Friday, October 31, 2014

Isis

Douglas Clegg
Vanguard Press
Reviewed by Nancy
5 out of 5 stars


Summary


New York Times bestselling author Douglas Clegg brings us Isis, a beautifully illustrated, unforgettable novella that is sure to become a classic tale of the supernatural.

If you lost someone you loved, what would you pay to bring them back from the dead?

Old Marsh, the gardener at Belerion Hall, warned the Villiers girl about the old ruins along the sea-cliffs. “Never go in, miss. Never say a prayer at its door. If you are angry, do not seek revenge by the Laughing Maiden stone or at the threshold of the Tombs. There be those who listen for oaths and vows….What may be said in innocence becomes flesh and blood in such places.”

She was born Iris Catherine Villiers. She became Isis.

From childhood until her sixteenth year, Iris Villiers wandered the stone-hedged gardens and the steep cliffs along the coast of Cornwall near her ancestral home. Surrounded by the stern judgments of her grandfather—the Gray Minister—and the taunts of her cruel governess, Iris finds solace in her beloved older brother who has always protected her. But when a tragic accident occurs from the ledge of an open window, Iris discovers that she possesses the ability to speak to the dead...

Be careful what you wish for…it just may find you.


My Review


At only 113 pages, this short story packs a lot of emotion into its pages. Iris Catherine Villiers is a lonely girl with an absent father and a depressed mother, and three older brothers, one of whom she is very close to. Very loosely based on the myth of Isis and Osiris, this is a sad and chilling story that explores love, loss and grief. After a fatal accident involving her favorite brother, Iris discovers that she possesses a special ability to speak to the dead.

The Cornwall setting, with its magnificent cliffs and rocky shoreline, the dysfunctional family complete with a mad grandfather and a cruel governess, and the beautiful illustrations, all make this a superbly haunting little tale that is perfect for Halloween.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

On the BeachOn the Beach by Nevil Shute
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“It's not the end of the world at all," he said. "It's only the end for us. The world will go on just the same, only we shan't be in it. I dare say it will get along all right without us.”

 photo 923a08d5-7ac4-40e1-8533-0a8ec35137b8_zpsa1ff16d3.gif
An Instructional Manual from 1951 on what to do in the event of an A-Bomb attack.

On the Beach was published in 1957, but the novel is set in what was then the near future of 1963. Those years between 1957-1963 proved to be tumultuous years indeed. When I checked this book out of the library, the librarian, the same one who gave me such good material for my In Cold Blood review, said that this book terrified her, not because of the horrifying circumstances in the book, but the plodding calmness of the characters.

I was intrigued.

I wanted to ask what it was like to have read this book in 1957, but that is a rather delicate question to a woman of an indeterminate age. Luckily she bailed me out and told me she read the book much later, but still while we were up to our eyeballs in the Cold War. My Father has always said he has never been more afraid of the World Ending than in 1962 during the Cuban Missile Crisis. My bellwether librarian agreed that she remembered how difficult it was for everyone to go about their regular business with the oppressive presence of the eminent demise of civilization looming over their lives. (I paraphrase.)

I still can’t quite peg her age. I could dig around a bit and probably discover her birth date, but then that wouldn’t be very sporting of me now would it?

So it is the end of the world.

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John Riordan comic strip.

”In the last of meeting places
We grope together
And avoid speech
Gathered on this beach of the tumid river…

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but with a whimper.


S. Eliot


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Ok...so, Nevil Shute has the world ending with Albania attacking Italy. Egypt then bombed the United States and the United Kingdom. NATO bombed the Soviet Union because the planes used by the Egyptians were Soviet made. The Soviets bomb China because of Chinese attacks on their border. All of this bombing...well...is nuclear infused with cobalt to insure the maximum amount of radiation fallout. So those countries that were not involved in World War III, are fully involved in the dying part of the war.

