Fiona and Jane by Jean Chen Ho

Fiona and Jane is yet another one of my most anticipated 2022 releases that left me wanting. While the author is certainly a decent writer, I found myself dissatisfied by the friendship that was meant to be the core of her book. Their relationship did not feel complex or nuanced, in fact, it did not even come across as particularly credible. More page time is spent on the inane arguments they have with the wishy-washy men they have sexual and or romantic relationships with than their friendship. The majority of the book is all about characters bickering with one another (which i would have not minded as much if said characters had been realistic or if, at least, their bickering had been somewhat entertaining….).

This book follows two Taiwanese American girls Fiona and Jane as they attempt to navigate girlhood and later on adulthood. While the earlier chapters give us a glimpse into their family history, the later ones are more concerned with their dating lives. They either end up dating manipulative men or end up pining for emotionally unavailable guys. While Jane is queer, her sexuality is very much depicted in a way that left a lot to be desired. At first, some of the chapters imply that she’s a lesbian but then it becomes apparent that she’s probably bi, pan, or queer. Nothing wrong there but for the fact that none of the chapters really focus on her same-sex relationships. These are mentioned, or even appear briefly, but they are not given the same weight as the relationships she has with men. Maybe if the men she ends up entangled with came across as fully-developed characters, I wouldn’t feel so frustrated but they did not and in fact, they were very similar to the men Fiona is with. Rather than expanding on a particular moment in their lives, these chapters usually hone in on a series of silly arguments they have either with each other or the men they are with. These arguments did not always come across as believable and they struck me as staged. As Fiona often takes the role of self-victimizing quasi-hysterical woman, I did not feel particularly engaged in the highs and lows of her romantic life. It did not help that her chapters were narrated in the 3rd person while Jane’s in the 1st one. Because of this I felt distanced by Fiona’s chapters in a way that I wasn’t with Jane. That is not to say that Jane was likeable or a good friend. She was merely the less annoying of the two. At the end of the day only one chapter really honed in on their bond, and the rest spend more time recounting the horrible men they end up with. Their bond was by no means intense or fraught, and there was something very lukewarm about their dynamic. We are told that they are, allegedly, friends. But did this friendship really come across in the actual story? Not really. Early on Fiona does something quite unforgivable to Jane and this is never truly addressed by either party.
I would have liked more time spent on exploring their family dynamics and I think their inner lives could have benefited from being more developed too. We see them at dinners or parties having the same mean-ish conversations with their friends (who make cameo appearances), moaning about the men they are (allegedly) deeply drawn to despite the way they treat them and having exceedingly millennial concerns. I disliked certain plotlines, especially the one involving Jane’s guilt over her father’s death. His sexuality and death become her ‘sad backstory’, something to make her character appear deeper than what she truly is. You might argue that the reason why their friendship features so little in their chapters is that in their adult lives away from one another etc etc…but then why, when the two are once again in the proximity of each other, would you dedicate the chapter actually titled ‘Fiona and Jane’ to Jane’s relationship with a traumatized veteran?
I found both of the titular characters to be selfish, ridiculous in the way they paint themselves as the wronged party, boring (they lack drive and seem to have no real passions/interests), and petty. All in all, I found them to be singularly unlikable. The way Fiona and Jane is formatted too made their relationship appear all the more insubstantial. The book consists of self-contained chapters that can be read like short stories. This type of structure can and does work if in the hands of, say, authors such as Zalika Reid-Benta, Sang Young Park, or Patricia Engel, but here this mode didn’t work so well. The halfhearted attempt at nonlinearity felt pointless, especially since, with the exception of the first three chapters/stories, the rest all take place in an ambiguous time and I was never quite sure in what phase of Fiona and Jane’s lives we were. Doubtlessly, the string of dickish men they become involved with made these chapters rather samey. Additionally, with the exception of the first 3 chapters, Fiona and Jane did not have a strong sense of place.
I will say that the author does highlight the stereotypes attached to women with Taiwanese heritage (at one point one of them dates a korean guy who says taiwanese girls are more ‘promiscuous’ than korean ones). And, despite all of my criticisms, towards the structure of the book, the underdeveloped friendship between Fiona and Jane, I did find the first 3 chapters compelling. The first one is narrated by Jane and reminded me of Mariko Tamaki’s Skim. The second one, if memory serves, is about Fiona’s early years in Taiwan and we see how her grandparents try their best to shelter her. The third one is certainly hard-hitting as it shows how in their efforts to be ‘grown up’ Fiona and Jane end up in a potentially dangerous situation, this one made me think of T Kira Madden’s memoir. But the rest? Meh. They brought to mind Nothing But Blackened Teeth by Cassandra Khaw . While the two belong to different genres, they both feature thinly rendered millennial-ish characters who have stupid arguments with each other. The trajectory of these arguments did not ring true to life. The characters’ responses to the so-called betrayals also struck me as melodramatic and inconsistent. At one point Jane is insulted and enraged at Fiona after the latter asks her whether she’s had an affair with the man she’s currently seeing. She dramatically storms off but then we learn that Jane knew that he was cheating on her and she is the one who is now begging Fiona for her forgiveness. Surely when Fiona first accused her of being the ‘other woman’ Jane, the friend that up to this point had been painted as the more reasonable and forgiving one, would not have either felt a niggling of guilt over the knowledge that Fiona is right about the cheating, just wrong about the other woman’s identity, or understood that her secrecy and complicity over the affair had made her suspect in her friend’s eyes? No. None of this goes through her head. She just becomes rather hysterical and childish, like, How dArE ShE, wE aRe FriENds.
Another thing that annoyed me is how the author depicts queerness. I did not like the avoidance of words such as bi/pan/and queer. These are not bad words. No one is saying that Jane had to talk about her sexuality 24/7 or wear a badge but that when someone calls her a lesbian in front of a guy she’s into, she later ‘reassures’ him by dismissing him, on the lines of, Who? Me? A lesbian? Nah, you know Whatshisface, he’s full of it. As if ‘lesbian’ were an insult of some sort. While she’s confused over what she feels for this guy she has a kind of rebound relationship with a woman who is given very little page time in comparison to her male partners…why?!
It seemed that time that could have been spent on developing Fiona and Jane’s characters, their backstories, their fears/desires etc., is sacrificed in favour of wannabe gritty and realistic scenes involving their time with forgettable assholes.
It makes sense that some of these chapters were originally published separately. The work feels disjointed and directionless, the vapid discussions of the characters were boring and I found the whole book to be deeply lacking in humour. The sex scenes came across as cheesy because they were trying really hard to be edgy and real. The last few lines, where Jane is all like, I will write a book about us or whatnot, was just..unnecessary.
All in all, I did not care for this novel. If you are interested in books that actually explore the themes this book was supposed to, I recommend you check out Kyle Lucia Wu’s Win Me Something. If you liked Fiona and Jane, well, I’m happy that you were able to appreciate it more than I was…so pls don’t @ me.

