To Paradise by Hanya Yanagihara

My disappointment is immeasurable, and my day is ruined.

If you’ve read my review for A Little Life you know how much that novel means to me. Just looking at my hardback copy makes me feel all sorts of intense feelings. So, naturally, my expectations were high for To Paradise. At first, the Cloud Atlas-esque premise did intrigue me. ​​To Paradise is a door-stopper of a book that is divided into three ‘books’. These ‘books’ are united by their shared setting (New York) and themes (freedom, illness, identity, privilege, familial and romantic love, notions of utopia, familial duty vs self, betrayal, desire). On paper, this sounded amazing, and I was looking forward to being once again swept away by Yanagihara’s storytelling…except that it never quite happened.

“Each of them wanted the other to exist only as he was currently experiencing him as if they were both too unimaginative to contemplate each other in a different way.”

The first two books did hold my attention and I even felt emotionally invested in the characters (even if they did pale in comparison to the characters populating A Little Life).
Book I takes place in an alternate America in 1893 where New York is part of the Free States where same-sex couples can marry unlike in the Colonies (ie other US states) and gender equality prevails. The story follows David Bingham who lives with his grandfather on Washington Square. The Binghams are a distinguished and wealthy family and David is accustomed to a life of privilege. While his siblings have married and gone on to have families of their own and/or successful careers, David leads a quiet and sedentary life, keeping himself to himself and mostly interacting with his grandfather. One day a week David teaches art in an orphanage/school and it is here that he comes across the new music teacher, Edward Bishop. David falls fast and hard for Edward in spite of his possible arranged union to Charles Griffith, an older gentleman who his grandfather approves of. David knows that his family would never approve of penniless Edward who has little to no social standing. The two nevertheless become romantically involved and David struggles to keep his dalliance a secret. While he does become more aware of the limitations many citizens of the so-called Free States experience, his naive nature remains relatively unchanged. Readers are made aware that this alternate New York is far from idyllic as class and race play a major role in one’s quality of life. David himself, who is white, expresses prejudiced opinions about POC, and, until Edward, was quite unaware of the realities of having to work for one’s living. Over the course of this section characters or the narrative itself will allude to David’s illness, but Yanagihara refrains from delving into specifics. We see what others think of David’s fragility and solitary lifestyle, and the shame that David himself feels because of his illness. The story, like the following ones, has a very slow pacing. Here it kind of works as we are able to grow accustomed to this alternate America and to the various characters, David in particular. The tension of this story is very much created by David’s hidden relationship with Edward. Various events force David to question whether Edward is genuinely in love with him or whether he’s being played like Millie in Henry James’ The Wings of the Dove. The melancholic setting is well-rendered and perfectly complemented Yanagihara’s formal yet piercing prose. Nevertheless, overall I was able to appreciate this section, even if the ending is somewhat abrupt and left me longing for a clearer resolution/conclusion. For some reason, I thought that the later sections would fill in the gaps left by this 1st tale but I’m afraid they did not. Also, I wish that the author could have envisioned an alternate past without racial discrimination, or at least, that she could have then dedicated more than a throwaway lines on the issue.

The second section is set in 1993 during the AIDS epidemic. David Bingham, a young Hawaiian man, is a paralegal who becomes involved with one of his firm’s senior partners, Charles. Charles is much older and wealthier than David and this often creates friction in their relationship. Charles’ friends, who, like him are white and older than David, do little to include David, often making jabs at his expenses or insinuating that he’s only after Charles’ money. The power dynamic between Charles and David is decidedly skewed. We also learn of David’s parentage and of the weight he carries because of it. There is quite a lot of ambiguity surrounding his difficult relationship with his father who suffers from an undisclosed illness. The AIDS epidemic also forces David to reconcile himself with his own mortality and the failings of the human body. The drama unfolding between David and Charles was compelling. They have led drastically different lives and move in very different circles. David struggles to adapt to Charles’ lifestyle and no matter how hard he tries he feels alienated from Charles’ set. Throughout the course of book II there are some beautiful meditations on life, death, and love that certainly struck a chord with me. Alas, book II is divided into two parts and only the first one follows David (who is the most likeable David of the lot). Part II is structured as a letter/confession of sorts penned by David’s father. Here we move to Hawaii and we learn more about David’s complicated family history and the eventual dissolution of his family.

