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Before We Were Yours Review

Before We Were Yours Book Review

If you were to ask me what one of my favorite books was, I would immediately say Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate. I read this book about a year ago, and I loved it the moment I read the first page. It is historical fiction at its best; it creates an emotionally gripping story based on an actual historical event. I re-read it (technically I listened to the audiobook) for book club, and I didn’t realize that this was possible, but I loved it even more.

Before We Were Yours has two separate stories that eventually come together. The main story involves a 12-year-old girl named Rill and her four siblings, who live on a shanty boat with their parents in 1939 Memphis. When their parents leave for the hospital one stormy night, the children are taken away to the Tennessee Children’s Home Society orphanage. Having been put in charge that night, Rill fights to keep her siblings together. The other story revolves around Avery Stafford – a federal prosecutor who comes from a privileged family in present day Aiken, South Carolina. As she helps her senator father with his health crisis, an encounter with an elderly woman in a nursing care facility leads her to a journey through her family’s hidden history.

When I said that the best historical fiction creates an emotionally gripping story based on an actual event, I really mean it. The actual event in this case was Georgia Tann and the Tennessee Children’s Home Society. For over two decades until 1950, Tann and her cohorts kidnapped poor children, and sold them to wealthy families across the country, even to Joan Crawford and June Allyson. It is sadly estimated that some 500 children died due to disease, poor care, and possibly abuse while in the society’s hands. (https://nypost.com/2017/06/17/this-woman-stole-children-from-the-poor-to-give-to-the-rich/). Many of them were molested as well.

I had no idea that this event even occurred, and to think that this happened to children of all ages AND that Tann managed to get away with it frightens me all the more. That fear translated into sympathy for Rill and her siblings in their quest to not only make it out alive, but also to tell their stories while still in the orphanage. Even when she had no choice but to obey, I understood because for Rill, that meant survival. This is why Rill’s story gripped me to the bone more than Avery’s story even though I have nothing against the latter.

It was the audiobook that made my read the second time around all the more enjoyable. Emily Rankin and Catherine Taber put on some great vocal performances. Rankin – a well-known audiobook narrator and creator of the popular web short Jane Austin’s Fight Club – plays Avery, and she voices her in a professional east coast manner with hints of a Southern accent. This is highly appropriate since Avery lives in the east coast, but grew up in South Carolina. I extremely respect this particular detail that Rankin made to Avery’s character. Taber is also a well-known audiobook narrator, and she has appeared in television shows like Jane the Virgin and Star Wars: Clone Wars as well as gaming franchises like Final Fantasy. In my opinion, Taber is the standout.She voices Rill as a southern 12-year-old girl, who is perfectly fine with living by the river, yet it never gets too juvenile, especially when Rill experiences several traumatic episodes at the orphanage. There is also a sense of maturity in Rill that Taber also provides with such honesty. In addition, Taber shines when voicing Georgia Tann, who could be sweet and manipulative to not only the children, but also to the wealthy families. It is through Taber’s vocal performance of Tann that I could imagine an evil smile draping across her face when she said many of her lines.

If you have not read Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate yet, do so as soon as possible. The story and the horrific events that it is based on are why many people have praised the novel. I can’t say enough good things about it, and I will continue to enjoy it forevermore.

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What Am I Reading? – Chapter Two

Hi Everybody,

I hope you all enjoyed the last chapter of “What Am I Reading?” I actually got done with two of the books that I talked about. What better to do than to add two more titles!

Let’s get started!

The first novel on the reading block is The Gown: A Novel of the Royal Wedding by Jennifer Robson. It’s a historical fiction book that takes place in 1947 London, and it’s about two embroiderers – Ann Hughes and Miriam Dassin – who are chosen to take part in creating Princess Elizabeth’s wedding gown. Meanwhile, in 2016 Toronto, Heather Mackenzie tries to unravel a mystery of a set of embroidered flowers that her grandmother possessed. It just so happens that they resemble quite closely to the ones seen on Queen Elizabeth II’s wedding dress.