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I glanced through some other reviews of this book. The people who didn’t like this book were looking for the standard apocalyptic novel with desperate people fleeing in front of the radiation (zombies, tidal wave, Ebola etc) hoping to live days longer or maybe even hoping for a reprieve. They wanted people clinging to every last drop of their remaining existence. I would guess that the book would have been more fulfilling for them if a pocket of those people had found a way to survive thus leaving them with some hope that they too could be among the survivors.

This isn’t that kind of book. I’m sure there were people fleeing South, but Shute focuses on the people who stay in Melbourne. The people who are measuring their lifespan in days and minutes as word arrives of radiation sickness three hundred miles away, one hundred miles away.

Dwight Towers, commander of probably the last remaining operational American submarine, has attached his vessel to the Australian Navy. He has a wife and kids in the United States. He is a practical man who knows logically they are dead, but he continues to think about them and talk about them as if they are alive. He meets Moira Davidson who drinks brandy around the clock, loses her top while swimming (see how fun she is!), and is coming to terms with the fact that she is never going to get married or do any of the things she hasn’t even thought of yet.

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1959 movie poster

John Osborne is a scientist who has been attached as a liaison officer to the USS Scorpion. Shute was an aeronautical engineer by trade. His love for machines comes out in the Osborne character. John finds a Ferrari and buys it for pennies on the dollars, even for that price it seems like an act of pure lunacy, but he has always wanted to race cars and has a stash of fuel that will make that dream come true. He organizes the final Australian Grand Prix and so many drivers come out of the woodwork that they have to organize heats to determine the drivers for the final race.

Peter Holmes is a lieutenant commander in the Australian Navy, receiving promotions so quickly due to resignations that he will soon be an admiral. He has a wife, Mary, and a daughter. He cuts down trees and expands the flower and vegetable garden. It gives Mary something to do, something to think about other than winds of death. Moria is discussing the strangeness of planting a garden with Dwight.

“Someone’s crazy,” she said quietly. “Is it me or them?”
“Why do you say that?”
“They won’t be here in six months’ time. I won’t be here. You won’t be here. They wont’ want any vegetables next year.”


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There are old men at the Gentlemen’s Club slowly depleting the last 100 bottles of port. There are debates about whether it is ethical to move the fishing season up. There are people still going to school trying to finish course work. The people who stay are trying to be as productive with their lives as if a normal life span was still stretching out before them. ”Typically for a Shute novel, the characters avoid expressing intense emotions and do not mope or indulge in self-pity. Some reviewers thought the characters were wooden. I found the calmness of the people populating this novel more terrifying than if they had been fleeing for their lives. There was a part of me that wanted to go shake some sense into them and extort them to help me come up with a plan, but as I started to accept the circumstances I realized that the only sane course was the course they were already on.

Do you want to die in a tent surrounded by people you don’t know, going hungry more than likely; and yet, as doomed as if you’d stayed in your home surrounded by your friends and family? Do you want to take the chance that you will survive the apocalypse? I say put on a pot of tea, keep the bourbon close to hand, and finally finish War and Peace. Maybe there is even time for a quick nap in the hammock with the sun on my toes and bees buzzing by my ear.

A fascinating, historical look back to when the threat of nuclear war hung like a shadow around the sun.

***4.25 out of 5 stars***


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Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Curse of the Spellmans

Curse of the Spellmans (The Spellmans, #2)Curse of the Spellmans by Lisa Lutz
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Why has Izzy Spellman been arrested four times in one month? Why is her mother leaving the house at all hours of the night to vandalize a stranger's motor bike? What is her father up to? Who is the mysterious neighbor John Brown? And who is recreating the string of vandalism Izzy is alleged to have perpetrated during her youth? All these questions and more will be answered in Curse of the Spellmans!

When you enjoy the hell out of the first book in a series, the second book is a risky proposition, like bungee jumping, hitchhiking, or eating at White Castle with a gallon of beer already sloshing around in your innards. Fortunately, my apprehension was unfounded. Curse of the Spellmans is a worth second book.

Much like the last book, Curse of the Spellmans is a hilarious tale of a dysfunctional family and the gross invasions of privacy they perpetrate on one another in the name of love. There's also a number of mysteries but the Spellmans and their supporting cast drive the tale.