Book III, which begins around the 50% mark, is what ruined this book for me. It was a mess. It’s 2093 and the world is apparently beset with plagues. We switch to a 1st person narration and our protagonist is living in this generically dystopian New York that is divided into various Zones, some of which have more access to water and food resources. In a move that screams YA dystopia, our female narrator comes across a mysterious man who is dangerously critical of the government. Interspersed throughout her chapters are letters written by her grandfather to one of his closest friends. They provide a blow-by-blow account of the years leading to this dystopian and totalitarian New York and the crucial role he played in it. This part was boring to the extreme. I found that the author’s old-fashioned prose, which really suited Book I & even Book II to be at odds with her dystopian setting. There is also an attempt at mystery by not using the characters’ names (the narrator refers to her grandfather as grandfather and her husband as my husband and this mysterious man as ‘you’). I had no interest in anything that was being said. There were a lot of pandemics, illnesses, plagues, some science lite and I could not bring myself to care for any of it. I kept reading hoping that this Book III would be the bow that ties all of these books together but it never did. We once again have characters sharing the same names but once again the dynamics are slightly different. They do not share the same personality traits as their earlier ‘incarnations’ which left me wondering why did they even have to have the same names to begin with. At one point in Book II David goes on about ‘what ifs’ and parallel universes when thinking about his relationship with Charles.
But that was more or less it. Why do we get the same characters but not really? The many Davids (spoiler: there is more than 3) populating these stories have little in common. They are all male and feel things (to different degrees i might add). Other than that, I didn’t really believe that they were reincarnations of the same David (a la Cloud Atlas). While I was at least able to appreciate the author’s storytelling and themes in the first two books, the last one spoiled things big time. I had to skim read it (something i am not fond of doing). It was a lifeless and unconvincing story narrated by a one-dimensional narrator who sounds like the classic dystopian heroine who has been indoctrinated by whatever evil government. The dystopian setting is stagy, characterised by tired tropes and severely lacking in depth.

I’ll be honest, I did not get the point of this book. Even if I did find book I & II compelling enough, those stories feel ultimately unresolved and lack direction. Book III was a flop.
A Little Life was a tour de force that left me equal parts awestruck and heartbroken. The characters felt real and so did their individual stories. To Paradise instead never fully convinced me. Even the first two books at times came across as affected. And while the themes the author explores in To Paradise have potential, well, she did a much better job with them in A Little Life. Here, both the characters and the relationships they have to one another, well, they are miles behind the ones from A Little Life. Even the ‘earlier’ Davids struck me as relatively bland and forgettable. The supposed love they feel for their families or partners, it didn’t always ring true to life.

If you are interested in this novel I encourage you check out more positive reviews. Maybe I’m just not the right reader for this type of supposedly interconnected narratives…

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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edit: it appears that my opening line has been quoted in an article on the new yorker. i would have not minded if the writer of that article had not proceeded to imply that i did not give Yanighara the ‘benefit of the doubt’. mate, maybe next time don’t just quote the first line of my review, especially given that it was a meme, and take time to read my review. i mean, aren’t you supposed to be a ‘professional’? 1) i went quite in depth in regards to the reasons why this book did not ‘work’ for me, i didn’t just write: tHis SUckS, iT iSN’t LiKE A liTtLe LiFE, 2) i did not dnf this, i may have skim-read the last hundred pages i did read it, so to say that i did not give her the benefit of the doubt is, if you’ll excuse my language, fucking bullshit.

The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

“But in the places where it isn’t faded and where the sun is just so—I can see a strange, provoking, formless sort of figure, that seems to skulk about behind that silly and conspicuous front design.”

