Religious Orders

Burn This Book!

Posted: Friday September 26 2014 @ 6:43am

Religious Order: Books

No, don't. Burn your body, instead. After you're dead. Or try a natural burial.

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory
- Caitlin Doughty

Doughty's deal is that she's looking to revamp how we, as a society, deal with death. She has a series of fun videos called Ask a Mortician. This book augments her efforts there.

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes is basically a combination of Mary Roach's Stiff and Steve Almond's Candyfreak. It has some of the inside detail that Roach supplies, combined with the personal connections that you find from Almond. It describes her experiences working in a crematorium alongside her evolving views of death. There's a good balance between the two.

Keep in mind that her criticisms are societal in nature. If you're looking for a rant about the ecological consequences of huge-ass coffins, you'll not find it here. I'm not suggesting those aren't valid concerns, they're just not the focus of this particular book.

The only criticisms I'll lob are that her efforts building The Order of the Good Death get crammed into the very end of the book and the events in the Redwoods chapter seem to come out of nowhere.

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Short-Ass Book Reviews for Late Summer 2014

Posted: Monday August 25 2014 @ 5:43pm

Religious Order: Books

More books!

Going Interstellar - Les Johnson & Jack McDevitt

This in an intriguing combination of fiction and non, all dealing with interstellar travel. The fiction is pretty sweet, going beyond the usual. (Buddhists in space? Really?) The non-fiction is good, but focused solely on drive alternatives. I would have liked to see some other aspects covered.

One bonus is that most of the non-fiction pieces reference other books that would be of interest. I bought a couple, but have only read one, so far. How did that go? Well...

Back to the Moon - Travis S. Taylor & Les Johnson

China has secretly gone to the Moon, but are in trouble and need rescuing! It sounds like a smaller, earlier version of The Martian. So I gave it a shot.

Ugh. This is awful. I abandoned it after four chapters. It reads like competent-men SF from the fifties, yet is only four years old. The characters? Here's Bill:

Bill rose from his chair and strode to the table, the alpha male in the room by the way he carried himself and his purposeful stride to the chair adjacent to the one Carlton had just occupied.

Here's Millie:

She had been Stetson's secretary, or, to be politically correct, his management support assistant, for almost five years.

Seriously, Millie the secretary?

Then there are the long rants at NASA, for making space travel boring. Legitimate gripe? Oh yes. Do you want to spend time with folks continually making said gripe? I don't.

After four chapters, I checked out some reviews, to see if this got any better. What I found was that the characterization became even worse once the Chinese showed up, and the rants at NASA continued.

Remember, kids, life is too short to waste it on bad books.

Starhawk - Jack McDevitt

McDevitt has a problem. He has this nice series of books about a Space Academy, featuring Priscilla Hutch Hutchins. The books are, generally, really fun reads. The problem? Hutch was getting old. In the fifth book, he moved her into a desk job, to the book's detriment. Turns out, this really isn't the Academy series. This is the Hutch series. Hutch needs to be the star player. Book six put her back into space, which was great to read, but the book suffered in other ways. Plus, now Hutch is, in the book's universe, getting a little old for action-packed space adventure.

What to do. What to do.

Ah ha! A prequel! See the start of Hutch's career!

And, you know, that's not a bad idea at all. The books isn't perfect. The overriding plot is thin. Hutch herself doesn't really do a whole lot of note. (Although that fits the prequel nature.) There are mysteries brought up that aren't resolved, presumedly as fodder for further books. (This sort of thing is awkward in a prequel, as none of the earlier-yet-later books mention these mysteries. Or maybe they do. It's been years since I read them. Hell, they're paper books!) Overall, a much improved read over the prior two books and a nice return to form for a great series.

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Short-Ass Book Reviews for Summer 2014

Posted: Monday August 11 2014 @ 10:23am

Religious Order: Books

Holy crap! Nearly two months since a blog post? Well, here ya go, then!

The Ebony Exodus - Candace R. M. Gorham

Full title is The Ebony Exodus Project: Why Some Black Women Are Walking Out on Religion - and Others Should Too. While that title is a mouthful, the book itself is very, very good. About two-thirds of the book consists of stories of black women and their relationship with the Black Church. (Black as in racially black, not satanically black.) These aren't the rantings you might be expecting if your atheist readings have consisted of lots of white folks. Every women in this book has her own personal story and perspective. Some are more ambivalent than others.

The other third consists of essays from Gorham herself on the negative aspects of the Black Church and how it harms black women while at the same time acting as a support system. If you're looking for more straight-up criticism, this is where you'll find it. Gorham's writing is so clear and direct that it cuts like a scalpel. (I don't mean that in terms of Wow! Look at that articulate black person! I mean as a contrast to the overly-philosophical mental noodling you see in a lot of atheist writing.)

