Review: Into the Windwracked Wilds by A. Deborah Baker

Review: Into the Windwracked Wilds by A. Deborah BakerInto the Windwracked Wilds (The Up-and-Under, #3) by A. Deborah Baker
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy, portal fantasy, young adult
Series: Up-and-Under #3
Pages: 224
Published by Tordotcom on October 25, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

Adventurous readers of Kelly Barnhill and Cat Valente's Fairyland books will be sure to soar among the dark marvels that can be found in Into the Windwracked Wilds, by Seanan McGuire's latest open pseudonym, A. Deborah Baker.
When the improbable road leaves Avery and Zib in the land of Air and at the mercy of the Queen of Swords, escape without becoming monsters may be impossible. But with the aid of the Queen's son, the unpredictable Jack Daw, they may emerge with enough of their humanity to someday make it home. Their journey is not yet over; the dangers are no less great.

My Review:

Looking back at my review of the first book in the Up-and-Under series, Over the Woodward Wall, I discovered that one of my early guesses was wrong. One of Zib and Avery’s companions does need to find a heart – a particular heart – after all.

They all need to find more than a bit of ‘the nerve’ by the time the Improbable Road whisks them off again, further away from who they were when they first climbed that wall but hopefully closer to getting home. Or deciding that they are already there.

Into the Windwracked Wilds makes no bones (although there are bones) about the fact that it is a middle book, with pretty much all of the darkness such books generally hold. A darkness that is not toned down all that much in spite of the series being theoretically aimed at middle grade and young adult readers.

Don’t let that fool you. The trappings of the story may make it seem like a book for younger readers – and it certainly can be read that way. BUT, like a more overtly dark version of Rocky and Bullwinkle, the seriousness of its story appeals equally, if not perhaps a bit more, to adults.

Well, certainly to this adult. Although adulting is both in the eye of the beholder and can be seriously overrated.

Howsomever, the lovely thing about the book acknowledging that it’s in the middle of a much longer story is that it does an equally lovely job of explaining why middle books are important for the journey of the protagonists – as well as giving the reader enough details about what came before to be going on with.

After climbing Over the Woodward Wall and traveling Along the Saltwise Sea with the pirates, Zib, Avery, Niamh the Drowned Girl and the Crow Girl with no name begin their journey Into the Windwracked Wilds by making the Improbable Road angry enough to dump them back into the Sea. And disappear – at least until they manage to do something improbable enough to bring it back.

Which is how they find themselves blown towards the Queen of Swords’ castle in the Land of Air. Doing their level best not to get turned into monsters. Or at least, Avery and Zib need to do their best, because monsterization has already happened to both Niamh and the Crow Girl.

In fact, the Crow Girl, whatever her name used to be, was turned into a monster by the very same Queen of Swords who has just swept them into her castle. And wants to keep them there.

This is the story of how this ragtag band of lost souls were forced into a castle of nightmares – and managed to find their way out again. With just a little bit of help from a new friend – by finding the one thing that none of them had thought to look for – the Crow Girl’s missing heart.

Escape Rating A-: From the beginning, it has seemed as if the direct progenitors of the Up-and-Under were Oz and Narnia. The similarities between the ‘Yellow Brick Road’ and the ‘Improbable Road’ are a bit hard to miss, after all.

But this particular entry in the series makes me think of Narnia. A lot. Not the Narnia of the great lion and Aslan saving the day, but the Narnia of choices of consequence made by uninformed children, and the lesson that adults are often cruel and that words and actions may have terrible consequences even if the words are said or the deeds are committed in ignorance of those consequences. The world where the kindly Mr. Tumnus plans to betray the children, refuses to do so, and is tortured for it. The island where dreams come true – and the realization that it does NOT refer to daydreams, but rather the monsters summoned from deep in the subconscious.

A place where children have to pay their own debts and forfeits – no matter how much they hurt or how often the adults cheat. The Up-and-Under feels like it’s filled with those same kinds of hard lessons – no matter how magical and even beautiful it might sometimes be.

But I think the return from the Up-and-Under to Zib and Avery’s ‘real’ world is going to be a lot more difficult than what the Pevensies encountered. Because the point of Zib and Avery’s journey in the Up-and-Under seems as if the entire point of it is change, not just for the Up-and-Under to impact them, but for them to impact it, as well.

Unlike Along the Saltwise Sea, which felt very much like a rest stop along their journey, Into the Windwracked Wilds reads like they are really getting somewhere – even if that somewhere is not the return home that Zib and Avery were originally seeking. This may eventually turn out to be a ‘There and Back Again’ story, but at this middle point it’s starting to feel like their journey and the changes it brings is infinitely more important than the destination.

As much as their travels have been clearly changing Avery and Zib all along, Avery and Zib are also changing the people and even the structure of the Up-and-Under in ways that we’ll probably only see the full picture of at the end. Which was originally planned to be the fourth book, which was originally planned to be published in October 2023. I hope that all holds true. At least that the next book comes out this time next year. If we get a bit more story in this world than was originally intended, this reader, for one, would not be in the least disappointed.

Review: The Seventh Bride by T. Kingfisher

Review: The Seventh Bride by T. KingfisherThe Seventh Bride by T. Kingfisher
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy, horror, retellings, young adult
Pages: 236
Published by 47North on November 24, 2015
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

Young Rhea is a miller’s daughter of low birth, so she is understandably surprised when a mysterious nobleman, Lord Crevan, shows up on her doorstep and proposes marriage. Since commoners don’t turn down lords—no matter how sinister they may seem—Rhea is forced to agree to the engagement.

Lord Crevan demands that Rhea visit his remote manor before their wedding. Upon arrival, she discovers that not only was her betrothed married six times before, but his previous wives are all imprisoned in his enchanted castle. Determined not to share their same fate, Rhea asserts her desire for freedom. In answer, Lord Crevan gives Rhea a series of magical tasks to complete, with the threat “Come back before dawn, or else I’ll marry you.”

