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As of my "maternity leave," here are the stats of the past year: 74 books reviewed 9 guest posts 4 independent bookstores 3 d...

Monday, December 30, 2013

The Empty Chair: Two Novellas

There is a lot to talk about today, kids. This is Bruce Wagner's The Empty Chair. 

In these two connected novellas, an author that has collected people's stories comes across two that are strangely connected. In "The First Guru," a gay man searches for inner peace after the suicide of his young son. "The Second Guru" is a story that temporally occurred before the first but must come second, according to the author, in order for us to understand the connection. In this story, an aging woman named Queenie found herself in more than a few jams as a young woman and sets out on her own spiritual journey in her later years. When the connection between these two emerges, it is simple yet powerful.

I was incredibly taken by the first story, that of a man whose name we never know but whose story is lovely and devastating all at the same time. The phrase "the empty chair" refers to so much both physically and metaphorically, and it comes across so clear in this first novella. I felt that the man was speaking with me in the interview and not with the fictional narrator, and that was the most wonderful part of this novella. While the story is being told in just one place and time, I was able to witness the character arc fill the space fully and deeply. It was a wonderful piece of writing, and I found myself really contemplating my own beliefs while reading this section. A good piece of work will make you think.

I did not find myself quite as happy with the second novella; I found it to be meandering and unclear at times and when I got halfway through the section I realized that I just wasn't getting it. I pushed through, but ultimately decided that I would focus my energies on the beauty of the first section of writing.

Kindle version on left, hard copy on right.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Running with Scissors: A Memoir

I had yet to read Augusten Burrough's Running with Scissors, and I thought this past summer would be a perfect time to pick up the paperback version and indulge in a little kookiness.

Something is wrong with Augusten's family. His mother is crazy and his father could care less about anything. When his mother announces that Augusten will soon be under the care of her therapist Dr. Finch, Augusten is unsure of what will happen to him. The Finch's, after all, are even crazier than his mother. In his years in their home, Augusten discovers he is gay and takes a much older lover, finds his best friend, and gets into shenanigans he would have missed otherwise.

This is the kind of summer beach read that I love. It was wild and out-there and a devil of a read--one where I found myself smiling and having a ball of a time. I especially recommend this book in paperback because it is the perfect indulgence of a vacation read. (I personally find paperbacks to be like the private chocolate stash you don't tell your family about that is in the back of the junk drawer in the kitchen. Shhh...) It is on the light side, meaning that you can read it in a few days, but it still has the substance you look for in a summer book.

I did find myself often wondering how true this story could actually be. Upon further thought, though, I realized I didn't care because it was exactly what I want in a story. A little exaggeration, a lot of memory, and a sprinkle of crazy. Well, okay, never mind--it's a cup and a half of crazy. It didn't require me to make a flow chart of characters--they came off the page themselves and lived in life. I was able to take a ride-along on the crazy train for a few hours. 

And let me tell you--it was a blast.

Kindle version on left, hard copy on right. 

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

The Harry Potter Series

A beautiful, lovely, merry Christmas to you all! For those of you who do not celebrate this particularly holiday, I hope your season is merry and bright. To celebrate my love of book reading today, I am bringing you J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series, but not in the usual way. 

I came to this series as an adult. I was just a little too old for the first couple of books when they were released, and by the time they caught my attention in college my tastes skewed away from fantasy. I always wanted to read them, but I was always distracted by the gazillions of other books I wanted to read. 

Finally, this summer, the Museum of Modern Art did a showing of all 8 movies in the course of a week. At this point I had read Sorcerer's Stone, Chamber of Secrets, and Prisoner of Azkaban. I was definitely interested in finishing the series, but again, I was distracted. I had even tried racing the 3rd grader I was babysitting to finish the series--she won.

So I took on the challenge of 8 Harry Potter movies in 7 nights. The first two movies mimicked the feel of the first two books--almost children's lit and children's movies, and I appreciated that the director was able to hold on to that feeling of whimsy and danger but still staying safe. By the time I reached the fifth movie, Order of the Phoenix, I got it.