my rating: ★★½

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Love in the Big City by Sang Young Park

Brimming with humor and life, Love in the Big City makes for an ​​entertaining read. I found its protagonist’s lighthearted narration to be deeply compulsive and I was hooked to his story from the very first pages. Similarly to Frying Plantain and The Nakano Thrift Shop Love in the Big City is divided into self-contained parts/chapters, each one focusing on a specific period of our main character’s life. In most of these Young, our mc, is a writer in his early thirties living in Seoul. The gritty realism of his daily life, as well as his love & sex life, brought to mind authors such as Bryan Washington. While this book does touch upon things like homophobia, abortion, STDs, suicidal ideation, it does so in a very casual way that never struck me as offensive or careless. Young is easily the star of the show as he makes for an incredibly funny and relatable character. From his failed relationships to his day-to-day mishaps. Young makes for a carefree and admirably resilient character whose inner monologue and running commentary never failed to entertain me. Love in the Big City also provides readers with a glimpse into the realities of being queer in contemporary Korean society. Yet, while the stigma, shame, and or lack of visibility Young experiences (or is made to experience) are sobering, his voice remains upbeat and easy to follow. Additionally, the author’s vibrant depiction of Seoul makes for a vivid setting. My favourite section was probably the first one, which focuses on Young’s friendship with Jaehee, who for a time is his roommate. Things get complicated when Jaehee begins to lie about Young’s gender to the boy she’s currently seeing. The sections that centre more on Young’s partners, well, they did seem a bit repetitive. Perhaps because most of the men he dates or frequents share a similar kind of dull and off-putting personality. Still, I appreciated how unsentimental the author when portraying and or discussing love and sex.
Although I have read a few books by Korean authors that are set in Korea this is the first time I’ve come across one that is so wonderfully unapologetically queer and sex-positive. More of this, please!
Love in the Big City makes for a candid, insightful, and above all witty read exploring the life of a young(ish) gay man in Seoul.

