Review: Dogged by Death (Book #1: (A Furry Friends Mystery) by Laura Scott

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Ally Winter is going through a ruff patch. The thirty-something veterinarian lost her fiance, her clinic, and her savings in rapid succession. So when Ally’s grandfather undergoes hip replacement surgery, she moves back to Willow Bluff, Wisconsin, to care for him. She arrives home, tail between her legs, only to find sleazy lawyer Marty Shawlin murdered in his home office. And the only witness was Marty’s faithful boxer, Roxy.

Quick as a greyhound, Noah Jorgensen is on the case. The good news is, he’s the best detective around. The bad news, at least the way Ally sees it, is that Noah is still just as fetching as he was back in high school. He also just happens to have witnessed every embarrassing incident that befell accident-prone Ally–including the fire-ant attack that set tongues wagging and won her the unshakable nickname Hot Pants.

Meanwhile, true-crime aficionado Gramps fancies himself a sleuth, and he is doggedly determined to sniff out the culprit himself…with Ally’s reluctant help, of course. Ally has no choice but to team up with Noah–and the irrepressible Roxy–to solve the case while keeping Gramps on a short leash.

Ally had better learn some new tricks, lickety-split. Because if she can’t bring the killer to heel, she won’t just be playing dead.

Source: NetGalley and Crooked Lane Books Rating: 4/5 stars

The Bottom Line:  From the beginning, it is clear Ally Winter is in trouble and if her fortunes and luck don’t turn soon, she’s going to be down to her last dollar and living with her beloved grandfather in his already cramped senior living situation.  With no interest in going backward in her life, Ally sets her sights on the future and growing her burgeoning veterinary clinic. 

With a stack of bills and little pride, Ally takes on all including dog-walking, grooming, and standard veterinary care.  It’s one of her dog walking clients, the uber-creepy Marty Shawlin that draws Ally and her true crime obsessed grandfather into a mess that threatens to bring down Ally and her new clinic.  Marty Shawlin may have excellent taste in dogs, but his business ethics are lacking and lands him in the morgue and Ally with a doggy witness with no home. 

When Ally’s grandfather gets involved, things go from somewhat manageable to downright crazy and reigning him in is a bit like herding cats.  To make matters worse, Ally and her grandfather seem to keep uncovering information the police need, but the police – Noah in particular – is not interested in the help or the tips.  Every uncovered bit of information only encourages Ally’s grandfather and makes him even more difficult to contain.    With the exception of Ally’s constant musings about money and credit cards clearing, I found this book to be fun and quite entertaining.  Ally clearly cares for the animals she helps, her grandfather is relentless and hilarious (the cell phone calls!), and the elderly women he lives with are pure sunshine.  There is a lot about this first in a series book to like and keep me interested in what the future holds for Ally, Roxy, and her grandfather.  This one will appeal to fans of cozy mystery as well as fans of books with a heavy animal presence.

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Review: The Ballerinas by Rachel Kapelke-Dale

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Fourteen years ago, Delphine abandoned her prestigious soloist spot at the Paris Opera Ballet for a new life in St. Petersburg––taking with her a secret that could upend the lives of her best friends, fellow dancers Lindsay and Margaux. Now 36 years old, Delphine has returned to her former home and to the legendary Palais Garnier Opera House, to choreograph the ballet that will kickstart the next phase of her career––and, she hopes, finally make things right with her former friends. But Delphine quickly discovers that things have changed while she’s been away…and some secrets can’t stay buried forever.

Moving between the trio’s adolescent years and the present day, The Ballerinas explores the complexities of female friendship, the dark drive towards physical perfection in the name of artistic expression, the double-edged sword of ambition and passion, and the sublimated rage that so many women hold inside––all culminating in a twist you won’t see coming, with magnetic characters you won’t soon forget.