I literally started this book today, and so far, it’s pretty interesting. I feel like it’s one of those novels that grabs people’s attention by simply describing or showing a dress, yet it will show that it’s more than that. I have a similar reaction every time I think of the times that I watched Gone With the Wind. I can’t wait to see where it takes these storylines. Also, I have to point out that The Gown is a great title. Usually, whenever I see titles that have “The _____”, I make fun them because of how vague they are (see The Child review for reference). However, in this case, that title signifies importance of a specific dress. Also, I enjoy saying “The Gown” like an artistic movie director describing their mindsets while filming.

Marisa Calin narrates the audiobook, and so far, she does a great job of maintaining English, French, and Canadian accents.

The second and last book on the reading block is White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism by Robin DiAngelo (a white woman). This talks about white fragility – defensive moves that white people make when challenged racially, how it protects racial inequality, and what can be done in order to have meaningful conversations about race.

As I have mentioned in my The Hate U Give book review, many people have decided to read books to understand racial prejudice against black people. This was part of the reason why I wanted to read this specific title. Another reason was that I have seen both praise and criticism of how the book handles its very “sensitive” topic, and I would like to see where both sides are coming from. So far, the book is informative with a lot cited sources, but as a warning, this is written for white people for good reasons.

And that, we come to the end of the second chapter of “What Am I Reading?”

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Daisy Jones & The Six Book Review

I love 60s and 70s rock n’ roll and have so since I was young. When I found out that the book Daisy Jones & The Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid was about a fictional rock band that thrived in the 70s, I had to read it. Now that I have read it, I can confidently say that this is a good book, but the audiobook is better.

Here’s the part where I would normally describe the plot in my own words, but it’s essentially an oral history of a fictional 70s rock band who, in more ways than one, resembles Fleetwood Mac. I mean Daisy Jones is essentially Stevie Nicks with the raspy voice and bohemian style. Billy Dunne is pretty much Lindsey Buckingham, in that their chemistry was undeniably like those Fleetwood Mac members I just mentioned. In addition, both bands began making blues rock and experienced lineups changes that factored into mainstream music and commercial success. Both bands also had only one number #1 hit (in an alternate universe, “Turn it Off” would become a Tik Tok sensation).

Having the novel as an oral history is a very unique idea, but I’m not sure if this format works well in a book. For one thing, authors strive for the “show, not tell” mentality. A lot of reviewers noted that it involves a lot of talking instead of showing how the characters feel. In other cases, I would agree with them, yet in this one, it’s like a VH1 Behind the Music special, where the talking is acceptable, so I didn’t mind it as much. It helps that it has a cinematic feel. However, what gets to me is that novel discusses the music and lyrics to the songs that the fictional band produces, especially on their album Aurora (their Rumours essentially). If one listens to the audiobook, they will listen to the music of one song, but it’s only an instrumental. One would also need to look up the actual lyrics to see what Daisy and Billy are talking about. In other words, the music and lyrics are never combined. Luckily, a TV adaption will air on Amazon, and apparently, it will feature original music. I hope the series will rectify the main flaw of the book.

I have watched a lot of documentaries on rock bands over the years (including one on the Beatles-parody band The Rutles), and I have to say that the story on Daisy Jones & The Six the band is fairly tame. When I say that, it’s not related to the sex and the drugs (there’s plenty of that), but rather the group as a whole. I felt that them splitting up and never getting back together was too neat and simple. Granted, there were real bands, whose tensions were so great that when they broke up, they never got back together like the Beatles or Creedence Clearwater Revival. With Daisy Jones & The Six, they ended on an almost amicable note, which kind of made me disappointed that they never got back together decades later.

If one is going to read it, the best way to do so is through the audiobook because the performances give more depth to the novel than the written word. There are 21 actors, yes you heard it right, 21 ACTORS narrating this book, and all of them are wonderful! All of them are distinct, and I’m not just saying that because they mention their names every time before they speak. They all deliver the right amount of emotions appropriate to their characters. For example, Jennifer Beals (yes, the lady from Flashdance) gives the title character a raspy voice who refuses to take crap from people. Some readers may find the character empowering, while others may find her entitled. For me, I was always looking forward to Daisy Jones speaking because I wanted to see how Beals tackled her obstacles. Another standout was Judy Greer, (the best friend in your favorite 21st century rom com) who tackles the role of Karen Karen – the keyboardist in The Six (think Christine McVie in Fleetwood Mac). Greer gives it her all as she embodies Karen’s need to be in control of her own life and career, especially when she experiences a pregnancy scare. In fact, all of the main female characters were empowering in one form or another, and the actresses embodied them well.