Half way through the movie, it hit me like a ton of bricks: "I get why people love these stories." I get how meaningful they are, the fight between good and evil although it is only as clear as you understand it. I get the protectiveness that fans have over this series, and why they hold it so close to their hearts. It's not just because Harry is a great character--he certainly is, but that's not just it. These stories are epics in the most literal sense; they are one long, narrative poem that tells the story of a flawed hero and his incredible, strong, growing, loving companions fighting for what they believe is right and just. It is classic in every sense--it's what we as humans have been drawn to since the dawn of the story.

So I decided to make the last four books happen before the end of the year.

This will not be a post as per usual. I will not be synopsizing the books; many other websites will do these books justice where I can only scratch the surface. Wikipedia is just one of many. Head there if you need a catch-up before continuing. I will wait.

Ok, then. Good to go? Me too.

The first two books were very YA, and I liked them for what they were. It was Harry's childhood and it is hard not to love him and his raggedy group of friends. These are classic stories of good versus evil, whether that evil is as simple as a bully (Draco Malfoy) or as complicated as You-Know-Who.There is a certain simplicity about these first two stories, and arguably the third, that resembles what an ideal childhood should be--for a wizard, or a boy. The reality is that we all have simple evils
and complicated evils, even if they aren't wizards and witches. Moving forward in life is necessary if we want to keep living. There is also a certain simplicity in Harry's ignorance as to the enormity of his role in the world that is heartbreaking. He is a child, and there is no reason he should know what he must come to know at the end of Order of the Phoenix. The larger truths and complications with which he must wrestle as he matures are a part of his identity formation and begin to define him. I am specifically thinking of the mental wrestling Harry does in Half-Blood Prince when dealing with the weight that comes with being chosen rather than Neville. (You didn't think you would get out of here without some psychobabble, did you??? Nonsense, my friends.)

There is, though, a certain weightiness that comes with reading these books for the first time as a fully-formed (I think, anyway) adult. The

questions that loom over me in these books are not ones that I could formulate as a teenager, let along grapple. What if you were asked to sacrifice yourself for the greater good? Dumbledore's choice was of a great magnitude, one of which I am not sure I could ever understand nor do. I can sit here and say I would, but to know your death and to accept it so readily is heavy stuff. Harry's willingness to put his life on the line to save Sirius in the Ministry, and even more than that, his friend's willingness to possibly sacrifice their own lives, is enormous. It shows a kind of love that is only possible when given wholly and selflessly. That is a hard thing to grasp if you have never felt it, but Rowling dives deep and gives you it.

Moving away from the story for a moment, I was astounded by the gift of watching Rowling's writing grow over the course of a decade and seven books. I think she is a beautiful writer (see

her newest here), and it is clear how much she cut her teeth on these beloved characters. She is talented to begin with, but her growth with Harry and the crew is just beautiful. Stunning, even.

I find that I want to spend more time in the world of Hogwarts and Harry more as an adult than I would as a child. I think I would have sped through these books and loved them for their story, but as a grown woman I want to sit and ponder on their greater meaning. The battle in Deathly Hallows is soul-crushing and soul-satisfying; the build-up, though, in Half-Blood Prince might have been my favorite. We live in this day and age in a world filled with fear of the unknown, be it terrorism, disease, or the economy. I found this resonating with the inhabitants of Rowling's world while they were lying in wait for Voldemort to return. No one knew quite what to expect, only that the other shoe had to drop. It was, after all, prophesied.

This post has not been to sell you on reading the books; in truth, you have probably already read them and found your own reality within them. This was a coming of age story of such depth, breadth, and beauty that it is hard to not sit down with them and judge them each on their own merits.

I am glad I finally came to these books, but it had to be in my own time, in my own way. These are a joy to experience, but it has to be when you are ready. They hold so much within their spines, and the journey must be your own.

I have links below to purchase the books in all forms. If you haven't yet made the journey, choose your time and crack them open.

Meet you on platform 9 3/4.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Burn Down the Ground: A Memoir

It's memoir time again, folks! Today we have Kambri Crews' stunning Burn Down the Ground.

Kambri grew up in rural Texas poverty, the daughter of two deaf parents intricately connected with the Deaf community. Her mother is gorgeous, kind, and everything every woman in town wants to be--her father, however, is a philandering rage-aholic whose violence will soon land him in prison. To make the marriage work, her mother moves the family to the boonies of Texas, building a home and a life until it all comes crashing down due to her father's vices. It's not until she is an adult that Kambri can begin to seek answers and find a balance between her adult fear of her father's uncontrollable mind and the child-like deeply ingrained adoration that will always be.