Told in a manner similar to the first book, Curse of the Spellman's isn't a linear tale. It starts near the middle, backtracks to the beginning, and then eventually makes it to the end.

Detective Henry Stone is a prominent part of the cast since Rae latched on to him in the first book. He's also my third favorite character, right after Izzy and Rae. I already had a high opinion of him but the Doctor Who marathon clinched it, even though he prefers the ninth Doctor to the tenth.

Izzy, despite her legion of flaws, is quickly winning me over. Raised in a family of investigators, she doesn't really know how to do anything else and conducts her personal life like one of her P.I. assignments.

I think Lisa Lutz's greatness comes from being able to juggle funny moments with more serious ones and still make the book work without it becoming ridiculous. A good humorous mystery is hard to come by, in my opinion, but Lutz has consistently delivered the goods so far.

I really have no gripes about this book. There's the minor quibble about there being less of a sense of discovery but it's the second book in the series. Unless the Spellmans were going to adopt a cute kid to bring new life into the series, there wasn't a lot more to unveil.

Four out of five stars. I'll be reading the rest of this series at some point.

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Monday, October 27, 2014

John D. MacDonald Ecplores Life in the Neon Jungle

























Reviewed by James L. Thane
Four out of five stars

This is an early stand-alone from John D. MacDonald, a writer best known for his series featuring Travis McGee. MacDonald was a prolific writer, but he was also very widely read and often incorporated social and economic themes into his books as he does here.

The book, which was first published in 1953, is set in a declining industrial city somewhere in the Midwest. At the center of the story is the family that runs the Varaki Quality Market. The patriarch, Gus Varaki, once ruled the family and the business with a strong but benevolent hand, bringing into the business and the family outsiders who had fallen on hard times and who needed a helping hand. In particular, Gus has a close relationship with Paul Darmond, the local parole officer, and Gus has offered jobs and a home to two parolees that Darmond has recommended.

But the family has fallen on hard times, emotionally if not financially. Gus's wife dies and that places a huge emotional strain on him. He later marries again, this time to a much younger woman, and his spirits are briefly revived. But then his middle child, Henry, is killed in the Korean war, and the loss saps Gus of his energy and attention.

In consequence, both the family and the business begin to drift. Gus's other son, Walter, is deeply dissatisfied with his wife and with his life in general and takes advantage of his father's distraction. Gus's only other child, a daughter named Teena, falls in with the wrong crowd and soon has serious problems of her own.

Now joining the family is another troubled young woman named Bonnie, whom Henry had married in California before leaving for Korea. Bonnie sees how things are dissolving around the family, but the question is can she do anything to stem the tide of trouble. More important, does she even care enough to want to?

MacDonald teases out of all of these relationships a compelling story that touches on themes that were particularly relevant in the early 1950s, like juvenile delinquency, drug abuse, social and economic decay, and the place of family in the larger society. The criminal activities that occur in the book are of somewhat lesser importance than these larger issues, and at the heart of the novel is its central question: Are some people simply born bad and beyond redemption, or can people who might once have made a mistake truly change, reform their lives and become productive members of society?

The Neon Jungle is a fascinating and entertaining read and it is one of a number of MacDonald's novels that have now been republished in great new trade paperback editions by Random House. This is very welcome news for long-time fans of MacDonald's who will now be able to fill out their collections, and it's also an opportunity for people unacquainted with MacDonald's work to be introduced to one of the masters of crime fiction in the second half of the Twentieth century.

Surviving WWII

Ship of Ghosts: The Story of the USS Houston, FDR's Legendary Lost Cruiser, and the Epic Saga of Her SurvivorsShip of Ghosts: The Story of the USS Houston, FDR's Legendary Lost Cruiser, and the Epic Saga of Her Survivors by James D. Hornfischer
Reviewed by Jason Koivu
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Reads like Band of Brothers. Sounds like "the horror...the horror."