my rating: ★★★ ¼


Dog Flowers: A Memoir by Danielle Geller

Dog Flowers is a relentlessly unsparing and depressing account of a dysfunctional family grappling with addiction, trauma, mental illness, and abuse. This memoir opens with Danielle Geller’s mothers’ death. Geller’s mother was homeless when she died of withdrawal from alcohol, and Geller is forced to return to Florida to sift through her mother’s possessions. Using her archivist skills she ends up reaching out to her mother’s side of the family, aside she’s been estranged from, and visits them in their home in the Navajo Nation, where she learns more about her mother’s history and her Navajo heritage.
Alongside these sections that follow Geller as an adult, there are chapters delving into her disrupted childhood, which often honed in on a particular episode.
After her parents, both addicts split up, Geller and her sister go on to stay with their father. Their father, who is white, is an alcoholic whose emotional abuse of his children goes on to become physical when he assaults Geller’s sister. Geller recounts with disturbing clarity his erratic behaviour, for example of the way he would harangue them, telling them the same tired stories from his own childhood and adulthood, fixating on the wrongdoings he’s been subjected to. Although it’s been years since I’ve shared a roof with my father, reading Dog Flowers was an uncomfortable reminder of just how overwhelming it can be to have (and live with) a parent with substance abuse issues. And boy, does Danielle Geller capture how devastating it is on a young person to be exposed to this kind of chaotic and vitriolic presence. It was distressing just how much of my father I recognised in Geller’s own one so reading these sections was by no means an easy activity. Geller and her sister eventually end up in the custody of their grandmother but things take a downward turn as Geller’s sister begins to ‘act out’.
Geller’s prose is unsentimental and matter-of-fact, even when discussing traumatic episodes. In many ways, this memoir reads like a long list of tragedies. Geller’s mother, father, and sister all struggle with addiction and mental illness. Geller is exposed from an early age to emotional, physical, and self-abuse. Neither of her parents is capable or willing to look after her and her sister, and their attempts at sobriety and lucidity are short-lived. If anything, their attempts at a ‘normal’, or at least ‘stable’, life just give Geller (and us the readers) false hopes as they inevitably fall off the wagon. Time and again Geller has to look after them, often with little choice on her part as they emotionally manipulate her into helping them out. All of this sadly hit too close to home. When I saw some reviewers expressing surprise or shock that Geller would not cut ties with her ‘toxic’ family, well, I can’t help but think that their family situation may not be as dysfunctional as Geller’s. There are people out there who are able to cut off ties with their abusive parents or siblings. But, more often than not, you are unable or unwilling to cut someone off. Especially if you start questioning whether many of their ‘vices’ stem from trauma or mental illness. And again, hope. You hope that they will get clean, get a steady job, or lead a ‘normal’ life. And, in Geller’s case, well, all of her closest relatives have struggled with addiction. Is she going to cut them all off?!
It was saddening to see that Geller’s relationship with her Navajo side of the family is far from idyllic or rosy. While her connection to her cousin struck me as moving, her relationship with her aunt was saddening indeed as she is revealed to be a woman who is full of anger and sadly seems to turn this anger towards her relatives.
There is a lot of pain in this memoir. Geller captures with gut-wrenching clarity the realities and aftermath of a childhood marred by neglect, abuse, addiction, and trauma. Geller’s forays into her own past are brutally honest and are not accompanied by ‘moral’ lessons or ‘wise’ insights into human nature. I appreciated Geller’s honest depiction of her family and, more importantly, herself.
While Dog Flowers deeply resonated with me, I did find its execution early on a bit clumsy. The author introduces too much too soon, and I wasn’t sure what had happened when. The ending too seemed a bit abrupt, and I would have appreciated more insight into Geller’s life (her friends, partners, work, etc..).
Nevertheless, I found this a powerful and piercing read. It is by no means an easy read and I did find much of what Geller recounted to be extremely distressing, then again, I was also able to relate to many of her experiences. I appreciated that she neither villainizes nor condone her parents nor her sister and that in delving into her past she tries to understand their motivations or states of mind, even if ultimately, much about their identities remains a mystery or incomprehensible to her.
Geller’s memoir is a haunting account of a family mired in pain. If you are looking for a challenging read, well, buckle up because Dog Flowers is it. Geller’s portrayal of her family disrupts the myth of the happy family and the widely held belief that parents love their children. While there is love in this memoir it is often obfuscated by years of self-destructing behaviour and or by hatred, sadness, and weakness.

