Sunday Coffee – Brain Offline

This morning, I’m meant to be driving out to Inks Lake, my favorite state park, with a friend to go hiking up to the waterfalls. Only we had to cancel because suddenly there’s meant to be storms and pouring rain, so now I’m here, drinking my coffee, trying to think of something to write because in all honesty, I usually pre-draft or at least pre-plan much of what I talk about on Sundays and just finish up over coffee.

It’s been one of those weeks that feels endless but also like it didn’t happen. Last weekend was a blast. Unicorn had his Freedom Run and then I went to hike a new-to-me park with my group. That same evening, I went to my uncle’s 60th birthday party and got to see some aunts that I hadn’t seen Thanksgiving of 2019!! Then my friend Sarah and I had our Big Tree photo session on Sunday with drinks afterwards. But then the weekend ended, and since then, I’ve been in a time loop.

Rain, rain, rain. We need it, but oh man it can be exhausting. I edited the weekend photos, caught up on little things that I’d neglected over the weekend, searched for artists, binged-watched TV reruns for no reason, caught up on podcasts, did a puzzle, and barely left the house. It was a lot of busyness to mask the not-great I felt. I won’t say it was bad, because I generally have a dip or crash in January, and this was definitely a dip year. I appreciate not crashing. But it’s been a bit of a nothing week, so I have nothing really to write about. Things move along, as they do, and sometimes you just don’t have much to say, no?

I realized while searching for an old post on my blog the other day that I’ve been writing these Sunday Coffee posts for 8.5 years now. I mean, I used to do Sunday Salon posts, during the original Zen Leaf years, before I took the show offline for a year or 18 months. When I re-created the blog in August 2014, I started doing Sunday Coffee instead, and it’s remained consistent, if unpredictable (heh). I was surprised by how long it’s been, mostly because in my head it still feels like 2018. It’s hard to imagine that I’m so far out from the horrific year we lived in Boston! But hey, that’s a subject already hashed over too many times, and I’ve meandered enough in this midway-through-coffee mess of a post, so I hope you all have a good week. Mwah!

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Fall Whimsy…in January

Back in November, my friends and I had planned an autumn photoshoot at the Big Tree, as a celebration of fall, nature, and majestic places. Obviously, that didn’t work out, and due to fire, we ended up going to a different park for our photos. The results were beautiful, but I still wanted to go back to that original idea.

It’s a good thing I live in a place where I can recreate fall photos in January, yeah? I mean, in all honesty, the leaves don’t even start changing color here until late November, and it rarely looks like picturesque autumn in town for more than a few days. So we were always going to have to put our own spin on the theme.

Unfortunately, due to timing and illnesses, only my friend Sarah was able to participate in the shoot. So in a way, this was completely new to me – the first time I did a shoot for an individual, giving them direction without them having other folks around to influence and shape the photos. Sarah did an amazing job, both in taking direction and in making suggestions, and we had a really fun morning together.

My former friend-photoshoots have been prop-heavy, but this time I wanted to keep it simple. I brought a bag of leaves (the same kind as the Big Tree sheds, so no worries about that!) and a handful of scarves that I recently took home from my late grandmother’s collection. Sarah brought a couple different sweaters and jackets to switch around, and then we took photos in different spots all around the tree. There were portraits and leaf-throwing shots and flowing scarves. We got a few shots together as well.

The whole morning was laid back and fun. After the shoot, we went to my favorite coffee shop, Mildfire Coffee, which is where I previously had that lovely interaction a few weeks back. Reneé, one of the two I mentioned from that former encounter, was working that day, and my dad and stepmom happened to be in the café at the same time. Some small-world moments that made the day extra awesome. Sarah and I got drinks and spent some time chatting afterwards, which honestly is the best part of doing all this with friends! As a side note, it makes me think back to 8-9 years ago, when my social support system was so very small and too many of my people were moving away (because I live in a military town, and that happens). I had no idea just how much my life would change when I first attended a hike hosted by a Meetup group just over three years ago.

Anyway. These photos came out gorgeous and I had so much fun editing them. It’s just what I pictured, without knowing exactly what I was picturing, when I first thought of this shoot last fall.