Source: NetGalley and St. Martin’s Press Rating: 4/5 stars

The Bottom Line:  What a wonderful train wreck this story turned out to be!  I have long been drawn to stories about dancers and especially ballerinas and this one did not disappoint.  I was in just the right frame of mind for this dark, spiraling story of three friends linked over the years by friendship, secrets, lies, betrayals, and loyalty.  The Ballerinas traces the lives of three friends from their youth to the present when each must deal with the past, face the hard truths of the past and present, and survive the storm they are all embroiled in.  The Ballerinas is not a happy or hopeful story, but a dark and winding tail of three women who have lived lives only a handful can ever truly understand or appreciate.  Though there isn’t much to root for in this book, it was, nevertheless a fascinating dance into the darkness with three women facing some significant demons.  As always, I enjoyed the mixing of the past and the present and how the past has so significantly impacted the present.  The author’s writing style is suitably low-key for the overall tone of the book, and I found I really didn’t want to stop reading this one.  I certainly wouldn’t recommend this one if you’re looking for a sweet, light-hearted read, but if you’re in the mood for dark, angsty, and somewhat sinister then this is the book you are looking for.

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Review: Rescuing Harmony Ranch by Jennie Marts

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After her grandmother calls her asking for help, Jocelyn drops everything and heads back home to Harmony Creek, Colorado. Her grandmother runs a living history museum: a ranch and homestead where volunteers wear clothing from the early 1900s and demonstrate how things were done in the old West, from making soap to shearing sheep. The place is in financial trouble, and it needs the revenue from the annual festival to survive.

There’s just one thing that makes this a little awkward: Mack, who’s divorced, and who’s now the caretaker and blacksmith at the homestead. Jocelyn and Mack have their own shared history, which includes both stolen kisses and teenage rivalry.

Even as the past and present collide, they have to save Harmony Ranch. Matchmaking grannies, a meddling mutt, and a flood of fun festival activities might just be enough to overcome their differences and forge two broken hearts back together.

Source: NetGalley and Hallmark Rating: 3/5 stars

The Bottom Line:  I normally have no trouble blazing through a Hallmark read, but I must admit to a bit of a struggle with this one.  I think my greatest issue with this read is the okay-ness of practically every aspect of this read.  Everyone and everything is okay, but nothing and no one (except the dog!) is either spectacular or meant to stand apart from the vast crowd in this genre.  I liked Jocelyn and Mack well enough, their grannies are both quite delightful, and the setting is certainly beautiful, but I feel like I’ve read this same story many times over and that led me to determine everything is just okay. To be completely fair, there is nothing wrong with okay and I certainly can’t say I disliked this book.  I enjoyed the story well enough but can’t say I would be running for book two if this were the beginning of a series.  In truth, I feel most readers will like this book especially if he/she goes into the read knowing it isn’t going to be anything groundbreaking or mind-blowing, but a decent middle of the road read with a lovely HEA.

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Review: The Paris Dressmaker by Kristy Cambron

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Paris, 1939. Maison Chanel has closed, thrusting haute couture dressmaker Lila de Laurent out of the world of high fashion as Nazi soldiers invade the streets and the City of Lights slips into darkness. Lila’s life is now a series of rations, brutal restrictions, and carefully controlled propaganda while Paris is cut off from the rest of the world. Yet in hidden corners of the city, the faithful pledge to resist. Lila is drawn to La Resistance and is soon using her skills as a dressmaker to infiltrate the Nazi elite. She takes their measurements and designs masterpieces, all while collecting secrets in the glamorous Hôtel Ritz—the heart of the Nazis’ Parisian headquarters. But when dashing René Touliard suddenly reenters her world, Lila finds her heart tangled between determination to help save his Jewish family and bolstering the fight for liberation.

Paris, 1943. Sandrine Paquet’s job is to catalog the priceless works of art bound for the Führer’s Berlin, masterpieces stolen from prominent Jewish families. But behind closed doors, she secretly forages for information from the underground resistance. Beneath her compliant façade lies a woman bent on uncovering the fate of her missing husband . . . but at what cost? As Hitler’s regime crumbles, Sandrine is drawn in deeper when she uncrates an exquisite blush Chanel gown concealing a cryptic message that may reveal the fate of a dressmaker who vanished from within the fashion elite.