All the pieces are here: the finely crafted storytelling with intentionally-though-seamlessly placed details all fitting together and falling into place so that you hardly notice the author's hand, as you should not. You should be focused on the story, and that's not difficult as this is a terrible, true tale of war and human perseverance through some of the harshest treatment man has ever doled out to man.

Reading Ship of Ghosts you get the sense that James D. Hornfischer spent an appropriately long, careful time putting this together. From its entrance into World War II, its naval battles, its surviving crew members turned prisoners of war and their interminable struggle for survival at the hands of their inhumane captors, every facet of the USS Houston's story receives its due.

Is this book perfect? I don't know, but I couldn't think of any reason not to give it 5 stars, so I did.

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Between a Rock and a Hard Place Diplomacy

In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's BerlinIn the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin by Erik Larson
Reviewed by Jason Koivu
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Want to know what it would be like to try to talk Satan out of being such a dick? Consider reading In the Garden of Beasts!

Erudite but ineffectual historian, Dr. William E. Dodd was chosen to be Ambassador to Germany in the decade leading up to WWII, because President Roosevelt couldn't find anyone else willing to take on the job. In 1933 Dodd was tasked with handling relations with a rabid and deranged political phoenix named Adolf Hitler. Perhaps you've heard of him?

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Dodd has brought along his family. This was going to be a nice little holiday, wherein he could finish a book he'd been working on and his family could enjoy the Germany he remembered from his school days. But that was a long time ago and German had changed. Dodd and his family's idea of Germans must necessarily change as well.

Martha! Martha! Martha!

This is just as much a story of political intrigue as it is an innocence lost/coming of age tale.

Martha Dodd, the ambassador's fetching daughter is a socialite of the first order. Men seem to throw themselves at her (even her own father, in a way). Much of the book follows her numerous trysts with many a notable figure of the day, writer Carl Sandberg for one and even Hitler himself entertained the idea of making a match.

Larson and other biographers can thank her and her father's proclivity for writing letters and journals as the reason for the wealth of insight into the lives of these somewhat innocuous people. I say "somewhat" in reference to the Dodd's ambassadorial ineptitude, while giving a nod to Martha's post WWII involvement in the cold war spy game. Now I feel I must make reparations for my use of "ineptitude," for I doubt very much that any ambassador sent over to deal with Hitler's steamroller regime at the time could've done anything to change the course of seemingly inevitable history.

Erik Larson is making a name for himself in the modern era's take on dramatic non-fiction. This subject being so recent, he doesn't have to rely so heavily on supposed conversations or probable scenarios to reconstruct hypothetical scenes. Not only does he have firsthand accounts from the Dodds themselves, but there are also preserved documents, news stories, even eyewitness accounts. What Larson does with this wealth of information is not outstandingly spectacular, but it is an admirable piece of work and an interesting viewpoint from which to approach the coming of World War II.

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Friday, October 24, 2014

How Beautiful the Ordinary: Twelve Stories of Identity

Michael Cart, Editor
Harper Teen
Reviewed by Nancy
4 out of 5 stars


Summary


A girl thought to be a boy steals her sister's skirt, while a boy thought to be a girl refuses to wear a cornflower blue dress. One boy's love of a soldier leads to the death of a stranger. The present takes a bittersweet journey into the past when a man revisits the summer school where he had "an accidental romance." And a forgotten mother writes a poignant letter to the teenage daughter she hasn't seen for fourteen years.

Poised between the past and the future are the stories of now. In nontraditional narratives, short stories, and brief graphics, tales of anticipation and regret, eagerness and confusion present distinctively modern views of love, sexuality, and gender identification. Together, they reflect the vibrant possibilities available for young people learning to love others—and themselves—in today's multifaceted and quickly changing world.

My Review


I couldn’t pass up this anthology, especially after learning that Margo Lanagan is one of the contributors. I was also thrilled to see other well-known writers I haven’t discovered yet, like Francesca Lia Block, Emma Donoghue, and Julie Anne Peters.

This collection of stories focuses on teen GLT experiences from a variety of perspectives. These are well-crafted stories, filled with conflict, growth and change. Because I enjoyed the majority of these stories so well, I will forgive the omission of bisexual experiences.

