begin with, biases and inequalities that certainly affected scientists (being human, and products of the same society as the rest of us flawed humans), if not so much the process of science itself, which has always striven for objectivity. Acknowledging and addressing those biases would seem to increase the likelihood of achieving objectivity. Unfortunately, in university settings and public opinion, the movement didn't end there, according to Otto, giving rise to the "postmodern" idea of mutable reality that he ties directly to modern American notions that facts themselves are matters of opinion based on personal experience.
The book can be a slog at times. but it's ultimately worth the effort, with a few glimmers of light in the darkness. At the end, Otto asks directly what kind of future we want, what country we will choose to be: the one that continues to embrace outdated economic myths and outright lies in the name of immediate short-term gains for the powerful few, creating more schisms and isolating itself further from a world that is (for the most part) marching ahead, or the one that confronts the challenges ahead armed with the best known tool, that of science. He predicted a hard and long road, but a potentially navigable one, for science as of 2011. After 2016, I fear it's become exponentially harder and longer...and quite possibly impassable, at least in my lifetime.

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Monday, August 7, 2017

Birthright Volume 4: Family History (Joshua Williamson and Andrei Bressan)

Birthright Volume 4: Family History
(The Birthright series)
Joshua Williamson and Andrei Bressan, creators
Skybound
Fiction, YA Fantasy/Graphic Novel
**** (Good)


DESCRIPTION: Wounded and possibly dying, Mikey Rhodes has found unlikely sanctuary with one of the mages he was sworn to kill: Sameal, his estranged grandfather. The foul Nevermind's grip on him is stronger than ever, but Mikey's family refuses to give up on him, even if it means defying powers the likes of which Earth has never seen. Besides, Mikey and Sameal aren't the only Rhodes men to have special powers: young Brennan finds magic waking in his own veins.
Meanwhile, Mikey's mother Wendy and his winged lover Rya remain captives of the sorceress Mastema, who reveals more about Terranos and the prophecy that ensnared Mikey than either want to hear...

REVIEW: The tale continues at a fast pace in this fourth volume of the Birthright saga. With Mikey sidelined for much of the tale, father Aaron and brother Brennan must step forward, even as fractures in family unity threaten them all. Aaron cannot quite forgive Sameal for abandoning him as a boy, and for not coming forward when Mikey went missing... but he must also come to terms with his own spotty parenting record, and his lack of faith in Brennan. Meanwhile, the surviving wizards pull out even more stops in their relentless pursuit of Mikey; they sacrificed Terranos to stop the Nevermind's spread, and aren't about to see Earth fall to the same evil, no matter the human cost. The women could use a little more dynamic roles at this point, mostly relegated to sitting around as captives talking to Mastema, but otherwise it's a fairly active story. I do hope there's a conclusion pending in another volume or two, though, as this pace can't be sustained indefinitely.

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Friday, August 4, 2017

Scarlet and the Keepers of Light (Brandon Charles West)

Scarlet and the Keepers of Light
(The Scarlet Hopewell series, Volume 1)
Brandon Charles West
Manor Minor Press
Fiction, MG Fantasy
***+ (Okay/Good)


DESCRIPTION: As long as she could remember, Scarlet Hopewell has dreamed of a magical world, a city of light beneath a giant oak, where she and her family are welcomed and honored... but they're just dreams. At least, that's what she always thought. Then, one night, a trio of shadow-wrapped strangers arrive at the Hopewell house - and Dakota, her faithful dog, starts speaking, telling the family to run. Suddenly, somehow, Scarlet's dreams are coming true. She and her family are in a fairy world. But there's a shadow her dreams didn't reveal, a threat that everyone expects her to face - one that endangers not just the magical realm, but her own.

REVIEW: I wavered on the rating for a while. The story starts quickly, and if the setup's a bit familiar, it still managed to draw me in, with an interesting world and intriguing characters. I liked the light magic and other descriptions, and not everything is quite as it seems, lending some refreshing depth to the adventure. But some little issues started nagging at me as I read on. Scarlet's whole family makes the trip with her, but they start to feel thin and, especially in the case of her mother, useless and a touch cliche, with little to do for much of the story (though her firefighter father hovers over her, the sort of protector figure that heroines in middle-grade fantasies generally shouldn't need.) Several elements that started out intriguing became relegated to clutter by the end, actually. For instance, the "dog" Dakota (formerly the Lord of Wolves) manages to teach the family pet Cricket to talk, recruiting him as an ally in defending the Hopewells from the forces of darkness... but very little comes of this lesson, as Cricket becomes a mostly-forgotten footnote. The writing has a way of drifting between characters mid-scene, a subtly distracting irritation. Still, it hooked me into the story, and kept me reading... until it came to an ending that felt like a forced twist for the sake of a cliffhanger, enough so that I'm debating whether I want to continue with the series or leave it hanging on that somewhat unsatisfying note.
When Scarlet and the Keepers of Light works, it works well... but there are just enough odd bumps and loose parts, magnified by the abrupt and unresolved ending, to barely hold it back from a solid four-star Good rating. Younger readers will likely enjoy it more, though they, too, might wish a little more had come from the talking dogs and other hooks.

