Monthly Archives

March 2013

Book Review: RECONSTRUCTING AMELIA by Kimberly McCreight

Kate Baron is a Manhattan lawyer and single mom to fifteen-year-old Amelia, an academically superior student at a Brooklyn prep school. Imagine Kate’s shock, then, when she gets a phone call from the school asking her to pick up Amelia, who’s been suspended.

By the time Kate arrives at the school, however, Amelia is dead, with the police and medical examiner quickly deciding that the girl committed suicide by jumping off the roof. In shock, Kate accepts this verdict…until she starts getting anonymous texts from someone saying Amelia didn’t jump. Kate sets out to find the truth, even if combing through Amelia’s texts and Facebook updates reveals devastating secrets about the daughter Kate thought she knew so well.

Kate’s anguish is palpable, and her struggle to be a good mom and sole provider is entirely sympathetic. The chapters from her POV are more riveting than the ones from Amelia’s. Though Amelia is a smart and good kid, she frustrated me by repeatedly making bad decisions that go against everything she believes in.

Kimberly McCreight convincingly writes in Amelia’s voice, but I’m too far removed from my fifteen-year-old self to find teenage angst absorbing, and Amelia’s best friend Sylvia is annoyingly self-centered.

A few anachronisms and plot points also took me out of the story. Someone e-mails Kate from Ghana on a gmail account…in 1997. Gmail was not launched until 2004, and not available to the public until 2007. I also didn’t have Internet that year because it wasn’t a common thing yet, but this same character had access to it in West Africa. Not saying it’s impossible, just far-fetched.

*Mild spoiler*

A cop traces the source of some anonymous texts but gives Kate only a home address and no names, causing Kate to go to the location for a confrontation. Why couldn’t the cop come up with the names of the property owners/residents once he had the address? This seems like a convenient omission so the revelation of the texter’s secret identity could be more dramatic, but by that point, it’s no longer a surprise.

Speaking of anonymous texts, it’s not just one person sending them but several, during the same time periods, independently of each other and for different reasons, which is too coincidental.

*End spoiler*

Despite these issues, the story has emotional heft, with Amelia becoming most affecting and hopeful right before she dies. There’s so much she didn’t get to tell Kate, and vice versa. Kate’s loss is shattering, but by the end, it seems she’s on her way to reconstructing herself.

Nerd verdict: Flawed but affecting Amelia

Buy it from Amazon | Buy it from an indie bookstore

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First Impressions 3.29.13

By popular demand—OK, one person asked—I’m bringing back the First Impressions post, at least for today. You may have seen last week the pics of all the books that have entered my home.

I read the first chapter of everything that comes in to determine if the book goes on my to-be-read pile or the one that gets donated. If a book opens with detailed descriptions of scenery, weather, or someone’s clothes, it usually heads straight to the latter group. Here are three books that passed the first-impressions test.

Silken Prey by John Sanford (Putnam, May 7)

Squeak.

Tubbs was half asleep on the couch, his face covered with an unfolded Star Tribune. The overhead light was still on, and when he’d collapsed on the couch, he’d been too tired to get up and turn it off. The squeak wasn’t so much consciously felt, as understood: he had a visitor. But nobody knocked.

Bad Monkey by Carl Hiaasen (Knopf, June 11)

On the hottest day of July, trolling in dead-calm waters near Key West, a tourist named James Mayberry reeled up a human arm. His wife flew to the bow of the boat and tossed her breakfast burritos.

 

The Never List by Koethi Zan (Pamela Dorman Books, July 16)

There were four of us down there for the first thirty-two months and eleven days of our captivity. And then, very suddenly and without warning, there were three. Even though the fourth person hadn’t made any noise at all in several months, the room got very quiet when she was gone. For a long time after that, we sat in silence, in the dark, wondering which of us would be next in the box.

I’m a little scared, but this opening has me hooked. Will make sure Mr. PCN is always home while I read it.

Any of these look good to you? Which would you pick up first?

Happy Friday! Hope you have good reads for this weekend!