With time running out and each task more dangerous and bizarre than the last, Rhea must use her resourcefulness, compassion, and bravery to rally the other wives and defeat the sorcerer before he binds her to him forever.

My Review:

I picked up The Seventh Bride because I love T. Kingfisher’s work and especially because I love her stories of young women – often very, very young – who have found themselves in a seriously large and potentially deadly pickle of epic proportions. Who, instead of whining, “oh woe is me!” or their world’s equivalent, put on the big girl panties they may not even be old enough to actually have yet and set about the business of saving themselves and everyone around them.

Just like Mona in A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking and especially Marra in Nettle & Bone, Rhea is a young woman who is forced to adult really hard because the adults around her are either not up to the job (Mona) or are in positions of powerlessness relative to the evil aristocratic villain who is pulling everyone’s strings (Marra).

Rhea knows there’s something seriously wrong in the whole idea of a nobleman sweeping in to marry a miller’s daughter. Not because fairy tales don’t occasionally happen, and not that this won’t be one someday, but she knows it doesn’t happen to relatively plain girls in working-class families without some kind of magical intervention.

She’s also all too aware that no matter how the mysterious Lord Crevan might phrase his proposal, neither Rhea nor her parents have any real choice in the matter. He’s manipulating them all and he’s enjoying it.

Rhea’s just as aware that her parents are doing their best to pretend that this mess isn’t as wrong as it really is. She’s angry and frustrated because she knows there’s something rotten going on, and she’s exasperated almost beyond bearing that her parents keep trying to pretend that things might be okay after all. It takes a long time and a lot of thought for her to acknowledge that they are basically whistling past the graveyard and that they are hoping that if they pretend hard enough that things might not be quite so bad – although they probably will be.

But when Rhea arrives at Lord Crevan’s hidden country estate she discovers that actually – the whole thing is much, much worse than she imagined. That there are fates worse than death and that six of Crevan’s previous wives have all landed in those situations. And that Rhea is next unless she can find a way to stop him before its too late for her- and her hedgehog – if not for them.

Escape Rating A: The Seventh Bride is right at the crossroads between fairy tales, fantasy, horror and young adult. Or it is if there’s a skeleton buried under that crossroads.

It also reads like a bit of a ‘dress-rehearsal’ for Nettle & Bone, having been originally published eight years before Nettle. The two stories have a lot of the same elements, but as they are all elements that I love, that’s an excellent thing.

Like Marra in Nettle & Bone, Rhea is in an impossible situation, one in which she knows she’s utterly powerless. At least in any traditional sense of power. She’s low born, she’s young, she’s female, her family is dependent on the local lord’s goodwill. Even if Lord Crevan mistreats her – as she expects he will – if she refuses him her family will, at best, be thrown out of their house and livelihood. At worst, they’ll all be killed. She’s in that squeeze between the rock and the hard place. She expects the hard place to be hard, but her parents will survive her going there and it might not be AS bad as she fears. The rock will crush them all for certain if she doesn’t.

But that’s where the magic of the tale comes in, in its horrible, beneficent, and human aspects. All at once. Because if there’s one thing Rhea is good at, it’s making the best of her situation. There’s a band of sisters waiting for her at Lord Crevan’s estate – his other wives. She has allies – and she gives them hope. She finds a way to fight back that is both underhanded and subversive.

And why shouldn’t she? It’s not as if Crevan is playing fair.

The more she sees of the horror that she’ll have to endure if she submits, or is ground under, the more determined she is to find a way out. And the more she shows that he can be subverted, the more of his other wives are willing to help her do so.

The creepy factor in this one is very high. The sense of a band coming together is very strong. And the possibility of a villain getting EXACTLY what’s coming to him is EXTREMELY satisfying.

So don’t let the idea that this might be YA-ish stop you from picking up this marvelously creepy story of magic, helpfully intelligent animals (Rhea’s hedgehog friend is adorable), found sisterhood and evil getting hoist on its own pointy petard. (Especially as the ebook is currently on sale for 99 cents. It’s an absolute STEAL!)

And if the author ever writes a bonus scene of Rhea, Marra and Mona sitting down for tea in some place between the worlds, I’d love to be a fly on that wall – or at least a reader of that story!

Review: In an Absent Dream by Seanan McGuire

Review: In an Absent Dream by Seanan McGuireIn an Absent Dream (Wayward Children, #4) by Seanan McGuire
Format: ebook
Source: publisher
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy, portal fantasy, urban fantasy, young adult
Series: Wayward Children #4
Pages: 204
Published by Tordotcom on January 8, 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

This fourth entry and prequel tells the story of Lundy, a very serious young girl who would rather study and dream than become a respectable housewife and live up to the expectations of the world around her. As well she should.
When she finds a doorway to a world founded on logic and reason, riddles and lies, she thinks she's found her paradise. Alas, everything costs at the goblin market, and when her time there is drawing to a close, she makes the kind of bargain that never plays out well.

My Review:

As the story began, it was easy – very easy – for me to empathize with Katherine Lundy. In 1964, when Lundy was six years old, she was learning that the world had a very tiny box into which it shoved little girls – and that it was more than willing to lop off extra limbs – or at least what it called inappropriate thoughts, feelings, ambitions and ideas – in order to force those little girls to fit into the box labeled “womanhood” when the time came.

Lundy knew it wasn’t fair – and if there was one thing Lundy believed in, it was fairness – a fairness that this world did not provide.

So she found a door to a world where she could thrive – a world where fairness, absolute fairness – was enforced by an invisible but inexorable hand. Lundy found her door to the Goblin Market, a place governed utterly by the concept of “fair value”.

Which does not mean that there is not a price for everything in this fair and just community – just that the system is set up so that no one can take advantage of anyone else. Whether the Goblin Market takes advantage of everyone it claims as a citizen is a deeper philosophical question than six-year-old Lundy is capable of understanding.

Yet. Or possibly ever.

Unlike many of the worlds behind the doors in the Wayward Children series, the Goblin Market allows children – as long as they remain children – to jump between the Market and the world that gave them birth. In fact, it wants them to see both sides, to “Be Sure” of their choice, before that choice is forced upon them at age 18.