I had read in several places what a searing and moving memoir this would be, and I was not disappointed. I was thoroughly engrossed in Kambri's story, and while it would have been interesting on its own, I feel that Kambri's willingness to bare her soul gave the story the gravitas that it certainly deserved. It is a heart-wrenching story, told from the perspective of a young girl who adores her father and can't understand the incredibly grown-up situations that endanger a marriage and a family.

This young girl becomes a teenager who watches her brother become so like her father, and she fears them both for whom they have become and that of which they are capable. This girl then becomes an adult who must face the hardest of challenges--testifying against her father in an attempted murder case because it is the right thing to do. These phases of Crews' life inform this remarkable story that will gut-punch you, make you angry, and pull at your heart. Life isn't fair, but how we deal with it informs whom we are, whom we become, and whom we will forever be.

Kindle version on left, hard copy on right. 

Friday, December 20, 2013

The Murder Code: A Novel

I LOVE MYSTERIES. I just do. Say "murder," and I am immediately needing to pick up the book. This is The Murder Code by Steve Mosby.

Detective Hicks is a seasoned detective who understands that behind every murder there is a reason--and it's always a reason that can be deduced. One night, a woman's body is found, bludgeoned to death. All signs point to the ex until, the very same night, another body, that of an itinerant man, is found. There is no connection, and as the murders keep occurring in great numbers, Hicks and his partner become more and more frustrated. The killer is defying logic. There is a code in these murders--can they find it in time to prevent so many others from losing their lives?

I really loved this book. I wasn't completely sold for the first quarter, but I am soooooo happy I stuck with it. By the time I hit the 3/4 mark, I was obsessed--couldn't put it down. It came at the point Hicks consulted with a data expert, one who looks for patterns. I will say that I couldn't figure out the pattern until the protagonist did, and I thought it was quite impressive that a story could be weaved so intricately.

I loved the side story that was happening as well, that of Hicks dealing with his past and his present. His estranged wife is pregnant, and he has yet to get excited about the baby. Some of this has to do with his abusive childhood, and some of it is just what happens over the course of growing apart from your mate. It was a great part of the story and really heightened the intrigue hovering over the main event. I love a good story that makes me think and pulls me back in every time I have to shut the book, and this was certainly it. It was a great thriller. 

Kindle version on left, hard copy on right.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape

The reality is, if Open Road Media publishes a book, I most likely am dying to read it. So I picked up Susan Brownmiller's seminal Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape now that it is an e-book.

This treatise on the history of rape is mind-blowingly detailed, meticulously researched, and emotionally difficult to come to grips. This encompassing history of our understanding of rape and its uses throughout history in war, the sociology of what it used to mean and what it means today, and the racial and sexual implications that have ignited such passionate ardor amongst so many are explored in this work of deep and profound significance.

I will be upfront with you in saying that this is not a short book, and it's not one for your beach vacation. It is, however, a powerful dissertation on a very contentious subject. I realize that the psychology of rape--as in, it's about power and not about sex--has only been recently accepted. (By recently, I mean the past few decades.) It is a tough subject about which to converse, and it is still very much misunderstood in more circles than it is otherwise. This book was originally published in 1975 at the (arguable) height of the feminist movement, so it is no surprise that many critiqued it as a feminist manifesto. I, for one, don't feel that speaking out about a life-changing event that occurs in 1 of 6 women (1 in 4 on college campuses) should be considered a "feminist issue." I consider this a human issue.

The history of rape in war and the exploration of the psychological and social historical underpinnings of the act are the underpinnings of this astounding book. Brownmiller also explores rape in prisons, race relations in the South in the early to mid-twentieth century, the myth of the heroic rapist, and how authorities have historically viewed rape reports. All of it is the most well-researched, in-depth writing I have seen in some time.

The fact that for generations, women reporting their rapes were (and to be frank, still are) viewed as women who just changed their mind afterward. They were (and still are) judged on how much they fought back--if there are no outward bruises, you must not have fought hard enough. Even as recently as last year, the idea that a woman cannot be "legitimately raped" still exists. Is that not horrifying to you? It certainly is to me. This, my friends, is only a small section of the book.