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Good for a Girl, by Lauren Fleshman (audio)

Subtitled: A Woman Running in a Man’s World

Fleshman is a retired world-class professional runner, and this book is both her memoir and a treatise on the way women are approached and treated in the sports and running world. In particular, she takes us through the way the industry has changed over the last 30 years, both in good ways and in not-nearly-enough ways. Along the way, Fleshman discusses biology, puberty, eating disorders, athletic apparel, press coverage, professional contracts, injury, and the state of being female in the competitive sports world.

Let me preface this review by saying that my running days were amateur at best – I never even broke a 30-min 5K let alone the 15-min mark of the elite female runners – and that with the badly-healed, arthritic bone in my left foot, it’s unlikely I’ll ever be able to run in any capacity again. So why read a running memoir? Honestly, I’m not sure if I’m just drawn to running nonfiction (particularly by women), or if I’ve just stumbled upon quite a number of good ones that address a wider scope than just running itself. As a fat, no-longer-running, middle-aged woman, I still found this book relatable. I may not have ever been anywhere near a professional athlete, but I did compete (in swimming) through my adolescence, and beyond that, I’ve lived as a woman through roughly the same time period as Fleshman (who is two years younger than me). I’ve watched the way various women’s sports have changed over time, and also the ways that the perception of women’s sports have stayed the same. If you see the inherent problems in women’s teams being fined for not wearing bikini bottoms, or the various controversies over whether female tennis players must wear skirts, or even the stark difference of both outfits and performance standards in male vs female gymnastics, there is something in this book for you.

I really enjoyed the book, and I’m generally not a memoir person. Fleshman integrated the memoir and non-memoir portions really well, probably because she lived through the environment she’s critiquing, so they dovetail perfectly. She also did an excellent job of acknowledging her failings – the times when she judged others in secret, the later-in-life realization that her fight for women ignored intersectional aspects, the moments that she let her desire to succeed win over her decision to make healthy physiological choices. All these things made up a perfectly imperfect narrative that was quick and easy to listen to.

There was one particular line that I actually stopped my audiobook to transcribe, because it impacted me more than I can describe, given the very fretful relationship I had with my body for almost 15 years post-first-pregnancy:

Women face immense pressure to experience pregnancy like leave-no-trace camping, with the goal being zero evidence on the body that it occurred at all.

It’s not really about running, and it’s only tangentially related to women in sports, but I think that’s a quote that could resonate with nearly every mother I’ve ever known. Immediately on hearing this, I decided that I must set up a personal photoshoot for my own scarred, damaged, never-be-the-same belly, in defiance of the pressure so many of us feel. Even if I’d gotten nothing else from Good for a Girl, that one sentence would’ve made the listen worth it.

Performance: Normally, I’m not a fan of authors reading their own books, but Fleshman did a fabulous job reading hers and I have no complaints.

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TNR: Unicorn

Two weeks back, Jason and I managed to catch and TNR a little calico girl we called Feather. Feather had brought with her two male cats, King and Unicorn. While King remains elusive, spreading himself around and getting food from every source he can find, Unicorn decided to continue hanging around and making himself comfortable in our yard. That was absolutely perfect for us, because it meant that we could trap-train him and get him in for TNR – as well as get a nasty-looking neck wound cared for!

Unicorn earned his name by being a rare male calico. For the most part, he’s white with black-tabby patches, but he has one orange-tabby patch on his back leg, which makes him a calico. Only 1 in 3k calicos is male – so rare that vets can work for decades without ever seeing one – and somehow we ended up with a feral male calico in our yard!! Male calicos are almost always sterile as well, because the only way they can have calico coloring is to have an extra X gene. Only 1 in 10k male calicos can produce offspring, which means that it’s unlikely Unicorn has been in any way responsible for the population of feral cats in our neighborhood. However, neutering is still recommended, because with the decreased testosterone levels, neutered male cats are less prone to fighting/aggression, which cuts down heavily on disease acquisition and spread. Given that Unicorn was following an unfixed female around, has a neck wound most likely from fighting, and chases any cat he sees, a decrease in aggression is a good thing!!