So Lundy jumps back and forth between the worlds, staying in each long enough for the consequences of her absences to be visited upon her when she returns. In the Goblin Market, a friend who loses her way in despair and almost gives up her humanity. In the “real” world, a family that loves her, hates her and misses her in equal measure, that pulls at her to stay and be part of them, and a younger sister who needs her to be her guide, mentor and above all, a sister who will put her first as no one else does. Just as no one ever put Lundy first before she went to the Goblin Market.

Lundy, being a person who likes rules because once she understands them it’s easy to find a way around, wants to, as the saying goes, “have her cake and eat it, too.” She wants to keep her promises on all sides, even though she knows that there is not world enough or time enough for that to be possible.

So she hunts for a loophole. And finds one. But loopholes are cheats. They do not provide the fair value that the Goblin Market enforces at every step.

“Cheaters never win and “winners never cheat.” – or so goes the quote. I remember this saying, or at least a version of it, being flung about during my childhood, which was at the exact same time as Katherine Lundy’s childhood.

It’s a lesson that Lundy should have taken to heart. Because when she finally does learn it – it takes hers.

Escape Rating B+: Everything I picked up this week struck me wrong in one way or another. Sometimes very wrong as yesterday’s book demonstrated a bit too clearly. In desperation I went looking for comfort reads that were short and punchy to get me out of my reading slump, and that’s something that the Wayward Children series has definitely provided.

So here we are at In an Absent Dream, the fourth book in the series that began with the bang of a slamming door in Every Heart a Doorway.

There were parts of this one that I really, really loved. It was terribly easy for me to empathize with Lundy and her total unwillingness to step into the box that society expected her to close herself into because she was female. Along with her frustration at her father who refused to look at her and see her and not just a biddable child he didn’t have to think about much – even though he could have helped make a Lundy-shaped space for her in the real world.

When both Katherine Lundy and I – I was seven in 1964 – were born, the world expected girls to become wives and mothers, have no career ambitions, only work at certain “acceptable” jobs until we married and had those expected children. We were born into the expectations of the 1950s.

Then the 1960s happened. Those expectations were still there, but, if you pushed hard enough, worked hard enough, tried hard enough and were stubborn enough, a space could be made that did not meet those expectations. It was hard, the pushback was intense, but the world for girls did start opening up. With Lundy’s father as a school principal he could have encouraged her academic ambitions and he just didn’t. Because it was hard and he didn’t want to make waves or upset his own personal applecart.

I loved the portrayal of the Goblin Market, and could easily understand why Lundy found it such a compelling place. What fell just a bit short for me was the way that Lundy’s biggest and most catastrophic adventures in the Market were glossed over. That glossing made the story lose a bit of its oomph every time she left.

The choice she had to make was an impossible one – which was something she refused to acknowledge. But the imposition of “fair value” in the Goblin Market doesn’t allow people to cheat. Searching for loopholes is a value of this world and not the world of the Market, because using a loophole is just another way of getting something over someone or something else. And that is not fair value.

But Lundy was young and not nearly as smart as she thought she was. In spite of her time in the Market, Lundy was much too used to having only herself to rely on because she was the only person she could really count on. Which meant that in the end, she cheats herself most of all. And it’s heartbreaking.

This series is special and awesome in a way that’s hard to describe. It’s as though the dreams of all of us who were bookish misfits as children dreamed all our dreams only to see those dreams come true in the form of nightmares. Some gifts come at just too high a price – and sometimes we’re desperate enough to pay that price anyway.

I’ve read the Wayward Children series mostly out of order, so now I have just one book left to catch up to myself before the new books in the series come out next year. Which means I’ll be reading Come Tumbling Down the next time I’m looking for a story with the power to cut me like knife.

Review: Where the Drowned Girls Go by Seanan McGuire

Review: Where the Drowned Girls Go by Seanan McGuireWhere the Drowned Girls Go (Wayward Children, #7) by Seanan McGuire
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss, supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy, portal fantasy, urban fantasy, young adult
Series: Wayward Children #7
Pages: 160
Published by Tordotcom on January 4, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Welcome to the Whitethorn Institute. The first step is always admitting you need help, and you've already taken that step by requesting a transfer into our company.
There is another school for children who fall through doors and fall back out again. It isn't as friendly as Eleanor West's Home for Wayward Children. And it isn't as safe.
When Eleanor West decided to open her school, her sanctuary, her Home for Wayward Children, she knew from the beginning that there would be children she couldn't save; when Cora decides she needs a different direction, a different fate, a different prophecy, Miss West reluctantly agrees to transfer her to the other school, where things are run very differently by Whitethorn, the Headmaster.
She will soon discover that not all doors are welcoming...

My Review:

We were introduced to Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children in the first book in this series, Every Heart a Doorway. The children aren’t “wayward” in the way that the word is usually meant. Rather, the children who come to the school, like Eleanor West herself, once upon a time opened a door from our world to another – a place their hearts called home.

They come to Eleanor after they, like she, found their way, or were forced or pushed or stumbled, back to the world they were born in, will they or nil they. It’s usually nil. Whatever world they went to, they’ve been gone a long time from their young perspectives, have grown and changed and adapted to their new circumstances in ways that don’t fit in the old ones.

They’ve left our world as children and come back as teenagers. They left as dependent children and come back after having been forced to look after themselves. They left as innocents and come back with experience that no one believes.

Their parents desperately want them to be “normal” again, unable or unwilling to recognize that they ARE normal for the life they led on the other side of their door.

The lucky ones find themselves at Eleanor West’s, a place where their experience is accepted as having been real – even if their hope for return to it is seen as extremely unlikely at best. Eleanor West gives them the chance, not so much to accept that they’re stuck as to find a way to live with their situation rather than pretend that it never happened.

Not all of the children are lucky enough to end up at Eleanor West’s Home. Some of them end up in psychiatric institutions, and/or drunk or drugged into insensibility, whether by themselves or others.