First published in 1892 The Yellow Wallpaper is a disquieting short story that has become a seminal piece of feminist literature. Charlotte Perkins Gilman presents her readers with a brief yet evocative narrative that will likely disturb even the most hardened of readers. What struck me the most about this story is that it does not read like something written at the close of the 19th century. Perhaps this is due to the way this story is presented to us. There is an urgency to the unmanned woman’s journal entries that comprise this story, her later entries in particular seem to have been written in haste and secrecy.
John, the husband of our protagonist, is a physician who insists his wife ought to rest in order to recuperate from the classic female illness which consists in “temporary nervous depression” and “a slight hysterical tendency”. John, alongside his sister and other doctors, insist that his wife ought not to overwork or excite herself so he forbids her from writing or performing any chore. He believes that nourishing meals and restorative walks will do wonders for her health. Our narrator however disagrees. Over the summer the couple is residing in a mansion that perturbs her. As the days go by her journal entries express her increasing fixation with her room’s yellow wallpaper. When she voices the wish to leave the mansion or to see others her husband insists that they should remain.
John’s blindness to his wife’s spiralling health exacerbates her illness. Her morbid fixation with her wallpaper leads her to believe that something, or someone, is hiding beneath its pattern.
Gilman’s haunting examination of female madness will definitely leave a mark on her readers. The narrative’s Gothic and oppressive atmosphere emphasise our protagonist’s stultifying existence. Her husband’s dismissal of her worries and his firm instance that she merely needs rests and walks outside to recover force her down a self-destructive path.
The journal entries are extremely effective in that they convey their author’s deteriorating state of mind. Her descriptions of the wallpaper—from its pattern to its colour and smell—are certainly unnerving as they place us alongside her.
John’s ‘cure’ for his wife is far worse that her malaise as he isolates her from the rest of society, confines her person to a room, and cuts her off from her creative pursuits and hobbies. The protagonist’s breakdown is brought about by those who wish to contain and or cure of her more ‘alarming’ emotions (such as sadness and grief) by locking her away.
If you are interested in reading more about this story or the portrayal of ‘female madness’ in Victorian literature I really recommend Gilbert and Gubar’s The Madwoman in the Attic.

my rating: ★★★★☆

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Olivia by Dorothy Strachey — book review

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“And so that was what love led to. To wound and be wounded. ”

Set in a French finishing school Dorothy Strachey’s Olivia tells the story of a schoolgirl’s infatuation with her headmistress. Narrated by its titular character, Olivia perfectly evokes adolescent love. Olivia becomes enamoured with Mlle. Julie, and experiences an awakening of sorts.

“Pretty girls I had seen, lovely girls, no doubt, but I had never paid much conscious attention to their looks, never been particularly interested in them. But this was something different. No, it was not different. It was merely being awakened to something for the first time—physical beauty. I was never blind to it again.”

Not only do her feelings towards Mlle. Julie alter her sense of self but they also seem to heighten her senses. Her narration is full of ecstatic exclamations and passionate declarations. She often looses herself is sensuous raptures in which she elevates Mlle. Julie to a godly status. Olivia however is not the only to pine after her, and Mlle. Julie herself seems to be involved with the other headmistress, Mlle. Cara. Strachey’s perfectly captures the anguish of unreciprocated love. Mlle. Julie is Olivia’s objet petit a, in other words her unattainable object of desire. Although Olivia longs for Mlle. Julie, it seemed to me that the impossibility of this love magnified the intensity of her feelings. She seems almost satisfied by her own yearning and angst. Strachey vividly renders Olivia’s finishing school, from the petty jealousies between pupils to the rivalry between Frau Riesener and Signorina. I particularly liked reading about the school’s two factions: the ‘Julie-ites’ (who studied Italian with Signorina) and the ‘Cara-ites’ (who studied German with Frau Riesener).

The novel doesn’t have a plot as such. The narrative seems intent on using a certain type of language in order to translate to the page Olivia’s feelings towards Mlle. Julie. Through her grandiose prose Strachey articulates the highs and lows of Olivia’s infatuation. Her writing has a flamboyantly poetic quality, one that complements Olivia’s emotions—from her desire to her misery—and her reverence towards Mlle. Julie.
Being an individual who is not only prone to crushes, but one that tends to romanticise said crushes, well, I rather identified with Olivia. It’s a pity that Olivia is Strachey’s only novel.

My rating: ★★★★✰ 4 stars

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Some of my favourite quotes:

“Was this stab in my heart, this rapture, really mine or had I merely read about it? For every feeling, every vicissitude of my passion, there would spring into my mind a quotation from the poets.”