Daisy Jones & The Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid is a unique book that people will talk about for a while. While its oral history format doesn’t quite work as a book, its strengths are shown more when listening to the audiobook. Each character is distinct and filled with their quirks and personal struggles. Along with the audiobook, I would recommend it to readers who love 60s and 70s rock music and female protagonists who are clearly in charge of their own destinies. For me, I can’t wait to view the series when it eventually premieres on Amazon, so everybody can see its assets on full display.

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What Am I Reading? – Chapter One

Hi Everybody!

Now that my Book Reviews From the Vault series is finished, I have decided to show you what I have been reading. I call this series “What Am I Reading?”

It’s fairy simple. I will display titles that I am reading at the time of the post and talk a bit about them. I usually read about three books at a time. However, I am a slow reader, so there will be times that I will only show one new book, or I might only do this series once a month, instead of every other week.

Anyway, let’s get started.

The first book that I will discuss is Hearts Unbroken by Cynthia Leitich Smith. This is a realistic and cultural young adult book about Louise – a Native American teenager who dumps her first boyfriend after he makes a very insensitive remark about her race. She then spends her senior year working on the school newspaper with Joey Kairouz – the ambitious new photojournalist – and covering the backlash to the musical director’s color-conscious approach to casting The Wizard of Oz. Oh, and she might have feelings for him.

I picked up this novel because I discovered that it takes place in the same universe as another book that I read recently called Rain is Not My Indian Name. The protagonists of both books are apparently cousins. It’s good and pretty woke so far. We’ll see how I feel about when I finish it.

Up next is What Was Your Name Downriver?: Tales of the Shattered Frontier by Anthony Lowe. This book is western fantasy novel about two women – Evaline and Trivan – navigating a hostile environment with wit and weapons as they try to get back to civilization.

I have never read a book that contains both western and fantasy elements, and so far, it’s pretty engaging. It’s like a buddy film but in book form. I’m rooting for them to get to their destination.

And finally….

Yes, I’m doing it! I’m finally reading, as in listening, Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens!!!

Since I’m sure that a good chunk of people who view this website have already read this book, I will give a very brief summary of it. Here it goes: a woman named Kya who lives alone in the marsh in mid-twentieth century North Carolina becomes a suspect in a murder case, but she is not what the villagers say.

I like it so far. I like how the book alternates with Kya’s backstory and with the investigation, and how it focuses on what she does as opposed to implying, “Poor Kya.”

Cassandra Campbell narrates the book, yet she has a tendency to voice almost every character with the same Southern accent. This makes it kind of difficult to follow whose talking.

And there we have it. This concludes the first “chapter” of my new series “What Am I Reading?”

Let me know what you think of this series!

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Privilege Book Review

Full disclosure: I was given a free PDF copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

In all of my years of reading, I have never come across a political thriller. However, I’m glad that I started this website, so I could read novels that I would normally not pay much attention to. I’m glad that I lost my political thriller virginity to Privilege by Bharat Krishnan – a wonderfully fast-paced book with complex characters that addresses privilege, power, wealth, class, and race.

Privilege is the first book in the WP Trilogy. It revolves around Rakshan – a twenty-something Indian American in New York City who plans to steal a powerful drug known as WP, which grants superhuman powers. Only white people can get their hands on it legally. After Rakshan gets fired from his job at a hedge fund run by Aditya Shetty – another Indian-American who has been able to acquire WP through business transactions – and dumped by his girlfriend, he is determined to obtain the drug to earn glory and to win her back. He enlists his friends from college to help him with the heist. His journey also sets off a chain of events that affects others in the city, the country, and even the world.

In this political climate, I think readers would know what WP stands for (and no, it’s not for WordPress.) Having that as a drug is a very clever idea on Krishnan’s part to emphasize the issues of race, power, and obviously privilege. I’ve noticed some people expressing issues with how the drug works. All I will say is that they may have overthought about it because to me, the drug is similar to cocaine, as in it makes the user euphoric; mentally alert; and hypersensitive to sight and sound. Obviously, Krishnan exaggerates these effects to show how powerful people can become while on the narcotic.