And some of them end up someplace worse. They get sent to the Whitethorn Institute. If for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, then the Whitethorn Institute is that opposing reaction to Eleanor West’s. In every possible way.

Cora Miller, whom we met in Beneath a Sugar Sky and whose story continues in Come Tumbling Down (which I haven’t read and I seriously need to!) feels like the Drowned Gods she invoked in that second adventure have followed her back to Miss West’s. And that they’re coming for her.

In desperation, Cora turns to the one place where belief in the doors and the worlds on the other side of them is ruthlessly suppressed. She believes it’s done with the power of science and cold, hard logic. So she commits herself to the Whitethorn Institute in the hope that they will cure her of her longing for the worlds behind the doors – and of their hunger for her.

What she finds is something else altogether. And it’s just as hungry for her and her power as the Drowned Gods ever were.

Escape Rating A-: Where the Drowned Girls Go, at least so far, was the hardest read in this series. Not that any of them are easy, because much of the series is about accepting yourself for who and what you are, and finding a family that will accept you as the person you are and not the person they want you to be.

Overall, it’s a series about diversity and acceptance. That means two things. One, that it explores all types of diversity, not just race – actually not explicitly race at all – but rather the way that people don’t fit into stereotypical boxes at all and learning to celebrate those differences.

What makes this a particularly hard read is that the way the story showcases that acceptance is by first showing its lack – in intense and painful detail. Cora is already outside the box labeled “normal” because she came through a door. She’s asexual due to a birth anomaly. And she’s built tall and strong and plump, because she lived in water worlds where those were survival traits. And none of them are what girls in this world are supposed to be.

She’s already internalized the messages for girls to be “girly”, flirty and tiny and weak and thin, and has a lot of self-hatred because she’s none of the above. The Whitethorn Institute encourages the children in its dubious “care” to show the worst of themselves, so Cora is bullied and teased for being different – in addition to everything else that’s wrong at Whitethorn.

It starts out being a school where the mean girls seem to be pampered princesses and everyone else is either under their thumbs or outcast. It’s an environment that was hard to take before Cora starts digging deeper into just how wrong things really are.

The Institute’s methods are cruel and repressive, forcing the children to lie to themselves and each other about their experiences, punishing transgression and nonconformity through bullying, and as Cora discovers, using the magic of the doorways to suppress individuality and identity. Cora has a choice to make, to let herself be lost or to be a hero one more time.

And that’s the point where things finally start looking up.  Because that’s where the adventure aspect of the series kicks in, when Cora accepts that she can’t do it all alone and that she needs her friends from Miss West’s to help her get to the bottom of a situation that is way too big for one girl to solve alone.

Which is part of the message of the whole series. None of the stories so far have been just one person’s story. These are stories about accepting people for who they are, and learning to accept oneself the same. They’re adventures that require friends and found family to come out the other side, whole as part of a greater whole.

While this particular entry in the series turned out to be an unexpected readalike for A Spindle Splintered, the whole series interweaves back and forth in ways that make a bit of mockery of any concept of reading order and downright encourage readers to rove from book to book, from door to door, and back again.

I read Where the Drowned Girls Go in the middle of my exploration of Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children. I started with the first book first, Every Heart a Doorway, Then book 6, Across the Green Grass Fields (Cora finds the heroine of that story at Whitethorn’s), then this book, and finally books 2 and 3, Down Among the Sticks and Bones and Beneath the Sugar Sky.

The next book in this series, Lost in the Moment and Found, won’t be found on bookshelves and ereaders until a whole, entire year from now, so I’m lucky I still have In an Absent Dream and Come Tumbling Down to look forward to!

Review: Along the Saltwise Sea by A. Deborah Baker

Review: Along the Saltwise Sea by A. Deborah BakerAlong the Saltwise Sea (The Up-and-Under, #2) by A. Deborah Baker
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy, portal fantasy, young adult
Series: Up-and-Under #2
Pages: 208
Published by Tordotcom on October 12, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

For readers of Kelly Barnhill and Cat Valente's Fairyland books, adventure and danger lurk Along the Saltwise Sea in this new book by Seanan McGuire's latest open pseudonym, A. Deborah Baker.
Be sure to explore the myriad wonders that can be found Along the Saltwise Sea.
After climbing Over the Woodward Wall and making their way across the forest, Avery and Zib found themselves acquiring some extraordinary friends in their journey through the Up-and-Under.
After staying the night, uninvited, at a pirate queen’s cottage in the woods, the companions find themselves accountable to its owner, and reluctantly agree to work off their debt as her ship sets sail, bound for lands unknown. But the queen and her crew are not the only ones on board, and the monsters at sea aren’t all underwater.
The friends will need to navigate the stormy seas of obligation and honor on their continuing journey along the improbable road
Writing as A. Deborah Baker, New York Times bestselling and award-winning author Seanan McGuire takes our heroes Avery and Zib (and their friends Niamh and the Crow Girl) on a high seas adventure, with pirates and queens and all the dangers of the deep as they continue their journey through the Up-and-Under on their quest for the road that will lead them home....
Welcome to a world of talking trees and sarcastic owls, of dangerous mermaids and captivating queens in this exceptional tale for readers who are young at heart in this companion book to McGuire's critically-acclaimed Middlegame and the sequel to Over the Woodward Wall.

My Review:

Childhood is not nearly so safe as we like to imagine. Safety, after all, is a bit of an illusion, and there are entirely too many children in situations that make it unsafe to be a child. Whatever the adults around them might think.

In their own ways, at the beginning of the first book in The Up-and-Under series, Over the Woodward Wall, Avery and Zib both believed they were more or less safe, although their beliefs about exactly what constituted safety were as opposite as opposite could be.

But then, so were they. Avery loved rules and order while Zib loved adventure. Avery was polite and well-behaved. Zib was a force of nature. Avery’s parents were all about a place for everything and everything in its place. Zib’s parents were either indulgent or neglectful, depending on one’s perspective. Avery’s parents would say that Zib’s parents were extremely neglectful, and would never have let Avery associate with a girl they would see as wild and untamed.