“These people seemed to be beset on every side by “temptations”; they lived in continual terror of falling into “sin”. Sin? What was sin? Evidently there loomed in the dark background a mysterious horror from which pure-minded girls must turn away their thoughts, but there were dangers enough near at hand which made it necessary to walk with extreme wariness—pitfalls, which one could hardly avoid without the help of God.”

“Did I understand the play at that first reading? Oh, certainly not. Haven’t I put the gathered experience of years into my recollection of it? No doubt. What is certain is that it gave me my first conception of tragedy, of the terror and complication and pity of human lives. Strange that for an English child that revelation should have come through Racine instead of through Shakespeare. But it did.”

“I went to bed that night in a kind of daze, slept as if I had been drugged and in the morning awoke to a new world—a world of excitement—a world in which everything was fierce and piercing, everything charged with strange emotions, clothed with extraordinary mysteries, and in which I myself seemed to exist only as an inner core of palpitating fire.”

“But there was no need of wine to intoxicate me. Everything in her proximity was intoxicating.”

“The dullest of her girls was stirred into some sort of life in her presence; to the intelligent, she communicated a Promethean fire which warmed and coloured their whole lives. To sit at table at her right hand was an education in itself.”

“No, I have never seen anyone freer from every sort of selfishness, never seen anyone devote herself to others with such manifest gladness. And yet, with all her altruism, one could never think of her as self-sacrificing. She never did sacrifice herself. She had no self to sacrifice. When she gave her time, her thoughts, her energies to bringing up her stepbrothers and stepsisters, it was really a joy to her.”

“I think there was nothing else she wanted. If I too would have liked to serve, I was continually conscious that I was incapable and unworthy, continually devoured by vain humilities. And then there was also in me a curious repugnance, a terror of getting too near.”

“Let me think of those words later, I said to myself, there’s too much in them—too much joy and terror. I must brush them aside for the moment. I must keep them, bury them, like a dog his bone, till I can return to them alone.”

“It was at this time that a change came over me. That delicious sensation of gladness, of lightness, of springing vitality, that consciousness of youth and strength and ardour, that feeling that some divine power had suddenly granted me an undreamt-of felicity and made me free of boundless kingdoms and untold wealth, faded as mysteriously as it had come and was succeeded by a very different state. Now I was all moroseness and gloom—heavy-hearted, leaden-footed.”

“But I wasn’t thinking. I was sometimes dreaming—the foolish dreams of adolescence: of how I should save her life at the cost of my own by some heroic deed, of how she would kiss me on my death-bed, of how I should kneel at hers and what her dying word would be, of how I should become famous by writing poems which no one would know were inspired by her, of how one day she would guess it, and so on and so on.”

“On the very first morning of what was to be my new life, how could I expect to banish entirely those haunting visions—of a shoulder—of a profile?”

“I had been so utterly absorbed by the newness and violence of all my emotions, that it had never occurred to me the present could be anything but eternal.”

“I must feed on beauty and rapture in order to grow strong.”

“I pondered the episodes I have just related. I lived them over again, sometimes with ecstasy, sometimes with anguish.”

The Downstairs Girl by Stacey Lee — book review

“Their words comforted me on many a lonely night and made me feel like part of a family. ”

The Downstairs Girl is a compelling and poignant novel that follows seventeen-year-old Jo Kuan, a Chinese American living in 1890s Atlanta.

The story explores the way in which Jo, alongside other Chinese Americans, are virtually unseen by their society, a society which sees only in terms of ‘black’ and ‘white’. Jo is constantly reminded by the people around her that she isn’t a real American. Being a girl further complicates matters, as her future seems to offer few possibilities that don’t involve becoming a wife.
Jo’s upfront narration make her into an immediately sympathetic character. I admired her resilience and wisdom. Time and again she is forced to adapt to the hard reality around her: the people around exclude her, mistreat her, and worse still. After being unjustly fired from her hat maker position she is forced to work for an old childhood acquaintance, a girl who has grown from a child bully (who enjoyed tormenting Jo) into a cruel young woman with a vicious streak (I kept thinking of her as Charlotte LaBouff’s evil twin).
Jo, together with Old Gin—an elderly man who has taken care of her ever since she was abandoned as a baby by her parents—secretly lives below the house of a newspaper family. Over the course of her life she has longed to belong to a family such as theirs but so far has contented herself to observing them. Luckily for Jo, the family is in need of an ‘agony aunt’ and she believes, quite rightly, that she has the skills for the job. By assuming the identity of Miss Sweetie, Jo can address issues regarding race and gender. Her columns of course aren’t well received by all…