my rating: ★★★½

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The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen

“My American adolescence was filled with tales of woe like this, all of them proof of what my mother said, that we did not belong here. In a country where possessions counted for everything, we had no belongings except our stories.”

The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen is a collection of short stories centring on the experiences of Vietnamese refugees & immigrants as well as Vietnamese-Americans. With one or two exceptions most of the stories in this collection take place in America, some soon after the Vietnam War. Through different voices, the author presents us with a nuanced depiction of the realities and difficulties faced by those who are either forced to or choose to leave their home country. In America they are confronted with prejudice and racism, treated as objects of fascination or pity, at times they are separated from their loved ones or find themselves growing apart from their families as well as the language and values of their early childhoods. I appreciated the author’s frank style, the humor that permeated much of his narratives, and his nonmoral approach to his characters, their struggles, fears, and desires. The stories that resonated the most with me happened to be the very first two in the collection: ‘Black-Eyed Women’, which is about a haunted ghostwriter, and ‘The Other Man’, which is set in San Francisco and follows Liem, a young refugee who staying with a gay couple. Many of these stories emphasize the linguistic and cultural barriers experienced by immigrants. Most of these stories, such as ‘I’d Love You To Want Me’, a story about an ageing couple, make for rather bittersweet reads.

Like many collections of short stories, The Refugees was a bit of a mixed bag. None of the stories was bad but a few stood out. Something that dampened my reading experience was the weird way the author would write about breasts: we have “doleful areolas”, breasts that “sway like anemones under shallow water”, and breasts that “undulate” like “the heads of eels”. Like, what gives Nguyen? Why be so weird about breasts? I guess they were meant to be humorous but I happen not to have the sense of humor of an 8-year-old boy so, they didn’t quite do it for me. Also, it would be fairer than to have weird metaphors about other body parts.
All in all, this was a fairly solid collection and I look forward to finally giving Nguyen’s Pulitzer-winning novel a go.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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The Ones Who Don’t Say They Love You: Stories by Maurice Carlos Ruffin

The Ones Who Don’t Say They Love You: Stories is a humorous yet unsparing ode to New Orleans. In this polyphonic collection Maurice Carlos Ruffin presents his readers with an unforgettable portrayal of New Orleans, from its unique culture that separates it from other American cities to its people. These stories tap into contemporary issues so that more than one is actually set during the still-ongoing pandemic. The author also touches on BLM, lgbtq+ themes, as well as issues related to unemployment, connection, and loneliness.

What I most appreciated in this collection, other than its strong sense of place, was that the author doesn’t try to moralise nor condemn his characters’ behaviour. The conversational nature of many of these stories makes it so that the character in question is simply recounting the events and or circumstances that led them to make certain choices. They are simply trying to survive or to cope with a certain situation. The dialogues rang true to life and so did the scenarios the characters are in. I appreciated the openness of these stories and the author’s realistic approach to serious and contemporary issues. While I still feel weird when I read a book that acknowledges COVID, it also, weirdly enough, helps me somehow (learning of how these ‘fictional’ characters cope with it etc.). Many of the stories focus on characters who are caught at a crossroad and discover, for better and worse, that the line between right and wrong is a fine one.
Sadly, a major drawback of this collection was the relatively short length of these stories. I would have preferred longer stories, as that would have allowed me to feel more immersed by the characters and their experiences.
Still, I really liked the author’s prose and I’m curious to read his debut novel, We Cast a Shadow.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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Last Night I Sang to the Monster by Benjamin Alire Sáenz

“I’m thinking I could spend the rest of my life becoming an expert at forgetting.”