My favorites in this collection:

A Word From the Nearly Distant Past by David Levithan

This short story was the basis for Levithan’s later novel, Two Boys Kissing. This was gorgeous, both in its short form and its longer form. It examines the lives of a disparate group of teenagers and is told from the perspective of the men who lost their lives to AIDS.

My Virtual World by Francesca Lia Block

This is a beautifully written, honest story about a friendship that develops online between two troubled teenagers. They talk about art, pain, sexuality, gender identity, and gradually grow to trust and love one another.

Dear Lang by Emma Donoghue

This is a letter written to 16-year-old Lang by her estranged mother. Even though Lang doesn’t remember she once had two mothers, her mom’s pain and loss is still apparent. I cried so hard and called my mom after I was done reading.

The Missing Person by Jennifer Finney Boylan

14-year-old Jimmy knows he’s a girl before he knows the wordtransgendered. One summer he dons his sister’s skirt, applies some lipstick and goes the local horse show as Jenny. I loved the vivid descriptions that allowed me to get immersed in the festivities while seeing Jenny’s unique personality emerge.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

THE TERROR OF LIVING BY URBAN WAITE

The Terror of LivingThe Terror of Living by Urban Waite
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

”Do you ever just think of just doing a criminal thing sometime? Just doing something terrible. Change everything.
Richard Ford, Rock Springs, from the story “Winterkill”


Deputy Bobby Drake was up in the mountains of Washington State for purposes of relaxation, at least that is what he told everyone. When millions of dollars of cocaine start floating down out of the sky. The relaxation becomes one cop against desperate men who never want to see the inside of Monroe prison again.

Hunt is one of those men. He’s been inside. He’s done his stupid thing and paid the price in time. ”Hunt had grown up over the years, but the idea of being a continuous failure had stuck with him. He was sure of himself in all the wrong situations. A good man, made up of all the bad things in the world.” He has a beautiful wife and a small business boarding horses, but he can’t make enough money to meet his mortgage needs. He has to mule drugs out of the hills for his friend Eddie. Pretty safe occupation most of the time except when you run into a Deputy Sheriff doing some camping in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Hunt could become a wage slave, but he just can’t do it. He’s given up enough time in a cage and can’t stand the thought of doing mindless work for just enough money to keep scraping by. He needs the big score, something that will cushion him from poverty and allow him the freedom to exist the way he wants to exist.

He just got unlucky.

Drake, has his own baggage to haul. His father was the sheriff and is currently serving time for doing something similar to what Hunt was trying to do. The Sheriff was tired of being broke. When Drake calls in the results of this unexpected drug bust, because of his father’s record, he is a suspect before he is a hero.

Meanwhile powerful, impatient people are very unhappy.

The same group are using Vietnamese women to smuggle heroin into the country. Their intestines are full of thousands of dollars of pellets. Two women worth no more than a plugged nickel to these people are suddenly worth somewhere in the neighborhood of $200,000. It is Grady’s job to collect them and extract the heroin.

Grady has a penchant for knives. He calls himself a chef, but he is really a butcher.

”In one motion, Grady pushed the blade up into the skin beneath the chin, up through the soft palate, and into the brain. There was a slight tremor on the attendant’s face as Grady twisted the handle of the knife and scrambled the man’s brains. The attendant’s warm blood came dripping down off the knife into Grady’s gloved hand and the sleeve of his sweatshirt.”

Grady is one of those people with scrambled circuitry in his brain, or maybe he actually has streamlined circuits that allow him to embrace impulse and not have a flicker of remorse for any of the results. Whenever he entered a chapter every sense of self-preservation I have was instantly activated. I felt uneasiness for even the most casual interactions that he had with people. He is sent after Hunt, but when Hunt proves elusive he decides that Hunt’s wife Nora will bring Hunt to him.

”He hoped Hunt loved his wife. He was counting on it, and he knew people did stupid things for love. They did stupid things all too often. And he thought this was probably how they had all come into this mess. How it had all begun for them. Stupid.”