There are various interesting plot-lines that make The Downstairs Girl into an engrossing read. Jo is an interesting main character, which makes a change from most YA releases which usually star rather insipid protagonists. Here we have a narrator who you can really root for and truly admire. Her passion for words and great empathy made her all the more compelling.
The cast of characters is as complex as the protagonist herself. I must commend Stacey Lee for making each character into a nuanced one. Rather than condoning the behaviour or qualities of her characters, she allows Jo—and by extension the readers—to see that something or someone might have influenced their actions. She doesn’t excuse their awfulness but rather she allows us to see the many different sides that make up a person’s character.
The setting was almost frightfully realistic (racism and sexism are sadly an every-day reality). There are many western elements which balanced some of the heavier themes explored by the story, and I enjoyed the use of certain conventions of the historical fiction genre (for example, Jo dresses as a man). The novel portrays a particular type of American experience, one that focus on the individuals who are rejected by their own society (for example, Jo’s friends are excluded by Atlanta’s white feminists so form a group of their own). Jo is able to connect with those who similarly to her are marginalised by mainstream society.
Running alongside various other side-plots is the one of Jo’s identity. While I wasn’t necessarily surprised by certain revelations I was still completely captivated by the story and by Jo’s quest for the truth.
The sweet and genuine romance between Jo and another character was a minor aspect of this novel, one that made for some lovely and heartfelt scenes, moments of repose for both Jo and her readers.
Overall, I would definitely recommend this one, especially to those looking for a YA take on western or for those who are looking for a thought-provoking story that explores the intersection between identity, family, and society.

My rating: ★★★★✰ 4 stars

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The Oracle of Cumae by Melissa Hardy — book review

“I listened as Sibylla told me for the third or fourth or fifth time, about something that happened to her a thousand years ago and that might have been funny then, but, clearly, you had to have been there.”

The Oracle of Cumae is a humorous tale that might appeal to readers who enjoyed Neil Gaiman’s Stardust, Zen Cho’s Sorcerer to the Crown series, or even books by Rick Riordan. While I enjoyed how witty and playful the narrative could be I was also aware of the various mistakes punctuating the novel.

“Actually, I’m rather hoping for Purgatory.”
“Impossible. Suicides go to Hell. Everyone knows that!”
“I’m hoping to negotiate my position.”

The story is a fun romp that has plenty of comical moments and diverting scenarios. The title character is portrayed in a refreshing way and I do think that the narrative should have focused more on her rather than the people from Mariuccia Umbellino’s youth. There are amusing running gags which create a sense of familiarity between the readers and the story, such as when Mariuccia or her family explain to outsiders that their local pastor is blind, illiterate, and can’t speak Latin:

“He can’t read?” the Prior exclaimed. “How can he say Mass?”
“He acts it out,” said Papa.
“It’s very entertaining,” Mama added. “The children love it.”

The humour is the biggest strength of the story. There are some brilliant back and forths which really complemented the setting and emphasised the characters’ various eccentricities. At times the humour could be quite silly and light:

“Look!” Cesare cried. “He smiled! His very first smile!”
“Actually I am told that babies don’t really smile until about the age of two months,” said Pellicola drily. “It’s probably just gas.”

And in other occasions it could become closer to that of a black comedy:

“Don’t ask me. You know full well that I was an only child. ”
“As was I,” reflected Dr. Pellicola a little dreamily. “No, wait. There was a sister, but she ate something in the garden and died. Belladonna, I believe it was. I think I put her up to it, but, as I was only four at the time, I was forgiven. Even then I was fascinated by medicinal herbs!”