Heartbreaking, moving, and ultimately uplifting Last Night I Sang to the Monster is my favourite novel by Sáenz. While this novel explores themes and issues that are recurrent in Sáenz’s oeuvre, Last Night I Sang to the Monster is much darker and, quite frankly, more depressing than his other books. But, if you’ve read anything by Sáenz you know that he never sensationalises ‘difficult’ subject matters nor is he superficial in the way he handles ‘hard’ topics. Sáenz’s empathy and understanding of his characters always shine through. This compassion, tenderness even, that he shows towards them is catching so that within a couple of pages I find myself growing just as attached to his characters as he is.

Last Night I Sang to the Monster follows Zach, an alcoholic eighteen-year-old Mexican-American boy who is in rehab. We don’t know exactly the events that led to his being there but as the narrative progresses, the picture that emerges of his family life is certainly not a happy one (his father, an alcoholic, his mother, severely depressed, his older brother, abusive).

At first, Zach is unwilling and unable to discuss his past, and he finds it difficult to open up to his therapist or his fellow patients. He eventually grows close to Rafael, an older man who understands Zach’s sorrow.
I always admire how Sáenz writes dysfunctional families without vilifying or condoning neglectful parents. Here, like in many other novels by him, father-like figures play a central role in the main character’s arc. With Rafael’s support, Zach’s is able to begin his slow healing process which will see him confronting the events that led to him being in rehab. While his silences initially protected him from being hurt further, eventually, they became debilitating, alienating him from others and his causing him to retreat inward.
Zach’s damaged sense of self-worth, which results in a lot of self-loathing, is not easy to read. Yet, Sáenz’s conversational prose is really easy to read. This style also lends authenticity to Zach’s voice, making it seem as if we truly are in his head. Sáenz has a great ear and his dialogues reflect that. The realistic rhythm of the characters’ conversations makes their interactions all the more vivid and ‘real’.

Throughout the course of the narrative, Sáenz navigates loneliness, trauma, grief, acceptance, and belonging. Zach’s struggles are rendered with clarity and kindness, and so are those of the people around him.
There is no denying that Last Night I Sang to the Monster is a difficult and sad read. Yet, the relationships Zach forms with the other patients, as well as his personal arc, resulting in an incredibly rewarding reading experience.

my rating: ★★★★★

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Afterparties by Anthony Veasna So

Candid and humorously absurd Afterparties is a collection of short stories that focuses on the experiences of Cambodian-Americans in California. In spite of the occasional Shameless-like scenario, these stories remain grounded in realism, almost to the point of reading like a slice of life. Vo’s stories can also be read as frank vignettes capturing the everyday lives of his characters. Nothing truly of note happens in his narratives, yet, the, often funny, interactions between his various characters combined with his irreverent social commentary (on race, sexuality, immigration, america) are bound to keep readers turning pages.

Much about Vo’s tone and scenarios brought to mind Bryan Washington. Like Washington, Vo presents his readers with an unfiltered portrayals of America, queer culture, and millennials, and many of these stories revolve around characters who like to party or are leading rather directionless lives. All of the stories also hone in on generational differences, specifically between young Cambodian-Americans and their parents and grandparents. In addition to racism and homophobia, many of Vo’s characters feel burdened by the pressure to succeed in life or to lead a certain type of lifestyle and by their relatives’ experiences and memories of the Khmer Rouge genocide.

While I recognise that this collection has many good qualities, I didn’t exactly love any of these stories. At times the banter between the younger characters struck me as slightly exaggerated and the humor at times struck me as being of the armpit-fart variety (ie not to my taste). Still, I was saddened to learn that the author has passed away and that this will be likely his only release.
If this collection is on your radar I encourage you to read more positive reviews, such as the one penned by Sarah.