Told across the span of the Nazi occupation, The Paris Dressmaker highlights the brave women who used everything in their power to resist darkness and restore light to their world.

Source: NetGalley, Thomas Nelson, and Purchase Rating: 5 stars

The Bottom Line:  Kristy Cambron comes out swinging yet again with another brilliantly conceived historical fiction.  The Paris Dressmaker follows the lives of two women, Lila de Laurent and Sandrine Paquet as they struggle in Nazi-controlled Paris to keep their lives, keep their secrets, and keep those they love from paying for their choices.  While Lila uses her skills born of the fashion industry to infiltrate the lives of high-ranking Nazis via their paramours, Sandrine uses her skills in the art world to help catalogue all that has been stolen from Jews across Europe.  Through an intricate network of spies and resistance workers, the women work tirelessly to achieve their goals and thwart the Third Reich.  I found this book to be endlessly fascinating!  Cambron has a unique ability to bring her characters fully to life, to enliven them through their actions and words, and make them as real in print as if they were standing before you telling their own story.  While I greatly enjoyed the entirety of the book, I found the last third-ish to be the most entertaining.  As Lila and Sandrine’s lives begin to cross and the end of the war is upon them, the pace of the writing picks up dramatically and really brings home the sense of relief that so must surely have felt during this period.,  What’s more, the final chapters of the book are an incredible sort of epilogue that I found most informative, heartbreaking, and heartwarming.  Cambron evokes the emotion of the time and place without creating a sense of morbidity or false happiness.  The moments, the people, the plot are real and this is always going to be my kind of historical fiction.

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Review: The Curator’s Daughter by Melanie Dobson

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1940. Hanna Tillich cherishes her work as an archaeologist for the Third Reich, searching for the Holy Grail and other artifacts to bolster evidence of a master Aryan race. But when she is reassigned to work as a museum curator in Nuremberg, then forced to marry an SS officer and adopt a young girl, Hanna begins to see behind the Nazi facade. A prayer labyrinth becomes a storehouse for Hanna’s secrets, but as she comes to love Lilly as her own daughter, she fears that what she’s hiding–and what she begins to uncover–could put them both in mortal danger.

Eighty years later, Ember Ellis is a Holocaust researcher intent on confronting hatred toward the Jewish people and other minorities. She reconnects with a former teacher on Martha’s Vineyard after she learns that Mrs. Kiehl’s mother once worked with the Nazi Ahnenerbe. And yet, Mrs. Kiehl describes her mother as “a friend to the Jewish people.” Wondering how both could be true, Ember helps Mrs. Kiehl regain her fractured childhood memories of World War II while at the same time confronting the heartache of her own secret past–and the person who wants to silence Ember forever.

Source: Purchase Rating: 3/5 stars

Mrs. Kiehl has spent her life in service of others; as a schoolteacher, Mrs. Kiehl strove to educate and enlighten her students often using the stories of her own family’s past to illustrate her points.  Over the course of her career, Mrs. Kiehl inspired many students, but none so much as Ember Ellis.

Ember Ellis has a dark and miserable past that she works daily to forget.  Thanks to her beloved former teacher Mrs. Kiehl, Ember has set her career goals on exposing the crimes of the past in an effort to prevent the atrocities of the past from being repeated.  Ember’s research and teaching are devoted to the war crimes of the Third Reich and the treatment of Jews.  One of Ember’s overriding goals of her research is to find just one person, one tremendously courageous human who risked everything to help those being targeted by the Nazi party. 

When Ember reads an interview with her former teacher, she thinks she may have found that person, that missing link that will help her complete her dissertation.  Visiting Mrs. Kiehl takes Ember down a path of her past she has vowed never to return to; while self-preservation is certainly on her mind, Ember’s desire to uncover a truth, expose a true hero is greater.  Though Mrs. Kiehl is thrilled to have Ember back in her life, she doesn’t have a great deal to offer outside of tidbits and snippets of information.  Though the information isn’t much, it is a clue to a trail Ember is determined to follow.