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Book Review: RAGE AGAINST THE DYING by Becky Masterman

I’ve been raving about this book since I read it a couple months ago. My review ran in Shelf Awareness for Readers last week, so I can finally publish it here with permission.—PCN

The prologue of Becky Masterman’s debut thriller, Rage Against the Dying, announces the arrival of a major talent on the crime fiction scene. As a killer preys on a seemingly fragile old woman, the scene is fraught with tension; the reader wants to scream for the woman to save herself, but it’s the killer who’s unlucky, because he just picked the wrong person to mess with.

Masterman’s heroine is Brigid Quinn, a 59-year-old retired FBI agent who still carries guilt about an unsolved case from years earlier, in which her protégée disappeared and is presumed dead. Then a man is arrested and confesses to being the serial killer in that case, spouting information only the murderer would know. When young FBI agent Laura Coleman doubts his confession, her life is endangered. Brigid refuses to let history repeat itself, and realizes she may be the only one who can close the case.

Masterman, an acquisitions editor at a publisher of forensic medical textbooks, knows about the creepy, perverse stuff murderers are into, but she doesn’t go too far, using just enough detail to chill readers’ spines. Brigid seems as if she sprang fully developed from Masterman’s imagination, striding confidently into the world despite using a walking stick. The title is a reference to the Dylan Thomas poem about how one should “not go gentle into that good night” and instead “rage, rage against the dying of the light.” Brigid’s light isn’t even close to dying, and hopefully she’ll continue raging for a long time.

Nerd verdict: Embrace the Rage

Buy it now from Amazon|Buy it from an indie bookstore

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To Be Read

I often pester my pals on social media to post pics of their TBR stacks, or of their loot after they go book shopping, or attend a library sale. Pictures of books make me happy.

Then I realized I never post pics of mine, partly because they’re everywhere, and I’d have to wrangle them into submission before I can take photos of them. But I decided to bite the bullet, and not only arranged them all prettily, but grouped them according to their month of release.

The following are the TBR books I’m most excited about tackling. I’m seriously considering cutting off cable so I can get through all these without distractions.

MARCH/APRIL:

I’m currently reading Leopards, Owls, and Cuckoo’s (the animal theme was not planned) and enjoying them all so far. Sedaris makes me rock with laughter.

Plus e-galleys: 

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

The Famous and the Dead by T. Jefferson Parker

Penance by Dan O’Shea

Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger

 

MAY:

 

JUNE/JULY:

Plus e-galleys:

The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes

The Execution of Noa P. Singleton by Elizabeth L. Silver

The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells by Andrew Sean Greer

Bad Monkey by Carl Hiaasen

The Last Whisper in the Dark by Tom Piccirilli

Any of these look good to you? What’s in your TBR stack?

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A Couple of Voting Thingies

I’m doing my taxes today so this will be a short post. Wanted to let you know about a couple of fun things you can vote for, if you feel so inclined.

The first is happening over at Elizabeth Gilbert’s Facebook page, starting Thursday, March 21, 8 a.m. ET and going until Sunday night, March 24, 11:59 p.m. ET. Gilbert is the author of the massive bestseller Eat, Pray, Love, and she’s asking the public to vote on the cover for her next book, a novel titled The Signature of All Things that Viking will release on October 1.

Gilbert says this process of cover selection has never been done in publishing, so why not express your opinion and see if your favorite cover wins? Vote here (you might need a Facebook account).

The other thing I’ve been submitting votes for this week is the Star Wars bracket tournament to determine the favorite character in that whole galaxy. Luke is being pitted against Yoda? Princess Leia going up against her own mother? I can’t imagine anyone beating Han for the ultimate title, but hey, if I don’t participate, who knows what could happen? Go here if you’re interested.

Speaking of Star Wars, I adore this mashup of Han and Leia with Carl and Ellie from the movie Up. Artist James Hance has this and many more wonderful prints at his website, appropriately called Relentlessly Cheerful Art. Also check out this series, in which Hance depicts young Han and baby Chewie as Christopher Robin and Pooh (the prints are no longer available). If I could afford it, I’d buy almost everything he offers.

That’s it for now. Enjoy your Friday-adjacent day!