I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this zestful narrative style. There was a vivacious energy underlining each of the various characters’ interactions which made the story all the more engaging. It was fun to see how Melissa Hardy applies a modern humour to a historical setting.

“I tell you what. Go commit your sin. Come back next Wednesday at this time. Confess, and I’ll absolve you. That’s the way the system works. Now, if you are quite through…?”

Hardy also makes interesting references to a lot of historical anecdotes and places, incorporating certain historical events and locations into her tale (such as the mummies of the Chiesa dei Morti).
The story itself wouldn’t hold up without this abundance of humour as it is what brings the characters into focus. The storyline could have had been more clear-cut and with a more satisfactory inclusion of the oracle. I would have preferred following Mariuccia during her a larger chunk of her life rather than having the narrative focusing on a year or two when she was a teenager. More could have been made of the story as it had a lot of potentially interesting elements, it seems however that much of the narrative stems from a not fully sketched out idea.

There were also a lot of mistakes and inaccuracies which detracted from my overall enjoyment of this book.
➜ The story opens in Italy during the late 19th century (1896 to be precise) and Mariuccia Umbellino, who has just turned ninety nine, calls a priest in order to confess some of her secrets. Although she says that she worked for Bacigalupo & Sons for fifty years (“The business that I preserved and built upon for fifty years”) implying that she must have started working for this company before the 1850s, the narrative later states that Bacigalupo & Sons was founded in the “early nineteen hundreds”, a period of time that is often used to refer to the early 1900s as opposed to the early 1800s.
➜While I don’t have a problem with writers outside of Italy writing about Italy or setting their book in Italy I do get frustrated by the lack of research that some of these authors pay to the Italian language. Google is quite a handy tool and it isn’t difficult to double check the Italian equivalent to certain English terms. Often English-speaking authors will throw untranslated Italian words into their narratives as a way of making their story more believable and quaint. Time and again these authors will use Mama and Papa when referring to Italian characters’ mothers and fathers. Yet, Mama and Papa have no place in the Italian dictionary. They belong to British shows like Downton Abbey. Italians use Mamma and Papà. In Italian Papa means Pope. Not the same as Papà. I actually looked up online a historical dictionary ( http://www.bdcrusca.it/scaffale.asp ) to double-check the period’s terms for Dad and Mum and it turns out that Mariuccia would have used Mamma for Mum and Babbo or Padre for her father.
➜There other Italian words that are misspelled such as ‘schiffo’ instead of ‘schifo’; ‘respetto’ instead of ‘rispetto’; and ‘fritti mistos’ should have been ‘fritti misti’.

When writing about a different culture to your own writers and their editors should ensure that they are at least using the correct words (if they insist on implementing untranslated terms) and names (many of the names in this story seemed odd but given that this is ‘historical’ I was willing to look past them).

In spite of these irritating mistakes, I was entertained by this novel and I’m looking forward to read more by this author.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3 stars

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The House of Silk by Anthony Horowitz — book review

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For the most part The House of Silk was an entertaining read. Horowitz captures the essence of the dynamic between Sherlock Holmes and Watson so that readers will find his portrayal of these two famous characters to be all too familiar. As per usual Horowitz also cleverly combines more than one mystery together, throwing in many literary devices that have become conventions of the detective genre (ie. red herrings).

Readers, alongside Watson, will be for the most part in the dark when it comes to Holmes’ idiosyncratic investigations. This was intentionally frustrating, and more than once Holmes fails to explain his investigation to his friend—and by extent us. Still, I was intrigued by our duo’s exploits, and by the way two seemingly unconnected cases intermingled with one another.
Horowitz’s humour and wit are as per usual present and a source of great amusement. Although I was captivated by the fast-pace and evocative narrative, I was frustrated by a certain plot point (view spoiler) and it seemed that the latter half of this book could have been paced better.

Although Horowitz’s has created a realistic and richly described historical setting I appreciated the way Watson’s narrative and running commentary reflect contemporary sensibilities…and given his modern audience Horowitz is unafraid to tackle the darker aspects of the society he writes of.
In spite of a few minor quibbles, I’m glad I read this and I recommend it to fans of detective fiction, even those who aren’t all that familiar with Arthur Conan Doyle‘s work.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3.25 stars

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