NPR Reviews: SHADOWHOUSE FALL by Daniel José Older + AUTONOMOUS by Annalee Newitz

More reviews! So many reviews!

First, my review of Daniel José Older’s Shadowhouse Fall:

Everything I loved about Shadowshaper is found in Shadowhouse Fall, but sharper and fiercer, pushed harder and farther. The love and loyalty Sierra and her friends feel for each other is all the more affecting for being forged in fire: They walk through metal detectors into school every morning, endure and resist casual assaults on their personhood and bodies in relentless routine. As with Shadowshaper, the parts I loved best were the characters, the exuberance of these people’s voices, the intimacy and honesty of their interactions. I loved seeing more of Sierra’s relationship with her best friend Bennie, more of Izzy and Tee’s romance, more of Juan and Pulpo’s devotion to each other. All of these relationships are complex and full of friction, and the sparks they give off illuminate important facets of the story.

Next, my review of Annalee Newitz’ Autonomous:

I rarely dog-ear the books I read for review, trusting myself to remember their most notable aspects. I dog-eared enough of Autonomous‘ pages to almost double its thickness, such was the granularity of things I wanted to highlight, praise, and discuss. From startling insights to delicately turned prose to whole passages of unbearably tender musings on the intimate desires of artificial intelligence, there’s much more than I can feasibly talk about here. But here’s some highlights.

 

More soon, because I don’t know if you noticed but roughly a million billion incredible books came out in September! Ones that I’ve not yet read but am deeply excited to devour: Max Gladstone’s Ruin of Angels, Fran Wilde’s Horizon, River Solomon’s River of Ghosts, and I’m super keen to read Malka Older’s Infomocracy so I can dive into Null States in turn!

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NPR Review: THE RIVER BANK by Kij Johnson

My review of Kij Johnson’s The River Bank, delightfully illustrated by Kathleen Jennings, is up at NPR Books! Here’s a taste:

The River Bank is set a year after the events of The Wind in the Willows, and takes up its familiar, much-beloved characters in their natural summertime habitats and occupations: Mole and Rat go boating, Badger keeps the Weasels and Stoats in line, and all are beleaguered by their periodically reformed friend Toad of Toad Hall. But two new people have arrived at the River Bank, taking up residence in Sunflower Cottage, a Miss Mole and a Miss Rabbit. While most of the River Bank’s denizens welcome the new arrivals, Mr. Mole regards them with grumpy suspicion. In particular, he shuns Miss Mole completely, and seems to have some previous acquaintance with her of which he refuses to speak. But when Toad — innocently encouraged by Miss Rabbit — conceives a new, disastrous passion for motorcycles, all manner of incident, consequence, shambles and shenanigans ensue, forcing the Moles to put aside their differences — and similarities — in order to help.

I read this book and wrote this review mostly while by a river bank myself, watching the season shift like mist on the water. It left me with picnic ambitions and a warm sense of peace and longing tangling together like light through the summer’s last leaves. I hope you enjoy it.

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Lightspeed Column: THE STRANGE CASE OF THE ALCHEMIST’S DAUGHTER and THE REFRIGERATOR MONOLOGUES

The September issue of Lightspeed magazine contains, among many other fine things, a column in which I review Theodora Goss’ The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter and Catherynne M. Valente’s The Refrigerator Monologues. These books make a beautiful double bill, and reading them back to back was intensely gratifying; they’re very much two sides of a coin where women’s anger is concerned, and I love them for it.

Here’s a couple of quick sips from the column.

The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter

After her mother’s death, Mary Jekyll faces down the reality of her sudden poverty: Orphaned, she is mistress of an empty house she can’t sell, without any income or the means to obtain one. But in the course of sorting her mother’s papers, Mary finds a strange account: Her mother had been making regular payments over the course her life to someone named Hyde. Recalling a hundred-pound reward for information leading to the whereabouts of Mr. Hyde, murderer-at-large, Mary enlists Sherlock Holmes’ help in unravelling the mystery—one that leads her to the daughters of other unscrupulous, scientifically minded men. Together they set about solving the Whitechapel murders—and room by room, Mary’s empty house fills up.