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TV Review: BATES MOTEL

I didn’t have much interest in watching A&E’s Bates Motel (Mondays, 10 p.m.) until I started hearing lots of good buzz about it, so I sampled the first episode, titled “First You Dream, Then You Die.” It was…disturbing, pervaded by a sense of ominousness. It tested the boundaries of TV violence but didn’t cross the line, so I was able to watch it all the way through. OK, I covered me eyes once.

The show opens with 17-year-old Norman finding his father dead in the garage, with no explanation as to cause of death, and his mother, Norma, being not so surprised when he tells her the news. Six months later, the two relocate to a small town in Oregon called White Pine Bay, buying the foreclosed Seafairer Motel and the accompanying house on the property.

A man named Keith Summers pays them a visit, making his hostility clear, because the property has been in his family for generations. The next time he comes around, really bad things happen, and the Bates are forced to do desperate things, but Norma refuses to let anything get in the way of their new start on life and the success of the motel.

Oscar-nominated Vera Farmiga is a major get for this show. Her Norma is fragile, controlling, passive-aggressive, fierce, vulnerable, and loving, perhaps too much so with that last thing. It’s easy to see how Norman could get seriously messed up with such a mom.

Freddie Highmore, whom I adored as a child actor, has his moments here, but is less convincing so far. He struggles with the American accent and his native British tones slip out often.

Though Norman is only a teen and his mother is still alive, the show takes place in present day. Norma drives a vintage Mercedes, and a teacher at Norman’s school has a retro hairdo and wardrobe, but Norman and his schoolmates have iPhones, and a popular girl is named Bradley (wha?).

There are fun nods to Psycho, such as when Mom wears her hair in a bun and a cardigan draped over her shoulders. And there’s a shot going up the staircase where Detective Arbogast (Martin Balsam) met his fate in Alfred Hitchcock’s movie.

The famous motel and house have been reconstructed in Vancouver, and they look exactly like the old facades currently on the Universal Studios backlot (I was a tour guide there many moons ago and used to have to talk about that motel five days a week). We know where and how Norman ends up, but it might be interesting to see how he gets there, and get to know his mother before she got stuck in the cellar.

You can watch the entire first episode online here.

Need verdict: Unsettling Motel

Photos: A&E 

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Gunpoint Review: THE HARD BOUNCE by Todd Robinson

Time for another guest review from my friend Lauren, whom I have to coerce into writing for me—hence, the “gunpoint”—by making her fill out the form below. This time, she offered to submit a review before I had to get rough and take away her Girl Scout cookies. (For Lauren’s previous review, click here.)

****

by Lauren O’Brien

Title: The Hard Bounce

Author: Todd Robinson

Length: 300 pages

Genre: Crime fiction, hard-boiled goodness, literary thugitude

Synopsis:

William “Boo” Malone and Junior, best friends since they both resided at Saint Gabriel’s Home for Boys, are, by all appearances, a couple of tough, tattoo-laden biggies who provide security at a Boston nightclub, The Cellar. Boo and Junior run 4DC Security (“Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap,” what’s not to love about that?) and take the occasional side job. When 4DC is hired to find a young runaway, we find out all is not as it seems, including those tough-guy exteriors.

Your thoughts in five sentences or fewer:

We all know from last time how good I am at this “five sentences or fewer” rule. So bear with me. When a work is published by Tyrus Books, I know there’s going to be something nifty between the covers. But I (kinda) never saw this one coming. Simple perfection. A smart, moving story; outstanding dialogue; wicked humor; and well-drawn characters (even the secondary ones, which are all too infrequently done well)—I could have read it again as soon as I finished. And I rarely reread.

I say I “kinda” never saw this one coming because I had the pleasure of meeting Todd at Bouchercon last year. I knew his book was coming out early this year, and after spending some time with him, I remember thinking, “If this guy writes anything like he is, this book is going to knock folks’ socks off.” Consider me barefoot.

I read this book in January and proclaimed at the time that I would bet my mortgage it will be in my top 5 reads this year. It’s only March, but I’ve read almost thirty books thus far. Boo and Junior are still kicking ass.