(trap training)

Anyway, we began trap-training Unicorn right after Feather was released, and he took to it immediately. At first, we tried not to let Lord Grey, our fixed feral cat, go into the trap to feed, but it became clear that this wasn’t going to work longterm and decided to focus solely on LG not getting trapped once we actually set the pressure plate. Furthermore, as Unicorn came to the yard more often, sometimes sleeping along the fence or just hanging out, he and LG began to interact more often. LG stopped running as much, and there were some standoffs that weren’t too aggressive. Soon, LG started staking his claim to our yard, getting the food first, and Unicorn would sit nearby, trying to pressure him into giving up the food. Not as if we didn’t put out a gigantic amount of food several times a day over the last few weeks – they both got plenty. But it has been interesting to watch them interact. Makes me wonder if they’ll end up friends once Unicorn’s testosterone levels fall away (about a month after neutering).

(LG was determined to eat first and wouldn’t let Unicorn into the cage)

By Jan 13, Unicorn was ready, but the vet didn’t have available appointments until the 20th, so we used that time to get him even more comfortable in our yard. Unlike Feather, who was super skittish and never** came back for food after her escape, we’d like Unicorn to remember this place as his food source. Community cats with a home base and dedicated feeders tend to fare better in the long run, and we’d like to welcome Unicorn into our fold. He’s so beautiful, with giant tomcat cheeks that indicate he’s probably at least a few years old, and I do think he and LG can become friends. We also tried to get him used to our presence, staying outside or easily visible in the windows when he was eating.

On the 20th, we took him in for his surgery, and then held our breath to hear what was going to happen with the nasty-looking neck wound. Fight wound? Bot fly? Burst ulcer? Not healing due to FIV or other immune issue/disease? I can’t tell you the relief when the vet called to say that neuter surgery went well and that they cleaned the wound to see that it was just from fighting, fairly shallow, and just very dirty. It should heal on its own, didn’t even need stitches. Hurrah!

(LOOK AT THOSE CHEEKS!!)

We picked up Unicorn later that day and learned that he had been “shockingly angry” with the vets. Doesn’t surprise us, tbh. He’s an old tomcat with a lot of aggression. Unlike most of the cats we’ve TNRed so far, he didn’t sit passively in the cage and stare at us wide-eyed if we lifted the towel to peek at him. There was a lot of hissing and spitting any time we checked on him, even after surgery when he was loopy on anesthesia. The boy was big mad.

Weirdly, though, the next morning he was perfectly calm. We opened the cage for his freedom run but he apparently didn’t realize it, so we pulled the towel back to motivate him. He sat there staring at us like he was terrified, but no hissing/spitting. After a moment, he backed away from us a little more, realized (finally) that the cage was open, and scrambled out and away. Ha! So far, I haven’t seen him return to eat, but 1) it’s only been two days, and 2) I haven’t been home much over those days so it’s possible he’s returned without notice. I’m pretty sure he’ll be back someday soon! *ETA: He returned for the first time that I saw the day after I posted this. Woohoo!

**The afternoon of Unicorn’s surgery, Feather came back to our yard for the first time since she sprinted out of it on her Freedom Run. She and LG had a little standoff in the yard, and then she ran when Jason brought some food out for the two of them. Hopefully she comes back again, and over time learns that our home can be trusted as a source of sustenance. And at least we know in the meantime that she’s alive and well! *ETA: She returned the afternoon of this post and had herself some dinner, hurrah!

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Sunday Coffee – a quest for new art (Please help!!)

This week, Jason and I painted my bedroom. It was still mostly this horrible brown color except the one wall we had to fix when we redid the windows a couple years ago. In repainting, we also added a shelf high up on one wall, and rearranged the room so that it could better accommodate some things that I’d just been stuffing into my closet in the meantime. While we did all this, I decided it was time to do a bit of spring cleaning. Everything was off the walls and shelves, tucked into piles, so it was time to sort and decide what I still wanted, and what had outlived its purpose. This went from everything from extra yoga mats to artwork that had been hanging on my wall for five years but no longer really fit my aesthetic.

By the end of the project, this is what my room looked like:

A couple notes: First, on a purely color-based note, the doors/trim will eventually be repainted. They’re still the original almond that was here before, which matched the brown but just looks dirty and dingy against the blue walls. That will be a later project, though. Second, the blank wall behind the armchair has a set of wavy drop mirrors coming from Etsy to reflect the window-light and the accent wall across from them. Third, the blank space above the dresser will soon hold a cascade of scarves from my late grandmother’s collection.