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How to Survive Anything (Tim MacWelch)

How to Survive Anything: From Animal Attacks to the End of the World (And Everything In Between)
Tim MacWelch
Weldon Owen
Nonfiction, Survival
**** (Good)


DESCRIPTION: Compared to past centuries, the world is a relatively safe place thanks to the wonders of modern civilization, but no safety can be taken for granted. Natural disasters, earthquakes or storms or wildfires, can still bring devastation. Civil unrest can erupt into riots or worse. New diseases can crop up. Author Tim MacWelch and the editors of Outdoor Life magazine have compiled this collection of tips and tricks to help you and your family plan ahead, survive, and endure numerous scenarios.

REVIEW: While not terribly in-depth, this book gets marks for covering a very broad variety of disasters, offering (mostly) practical advice without venturing into fringe survivalist territory, debunking some common myths and misconceptions on the way. (No, drinking urine in the desert isn't an ideal hydration option, nor is a car sufficient insulation from a lightning strike.) The disasters are ranked from relatively minor and likely issues, like floods or getting lost in the wilderness, to less likely, longer-term disasters, such as a downed power grid, major meteor strike, or pandemic, ending with the obligatory "zombie apocalypse" chapter. As I mentioned earlier, what it lacks in depth and detail, it makes up for in overall range, so I gave it the benefit of the doubt.

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Thursday, August 3, 2017

A Tale of Sand (Jim Henson)

A Tale of Sand
Jim Henson and Jerry Juhl, authors; Stephen Christy, editor; illustrations by Ramon K. Perez and Ian Herring
Boom Entertainment
Fiction, Action/Fantasy/Graphic Novel
***+ (Okay/Good)


DESCRIPTION: In a graphic novel adaptation of an unfilmed screenplay by the late Jim Henson, a man finds himself caught in a strange and desperate race through the desert to the dubious sanctuary of Eagle Mountain.

REVIEW: Though perhaps most remembered for his achievements in puppetry, Jim Henson was a storyteller at heart, with numerous screenplays to his name. This project never made it to film, despite Henson and co-creators tinkering with it for years. It's a surreal journey, with moments of danger and humor playing out with minimal dialog. The hero, Mac, is caught up in a deadly chase, threatened and saved by the strangest turns of fate. (Being pursued by a bloodthirsty Arab, a quarterback tackles the man out of nowhere - only for both to turn on Mac.) A patch-eyed figure serves as the main antagonist, though his motives are as unknowable as the rules of the race. It would've been interesting to see it brought to life in film, but this graphic novel adaptation does a decent job. It's intriguing for what it is, but not my cup of cocoa; my tolerance for surreality for surreality's sake is a little too low to fully appreciate it, unfortunately. Fans of Henson's more obscure work, and of surreal cinema or storytelling, will likely enjoy it more than I did.

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Tuesday, August 1, 2017

I Hate Fairyland Volume 1 (Skottie Young)

I Hate Fairyland Volume 1: Madly Ever After
(The I Hate Fairyland series, Issues 1 - 5)
Skottie Young
Image Comics
Fiction, Fantasy/
Graphic Novel/Humor
 *** (Okay)

DESCRIPTION: When six-year-old Gertrude wished to visit a magical world, she never expected it to come true! Here, after a rather rough landing, she's promised a magical adventure as she searches for the key that will let her return home.
That was almost thirty years ago.
The jaded, cynical, increasingly unstable Gert may still look like a cute, curly-haired little girl on the outside, but inside she's aged every day. She and her corrupted bug-man guide still search for the lost key, relying far more on axes and curses than riddles and rainbows. As she cuts a bloody swath through Fairyland, the Queen searches for a way to stop her - even if she is forbidden to directly harm a hair on Gert's head.

REVIEW: Another entry in the growing field of fairyland adventure twists, I Hate Fairyland has some fun (if crude) moments and lines, but never rises above its basic premise to become much more. Gert's understandably jaded, but her violence borders on psychopathic, and I really couldn't care about her... or about anyone else. The fairy queen isn't much better; it's been clear for years that something went wrong with the quest, or with the girl, yet she evidently didn't bother to interfere long before things reached their current state - and seems to blame Gert for her own corruption. The gore quickly becomes mere background dressing, losing its shock value within a few pages. It's not terrible, but it comes across rather flat, with not much more to it than the initial gimmick and no promise of anything changing enough to bother delving into Volume 2.

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