When Avery and Zib went Over the Woodward Wall into the Up-and-Under, their adventures cemented this unlikely pair into a solid unit against a world that seemed determined to swallow them up and NOT spit them out. Ever.

At least, not as they were. Although time will do that anyway, whether or not one travels the Improbable Road through the Up-and-Under in search of a way home.

Escape Rating B: If you loved Over the Woodward Wall, and I very much did, it is just lovely to be back in the Up-and-Under, this less safe and even less logical amalgam of Wonderland and Narnia and every other world opened up by a child’s portal, with Avery and Zib and their friends Niamh and the Crow Girl.

As much as I loved being with them again, this feels like not so much a new adventure in their journey on the Improbable Road to find the Queen of Wands as it does a bit of a stop along the way.

Their sojourn on the pirate ship is interesting but the ship isn’t going anywhere and as long as they are aboard her, neither are they. It’s a bit of a rest stop, with a roof over their heads, somewhat comfortable beds to sleep in and no worries about regular -and delicious – meals.

But very little happens – at least until the very end when suddenly a lot happens all at once, a bit of how the world works gets explained, and the Improbable Road finds them again and whisks them off to more adventure.

So if you’re already into this world, this is a lovely little trip back. If you’ve not yet been, start with Over the Woodward Wall. If you love the author’s Wayward Children series, or if you got fascinated with the bits of The Up-and-Under that were revealed in Middlegame, you’re in for a treat.

I’ll be looking forward to Avery and Zib’s next adventure. After all, they haven’t found the Queen of Wands yet – or the road that will lead them home.

Review: Beneath the Sugar Sky by Seanan McGuire

Review: Beneath the Sugar Sky by Seanan McGuireBeneath the Sugar Sky (Wayward Children, #3) by Seanan McGuire
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy, portal fantasy, urban fantasy, young adult
Series: Wayward Children #3
Pages: 174
Published by Tordotcom on January 9, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Beneath the Sugar Sky, the third book in McGuire's Wayward Children series, returns to Eleanor West's Home for Wayward Children in a standalone contemporary fantasy for fans of all ages. At this magical boarding school, children who have experienced fantasy adventures are reintroduced to the "real" world.
When Rini lands with a literal splash in the pond behind Eleanor West's Home for Wayward Children, the last thing she expects to find is that her mother, Sumi, died years before Rini was even conceived. But Rini can’t let Reality get in the way of her quest – not when she has an entire world to save! (Much more common than one would suppose.) If she can't find a way to restore her mother, Rini will have more than a world to save: she will never have been born in the first place. And in a world without magic, she doesn’t have long before Reality notices her existence and washes her away. Good thing the student body is well-acquainted with quests...
A tale of friendship, baking, and derring-do. Warning: May contain nuts.

My Review:

I have read the Wayward Children series completely out of order, so instead of the usual 1,2,3 progression it’s been 1,6,7,2 and now three. And it still makes sense – or at least as much sense as it’s supposed to consider that many of the doors that the children who come to Miss West’s School have come through have been from worlds with more than a bit of Nonsense in them.

As does the world of Confection, the place the late and much lamented Sumi came from, and to which she expected to return. Not just hoped, but actually expected, because Sumi was from Confection, and she had been told she had a destiny there that she had to go back and meet when the time was right.

But Sumi’s destiny was interrupted by Jack and Jill’s bloodthirsty quest to re-open their door back to the Moors in Every Heart a Doorway – and I just realized that the title is a bit of a macabre pun because by a certain interpretation Sumi’s bloody heart was literally Jack and Jill’s doorway. So when Sumi’s daughter Rini, a daughter Sumi was much, much too young to have already had before she was killed, literally drops out of the sky into a fountain at the school, there’s more than a bit of problem and a quest has certainly come knocking on Miss West’s door – in spite of the sign that prohibits quests on school grounds.

Rini is in the middle of a Back to the Future situation. Specifically, the situation in the first movie where Marty starts disappearing because he’s changed the timeline too much and won’t be born. Rini is in the same predicament, even though it’s not her fault that her mother won’t be coming back to Confection to marry her father and give birth to her.

But it’s not just Rini herself that’s being erased. The entire timeline where Sumi saved Confection from the evil and entirely too Orderly and Logical Queen of Cakes is also being erased – with disastrous consequences for the people of Confection.

In order to save Rini and save her world, several of the children are going to have to whistle Sumi’s bones out of her grave and take them on a journey to the Lord of the Dead to see if there’s a way to bring Sumi back from death and save both her world and her daughter.

It’s an adventure. It’s something to do while they each wait for their own doors to open again. And it will save Sumi, Rini, and their entire world. Unless the children lose themselves along the way.

Escape Rating A-: I picked this up now because I read Where the Drowned Girls Go for a Library Journal review last month and, while I didn’t have any problems getting into the story, it was pretty clear that the characters in that 7th book in the series had been on previous adventures together. Beneath the Sugar Sky looked like one of those previous adventures, so I was determined to get to it as soon as possible.

Not that one can’t read this series entirely out of order as I seem to be doing. It’s just that there’s clearly important stuff that I missed and now I want to know what it was. So here we are. Or there they are.

The story in Beneath the Sugar Sky is a story wrapped around found family and friendship. It’s not that Kade, Cora, Christopher and Nadya don’t want to save Rini and her world, because they absolutely do. But their real motivation for taking on this quest is to save their friend Sumi. They don’t know Rini yet but Sumi is loved and missed and their quest is to bring her back to life.

Along the way the quest becomes as much about saving each other as resurrecting their friend, with a huge heaping helping about body shaming, accepting yourself for who you are and living your best life as that person, and learning how to make your strengths really, really count when the chips are down – even if most people see those strengths as faults or weaknesses.

All of that is at the heart of Cora’s story, a story which continues for certain in Where the Drowned Girls Go, but also possibly in Come Tumbling Down, which I have not read yet and obviously need to. Because it was Cora’s story in Drowned Girls that made me go flying backwards through the rest of the series. I picked this up because I wanted to know more about Cora’s story and now that I know more I want to know even more. And I will.