The Refrigerator Monologues

Paige Embry is dead, but alive in Deadtown—an underworld mirror of New York City. She’s the president of the Hell Hath Club, a group of women who meet once a week in the Lethe Café to talk about their lives, to show themselves as more than their deaths. There, listening to gargoyle bands and drinking from empty glasses, Valente’s analogues of Gwen Stacy, Jean Grey, Harley Quinn, Mera, Karen Page, and Alexandra DeWitt tell familiar superhero stories slanted, from the perspective of the women who supported them, endured them, or invented the source of their super powers. It’s a passionate collection of anger, humour, and tenderness, told in a smooth, whip-cracking voice that’s equal parts wry stand-up and heart-breaking soliloquy.

Enjoy!

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Storyological “Pocket” Interview

Some people make art of the interview process. Chris Kammerud and EG Cosh are two such people.

I first became aware of the Storyological podcast when Chris and EG discussed my story “Pockets” in their sixth episode. I listened out of curiosity, wanting to hear what they’d thought of my work, but was quickly hooked by their adorable dynamic, their laughter, the beautiful meshing of kind thoughtful insights and charming delivery. Their whole podcast is them discussing two stories they’ve recently read and loved, and it’s bite-sized perfection. (They also discussed “Seasons of Glass and Iron” earlier this year.)

I love being introduced to stories I haven’t heard of through their chat, and love hearing their thoughts on stories which I’m familiar. But recently they’ve started adding pocket interviews with authors to their schedule, and I was honoured and delighted to be invited — and made into a sword-wielding fairy!

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(My only quibble about the above portrait is not getting to see all of the no doubt SUPER AMAZING BOOTS I am wearing. Alas. I shall imagine them.)

Chris interviewed me at Wiscon earlier this year, at a moment when I was thoroughly worn out with Guest-of-Honour-ing and also frantic with worry over having (briefly!) lost my phone. Within seconds of being in his company, though, I felt relaxed and drawn into a benevolent sort of spell. The result is the most intimate and, to my mind and memory, enchanted interview I’ve had yet. From musings on growing up in Lebanon to the importance of friendship to wondering about axe murder, I thoroughly enjoyed revisiting our conversation.

You can listen to the interview or read a transcript of it here. And here is a tiny taste:

STORYO: Your writing, either prose or poetry, feels very exacting and detailed. How important is sensation to you, in your life and stories?

AMAL: It’s very important. I’m a bit synesthetic so I’ve always associated some senses with other things.

There used to be an orchard near where I lived when I was growing up, and you could go into the orchard and pick apples and then come out and pay for what you picked. But they also sold preserves and stuff like that. And my sister and I called their preserves ‘Apple Sunshine’ because they were just so, so beautiful and this jar was absolutely like a jar of golden afternoon light. And I remember what it tasted like, but what stays in my memory the most is just the sight of it. That association between the way it looked and the fact that we called it light and that when we spread it on toast we felt like we were eating light, you know? That sort of thing.

 

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Middle, Holding Flowers: Homecoming with Hugo

Before anything else, I need to talk about my family.

It was the last night of Worldcon. I’d retreated from the dead dog party in search of sleep. In order to travel home from Helsinki, I needed to wake up at 4:00 AM to get to the airport by 5:00 AM for a 7:00 AM flight. My itinerary would take me from Helsinki to Stockholm to Frankfurt to Ottawa, and I’d be arriving during rush hour.

I said all this to my family, FaceTiming with them around midnight on the last day of Worldcon, staring down the three hours of sleep I expected to have. “I can just take the bus home,” I said, reasonably. “It’ll take me 20 minutes. You don’t have to drive all the way to the airport in rush hour to pick me up.”

“OK,” said my mother, equally reasonably.

24 hours after that conversation, this happened.