Krishnan claims the book is perfect for fans of Ocean’s 11 and House of Cards. Even though I’ve never seen the latter, the former makes sense. In fact, the novel made me think of The Bouncer by David Gordon because both evoke the humor, crime, and thrill of the Ocean series as their characters go on their heists.

I also enjoyed how fast paced the book was. There was always something going on. At only 118 pages, the novel manages to contain a main story and three subplots. I was able to follow every one of them because of how Krishnan fleshes them out. My favorite subplot was with Rakshan’s ex-girlfriend Sadiya as she comes to terms with her sexuality with her lesbian best friend Maadhini. The author gives the proper weight to that conflict, especially when Maadhini questions if Sadiya’s feelings are real, or if she is only wanting to experiment. In addition, I liked the plot with Jerome – a black teen who comes across the ring Rakshan used to propose to Sadiya. He notices that it contains WP and goes to many lengths to have more, even if it means dealing with shady people. Also, there’s another subplot about some politicians trying to legalize WP, yet it’s not given a whole lot of development. I imagine that Krishnan will do more with that one in the trilogy’s future titles.

Additionally, I liked the characters and how complex they were, especially Rakshan. After getting fired and dumped by Sadiya on the same day, he thinks that getting the narcotic will help him get her back (even though he swears to his friends that’s not the case.) As a result, his actions take on a more obsessive, stalker tone as he and his pals plan to break into Shetty’s apartment to get WP. Rakshan even taunts his best friend Abhinav for his weight and how nerdy he is. Abhinav is willing to tolerate that to a point, but when the group is jailed for the first failed attempt to steal the drug, he loses his temper and points out Rakshan’s actions. Later on, Rakshan heartfully apologizes to his friends for his behavior. He even gets a chance to make a difference when he encounters Jerome’s mother at the very end.

Overall, Privilege by Bharat Krishnan is a very entertaining and compelling piece of work. Its concept is a very clever take on the issues that ravage today’s society. At 118 pages, it’s a fast read with captivating characters and situations. I can’t wait to read the next title in the trilogy, which is appropriately called Power!

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Rose Madder Book Review

Well, ladies and gentlemen: I just read my very first Stephen King novel. You probably think it would be something like It, The Shining, or Carrie, but nope! It was his 1995 book Rose Madder. Fans and even King himself regard it as one of his weaker novels, but I thought it was pretty good despite its shortcomings.

Rose Madder is about Rosie Daniels – a woman who has spent 14 years in a highly abusive marriage. After a drop of blood makes her realize that her husband is going to kill her, Rosie leaves with his credit card. She travels to a town 800 miles away to begin a new life. While there, she meets Bill Steiner and comes across an odd painting at a pawn shop. However, she continues to look over her shoulder. Her husband Norman – a corrupt cop and detective – tries to track her down any way possible.

Essentially, it’s Snow White. Rosie is the title character. Norman is the Evil Queen. The drop of blood is the Huntsman, and the women that Rosie encounters at the Daughters and Sisters shelter in the new town are the dwarves. Oh, and Bill Steiner is the prince.

Normally, I don’t do scary things, but keeping the Snow-White narrative made things easier to deal with while reading it. I really enjoyed the parts, in which Rosie finds the strength to live her own life, to fall in love again, and to fight back Norman.

I also was surprised that King could write fully realized female characters. Rosie is not just a damsel in distress. She made the decision to leave Norman after seeing the drop of blood on her mattress. King makes sure to detail how Rosie grows from being timid to being confident in leaving her past behind with all of its trials and tribulations. For example, when she and Bill argue about which house to move to, she has trouble controlling her temper and comes extremely close to becoming Norman. Now, some people have complained about Rosie ending up with another man, instead of being an independent woman. Honestly, I didn’t mind this because Rosie still wanted to be a wife and a mother, even after her experiences with Norman.