But first I have In an Absent Dream to look forward to. And I so definitely am!

Review: Down Among the Sticks and Bones by Seanan McGuire

Review: Down Among the Sticks and Bones by Seanan McGuireDown Among the Sticks and Bones (Wayward Children, #2) by Seanan McGuire
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy, portal fantasy, urban fantasy, young adult
Series: Wayward Children #2
Pages: 187
Published by Tordotcom on June 13, 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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Twin sisters Jack and Jill were seventeen when they found their way home and were packed off to Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children.
This is the story of what happened first…
Jacqueline was her mother’s perfect daughter—polite and quiet, always dressed as a princess. If her mother was sometimes a little strict, it’s because crafting the perfect daughter takes discipline.
Jillian was her father’s perfect daughter—adventurous, thrill-seeking, and a bit of a tom-boy. He really would have preferred a son, but you work with what you've got.
They were five when they learned that grown-ups can’t be trusted.
They were twelve when they walked down the impossible staircase and discovered that the pretense of love can never be enough to prepare you a life filled with magic in a land filled with mad scientists and death and choices.

My Review:

I’ve read this series completely out of order, at least once I read the first book, Every Heart a Doorway, first. I’m coming into this book, the second book in the series, after having read the sixth, Across the Green Grass Fields, and the seventh, Where the Drowned Girls Go.

There are a few messages that permeate the series, lessons about learning to march to the beat of your own drummer, recognizing that conformity is a trap, that magic is real and that there is no one right way to be a girl, or a boy, or a human, or a monster, or all of the above at the same time.

But the number one lesson is that adults can’t be trusted. It’s a lesson that Jacqueline and Jillian Wolcott seem to have absorbed along with their parents’ continuously reinforced messages about being who their parents want them each to be and not anything about who they really are. Except twins, and sisters, and forced into opposing straitjackets.

Unfortunately, they don’t seem to have applied that number one lesson nearly broadly enough.

Escape Rating A-: Jack and Jill Wolcott are just two of the Wayward Children that we met in Every Heart a Doorway. This is the story of how they got to be the people we met in that first book, and it’s a doozy.

This is a story about the power of choice and also about the force of choice denied. Jacqueline was expected to be the girliest of girls, a perfect fairy tale princess, because that’s what her mother planned for her daughter to be. Jillian was the scruffiest and most adventurous of tomboys, because that’s what her father decided to settle on when he got a second daughter instead of the son he expected.

The problem with their childhood wasn’t that either of those roles are either right or wrong, just that neither of them got to try out anything except their parent’s expectations, and neither of them ever got to experiment or deviate from the role they had been assigned just about at birth.

When they stepped through their door into the dangerous world of the Moors, they were each faced with a choice. And they each chose to have the experience they’d been denied. Jill became a pampered princess, and Jack became a hard-working apprentice.

But this is the Moors, where everything follows the pattern of stories about monsters. The pampered princess was enthralled by her vampire master, and the apprentice was learning her trade from a mad scientist.

So each got to explore the parts of their nature that their parents refused to even acknowledge, letting Jill finally be pretty, pampered and cruel, while Jack was scrupulous, intelligent and practical. Until Jill’s ruthless cruelty destroyed Jack’s hard-won life and they both had to return to the world of their birth.

A world that isn’t ready to take either of them back, leading them to their residence at Miss West’s Home for Wayward Children and bringing the entire story full circle.

Down Among the Sticks and Bones could be read before Every Heart a Doorway, but they probably work better in the proper order. It feels deeper to learn about how Jack and Jill got to be who they are after seeing the place they end up. We’re also able to appreciate the tragedy of their story, not just because Jack loved and lost in the Moors, but because Jack really had found a home that was perfect for her, a home she was forced to give up to save her sister.

But the lessons are still there. Jack and Jill couldn’t trust their parents before they left and can’t trust them after their return either. Jill shouldn’t have trusted her Master on the Moors, where Jack’s skepticism served her very well. The choices of their own hearts served them better, for select definitions of better in Jill’s case, than did the expectation of their parents. That happiness and fulfillment can be found in the unlikeliest of places.

And that love is all there is is all we know of love.

Review: Over the Woodward Wall by A. Deborah Baker

Review: Over the Woodward Wall by A. Deborah BakerOver the Woodward Wall (The Up-and-Under, #1) by A. Deborah Baker
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy, portal fantasy, young adult
Series: Up-and-Under #1
Pages: 204
Published by Tordotcom on October 6, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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If you trust her you’ll never make it home…
Avery is an exceptional child. Everything he does is precise, from the way he washes his face in the morning, to the way he completes his homework – without complaint, without fuss, without prompt.
Zib is also an exceptional child, because all children are, in their own way. But where everything Avery does and is can be measured, nothing Zib does can possibly be predicted, except for the fact that she can always be relied upon to be unpredictable.
They live on the same street.They live in different worlds.
On an unplanned detour from home to school one morning, Avery and Zib find themselves climbing over a stone wall into the Up and Under – an impossible land filled with mystery, adventure and the strangest creatures.
And they must find themselves and each other if they are to also find their way out and back to their own lives.

My Review:

If Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was the grandparent book, and Narnia and Oz were the parent books – but wait, there’s another generation in there. If Alice was the great-grandparent, Narnia and Oz were the grandparents and Seanan McGuire’s Middlegame was the parent – perhaps with her Wayward Children series as the aunts and uncles – you’d get something like Over the Woodward Wall, and hopefully the following books in The Up-and-Under series, as the book-children.

Not that Over the Woodward Wall isn’t perfectly understandable and enjoyable without having read any of the above. But if you’re familiar with any of them, you can kind of see them looking on with pride and possibly a bit of chagrin, as all progenitors sometimes do, at the actions of their new and often unruly and less than well behaved descendent.

At least Zib is poorly behaved, according to some lights. Including her fellow adventurer Avery when this story begins.