They’d beaten rush hour and lain in wait. They’d made banners. My sister came up with “HuGO, Girl!” They got the Moonfruits to come and play music as they sang “Happy Hugo to You” with improvised harmonies. The commotion attracted the attention of a journalist who happened to be there, and suddenly I was being sort of interviewed, with this article in the Ottawa Citizen as the result.

Family Greeting

The Citizen’s caption to this photo describes me, parenthetically, as “Middle, Holding Flowers” — and it feels like poetry, the only poetry accurate to how I’ve felt these past several days, weeks, months. In the middle of such heart-deep joy, and love, holding flowers — arms full, hair wet, unable to speak. There aren’t enough thanks in the world for how I felt in that moment.

There followed a whirlwind of media attention: a Q&A with Megan Gillis at the Citizen, for which she sent me a fancy photographer who took utterly lovely photos, one of which was printed on the freaking front page.

Citizen Front Page

And later that day I had a radio interview with Alan Neal on All in a Day, which was absolutely delightful fun, as always.

I’m doing this backwards. Maybe that’s the only way to do it. I haven’t talked about Worldcon itself, the panels I was on, the wonder and joy of the Hugo ceremony as woman after woman won. I haven’t even written up how incredible May was — from the Nebulas to Wiscon, from surprise win to the enormity of delivering a Guest of Honour speech to hundreds of people and hearing them sing and cry with me — and winning the Hugo happened after I felt I’d already reached the apex of all possible joy, after a wonderful conference in Uppsala, beautiful time spent with dear friends in Stockholm, crossing the Baltic in their company, and going on Helsinki adventures, in addition to a genuinely beautiful con experience. It’s enough to make a body wonder how to be worthy of it.

I feel a powerful need to anchor all this joy to words, to write up every day of this month’s first two weeks. I doubt I’ll be able to achieve that level of granularity that used to characterize Livejournal posts about conventions, where I took great pains to name-check every person I met whose conversation I treasured. It’s an embarrassment of riches, absolutely, to feel that there are too many now to itemize.

But I do want to try, at least, to get the shape of it down. Bear with me, please, as I float in gratitude and try not to ecstatically drown.

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NPR Review: THE STONE SKY by N. K. Jemisin

I’m still in the process of assembling something like All the News of All the Things that have happened over the first two weeks of this month, and fully intend for those to go up starting Monday — but this morning, all I want is to flail incoherently over this series of books that I love.

9780316229241_custom-77d15112b6bcc7291659fc1be8b38abdd983025a-s400-c85I am used to fantasy and science fiction — in novels, in films, in comic books — setting up apocalypse as threat, cataclysmic change as something to be prevented at all cost. Villains are, by and large, those who want to change the world, while heroes are the ones who preserve the status quo, who keep it intact. The unquestionable premise of this kind of setup is that the world is precious and worth saving.

The Stone Sky rejects this out of hand. If the Broken Earth trilogy as a whole shows a world where cataclysm and upheaval is the norm, The Stone Sky interrogates what right worlds built on oppression and genocide have to exist.

The difficulty of reviewing the third book in a trilogy is that you need to make it intelligible to people who haven’t read any of the previous instalments while also finding room to say what’s amazing about the book while also placing it in the context of a completed whole. It doesn’t leave a whole lot of room for the kind of deep delving I want to do with this series, with this volume, with the character of Essun, with the world she inhabits, with the description of the Thniess, with climate change, with unsustainability. There is so much.

These books are magnificent, so I hope you’ll read them, and then come talk to me about them.

In other Jemisin news, it looks like The Fifth Season is being developed for television and her next series will “mess with the Lovecraft legacy.” I’m so delighted to see her going from strength to strength.

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Upcoming Travel: Sweden & Helsinki Schedules

Well, tomorrow’s the first of August. On Wednesday evening I embark on about two weeks of travel through Sweden and Finland. Here’s where I’ll be and what I’ll be doing there!

Uppsala, Aug 4-6: Reception Histories of the Future: A Conference on Byzantisms, Speculative Fiction, and the Literary Heritage of Medieval Empire. This is a conference organized by Arkady Martine, and I’m profoundly honoured and excited to be taking part. I’m pretty dazzled by the panels I’m on, and looking forward to conversations with amazing people I admire.