In addition, King wrote supporting female characters well like Anna Stevenson and Gert Kinshaw. Anna Stevenson is the head of the Daughters and Sisters shelter, (therefore she’s Doc). She is no-nonsense, but highly understanding of Rosie’s situation, and her ex-husband Peter even helps her out by sending abused women to the sanctuary. Her parents started the shelter to protect and help battered women rebuild their lives, and Anna wanted to continue that legacy. Then, there is Gert. Gert is a black full-figured woman, who teaches mixed martial arts at the shelter to help women restore their confidence. From what I have read, King tends to be fatphobic in his writing, but Gert is refreshing. She is plump and competent. She even pees on Norman when she spots him at a picnic that Rosie is supposed to be at. What also helps is that the mixed martial arts are shown to have limits. Gert fights Norman while confidently using her abilities, but despite her efforts, Norman gets away. However, don’t expect all other black characters to have that kind of character development. The other speaking black person is essentially a servant to the white woman in the painting and a magical Negro. After reading this book, I’m going to put King on my list of male authors who write fictional female characters well, which currently only has Chris Bohjalian.

Now, let’s move onto novel’s flaws. First, let’s talk about the painting. In the middle of the book, Rosie comes across an oil painting of a woman wearing a rose madder (haha get it?) toga-like garment standing on a hill looking at a temple. She ends up buying the painting, yet later on, she notices that the picture keeps changing and even discovers dead crickets when she slices open the back. Then, she finds herself in the painting, not once, but twice! I get that King wanted to King-ify the book because maybe he wasn’t satisfied with the story solely being a serious drama. The lady in the rose madder chiton can be seen as a fairy godmother, for whenever Rosie is in a vulnerable place, she imagines her, and poof, she’s empowered. At the same time, a lot of reviewers have pointed out that it’s a sudden change of tone, and that it doesn’t develop naturally. While those are valid critiques, my main issue is that King spends too much time on it, especially when Rosie ends up in the painting the first time and is instructed to find Rose Madder’s baby. It’s like King was getting paid by the page and wanted to top himself for the sake of topping himself. I have a similar problem with the novel ending a couple of times, but at least, what occurred there was more necessary than what happened in the painting.

My main problem with the novel is Norman himself. Now, I have read books that feature very intense and abusive antagonists, yet they are usually portrayed objectively. What makes Norman Daniels stand out from this group is that he is the most irredeemable. Not only is he abusive and corrupt, he is sexist, racist, homophobic, and most of all, a murderer. The first scene of the book depicts Rosie’s miscarriage, which occurred after he punched her in the stomach, and it gets worse from there. His crimes range from busting a guy’s balls during interrogation to biting people to death, including some of the dwarves, uh I mean ladies from Daughters and Sisters. Norman’s actions make him less human as the book progresses. Heck, even Schlegal – the cartoon villain from The Paris Architect – would not have gone that far to torture Jewish people and those who try to hide them, (and we’re talking about a guy who wanted to cut people’s fingers off as an intimidation tactic). A novel allows people to look into the minds of every character, no matter how unlikeable they are. It’s not that King didn’t want readers to know what Norman was thinking. They get a lot of that since the book is told through both his and Rosie’s perspectives. The problem is that his soul is so full of vile that it makes him barely human and beatable. When I read the Norman’s passages, I felt angry and stressed because I knew that he was going to do something horrible and get away with it. The only good part about Norman is that he dies after a spider bites him to death, while he’s in the painting trying to track down Rosie and Bill.

(*breathes)

In the meantime, I listened to the audiobook, and the performances and the music really enhance the story. Blair Brown – an actress who has appeared on stage and in film and television shows like Fringe and Orange is the New Black – voices Rosie, and she does a great job. In the new town, Rosie is hired as an audiobook narrator since her voice is soft, silky, and dynamic. Brown projects this very well along with other emotions like the fear of being tracked down by Norman and the self-confidence that Rosie slowly develops. It helps that she has recorded a variety of audiobooks ranging from Number the Stars by Lois Lowry to City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert, and it pays off. King himself plays Norman. Some people might get distracted with his nasally voice, but for me, that tone made the character all the more infuriating, which is I’m sure what King wanted. The best part of the audiobook was the music. I have heard musical interludes in audiobooks before, yet Rose Madder utilizes this the best. Between passages and perspectives, various melodies would play in the background. For example, a hopeful and romantic piano phrase will come on when Rosie gets closer to Bill. My personal favorite is the lurky and slimy synthesizer and hard guitar riffs that play when the novel transitions into and out of Norman’s passages. I wouldn’t be surprised if John Carpenter came in just to compose those bits. Despite the issues that I have with the book, I would recommend the audiobook, so one can appreciate how the music was used like I have.