Verdict: Tyrus has another winner. READ IT.

Buy it now from Amazon| Buy it from an indie bookstore

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Gold(writing)fingers

I woke up to such exciting news today, I thought, “Beware the ides, my foot (I actually named another body part). This is a HAPPY day!” I was so thrilled, I got out of bed at 8:30!

The big news? My niece, Aline, won the Gold Medal in poetry in the Scholastic Arts & Writing Awards. This ninety-year-old award has quite a legacy, and previous winners include Truman Capote and Joyce Carol Oates.

Weeks ago, Aline won the Gold Key, which is the regional award, but we only found out this morning that she won the Gold Medal, the national award, naming her poem “Immigrant” among “the most outstanding works in the nation,” which means she’ll be going to New York City in May to accept her award at a formal ceremony at Carnegie Hall.

It doesn’t stop there. Her win makes her eligible to be appointed by a White House (!) committee as a National Student Poet, a kind of “literary ambassador.” Five will be chosen every year as part of the National Student Poets program, in collaboration with the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities.

According to this Education Week blog post, National Student Poets will serve for a year, “support Library of Congress and U.S. Department of Education work related to poetry, and they will undertake a project to encourage the appreciation of poetry and highlight the importance of creative expression and literacy. They will organize and appear at poetry readings and workshops in their regions of the country, hopefully inspiring their peers to find, follow, or build on their literary interests.”

I have read Aline’s winning poem and it is breathtaking. I wish I could run it here but I can’t because it’s being published in an anthology called Raw Feetwhich consists of Gold Key-winning entries from the DC area. She is a published poet. She is fourteen.

Aline as a baby

None of Aline’s accomplishments is surprising to me. She started reading when she was 3.5 years old, writing fiction when she was five. I’ve kept her short stories and dinosaur screenplay.

Even then, her writing was not only brimming with intelligence and creativity and wit, but it was perfect in spelling and grammar and punctuation. As an editor, I couldn’t have been prouder. If you’re a longtime PCN reader, you’ve probably seen her insightful guest reviews, like this one when she was 12.

The cool thing is that Aline doesn’t brag about any of this. She downplays it, and doesn’t even tell her friends, not wanting to bring attention to herself. She doesn’t know I’m writing this post and I won’t tell her. This is for me. I’m bursting with pride and had to put it somewhere.

My friends and I often have conversations about encouraging kids to read, for it will take them places.

I present to you Aline, exhibit A.

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Book Review: SIX YEARS by Harlan Coben

In Harlan Coben’s latest, Jake had watched the love of his life, Natalie, marry another man Six Years earlier. She made him promise to leave her alone and never contact her. He kept that promise, until he sees the obituary of her husband and goes to the funeral. Problem is, the dead man’s wife is not Natalie, and no one there seems to know who she is.

When Jake retraces his and Natalie’s steps from the summer of their love affair, everyone—from the owner of their favorite cafe to Natalie’s sister—denies knowing anything, or him. The artists’ retreat where Jake and Natalie met doesn’t seem to exist, and local cops get hostile when he asks about it. What happened to Natalie? Jake is hell-bent on finding her because he can’t live without her, but if he doesn’t stop looking for her, he may get her killed.

The story is well-paced and entertaining enough, but if you’ve read Coben’s previous books, you may recognize several familiar elements: the protag receiving a message (via video/call/e-mail/Facebook) from or about someone (usually a woman) who’s been missing/thought dead, an integral character who’s a doctor, a charity being involved somehow, the lead character flirting with women to get info/favors. Jake is also interchangeable with many of the leading men in Coben’s former standalones.

The plot is reliably twisty, but when a character who’s been fastidious for years about covering his/her tracks—because the person’s life depends on it—suddenly gets sloppy and leaves behind a huge clue via GPS, I thought it was a joke or a trap. Readers new to the author will probably enjoy this intro to his work, but longtime fans might feel, unlike what everyone tells Jake, that they have seen some of this before.

Nerd verdict: Familiar Years

Buy it from AmazonBuy it from an indie bookstore

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Book Review: TOUCH & GO by Lisa Gardner

This review appeared last month in Shelf Awareness for Readers, and is reprinted here with permission.