Uppsala, Aug 5: Signing & Mingling Party! If you’re in Uppsala but unable to come to the conference, a bunch of us will be at The English Bookshop on Saturday evening, chatting and signing books and no doubt having a lovely time!

Helsinki, Aug 9-13: WORLDCONNNNN AHHHHHHH! Here’s my schedule of panels and readings:

Kaffeeklatsch: Amal El-Mohtar

Wednesday 15:00 – 16:00, Holiday inn cabinet – 9th floor (Messukeskus)

Come chat with me for an hour! I had my first ever Kaffeeklatsch at LonCon in 2014 and had a lovely time.

Space is limited, so you must sign up in advance. To sign up for a kaffeeklatsch, visit the Information Desk.

Reading: Amal El-Mohtar, Annalee Newitz

Thursday 16:00 – 17:00, 101d (Messukeskus)

Amal El-Mohtar, Annalee Newitz 

I’m super excited to read next to Annalee, not least because my husband reported that her reading at Wiscon featured … Shenanigans.

If all goes to plan I might read something completely new, so … Fingers crossed I actually manage to finish everything I intend to finish before travelling!

Female Friendship in Fiction

Friday 12:00 – 13:00, 207 (Messukeskus)

A panel after my own heart! Description as follows:

Female friendships are very much a thing in real life, but fiction often does not depict it. The recent examples from the Marvel CU (Jessica Jones, Agent Carter) have approached the subject but there needs to be more talk about female friendships in fiction!

Navah Wolfe, Amal El-Mohtar, Karen Simpson Nikakis (M), Kim ten Tusscher, Ciaran Roberts

We are the Crystal Gems!

Friday 14:00 – 15:00, 208 (Messukeskus)

Steven Universe combines together many interesting elements: animation, music, great characters, interesting world. The panel shares their love for Steven Universe and makes recommendations on how to get started with it!

Tim Boerger, Anna Raftery, Anna Jackson, Amal El-Mohtar, Rebecca Slitt


And that’s that! This will be my first time visiting Sweden and Finland, and I’m both excited and anxious to make good impressions (“on the countries, Amal?” …Yes, on the countries, somehow). Also please feel free to introduce yourselves to me if you see me! I’m really looking forward to meeting new people as well as seeing far-flung friends.

As concerns signings: I don’t have an actual signing scheduled, but I’m very happy to sign stuff in the wild, as it were.

**EXT. FINNISH WOODLAND – DAY

Amal runs around, feverishly autographing trees and startled animals. How did it come to this?**

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“Seasons of Glass and Iron” Wins the Locus Award

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I am not super great at keeping up with calendrical time.

I was convinced the Locus Award ceremony was happening on Saturday night. This was correct. The problem was that I had slipped into believing that yesterday was Friday, not Saturday, and had ensconced myself in my favourite internetless cafe with my journal and a pen, working out a productivity schedule for the rest of the summer while my phone charged on the windowsill by my feet, out of sight and out of mind.

At some point I picked it up to check the time, and saw I’d missed a call and some texts from Stu. These texts, and my own in response, follow.

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(This makes it the second time that I learn this happy news from Stu, which delights me.)

By the time I saw that “Seasons of Glass and Iron” had won the Locus Award for Best Short Story, Seanan McGuire had already accepted on my behalf, and in fact already won her own award for Best Novella. The full list of winners, nestled among all the wonderful nominees, is here.

(Sidebar: How much do I love that the URL says “Do Not Touch 2017 Locus Award Winners.” I certainly felt like I was perilously close to some kind of feelings-based combustion.)

I’m genuinely overcome. It’s such a slippery thing, trying to hold firm to the fact that this story has moved people enough to share and honour it with awards; I haven’t blogged yet about the Nebulas (though I SHALL), and here I am in the frankly stupefying place of acknowledging a second award for the same story. I keep wishing I could find deeper, more sonorous words than thank you to make people feel what I feel about this. It means so, so much to me — not just to be honoured, but to know this particular story is finding its audience at this particular, dreadful time.