This book is angering, a call to arms to force us to make a change. It is a little disheartening to me that not much has changed in almost 40 years. Things are, though, beginning to make a breakthrough. Or at least, this is what I hope. Women are speaking out and refusing to be silenced. We are taking to heart Brownmiller's belief that rape shouldn't be confined to the backrooms of the police station. Sometimes it feels like one step forward, two steps back. It all has to start, though, with that first step.

Kindle version on the left, hard copy on the right.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Visitation Street: A Novel

Anything that is recommended by Dennis Lehane I pick up immediately. Hence my rush to read Ivy Pochoda's highly recommended Visitation Street.

One hot summer night, Val and June take a raft out in the bay next to their Red Hook neighborhood. The next morning, a local teacher finds Val under the dock barely alive. June, however, is nowhere in sight. What happened out on the water? Where is June, and is she even alive? How could this happen in their own community? This mystery sets the tone for an examination of two Red Hooks and the community members that call this neighborhood home--who they are, what they do, and how they inform each other.

This book felt as dark as the bottom of the water; the mood which which Pachoda left me was palpable and thorough, weaving through my inner being like tunnel slowly filling with the tide. It was quite amazing, really; to have that deep, dark, midnight blue pervading her prose as an ever-present reminder of how quickly innocence is lost. By the time you get to the end of the soul-searching narrative, you find that it ultimately doesn't matter what happened on the water that night--and it's only when you accept that the "what" doesn't matter that you find out the "why" of the whole story. It matters. It really does.

It is only when you take a step back do you realize that the sinister motives you seek in events are within your own walls. I thought this book was so honest in its portrayal of two versions of the same neighborhood; there is Visitation Street, where the middle-class folks life, and there are the projects, where drugs are ubiquitous and violence is ignored. How easily children move between these two worlds, and how far away the adults are from one another.

The summer of the events in question is one that will change so many lives. Cree, a young man who lost his father to violence at a young age, hopes to head off to college when his mother is stymied by her own body. Val deals with her memories of what happened on the water and the ghost of June yelling in her ear. Fadi runs his deli, helps out a shadow of a boy, and pins his high hopes on the incoming cruise ships. Jonathan teaches music while dealing with his own secret regarding his mother's death. The summer brings them together and forces their searching for themselves both with and through others.

So, yeah, I loved this book. I loved how dark and soul-searching it was and how it made me question what I believe about humanity. I believe there is an answer for everything, and even if it's crazy to you it makes sense to someone else. (That's the psychologist in me.) I loved the depth of Pachoda's writing and her willingness to give it all to her characters.

Kindle version on left, hard copy on right.

Friday, December 13, 2013

The Rainmaker: A Novel

You didn't think I would get through the summer without a John Grisham novel, did you? Of course not. This is The Rainmaker.

Rudy Baylor is in his last semester of law school--broke, starving, and anxious to get his career started in a perfectly fine Memphis firm. During a clinic for what he calls his "old people law" class, he is approached by a couple whose son is dying due to an insurance company's refusal to pay for treatment. He is ready to hand off the case to another big-shot lawyer when he finds himself out of a job, out of his apartment, and a bankruptcy on his hands. This case is all he has left--and he finds the fraud runs much deeper than his clients and the case is much larger than he ever could have anticipated.

I will not shy away from telling you that the book is somewhat predictable; it's very much David versus Goliath and I am sure you have no doubt who will win. That does not, however, mean that I didn't have an enjoyable two days eating this book alive at the pool. It was classic Grisham, in that the little guy will come out ahead but not without a few bumps in the road. I appreciate this kind of tale, and it was very reminiscent of my Grisham beach book from last year. This means that I was able to kick back, relax, and let myself get swept away in this legal thriller with a willing suspension of disbelief.

There was also a subplot involving Rudy's romantic life which I thoroughly enjoyed. In most of Grisham's books that I have read thus far his protagonists have been married, so it was fun to read a book that involved a roundabout-type romance (nothing straightforward for this man!). Since I am not particularly a lover of bodice-ripper boy-meets-girl type books, it's nice to have the storyline woven into something that piques my interest (like a legal thriller where I can root for the underdog).