Overall, Rose Madder by Stephen King was fairly good. Despite the critiques with painting and Norman, King is clearly capable of writing from a battered woman’s perspective as well as from those of other female characters too. I also really respect the creativity that went into making the audiobook to enrich the story. And, these are all coming from a person who normally doesn’t read scary stuff. Along with getting the audiobook, I would also recommend the novel to those who like horror, stories about overcoming domestic abuse, and especially to Stephen King fans who haven’t read it yet or haven’t read it in a while. Warning: the book might give one nightmares.

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Book Reviews From the Vault: Uncredible Thoughts – Essays, Spiels, and Poppycock

This review of Uncredible Thoughts: Essays, Spiels, and Poppycock by John Marszalkowski is the last one that I have under the From the Vault series. It was a great time showing all of you the reviews that I wrote before developing this website. However, when one chapter ends, another begins, and I will have a new series starting up very soon, so stay tuned!

Full disclosure: I was given an ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review.

There are certain writers who are comfortable creating stories in only one genre or format. This is typically not a problem as long as they are able to expand their horizons or diversify what they tackle within said genre. John Marszalkowski skillfully expands his thoughts within the informal-essay format with his second official book Uncredible Thoughts: Essays, Spiels, and Poppycock.

In Uncredible Thoughts: Essays, Spiels, and Poppycock, John Marszalkowski rants about his life and opinions (even if he is not credible on every topic) in the informal-essay format that is just as cohesive and self-assuredas his previous book How to Punch Kids in Bathrooms. However, it does not have the same element of surprise like Buy My Book, Not Because You Should, But Because I’d Like Some Money, yet this is not the first John Marszalkowski-penned book that I have ever read. I know that he is going to rant about something, but I never know what and how. When I do find out, it always puts a smile on my face. It is like that one friend who always has something to say, but one does not know what they will discuss and how.

Some of my favorite parts are the titles and the illustrations. For the titles, Marsalkowski uses names like “White History Month Should Not Exist,” “Your Unhappiness is Stupid; Time for a Nap,” and “Everyone is a Feminist Until Proven Jerks.” These intrigued me as chapter titles should, and they accurately describe their content. The illustrations used at the beginning of each chapter were also funny and cute. In the chapter about skunks, the drawing depicts Marszalkowski in cartoon form with an adorable-looking skunk in what appears to be a dumpster. My favorite image was within the chapter entitled “My First Attempt at Fiction,” which shows Adderall covered in a Smarties-like wrapping paper.

Speaking of Marszalkowski’s attempts at writing fiction, he does this a few times throughout the book. They are admirable efforts, especially the story about a teenage boy named Rad who tries to talk to a girl whom he likes. I also loved his attempt at writing a 50,000-word book in one month, and how he expresses his frustrations in diary form. This sets the tone for the book to be intentionally full of short chapters that permits his ramblings, and that one can read out of order if they want to.

And if one was wondering, “Hey Emily, does John have any worksheets like he did in Buy My Book, Not Because You Should, But Because I’d Like Some Money?”

Yes reader, he does. In fact, he has three! They appear in the chapters, “Math Class Could Have Been More Fun,” “Assholes, And The Rest,” and “Everyone is a Feminist Until Proven Jerks.” They were just as engaging as the ones featured in his first book. 

Marszalkowski also demonstrates his sincerity in honest and funny ways. Christy Hall Watson does the foreword and talks about how he would make her feel comfortable whenever he was filming her slam story events. According to her, he even got pizza for everybody working that night, refused to take any money, and chatted about random stuff with her and anybody who happened to be in the green room. This made me like him even more. Additionally, Marszalkowski has a dedication page to his still living brother as an apology for not mentioning him in his first book.

Overall, Uncredible Thoughts: Essays, Spiels, and Poppycock is a good book that expands upon the brand of the one John Marszalkowski. Like with Buy My Book, it may not be for everyone, yet it is more palatable than the prior book. If anything, I would recommend this book to readers who are looking to get into his work. It is something not quite completely different from his previous books, yet it is still unique enough to a person not familiar with his past work.

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