Here, meantime, is the speech I asked Seanan to deliver on my behalf in the event of my winning.


Thank you so much for this profound honour.

Once upon a time, my seven year old niece asked me to tell her a fairy tale. I wanted nothing more than to do so – but what crowded my mouth were stories of women isolated, women won as prizes, women hating each other, step-mothers at their daughters’ throats. I was struck by how I knew stories full of firebirds and golden apples and djinn but couldn’t think of a fairy tale in which two women talk to each other about something other than a man.

I wanted to tell her better stories. So I made one up.

I’m writing these words during the last light of the year’s longest day, wishing I could be among you to read them and join you in celebrating the extraordinary work you’ve highlighted from the past year. I wish borders were easier for me to cross; lately, whenever I face the prospect of travelling to the United States, it feels not entirely unlike strapping on a pair of iron shoes. Other times I feel as if I’m sitting on a glass hill, trying to keep perfectly still while in view of an angry clamour that wants to tear me apart.

But the gulf between how awful it is to cross the border and how wonderful it is to be among my friends and colleagues is so vast I’d need wings to fly it.

Huge thanks are due to my editors Dominik Parisien and Navah Wolfe, for their patience and guidance as I tried to tell the best possible version of this story; to my dear friend Max Gladstone, for zero-hour help in figuring that version out; to everyone at Uncanny magazine for reprinting and promoting it online; to my husband Stu, for tea-based support and relentless encouragement; to Seanan McGuire, for reading these words to you and being a perfect human besides. Thank you to all the wonderful people at Locus, and most especially to everyone who read, shared, discussed and voted for this story when there was such an abundance of treasure to choose from.

These times are hard on everyone I know. So with all the solstice magic I can muster, here is a wish for you: may the iron shoes fall from your feet; may your glass hills shiver into sand; may we all pass through these vicious seasons hand in hand. May we all, too, in coming years, build better stories together.

Thank you.

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Reviews: AMBERLOUGH, RIVER OF TEETH, MORMAMA, THE CHANGELING

It’s been a while! As I try to line up my notes about all the beautiful things that happened in May, here’s a bouquet of reviews that went up recently.

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Amberlough by Lara Elena Donnelly for Lightspeed:

As the present US administration’s modelling of old-school fascism dips into self-parody—two days into Passover saw Sean Spicer claim that Hitler “never gassed his own people”—well-meaning folk keep finding new ways to discuss whether or not it’s all right to punch Nazis.

So this month I want to write about Lara Elena Donnelly’s Amberlough.

 

 

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River of Teeth by Sarah Gailey for NPR Books:

In 1909, the United States was suffering a shortage of meat. At the same time, Louisiana’s waterways were being choked by invasive water hyacinth. Louisiana Congressman Robert F. Broussard proposed an ingenious solution to both those problems: Import hippos to eat the water hyacinth; then, eat the hippos.

Luckily for the United States in our timeline, the fact that hippos are ill-tempered apex predators not amenable to being ranched was pointed out, the American Hippo Bill failed to pass by a single vote, and consequently, we don’t have hippos casually chomping on passers-by due to a lack of their usual forage.

Sarah Gailey’s imagined United States, however, are differently fortuned.

 

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Mormama by Kit Reed for NPR Books:

An amnesiac man calling himself Dell Duval wakes with an address in his pocket: that of the Ellis family home, a rambling plantation-style house in Jacksonville, Fla. Duval squats in its undercroft trying to glean a connection to the family, haunted, meanwhile, by the contents of a flash drive he can’t remember and doesn’t dare examine. While hiding around the house he meets Theo, a 13-year-old boy stranded there with his mother Lane, her three ancient aunts, and the ghost of Charlotte Robichaux, called Mormama, who tries to warn the youngest generation of the malice the house bears towards men. Through Mormama’s recitations, old journals and letters, and the aunts’ reminiscences, the Ellis family’s history comes unspooled like so much rotting thread.