Everyone is looking for Hunt and everyone is looking for Grady. Hunt and Grady are looking for each other. Drake finds himself in the middle trying to save Hunt as best he can and at the same time redeem himself for the sins of his father.

Urban Waite has written a literary level mystery that hopefully has crossed over between genres. Mystery readers should definitely read this neo-noir novel if they are fans of hardboiled Chandleresque novels, but there are also elements of Jim Thompson lurking in the prose to add some Pulp Fiction spice. Waite fills a niche recently vacated by the great Elmore Leonard. He was a writer deemed worthwhile to read for those looking for an entertainment between heavier texts of established classics or history.

The book is plot driven, but there are certainly a plethora of reflective moments when the characters are wrestling with issues of past mistakes and trying to ponder their way into a better future that gives the book substance beyond just a snappy plot.

In the acknowledgements Urban Waite listed the books and writers that influenced his need to be a writer. Poachers by Tom Franklin, Spartina by John Casey, Dog Soldiers by Robert Stone, No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy, and The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene. I really appreciate it when writers do this, especially when they list more than just the authors, but the actually titles of the books as well. The result, I went to my library and pulled a copy of Dog Soldiers off my shelf to read next. A book that has been there for decades.

4.25 out of 5 Stars


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Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Mandibles

MandiblesMandibles by Jeff Strand
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Unusually huge fire ants terrorize Tampa, Florida. Will anyone survive this plague?

Mandibles is a creature feature by Jeff Strand about large fire ants overrunning Tampa. That's pretty much it. It follows the lives of office works, people in a dentist office, a couple stickup men, and an entomologist during the rampage of the ants.

It might be that I've come to expect home runs at every at-bat from Jeff Strand but this one didn't make me want to sit outside his house and "pretend" to run into him so we could eventually be best friends like a lot of his other books.

I love the premise but the characters didn't really do it for me this time. In my opinion, for a story like this, there needs to be a couple strong central characters to build the story around. Since this one had a death rate per page equivalent to a George R.R. Martin book, there was no one to root for for every long. It seemed like the characters I cared about the least were the ones to make it to the end. Also, I thought the ending was kind of weak and the source of the ants didn't make that much logical sense.

Still, it was a fun read for the most part. People getting stung and eaten by fire ants of unusual size was pretty entertaining and they made a believably frightening enemy. Unstoppable fire ants the size of squirrels (and larger)? No thank you, sir.

Three stars and Strand had to work hard for every one in this outing. I guess I can't be mad at him for not being perfect, though.

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Designers & Dragons: The '70s

Designers & Dragons: The '70s (Designers & Dragons, #1)Designers & Dragons: The '70s by Shannon Appelcline
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Designers & Dragons: The '70s chronicles the history of role playing game companies whose genesis was in the hallowed decade of the 1970s.

Reading about role playing games isn't as exciting as playing them but I still found this to be an interesting look into the history of the hobby. While I knew quite a bit about TSR, Gary Gygax, and the father of all subsequent RPGs, Dungeons and Dragons, a lot of it was new to me.

Appelcline briefly touches on D&Ds wargaming roots and then proceeds to take the reader to school, covering companies that made their own D&D compatible products, like the Judge's Guild and Fantasy Games Unlimited, to competitors to Dungeons and Dragons and its parent company, TSR, like GDW and their Traveler game, Chaosium, Avalon Hill, and many others.

You have to have a certain level of nerdiness to really appreciate this book. What could have been a dull journey to Nerdville was made interesting by Appelcine's engaging writing style, interspersed with quotes from the people involved.

I don't have many gripes about the game. Companies I never heard of got a lot of pages and I feel like I now possess even more role playing game knowledge that I'll never need. I thought the title was a little misleading since it purports to be about RPGs during the 1970s but it's actually about companies who started during the '70s up either the present day or they went tits up.

I don't think I'd recommend it to gaming novices but people who remember spending sexless evenings covered in nerd-sweat and Cheetoh crumbs will get a kick out of it. Three out of five stars.

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