Which leads me to the dark blue accent wall. Right now it is empty and dark and blank, a perfect canvas to decorate! What I would like to do on this wall is fill it with closely-set, framed pieces of art and photography, collected over time, as well as potentially some antique hand-mirrors, hanging skeleton keys, etc. Some might actually be photos that I take, but I mostly want to focus on discovering and supporting small artists and photographers selling locally or online. I have very specific tastes that I’m aiming for, and this collage shows a general idea of that, but the problem is that I’m really no good at finding artists. Mostly, I come across them on the recommendations of friends! Like, I absolutely adore the Jennifer Gordon artwork that accompanied the old RIP challenges (back in the 2009/2010 era!) and used to have several framed pieces from her etsy store, but that store no longer exists there doesn’t seem to be a way to purchase on her website. (Don’t ask why I got rid of my original prints. It’s a long story that had to do with subsuming my personality in 2015, and I still regret it.) I never would have discovered Gordon’s work if not for my online friends, so if you have any artists you love, please send me links! Obvs I won’t be buying an entire wall’s worth of art right away, but my birthday is coming up in March so I’d love to be able to put links out for folks before then! Even if you don’t think the artists you love fit the aesthetic, please leave as many links as you like! I always appreciate discovering new things.

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The Book Eaters, by Sunyi Dean

Excerpt from the book jacket: Out on the Yorkshire moors lives a secret line of people for whom books are food, and who retain all of a book’s content after eating it… Devon is part of the Family, an old and reclusive clan of book eaters. Her brothers grew up feasting on stories of valor and adventure, and Devon – like all book eater women – was raised on a carefully curated diet of fairy tales and cautionary stories. But real life doesn’t always come with happy endings, as Devon learns when her son is born with a rare and darker kind of hunger – not for books, but for human minds.

TW: abuse in many varieties, violence/gore

That description is slightly misleading, mostly because Devon discovers misery long before her son is born. It also doesn’t do justice to the complexity of this story. The book eaters live in this world, but apart from it. They look like humans, but aren’t human. Not only is their biology vastly different for all it mimics humans, but they have strange physical constraints (example: they literally cannot write in any form), no knowledge of where their species came from (though there is religious-like lore), and their diet of books eventually breaks their minds down as they try to hold more and more information inside. For the most part, book eaters keep away from humans so as not to draw attention to their oddities and differences, but by the time this book begins, there’s been a political upheaval in their Family system, and Devon finds herself living out in the open world, her son in tow. And that makes for an incredibly intriguing story.

The Book Eaters is told in two parallel lines – the current timeline, and a series of flashback chapters that take Devon from her childhood self to her current-day predicaments. You see through her eyes the constraints on women in her society due to their rarity (and thus value), with all the strictures placed on them because they have value. Women are a commodity not to be wasted, so they must not be indulged, given choices, or allowed to make any but the most minor of decisions. When you value a thing too much, you put it in a box where it can’t get harmed. But women aren’t things, and when you put them in boxes, they break. The Families are okay with this as long as it’s the spirit and heart that are broken, making their women weak and pliable. As you can imagine, Devon is different than the norm.

I think my favorite thing about this book is how rich the world-building is without every aspect being explained. Why can book eaters not write? It’s a question never answered, one of many. The point is not to discover where these creatures came from, or what their purpose is, or whether their mythos is in any way rooted in truth. They exist, and like humans with their cultures and beliefs and limitations and problems, obstacles and barriers also exist. The unknown and the unknowable also exist. For me, that’s what makes the book so rich. It doesn’t feel like the author doesn’t know and therefore won’t tell you, nor does it feel like these random bits are in the story purely to move the plot along. They simply enhance the world, create potential complications, and bring a very alien creature into a space where they’re extremely relatable to the reader despite having a second set of bookteeth and ink that runs through their veins.

While this book appears to be standalone – I can’t find any evidence that it’s meant to be the first in a series – the end is a bit unsettling. The rest of this paragraph contains very, very mild spoilers not regarding events but the tone of the book, so I’m going to white it out. Highlight to read: The climax and tension build all the way through the last few pages, and even once you know where things are headed, there’s always uncertainty for the future. There are some really disturbing moments through the climax – disturbing in the implications of what they might mean for the characters going forward. It feels like there could be a whole host of questions that could be addressed in further volumes, or potentially a complete standalone with an ending that simply says life will never be even remotely simple for these creatures who are alien in our world. End mild spoilers.