Was this book worth a beach read? Absolutely.

Get yo'self the novel below.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Which Brings Me To You: A Novel in Confessions

Oh, how I love a unique novel. This one is epistolary, and so original in concept and execution. This is Steve Almond and Julianna Baggott's Which Brings Me to You.

A woman and a man meet at a wedding. They almost sleep together in a coat closet--until he decides he might actually kind of like her and may not want to ruin it by sleeping together on the first non-date. Instead, he suggests they get to know each other the old fashioned way--through letters in the mail. What these two learn through the process of communication, about each other and about themselves, will either lead to the greatest romance in history or one hell of a romantic bomb. 

I had a blast with this book. It was such a unique concept for a story that I was fascinated by the layout. The character development was really great--by the end of the book I felt that I grew to know each of these people as separate individuals yet the potential beginning of coupledom. It was really fascinating and fun.

Dating in the time of electronic communication is frustrating, full of constant misunderstanding, and general untruths that can be dispelled with the click of a mouse. (I know, I'm in the midst of it.) It was heartening to read the story of a couple who was able to move past the lack of emotion in text messaging and awkward silences over the phone to pour out their feelings on paper. (Yes, these are fictional characters.) Taking stock of your romantic past to a potential romantic future--daring and awesome.

Hard copy for purchase below.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Want Not: A Novel

I enjoyed Jonathan Miles's earlier work, Dear American Airlines, so I grabbed his newest, Want Not, as soon as I heard it was coming out.

Thanksgiving Day 2007. Micah and Talmadge are freegans living off the grid in New York City when Talmadge's old college buddy comes to visit. Elwin is a professor of linguistics whose wife left him for a celebrity chef and his father is suffering from Alzheimer's. Dave, a ruthless debt collector, and Sara, his trophy wife, are both on their second marriages, Sara's husband having died in the World Trade Center. Her daughter, Alexis, is a teenager with a fraught relationship with her parents. As these three story trains run on their separate paths, they will soon collide in a life-changing way that will leave each of them affected forever.

I am usually not a fan of the triptych formula where stories collide, but Miles has a sneaky way of making you fall in love with him and his storytelling. You forget while reading his prose that he is guiding you up a shallow slope until you get to the top, look down, and realize you are standing on the highest cliff you have ever seen. Then he pushes you off.

The largest and most important theme of this book is waste. How do we view our consumer culture? Do we use everything that is available to us, or do we waste what we have both created and been given? When we look at trash, do we see it as waste or do we see it as untapped potential? Who gets to decide what is trash and what isn't? This is a theme I have been struggling with lately as I have been trying to come in under the national average of four pounds of trash per person produced every day.

I found Micah to be the most interesting character in this book; when Miles explores her backstory in detail I was rapt. It was fascinating and horrifying, lovely and astounding. Miles has a brilliant way of exploring his characters so that the reader knows them. Like, really knows them. I sit in awe of this book and its exploration into the deep, dark recesses of the human psyche and the implications of this on the world.

Kindle version on left, hard copy on right.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Cartwheel: A Novel

Cartwheel by Jennifer duBois is a novel inspired by real events--although it is truly a work of beauty and care on its own.

Lily Hayes is an enigma. Still practically a child, she flaunts her escapades in front of her family yet is privately conservative. When she is arrested for her roommate's murder while studying abroad in Buenos Aires, her family's lives are turned upside down. Her divorced parents and younger sister rush to her side, with everyone at a loss as to what to do next. As the prosecutor builds his case, two sides of Lily emerge--what people perceive, and who she believes she is. But which is the truth?

This book was intriguing, and I found myself with a furrowed brow quite often. Lily was truly a girl of many faces. I love that duBois really went with that theme in this book; the theme being that we are only whom we are perceived to be was eye-opening and truly terrifying. I think it's fair to say that we all realize this on a subconscious level, but the depth at which duBois explored this understanding in this book is really interesting and though-provoking. See, Lily from her own point of view is misunderstood, desperate for a place in the world, seeking an identity. Shockingly, she is exactly who she is supposed to be in her early 20's. The follies of youth, eh?