As soon as Ember touches down in Nuremberg, she begins following the minuscule leads she has gathered.  With the help from a most unlikely source, Ember’s leads lead to other leads which eventually leads to a truth that changes the fabric of many, many lives.  Ember’s research uncovers truths long thought lost and perhaps would have been had a young researcher with a deplorable past of her own hadn’t come along and exposed the lives, values, risks, and triumphs of a small network of men and women determined to fight against evil. 

The Bottom Line:  I normally enjoy and past meets present story, but I found great portions of the present part of this story to be extraneous and unnecessary.  Stripping much of Ember’s backstory would have made these chapters of the book far more interesting and enjoyable.  What’s more, the chapters of the book dedicated to the past are particularly strong and could easily stand on their own as a single story.  I very much enjoyed the chapters dedicated to the past, to the courageous woman who occupied that time and place and faced insurmountable odds in an effort to fight against their own countrymen.  These chapters reveal both the horror and the tremendous spirit of the human heart, and I found them most revealing and uplifting.  Even through the horrific moments, there were flashes of faith and kindness that had me rooting for the underdog.

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Review: The Family Plot by Megan Collins

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At twenty-six, Dahlia Lighthouse has a lot to learn when it comes to the real world. Raised in a secluded island mansion deep in the woods and kept isolated by her true crime-obsessed parents, she has spent the last several years living on her own, but unable to move beyond her past—especially the disappearance of her twin brother Andy when they were sixteen.

With her father’s death, Dahlia returns to the house she has avoided for years. But as the rest of the Lighthouse family arrives for the memorial, a gruesome discovery is made: buried in the reserved plot is another body—Andy’s, his skull split open with an ax.

Each member of the family handles the revelation in unusual ways. Her brother Charlie pours his energy into creating a family memorial museum, highlighting their research into the lives of famous murder victims; her sister Tate forges ahead with her popular dioramas portraying crime scenes; and their mother affects a cheerfully domestic façade, becoming unrecognizable as the woman who performed murder reenactments for her children. As Dahlia grapples with her own grief and horror, she realizes that her eccentric family, and the mansion itself, may hold the answers to what happened to her twin.

Source: NetGalley and Atria Books Rating: 2½/5 stars

The Bottom Line: I will freely admit, I read this book in two marathon sessions but that isn’t necessarily indicative of how much I liked this book.  In truth, I found this book to be somewhat perplexing.  While I fully appreciate this is a fictional story, I guess I just need my fiction to be a bit more believable and/or realistic for my satisfaction.  This is most prominently on display when the Lighthouse family backstory is fully revealed; I found myself thinking how absolutely unbelievable the whole family is and how, even for fiction, this isn’t working. 

From start to finish, the Lighthouse family is, as one character puts it, “unnatural.”  In fact, much to my great displeasure, this sentiment is often repeated throughout the book not only verbally, but also in the actions of the characters.   With each new revelation, I found myself sinking further into disbelief but, like a train wreck, I couldn’t stop watching either.  Though the characters are meant to be deep and terribly disturbed, they come off more as immature adults who won’t deal with their issues.  I have trouble with characters who refuse to deal with their issues which means I couldn’t ever find a character in this book to root for, though the plot would suggest rooting for the entire Lighthouse family.   I don’t feel a reader should ever walk away from a book more confused than when they started the book and that’s what happened here.  I finished this book with a deep sense of dissatisfaction and wonder at what I’d just read.  I admit, I couldn’t stop reading, but I don’t think that inability to stop was for the right reasons.

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Review: Framed and Frosted (Book #3: (Cupcake Catering Mystery Series) by Kim Davis

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Framed and Frosted, the third book in the Cupcake Catering Mystery series, finds cupcake caterer, Emory Martinez, working at a Laguna Beach society Fourth of July soiree, with her sister and their new employee, Sal. With a host that seems intent on accosting both catering employees and guests alike, things go from bad to worse when he accuses Sal of murdering his long-dead son.