I loved this book. Loved the writing, the fabric of the world, the use of queer characters without that being the focus of their stories or personalities, loved the complexities that inherently come with living in a world that isn’t meant for you. I loved the focus on family, both good and bad, and the discussion of the cost of love. There were definitely some unsettling and gruesome parts of the book (see trigger warnings), but it all felt appropriate in context and never glorified or overemphasized. Altogether, it was a rich book that I would guess will stick with me for a long time.

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January Self Portrait: Gutter Glitter

Part of my goals this year is to move forward with photography (in many different aspects). With a nod toward that goal, I decided to emulate a TT creator who chose to do a self portrait each month of 2022. By doing a personal self portrait each month, I can explore different themes and styles (in shots, costume, and edits), improve at creative portraiture, and personally get more comfortable in my skin as my body image has really suffered since Ozempic caused massive weight gain in late 2020 through 2021.

Last weekend, I took January’s photos, a shoot I called Gutter Glitter after a song from Switchblade Symphony. There were two locations that inspired these photos, a drainage ditch and an industrial park, both of which I pass regularly as I travel back and forth to the animal shelter that I foster through. I had the idea to contrast an ethereal/fantastical costume with the grimy reality that is litter, graffiti, runoff, and rust. Concrete and metal vs gossamer and light.

Let me just say that this is one of the most uncomfortable things I’ve ever forced myself to do. No one expects a person to dress up like they’re going to Ren Faire, smear glitter haphazardly across their face, and then walk down a busy public street in an industrial area, or jump into a drainage ditch. Believe me, you get a LOT of stares. Jason came along with me, because frankly, I needed the moral support, plus I didn’t feel safe going into that situation alone, and he made a great stand-in model for focusing my camera! We went to three locations – the two mentioned above, plus a utility pole at the edge of my neighborhood. (At a four way stop. Where I was close enough to each car to see the baffled and/or bemused expressions on every person’s face.) It was right around sunset, so there was perfect golden hour light to take these photos, which get progressively darker as we went along. (And hey, at the last stop, the stares went so far as to involve an old man across the street watching us and laughing!)

Uncomfortable? Yes, I was! But honestly, the longer the night went on, the more comfortable I got, even with the old man laughing at me in that third location. A lot of the photos weren’t great – I’m not very good at posing for the camera, never have been! – but there were several dozen that came out phenomenal. Once I got them edited, I had a really fun and creative story to tell.

What should I do in February? Any suggestions?

*****
OMG. I found out four days after this photo session that there was a drug-deal-turned-shooting at the halfway point between my second and third location, while we were driving from the gutter to the industrial park. We were literally driving by as the shooting happened. Holy f*ck…

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The Alchemist of Riddle and Ruin, by Gigi Pandian (audio)

Zoe’s friend Heather is confronted by what she believes is the ghost of her teenage best friend, Riddle (Ridley), who was murdered 16 years before. Zoe doesn’t believe in ghosts, and knows it’s more likely – though still not terribly probable – that Riddle is an alchemist. But stone gargoyle Dorian, Heather’s son Brickston, and Brickston’s friend Veronica all want to investigate the ghost, and in turn, Riddle’s unsolved murder. Unsolved, however, means that the killer is still out there, and investigating them puts everyone at risk.

I believe this is the sixth volume of this series. Former mysteries have all been wrapped up, so it’s only the characters who continue at this point. I’m not complaining even slightly about this – I love these characters and every time I return to one of these books, it feels like slipping into a warm, comfy bath. I’m glad there are new mysteries to investigate, especially as this one straddles the line of maybe-paranormal, maybe-not.

Because this is the sixth volume, I’m not going to say more. Just reiterate something I’ve said in probably every single review I’ve done on this series: I’m so very glad I took a chance on a $3 audiobook all those years ago.

PS – Julia Motyka does a great job reading the book as always. I was worried, because the introduction is read by a man, and I thought they’d switched narrators for a hot second. Whew!