It’s hard to get the comparisons to Wonderland, Narnia and Oz out of your head while reading Over the Woodward Wall. If Wonderland had physically reached out and grabbed Alice, instead of just grabbing her emotionally or psychologically, and if she’d been operating on the buddy system, the beginning of her story might be even closer to Woodward Wall.

Like Wonderland and Narnia, there are four kings and queens – or there are supposed to be four kings and queens. But the royals currently in office are all rather like the Wicked Witch of the West, or the White Witch in Narnia. While the road that Zib and Avery are traveling on, like the Yellow Brick Road of Oz, is neither as straight nor as without danger as the locals claim it to be. Although Zib and Avery’s companions, the Crow Girl and the Drowning Girl, while they are certainly missing something essentially it’s nothing so straightforward as brains, a heart or even the nerve, nor is it going to be as simple to discover how to get them back.

In the end, this is a story about friendship, and about being true to yourself above all, and about loyalty. It’s also a story about learning that even as a child, the world is neither as safe nor protected as you might want it to be, and that you need to learn to take care of yourself and your choices – with a little bit of help from the friends you find along the way.

Escape Rating B+: A. Deborah Baker is Seanan McGuire writing not so much under a pen name but rather under the name of a character she created in Middlegame. Bits and pieces of the stories in The Up-and Under were introduced in Middlegame as stories written by a character in the book named A. Deborah Baker, all of which serves to explain where this series comes from and why it’s under a new pseudonym for the author who already writes as Mira Grant and Seanan McGuire.

The irony for this reader is that I liked this story – maybe not quite as much as Every Heart a Doorway and Across the Green Grass Fields, but still quite a lot – even though I bounced hard off Middlegame and never went back to it. I’m starting to believe that the answer is that I like this author in smaller chunks, possibly because her style of fairy tale feeling stories for adults works better for me in the shorter form.

While this story reminds me a lot of its antecedents, it’s also different from all of them in a way that feels more interesting and more realistic. Oz and Wonderland both turned out to be dreams rather than reality. Narnia was real, for select definitions of real, but even though the Pevensie children spent decades in Narnia and reached adulthood there, when they returned to the real world they remembered Narnia and all their experiences there BUT they returned to being children as if no time had passed at all. Even odder, they returned seemingly unaffected and unchanged by their decades of extra life experience.

Zib and Avery are changing all the time, and as we learn at the end of the story, real time is passing both for them and for their parents back home. While on the one hand this feels like a fairy tale, on the other it definitely reads like a journey with consequences. Zib and Avery have an important mission to complete in the Up-and-Under, and their experiences in that world have already changed them from who they were – and who they would have become as a result. They already see the world differently, and it feels like those changes are going to have long-term effects, just as the children’s journeys do in Wayward Children.

We’ll certainly have time to find out, as Zib and Avery’s journey in the Up-and-Under continues in Along the Saltwise Sea later this year. They’re going to sail with a pirate queen!

Review: A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking by T. Kingfisher

Review: A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking by T. KingfisherA Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking by T. Kingfisher
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: fantasy, young adult
Pages: 318
Published by Argyll Productions on July 21, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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Fourteen-year-old Mona isn’t like the wizards charged with defending the city. She can’t control lightning or speak to water. Her familiar is a sourdough starter and her magic only works on bread. She has a comfortable life in her aunt’s bakery making gingerbread men dance.
But Mona’s life is turned upside down when she finds a dead body on the bakery floor. An assassin is stalking the streets of Mona’s city, preying on magic folk, and it appears that Mona is his next target. And in an embattled city suddenly bereft of wizards, the assassin may be the least of Mona’s worries…

My Review:

I fully admit that I bought this one for the title. Not that the stabbity-stabbity gingerbread man on the cover isn’t adorable, but it was definitely the title that got me. And I’m so very glad that it did. I also wondered whether this was really YA or whether it was one of those cases where something got called YA because it was fantasy. That doesn’t happen as much as it used to, but it definitely does still happen.

I was very pleasantly surprised to discover that A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking is even better than that, it’s a YA that can be read and very much enjoyed by adults. I not only laughed out loud at many points, but ended up reading bits to my husband who needed to know what I was cackling about so much.

A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking reminds me of three really different things; Terry Pratchett’s Discworld, Harry Potter, and Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City by K.J. Parker. And those three things really shouldn’t go together. But they do here.

They definitely do.

It felt like Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City because to a certain extent Mona and Orhan are in the same position. Their city has been betrayed from within – although not for the same reasons. Both of them are woefully underqualified for the role of city savior. Orhan because he’s a despised non-native of the city and Mona because she’s a despised – or at least feared – magic user. And she’s only 14.

Mona’s wry and often disgusted commentary on what’s happening around her and just how far the situation has been left to go awry reads like both Sixteen Ways and the Discworld. Mona sees that things are going wrong, and comments about it to herself. A lot. There may be a certain amount of gallows in her humor, but then the situation does require it.

Where Harry Potter comes in, of course, is that Mona is just 14 and she’s expected to save the city. Which is ridiculous and insane and she’s very aware of the fact that there are lots of adults who weren’t adulting very well at all. It’s up to her and it just plain shouldn’t be. But it still is. Because even if she CAN manage to get better adults it’s not going to happen in time to save the city. So it’s all up to her, no matter how much she downright KNOWS that she is in over her head.

Mona’s understanding that the adults who should have figured this out were collectively asleep at the switch and that saving the city shouldn’t be up to her but is anyway is something that Harry Potter fanfiction handles better than the original stories. The situation shouldn’t have been allowed to get so far off the rails that a 14-year-old is not just their best but their only hope. After all, when Leia talks about Obi-Wan being her “only hope” at least her expectations are fixed on a grown up.

That the hope Mona manages to provide involves some very bad gingerbread men, a few very large bread golems and a whole lot of carnivorous sourdough starter is what makes the story so much fun. Which it very definitely is.

But it never sugarcoats the fact that the situation is beyond dire – and that war is very definitely hell. And that sometimes all it takes is just one horse rider of the apocalypse to bring that fact home.