ARC provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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Indian Horse by Richard Wagamese

Gut-wrenching and haunting Indian Horse depicts the horrific realities of residential schools, as well as racism and discrimination in 1960s Ontario. This is the third novel that I’ve read by Richard Wagamese and, while Medicine Walk and Ragged Company were no walks in the parks, Indian Horse’s unsparing bleakness and distressing content make those two seem like light reading material. In spite of how upsetting and chilling this story was, Wagamese never sensationalises his characters’ suffering nor does he include graphic and or painful scenes as a cheap way to ‘shock’ his readers. He writes with such empathy and compassion that I found myself unable to tear myself away from Saul’s story.

Indian Horse opens with Saul Indian Horse, who is Ojibwe, being in a treatment centre for his alcoholism. He then begins recounting his childhood, of the early years he spent with his family ‘on the lam’ back in the early 1960s in the wilderness of Northern Ontario after his siblings were taken, kidnapped really, by the so-called ‘authorities’. His parents are heartbroken and survival is difficult, but, compared to what is to come this part of his life seems like a vacation almost. Eventually, Saul is also stolen and taken to a residential school. Wagamese is unflinching in his depiction of the horrors that occur in residential schools such as the one ‘attended’ by Sault. Words like horrifying or brutal do not succeed in conveying the monstrous actions and behaviours of the people in charge of these schools (mostly nuns and priests). The corporal and psychological violence they inflict on their ‘charges’ are abhorrent, stomach-churning, horrific. Their anti-indigenous teachings see them ‘punishing’ (read: abusing) children for speaking in their native tongue, or for expressing non-Christian beliefs or for merely acknowledging their reality (that of having been forcibly taken from their families and communities).

Saul finds solace in hockey. When Father Leboutilier notices how skilled Saul is on the ice he encourages him to keep on playing, tutoring him along the way. Saul temporarily plays with a ‘midget hockey team’ but resentful white parents and their children are unwilling to see him ‘take’ the spotlight and soon enough he’s out of the team.
Eventually, Saul leaves the residential school and goes to live with the Kellys, an Ojibway foster family who wants him to join their community’s junior hockey team. Over the following years, Saul and the rest of his teammates are subjected to many forms of discrimination, from the racist slurs other teams and their fans throw their way to the everyday discriminations and ‘roughing’ up they are subjected to. Saul initially refuses to retaliate when opposing players pull dirty tricks which actually earns him the contempt of his own teammates, who view his decision not to respond to violence with violence as passive, cowardly even. Later on, Saul is scouted by the Toronto Marlboros where he’s yet again a victim of discrimination. As time passes Saul decides to abandon hockey and develops a taste for drinking.

Whereas Medicine Walk and Ragged Company were very dialogue-heavy and in many ways read like long conversations (between the characters, between humans and the natural world, between past and present), Indian Horse is a more quiet work that is far more introspective in nature. Saul’s recollection of his childhood and teenage years is permeated by a sense of sorrow and loss. From the traumatic experience of being separated from his family to the horrifying realities of residential school and the later abuse he was subjected to once he began playing hockey professionally….this is not a fun or nostalgic foray into the good olden days. Wagamese captures in painful clarity how much Saul struggled with the abuse, violence, and racism he experienced growing up. He conveys these experiences through his younger eyes, so that we too, feel as confused, hurt, and lost as he did. The loneliness he feels is truly heart-breaking and there were times that I struggled to keep on reading. But, as I said earlier on, Wagamese never makes a spectacle of his characters’ suffering. He’s matter-of-fact when it comes to recounting Saul’s difficult life, making his experiences seem all the more real.

As with Wagamese’s other novels, the narrative incorporates various Ojibway teachings, and here we see just how powerful they are in that they tether Saul to the culture he was so violently ripped away from. Much about the tone of the novel brought to mind one of my all-time-favourite novels, Last Night I Sang to the Monster by Benjamin Alire Sáenz. While they do portray very different realities, prose and tone-wise the two share a similar quality. Self-forgiveness is a crucial part of both of these novels, and both authors demonstrate extreme empathy in the way they handle trauma, loss, and addiction.
If you are a fan of Wagamese, or Sáenz, and you are prepared to have your heart broken (and possibly stitched back together), you should seriously consider reading Indian Horse.

my rating: ★★★★☆

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