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Sunday Coffee – a fortuitous moment

On Thursday this week, I brought my half-sister a book to borrow for her last few days in San Antonio, and in exchange, she took me out for coffee at a local cafe, Mildfire Coffee. We hung out for a couple hours at the cafe, and at one point, we paused our conversation while Julia used the restroom. When she was gone, my ear picked up a conversation going on behind me, two folks discussing an otherworldly nature area and fantastical portraits. I mean, come on, that’s literally bullseye on my interests!!

Now, I could have just ignored it, or eavesdropped, but instead I decided to break out of my comfort zone. I got up, approached these two, and started a conversation. As it turned out, one of them is a nature photographer who had an idea for a fantasy/dryad photoshoot in the location they’d been discussing, and the other was interested in fantasy portraiture! I showed them the photos from my January Gutter Glitter photoshoot (post coming soon), and we talked about collaboration and exchanged Instagram handles. It turns out that the second of these two was an employee at Mildfire who knows my sister (because my dad, stepmom, and sister have been going to Mildfire regularly for years!).[er =\-=] <–the stuff in [] was written by my foster kitten running across the keyboard…ha!

Anyway, it was a lovely conversation and I made two new friends that I’ll hopefully be able to get to know better and work with in the future. The whole thing made me feel so warm and cozy and happy, and I know that if I had decided to stay quiet like my normal self rather than put myself out there, I would have instead felt disappointed and ashamed and hopeless. It’s a thing I’m trying to learn, but need to be taught more regularly: Don’t be afraid to speak. Reach out. Do the thing. More often than not, humanity will surprise and delight me when I do.

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Tress of the Emerald Sea, by Brandon Sanderson (audio)

Tress would be content to stay at home on her tiny island forever. It’s safe from the deadly spore sea and her life is hard but fulfilling. Plus, no one is allowed to leave, so what would be the point of imagining life off the Rock? Only now, Tress has a reason. Her truest friend is gone, kidnapped by an evil sorcerous, and no one cares enough to rescue him except her. All she has to do is illegally escape the island, sail through deadly seas to even deadlier seas, and then defeat the most powerful woman in the world. Simple, right?

This is the first of the four secret novels Brandon Sanderson announced last March. It’s set in the Cosmere, on a planet that previously had no stories attached to it, containing a spore-based magic system that has been tangentially referred to in a very, very vague way. I don’t know that this novel will be particularly relevant to the whole of the Cosmere, but it was definitely worth reading. Will it be a favorite? No. Did I enjoy it? Mostly.

The part I didn’t enjoy is easy to sum up. There’s a character in the Cosmere named Hoid who hops around to different worlds and shows up in every single book. He’s got a larger part in the Stormlight books, and will eventually share his own story, which will be very important. However, I find Hoid extremely tedious as a character, if I’m honest. He’s got a forced whimsical kind of personality, overly crass and immature, like dealing with a middle-school boy except that this particular middle-school boy is millennia old and incredibly wise if and when he choses to drop the whimsical act. Normally, I don’t mind him so much while reading through a book because he only shows up in small doses. Unfortunately, he’s the narrator of this book. There are times when the narration gets caught up and almost feels like normal, third-person POV, but then it careens suddenly back to first person as Hoid brings in jokes, unimportant observances, and whatever other whimsy he chooses. It drove me crazy.

Other than Hoid, though, I loved the book. Sanderson does so well with personal transformation stories, and found families, and the development of magical systems. The spores were sooooo fascinating here and I do hope we get to learn more about them. Tress herself undergoes so much change, from content and unquestioning into a powerful and commanding figure no longer willing to just accept things as they are. Her search for her friend really becomes a search inside herself, told parallel, crashing together into potential conflict throughout the book. It was wonderful.

Oddly for Sanderson, I wasn’t taken by surprise this time around. I had very early suspicions about what was going to happen in Tress’ journey, and they seemed so obvious that I thought there was no way I could be right. Sanderson never takes the obvious route! And yet, either he tricked us all by doing the obvious thing, or I’ve just gotten wiser to his ploys. I’m guessing it’s the first one, because I’m still sure I’ll get smacked upside the head multiple times in future books, heh.

Performance: This book is read by Michael Kramer like many of Sanderson’s books. Funny thing – I could always tell when the narration was about to veer back into Hoid’s whimsy by the changes in Kramer’s vocal inflections as he read. Ha!

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