 

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The Changeling by Victor LaValle for NPR Books:

Here is more or less what most synopses I’ve seen of The Changeling say: Apollo Kagwa is a rare book dealer and new father, in love with his wife, Emma, and their infant son Brian, named after the vanished father who haunts Apollo’s dreams. But when Emma commits an unspeakable act of violence and disappears, Apollo’s left grasping at the threads of his unravelled life, following them through a labyrinth of strange characters, mysterious islands and haunted forests, all occupying the same space as the five boroughs of New York City.

This is accurate — but the experience of reading the book is something else.

That’s it for now: next on the TBR pile are Daryl Gregory’s Spoonbenders and Theodora Goss’ The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter.

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Comprehensively Distinct, or, I PASSED MY COMPS I PASSED THEM

Here’s what you need to understand.

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Wonderer Beneath the Sky of Snow

I’d been having a very stressful week. Worry over performing well in the oral component of my exams was overshadowed by worry for my family and the intense flooding in Gatineau (though house is holding steady, it’s an island right now, with the forests and fields around it submerged, the road to it quite drowned); worry about my cats, who were under the weather; worry about the weather, more generally, because in addition to three times the expected amount of rain for April, we were looking towards snow in May, and everything felt and still feels apocalyptic.

Two days ago, the backpack in which I carry around my laptop and everything I’m working on broke badly enough to need to be retired for repair. Last night, one of the cats was sick all over the bed late enough that we couldn’t be bothered to do anything but strip the sheets and sleep in the spare room. But I couldn’t sleep; I tossed and turned until around 2:00 AM, woke at 6:00, forced myself back to sleep for a little longer, then got up and took myself to campus, figuring I’d find myself some food before sitting down with the committee for two hours.

When I arrived I saw the university centre, aka the building with food in it, was shut down because of a fire alarm test. Also it was snowing — not idle, incidental flakes, but a full on flurry.

I took a long route around to my building (that tall one) on an empty stomach, dropped off my stuff, attempted to go back down for food, waited 10 full minutes for an elevator (because half of them are being serviced), found food and tea, brought it back upstairs with a minute to spare, only to feel the tea leak all over my hands at precisely the moment one of my committee members was extending her own hand to shake it.

This was not the most auspicious of beginnings.

Everyone was very understanding while I ran around finding napkins and took a much-needed bite of sandwich and just generally recovered myself — and then we started talking, and I basically blinked and it was two hours later.

I Passed With Distinction. One week ago I had despaired of passing at all. But the best part was just how organic and easy and wonderful was that conversation; wide-ranging and deep-delving and thoughtful, inviting me to make connections I hadn’t made before, to the point where I frequently forgot I was being tested on anything and just thoroughly enjoyed myself.

My sister and I have often observed something to each other about playing music: the rush of performing, of feeling all that practice come together, leaves us hungry for learning new pieces and performing again. I definitely don’t want to write another comp — but once I was given my grade and floated up the stairs to my office, I looked at the books I hadn’t gotten a chance to read and felt hungry for them. I look at my comps list and want to cover everything, to stitch them into the tapestry of that conversation I felt we were building between us, to grow worthier of the regard and esteem of these incredible women and the knowledge they shared.

It was beautiful. I loved it. I feel so grateful that it all came together — the stress, the anguish, the fear — in this easeful grace.

Last week, while I was deep in the doldrums, terrified of writing the comp, I spent a tearful couple of hours on the phone with my dear friend Claire. She told me she was putting some firebird finery into a box for me, to play dress-up with, even if none of it fit — she just wanted me to open a box of red and gold.

When I arrived home today I found it waiting for me, as if to say here are the clothes and colour of your triumph.

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So I played dress-up.

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That there is my Circlet of Distinction. My friend gave it to me. My friends, my family, give me so much. I feel so loved and grateful I can hardly form the words. I feel like sugar lit on fire and dissolved into tea. But in a good way?

In a good way.

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