Escape Rating A+: There is a LOT going on in this story. That’s what makes it so damn good.

The obvious is the whole 14-year-old saves the city thing that makes it YA. Mona is young. She’s still, to some extent, figuring out what she wants to be when she grows up, although her magic has driven her further down that path than most. But she’s also at an age where she’s unsure of herself and her future in so many different ways. She sees herself as young, and small, and weak. She sees her magic as not powerful at all or even all that useful. It’s handy in her aunt’s bakery, where she works, but it’s not otherwise big or showy. And neither, honestly, is she.

Her talent is in convincing dough that it wants to do what SHE wants it to do, so it rises properly and it doesn’t burn. And she can make gingerbread men dance – even if she can’t control what kind of dance they do. Mona’s power has definite limits that she has to work within to make it work at all.

Mona is not a person that anyone would expect to be the city’s savior, least of all Mona herself. But when her life gets knocked off its tracks with her discovery of a dead body in her aunt’s bakery, her path goes straight into the doings of the high and mighty. A position that Mona herself certainly never expected to be in.

But then, she didn’t expect to find herself shimmying up the shaft of the duchess’ crapper in order to get someone more suitable on the path of fixing the mess. And that’s the point at which she discovers that EVERYONE has been hoping that someone else would fix the mess.

And doesn’t that sound all too familiar?

As does the way that someone has been using the powers of their office, along with a whole lot of propaganda and a dab hand at ginning up the crowd and pointing it at a convenient bogeyman. Which leads us right back to Harry Potter and the whole “pureblood supremacy” movement. Or real life and any number of groups who can be used to focus attention away from whatever an administration doesn’t want people to look at.

As I said, this is a story that operates on multiple levels, and all of them are excellent. If you are on the lookout for an excellent fantasy that will make you laugh AND make you think, A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking has the perfect recipe.

Guest Review: The Gender Game by Bella Forrest

Guest Review: The Gender Game by Bella ForrestThe Gender Game by Bella Forrest
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Series: Gender Game #1
Pages: 418
Published by Nightlight Press on November 24, 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleBook Depository
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A toxic river divides nineteen-year-old Violet Bates's world by gender. Women rule the East. Men rule the West.

Welcome to the lands of Matrus and Patrus.

Ever since the disappearance of her beloved younger brother, Violet's life has been consumed by an anger she struggles to control. Already a prisoner to her own nation, now she has been sentenced to death for her crimes.

But one decision could save her life.

To enter the kingdom of Patrus, where men rule and women submit.

Everything about the patriarchy is dangerous for a rebellious girl like Violet. She cannot break the rules if she wishes to stay alive. But abiding by rules has never been her strong suit, and when she is thrust into more danger than she could have ever predicted, Violet is forced to sacrifice many things in the forbidden kingdom ... including forbidden love.

In a world divided by gender, only the strongest survive...

Guest Review by Amy:

Our story opens with young Violet Bates trying to smuggle her brother across a toxic river in the dead of the night. They’re caught, and Violet’s life is forever changed. Some time in our future, in the devastation of our world, men and women move apart, and try two different ways of running a society. In Patrus, the men rule; in Matrus, the women are in charge. There are some folks who go back and forth, of course, and a few who have stayed on the “wrong” side of the river, for an assortment of reasons.

After much of her youth is spent in prisons, Matrian youngster Violet is recruited for a dangerous mission–go to Patrus, and steal something back that belongs to the Queen!

Escape Rating: B+. Dystopian fiction interests me. There’s a lot of it that is pretty consistent meat-and-taters: downfall of society for some reason or another, utter lawlessness, the fight for survival, the whole Mad Max vibe, you know? But once in a while, an author gives us a new spin, and here we have one. Some of the reviewers have compared this to The Hunger Games, but I don’t think the comparison does either tale justice, really; this story pokes rather firmly at things that most adults have pretty firmly settled in their mind: gender, and how the genders behave.

In The Gender Game, we’re introduced to a society split along gender lines. In Patrus, women are essentially enslaved to their fathers and husbands, and have almost no rights. In Matrus, men are carefully watched for aggressive tendencies, and sent to the mines or killed as soon as they don’t toe the line drawn by the women who run things.

Violet’s story is interesting, growing up jailed, and how she learned to survive in a system that just could not embrace her, after her failure to crack down on her own brother. When she’s whisked away from all that, and offered a deal that she can’t refuse, we’ve got a whole new story to digest.

As I read through The Gender Game, I looked at my e-book reader and saw I was near the end. I thought about not finishing it, because it seemed kind of predictable in the early pages – Violet trains up for the heist, she and her Patrian ally decide who to frame, she interacts with the scapegoat – I don’t really need to go on, do I? But I’m glad I read all the way to the end! We get a plot twist right in the final pages that sets up the second story in this series, The Gender Secret, where (presumably) we’ll explore more of this world that Bella Forrest has created.

It’s that plot twist, in this reviewer’s mind, that saves this book from a lower rating. I liked the story well enough, and Violet was a good enough heroine, with a very realistic set of struggles to go along with the big plot problem, but it just didn’t excite me early on. The strangeness of the Matrus/Patrus setting took a little explaining, so it took a while to ramp up the character development and conflict. It made for a little bit of slow going at first, but this series is now standing at seven books, so I would presume that there’s a bit less exposition about this curious setting in later volumes.

Another problem that I have is…well, let me remind you that I’m a transgender woman. Gender is not binary, not A or B, but a spectrum of in-betweens and even a few folks who eschew it altogether. The Gender Games utterly ignores this, firmly asserting a very heterosexual, very traditional binary gender system. Living in a world like we do, where we are somewhat more liberal-thinking than that, this story feels like a step backward to me, because of that glaring discrepancy.

It’s a good story, though, and I’m strongly considering picking up more of the series, just to see if our heroine manages to be the catalyst for change in this strange society she lives in. If you like dystopian fiction, and want a piece that is outside the norm, it’s certainly worth a look.