From the outside, Justin and Libby Denbe look like the perfect couple with the perfect life. He’s the head of a multimillion-dollar construction business; she’s a jewelry maker with the artistic skills to turn their townhouse in Boston’s ritzy Back Bay into an enviable showcase. They idolize their fifteen-year-old daughter, Ashlyn. Then, one day, the entire family disappears.

Justin’s firm hires investigator Tessa Leoni (from Gardner’s Love You More) to look into the kidnapping, which doesn’t immediately generate a ransom demand. What could the perpetrators—who appear to be professionals, with a military background—want? And who hired them? As Leoni probes further, the case revives the pain she felt when her young daughter Sophie disappeared two years earlier.

Gardner does an admirable job of allowing her characters to be flawed without alienating readers. As the Denbes endure captivity, they realize they haven’t interacted like a family in months. Libby has been popping pills, Justin had an affair, and Ashlyn—well, she has a pretty disturbing secret, too.

The ending is fairly predictable, and Gardner has a penchant for repetition—“flushed” and “murmured” appear multiple times on some pages—but the journey is compelling as the Denbes confront the dismantling of their lives, even before the abductions, and slowly find strength during their darkest hours to pick up the pieces again.

Nerd verdict: Go keeps pages turning

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Movie Review: OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL

I last saw The Wizard of Oz many, many years ago and don’t remember specifics. I’ve seen it maybe twice in my life and it’s not on my list of all-time favorites or anything. This is my way of saying I approached this prequel with an open mind and didn’t compare it to the classic.

Perhaps that’s why I didn’t find it offensive, and even liked some aspects of it, but it’s definitely a Disney movie that’s too cutesy at times, instead of an edgy revisit to the Oz chronicles that some may have expected from director Sam Raimi.

James Franco plays Oscar (get it?), a low-rent magician at a Kansas carnival in 1905, seducing his assistant and anything in a skirt. He’s bound to run into an angry boyfriend or two, but when one of the jealous guys happens to be the carnival’s strong man, Oz escapes by jumping into a hot air balloon.

He lands in a magical, vividly colored world called Oz (the film is in black and white up to this point), and is greeted by a beautiful witch named Theodora (Mila Kunis). She tells him that because of a prophecy, Oz has been waiting for him to come rescue the land from an evil witch.

Oscar isn’t interested in being the savior of anything, until Theodora’s sister (Rachel Weisz) shows him all the gold that could be his if he accepts the challenge. He may be motivated by greed at first, but along the way, with the help of his friends—Finley the talking monkey (voiced by Zach Braff), China Doll (voiced by Joey King), and the good witch, Glinda (Michelle Williams)—he learns he could use his con-man skills for a selfless cause after all.

There are nods to the classic movie, such as Glinda flying inside a bubble (which is clear, not pink), Munchkins, and flying monkeys. And of course, Glinda and the Wicked Witch. It’s hard making a purely good person interesting, but Williams, while not required to flex all the skills in her arsenal, glows with decency and grace.

None of the talented actors are operating at full capacity here, which is not their fault because the writing doesn’t support them. And though Oscar starts out as a cheat and liar, he turns into the hero, something that’s not a good fit for Franco, who seems more comfortable in oddball roles.

It’s clear lots of money was spent on the production, and some of the visuals might make you feel like a kid watching fireworks at Disneyland (I saw the 2D version; it might look even better in 3D). But fireworks last only for a short time. At over two hours, this road to Oz is long and winding.

Nerd verdict: Oz not Great, just OK

Photo: Walt Disney Studios

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Nerdy Special List March 2013

Every month, I eagerly await my contributors’ submissions for the NSL; I love seeing what new releases they found outstanding. For the first time, a nonfiction title made the list, and we have a new blogger joining us!