Another resonant theme I took out of this novel is how every single thing we do is construed in the light in which people view us. Every single thing that we do on a daily basis can be used against us when viewed through a lens of malice. Lily's email messages about how boring she found her roommate, Katy; her cryptic phone message for her sister in the middle of the night; her lying about having been fired. All of these things could have been completely innocent--Katy was a goody-two-shoes; Lily did, after all, just break up with her boyfriend the night of the phone message and of Katy's murder; and she was embarrassed about having been let go. However, when paired with another suspect's story, all of these are seen as more evidence of the crime. Just living your life and being who you are could result in evidence for the prosecution.

{I will give you time to shiver, then go delete your entire online presence.}

Basically I am telling you that this book is astounding in its depth and resonance at this very place in time in the world. duBois is a beautiful writer whose willingness write a variation on a theme that goes so much more into the psyche of our modern world is worth a read and more than a few thoughts. You just never know...

Hard copy for purchase below.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Eleven Days: A Novel

Punch me in the gut, why don't you, Lea Carpenter? This is Eleven Days, a novel.

Jason has been missing for eleven days. He is a Special Operations Forces member of the Navy, and he was on a top-secret mission the night of Bin Laden's capture. Sara, his mother, is at home waiting for any news. She is alone; Jason's father died years before and he is her only child. She is kept company by one of Jason's colleagues, but she must go through the days with only her memories. What makes up who we are? How did we get here? What is the measure of one's sacrifice to our nation when that person is someone's child?

This absolutely incredible novel had me inconsolable on the 7 train. Tears. The ugly cry. The heaving. There was a point in time where I thought I was reading narrative non-fiction. I thought this was someone's real life. It is, I imagine, on some level--Carpenter tells us in her notes that on the night of Bin Laden's assassination there several other raids that occurred throughout the middle east. How many more were willing to sacrifice their lives for this country? Politics aside, it was incredibly affecting to read the tale of a man (a boy, really?) who believed in his country so much that he made the ultimate sacrifice. It makes my heart so proud yet so hurt.

The characters were so vivid and lifelike that I felt at times that I should go to Sara and help comfort her. After all, isn't she a dear friend of mine? Don't I know her, understand her? NO?!? SHE'S NOT REAL??? WHAT DO YOU MEAN IT'S FICTION??? This is a huge part of what aided in my delirious confusion about whether or not this was an investigation piece; oh, sure, even the cover says, "A Novel," but really, couldn't that not be fake? It's a testament to Carpenter's storytelling and the beauty that she has given us on the page that I felt so torn between fantasy and reality.

Every once in a while a book comes along that makes me feel unworthy of its goodness; this is that book for me. Its powerful storytelling, its incredible prose, and its humbling characters are enough to make the finest reader weep. A stunning piece of work.

Kindle version on left, hard copy on right.

Monday, December 2, 2013

The Night Guest: A Novel

All I ever desire in a good novel is a tight-knit story with incredible characters that keeps me turning the page. So here I find myself, absolutely in awe, with Fiona McFarlane's The Night Guest. 

Ruth's life is quiet; she lives in the holiday house she and her late husband bought early in their marriage on the coast of Australia. He passed away quite suddenly after retiring there, but Ruth has created a regimented lifestyle that includes phone calls with her son every Sunday. One blustery a day a stranger comes, claiming to be a caretaker sent by the government. Everybody but Ruth thinks it's a good idea; eventually she gives in and before long finds herself completely dependent on Frida. Soon it's almost as if Ruth is completely losing her mind. Who is Frida? Who sent her, and what does she want with Ruth?

I loved this book. I found myself jaw-droppingly invested in Ruth and finding out the truth about Frida. I desperately wanted to figure out what was happening, and I refused to let the book leave my sight until I did. I was completely bought in to the story regardless of how fantastic it got; that feeling of madness was palpable yet unbelievable in the best readership way possible.

McFarlane has written prose that is as addicting as it is beautiful, and she has created characters of such depth with arcs that are astounding for such a short time. Her ability to jump back in time and forward again without skipping a bit or losing her reader only made the story more fascinating, and her set-up of the story with the truly fulfilling characters is just stunning. This book is a thriller of the most literary sort; while not as intricate as a Le Carre book, it has that same unfolding storytelling feel. It's simply gripping.

Kindle version on left, hard copy on right.