As the crescendo of exploding fireworks overhead becomes the backdrop for cupcakes and champagne, a deadly murder occurs. Can Sal and Emory explain why the cupcake the host ate, after shoving a trayful of buttercream frosted cupcakes onto Sal, resulted in his death? Or will the guests and detective alike believe that Sal is a murderer? Emory and her octogenarian employer, Tillie, whip into action to find out who framed Sal after being frosted by the victim.

Source: Purchase Rating: 4½/5 stars

The Bottom Line:  I love it when a series continues to strengthen with each additional book and that is exactly what is happening with this series.  By far, the plot and characterization in this book are the strongest they have been to date, and I devoured this book because of these qualities.  Yet again, Emory finds herself embroiled in not one but two mysteries and both are threatening her livelihood and her life. 

As always, Emory can’t keep herself out of trouble and when a man drops dead seemingly from ingesting her sister’s food, the race is on to find the real killer, save her sister’s catering business, and the life of a young employee wrongfully jailed for the crime.  In the course of sussing out the culprit for one murder, Emory stumbles upon a very serious issue within the Skylar family.  Through a series of very twisted and disturbing events, it becomes clear the two mysteries are related to one another and if Emory can figure out one, the other will also become clear.  Unfortunately, solving both will prove to be both literally and figuratively painful for a number of people. I found this book not only suitably entertaining, but a step up in caliber.  Davis upped her game with this book and really brought together two seemingly unrelated plotlines into one succinct and slightly more complex than normal plotline.  Davis also created a deal of believable, real life drama for her main characters and that caused each to make some big, life-altering decisions that will certainly play a role in later installments of the series.  I liked this series before this book, but this book ignited a real fire in me that has me quite excited about Emory’s future.

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Review: Murder at the Taffy Shop (Book #2: Cozy Capers Book Group Mystery Series) by Maddie Day

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When your mother is an astrologist and your dad is a minister, you learn to keep an open mind. Which is just what Mac loves to do–exercise her mind by puzzling out fictional clues in the mystery novels she reads and discusses with her Cozy Capers Book Group.

But now Mac’s friend Gin has found herself in a sticky situation. After wealthy genealogist Beverly Ruchart is found dead outside Gin’s taffy shop, the candy maker becomes a person of interest. When it’s revealed that Beverly was poisoned the night Gin brought a box of taffy to a dinner party at Beverly’s house, she’s bumped to the top of the suspects list. It’s up to Mac and her Cozy Capers crime solvers to unwrap this real-life mystery. But this time they might have bitten off more than they can chew…

Source: NetGalley and Kensington Rating: 4/5 stars

Beverly Ruchart is not known for her winning personality.  In fact, with the exception of just a handful of people, Beverly isn’t really liked by most people in her sleepy little seaside town.  Her prickly personality has made her something of a recluse so when she winds up dead outside the local medical clinic, there aren’t many in town who are surprised.

The two who are surprised are Mac Almeida and her best friend, Gin.  Shortly before their morning walk, Gin and Mac find Ms. Ruchart crumpled on the sidewalk with no obvious explanation for her passing.  Though Gin and Mac only found the body, it soon becomes clear – evidence! – that Gin is the prime suspect on the short list held by the police.  Gin will be the first to admit Ms. Ruchart wasn’t her favorite person, but she certainly had no cause to murder the poor, old lady. 

Once again, Mac and her cozy mystery group are drawn into the investigation to save one of their own.  What the group quickly finds is that not only was Ms. Ruchart generally not liked by the community, but she was also disliked by most of her remaining family.  What’s more, the dearly departed was in possession of quite a large estate which always brings out the vultures and exposes motives.  With just a few pokes and prods, Mac and her friends find there are motives galore for the death of Ms. Ruchart and sorting through the mess is going to take real skill and determination.