Rory from Fourth Street Review doesn’t just review books, she provides pictures and links to recipes of dishes or drinks that somehow tie in with the novels. Reading her blog often makes me hungry and thirsty. One small glimpse of her home library and you might also want to push her down the stairs. Her March recommendation is below, but first, we have two from:

Jen at Jen’s Book Thoughts:

Biography

The Secretary: A Journey with Hillary Clinton from Beirut to the Heart of American Power by Kim Ghattas (Henry Holt, March 5)

This book is an inside look at Hillary Rodham Clinton during her term as Secretary of State. Kim Ghattas brings a special perspective because she grew up in war-torn Beirut. She can see Clinton through the eyes of outsiders, but as a member of her press corps, Ghattas also sees the secretary through the eyes of insiders. The Secretary enlightens readers to the enormous job Clinton faced in rehabbing the US image to the world. She pursued the job with gusto and  patriotism. While the global politics may at times seem overwhelming, Ghattas provides CliffsNotes versions so that certain issues’ background doesn’t interfere with the reader’s comprehension

One of my favorite quotes from the book is: “Just as they had expected her to be a prima donna in the Senate, so too people at the State Department were bracing for a diva. Instead, she was the one pouring the coffee.” I think this sums up so much. This book debunks many negative myths about who Clinton is. Above all, she is a determined woman who believes in the potential of our country. This was a rejuvenating read for me as a citizen.

Crime fiction

The Guilty One by Lisa Ballantyne (William Morrow, March 19)

In this legal thriller set in London, Daniel Hunter is a solicitor who takes on the case of an eleven-year-old boy accused of brutally killing his eight-year-old neighbor. Hunter believes that whether his client is guilty or not, the English legal system’s answer of locking the boy up in prison would not help anyone. He sets out to do all he can for his client, while battling with his own sordid past. Once a troubled youth caught in the foster system, Hunter could have been this boy he is defending.

The Guilty One is an engrossing psychological puzzle steeped in weighty issues like childhood crime and a system that fails its children. The characters are empathetic and authentic. I wanted to apply to adopt as I read through the saga of Hunter’s life. At about 450 pages, I flew through the story in two sittings. I just couldn’t make myself put the book down.

From Danielle at There’s a Book:

Picture book

I Dare You Not to Yawn by Helene Boudreau, illustrated by Serge Bloch (Candlewick Press, March 12)

This fun book is perfect to get kids giggling and yawning just before bed. Featuring Bloch’s brilliant illustrations and Boudreau’s intuitive text, this story of a little boy doing his best to not yawn so he could avoid bedtime has quickly become a favorite nighttime read for both kiddos and Mom.

 

YA

The Murmurings by Carly Anne West (Simon Pulse, March 5)

Creepy, intriguing, frightening and filled with mystery to the very last page. Nell’s death left Sophie with nothing but questions, and now she’s determined to discover the secrets behind her loss. But Sophie’s search may lead to more than she bargained for. Being a fan of horror and mystery, I couldn’t wait to read this and I wasn’t disappointed. It has a great leading character and is perfect for readers who love their reading a little on the darker side.

From Rory at Fourth Street Review

Double Feature by Owen King (Scribner, March 19)

Sam Dolan has every intention of being a serious filmmaker, but a culmination of events involving a disturbed fellow student; a wild, luck-draining night with two women; and a larger-than-life father derail his ambitions. Spanning decades, Double Feature examines what it means to lose everything—dignity, respect, inspiration, ambition—and begin again. Fans of Richard Russo and Chad Harbach will adore this fantastic debut novel. A bit of a black comedy, it’s full of wit, charm, and a perceptive look at what makes life worth living.

PCN’s recommendation:

Rage Against the Dying by Becky Masterman (Minotaur, March 26)

The prologue, told from the POV of a killer preying on older women, is extremely unsettling, until the killer—and we—realize he’s just picked the wrong victim. She’s Brigid Quinn, a 59-year-old retired FBI agent who may have some white hair and hip problems, but knows how to use her gun and walking stick to deadly effect. There is nothing cute or coy about her; she’s seen and done things that would give you and me nightmares. My full review will appear in Shelf Awareness for Readers later this month. For now I’ll just predict that crime fiction fans will hear some noise about Brigid Quinn and Becky Masterman this spring.

What new releases are you looking forward to this month? Any of these sound good?

 

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