The Bottom Line: I had a bit more fun reading this book than the first as all the groundwork was already in place.  The characters and the setting were already familiar making those details a garnish rather than the meat of the story.  I did quite like the plot of this story, but I also found myself very invested in one of the smaller plotlines, Mac’s relationship with her boyfriend.  On top of trying to solve a murder, Mac also has to deal with some hard questions that have arisen in her personal life.  While I liked all these things, there was one bit of this book that had me absolutely in stitches . . . . Belle the African Grey parrot!  Belle is a delight throughout the book, but that last scene or two at the end really brought everything together in a most hysterical way.  If nothing else, I am coming back for book three because of the bird 😊

Mini Review: Mrs. Morris and the Sorceress (Book #4: A Salem B&B Mystery) by Traci Wilton

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It’s Fourth of July in Salem, Massachusetts—and B&B owner Charlene Morris is about to witness the shot heard ’round the town . . .

Madison Boswell, a beauty recently transplanted from Boston, is starring in the Independence Day play in this New England town full of colonial history—and, of course, witchcraft. Madison may not be a Wiccan, but she does seem to have certain hypnotic powers. And she’s left some angry people in her wake, from a fellow actress beaten out for a role to a jealous betrayed wife. Now, as Charlene films the performance for her housemate, Jack—a handsome ghost who shares the Victorian bed-and-breakfast with her and her Persian cat—the drama queen takes a deadly bullet from what was supposed to be a prop gun.

With a long list of suspects and lots of backstage whispers, it looks like the investigation by Charlene and Detective Sam Holden could set off some fireworks . . .

Source: NetGalley and Kensington Rating: 4/5 stars

The Bottom Line:  Yet another holiday has come to Salem and Charlene Morris is up to her neck in another mystery.  This time, Charlene’s entire guest list is present when a thoroughly unlikeable actress is killed during a local performance at a 4th of July event.  With the whole town watching it would seem impossible for no one to have seen anything, but that is indeed the case and Charlene has her hands full trying to unravel the mystery.  Perhaps the saddest part of this mystery is the fact no one really seems to mind that the dead girl is gone which means Charlene has a huge suspect list.  With the help of her friends, the local sheriff, her guests, and her ghost, Charlene whittles away at the list until she finally exposes the culprit.  Yet again, there was a lot going on with this book and while I pretty much enjoyed the read, it didn’t fire me up with enthusiasm for the next book.  I think I’ve come to the end of my association with this series; there are simply too many other truly great cozies out there for me to continue on with a series that doesn’t consistently stoke my interest.

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Mini Review: Mrs. Morris and the Ghost of Christmas Past (Book #3: A Salem B&B Mystery) by Traci Wilton

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Charlene’s parents are in town for Christmas, and her mother is driving her up a tree. Her bed-and-breakfast’s resident ghost, Jack, isn’t fond of her either–and he’s showing it with some haunting high jinks. But when Charlene takes her mom and dad out for dinner, the less-than-seasonal spirits take a deadly turn.

David Baldwin has just won a fortune in the lottery–and it adds a lot of drama to the charity auction he’s hosting at his restaurant. When he caps off the evening by playing Santa and handing out checks to some of the attendees, the mood shifts . . . and Charlene observes mysterious tensions between David and his flashy, bleached-blonde wife, his neglected teenage son from a previous marriage, and his hostile business partner, among others. And they’re only a few on the long list of potential suspects when David runs into the road and is mowed down by a fleeing motorist. Now it looks like it’s going to be homicide for the holidays . . .

Source: Purchase Rating: 3/5 stars

The Bottom Line:  Admittedly, I am not a fan of Christmas books, but my star rating for this one has more to do with the overall story than my dislike of Christmas stories.  I swear!  There is a lot going on in this book and while I didn’t have any difficulty following the story, I found it to be unnecessarily cluttered.  Between the convoluted murder plot, the ongoing business between Charlene, her ghost, and the police officer, and the appearance of her parents, there was a lot of ground to cover.  What’s more, I found the story to be somewhat dominated by Charlene’s mother who isn’t the most likeable of creatures.  I made it through this book as I have the others, but I think I felt relief more than satisfaction when I hit the end of this one.  Time to move forward and hope book four has more to offer than book three.

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