I'm going to lob one criticism at this book, and it's one to which the author alludes in her introduction. The book is too short. Gorham bemoans having to take excerpts of her interviews for the sake of book length. I really wish she hadn't. The book could have been, seriously, twice as long and it wouldn't have worn out its welcome with me.

Of course, as a suburban white guy, I'm just getting exposure to issues about which I was utterly clueless. I can't speak to the level at which this book can help black women. I sure hope it can, though.

The Martian - Andy Weir

This one is odd. The story is simple: A guy gets marooned on Mars and has to use his wits to survive. It's almost like Verne's The Mysterious Island, minus the last third or so. Much of it is very technical, which will thrill hard sci-fi fans. Indeed, many folks have given it high praise. There exists a subset, including me, who find the first-person narrative grating.

The book bounces between first and third person, which is fine. The problem is that the first-person narrative, that of the eponymous Martian, is a wise-cracking quip monster. He's like Deadpool in space. It's actually a three-fold problem. One, it just gets old, quickly. Two, it clashes with the technical parts. Three, it's the laziest possible characterization.

Seriously, the joking wiseacre is the go-to character for those who don't want to bother fleshing out a real character. Clearly, more time was spent on the technical challenges and their resolution than on the characterization.

Another problem with the book is that the question of whether the guy ought to be rescued at all never really arises. It's hinted at, once or twice, but not actually dealt with. Should we expend millions of dollars to save one guy? What are the trade-offs here? That could have been a nice addition to the story.

All that said, if you can get past the tone of the narrative, it's a swell read for fans of rock-hard sci-fi.

Planet of the Apes - Pierre Boulle, Xan Fielding (Translator)

This is the novel from which all the movies derive. It's not exactly the same as the first film. (To understand why, give my buddy JC's article on it a read.) That said, overall knowledge of the film plot will blunt many of the dramatic turns here. Still, it's a great read.

It's also interesting to see how the story changes for the films while still incorporating other aspects. It's my favorite book/film combo right now. (Subject to change on a whim.)

One aspect I really loved was the turning of the trope of Medieval Stasis right on its head. Instead of being a weakness, it's an important plot point.

Little Fuzzy - H. Beam Piper

This one is a classic. It's extremely charming and a worthwhile read. My main complaint is that it raises philosophical issues around which it then makes an end-run, rather than actually trying to resolve them.

Null-ABC - H. Beam Piper

Entertaining, but ultimately forgettable. It takes place in a world where reading is met with derision by the masses while also being jealously guarded by a learned elite. It ain't no Fahrenheit 451, although it includes the usual Piper rootin'-tootin' gunplay.

One day, I'll open a bookstore called Montag's Books. In the window will perpetually hang a sign exclaiming Fire Sale!

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All-Star Game

Posted: Tuesday June 17 2014 @ 6:13pm

Religious Order: Sports

There's a problem with the All-Star Game. (Which All-Star Game? Baseball, duh.) Players get on the team via a popularity contest, which would be fine if the game was just an exhibition. Alas, the game counts now, as an overreaction to Bud leaving the 2002 game as a tie. If the game is going to count, then it should be played by the actual best players, not fan favorites.

Now, personally, I would be happiest with the game as an exhibition game. I don't see the point in the present meaningful game. To a very real extent, it could be abusive to non-contenting teams.

But let's say we're sticking with the meaningful all-Star Game. What would those teams look like? How would we pick? The most convenient way would be to use WAR (Wins Above Replacement). Is WAR perfect? No. But it's good enough for a blog post no one will read. So let's use ESPN's list, for the sole reason that it's the first one I found.

I'm going to follow Gold Glove rules and just use the top three outfielders, instead of worrying about which field they play. I'm also going to use the best pitcher as the starting pitcher and the next three as relief. (On the theory that relief pitchers are just failed starters.) I left closers out, as there weren't any in the top one hundred players, and I tired of looking for them. I also left out the DH, despite this year's game being held at Target Field, because the DH is an abomination.

So, here's what we get:

PositionAmerican LeagueNational League
CatcherSalvador Perez (Royals)Jonathan Lucroy (Brewers)
First BaseBrandon Moss (A's)Paul Goldschmidt (Diamondbacks)
Second BaseBrian Dozier (Twins)Chase Utley (Phillies)
ShortstopAlexei Ramirez (White Sox)Troy Tulowitzki (Rockies)
Third BaseJosh Donaldson (A's)Todd Frazier (Reds)
OutfieldMike Trout (Angels)Giancarlo Stanton (Marlins)
OutfieldAlex Gordon (Royals)Andrew McCutchen (Pirates)
OutfieldJose Bautista (Blue Jays)A.J. Pollock (Diamondbacks)
Starting PitcherDallas Keuchel (Astros)Johnny Cueto (Reds)
ReliefYu Darvish (Rangers)Adam Wainwright (Cardinals)
ReliefMasahiro Tanaka (Yankees)Tim Hudson (Giants)
ReliefMark Buehrle (Blue Jays)Julio Teheran (Braves)

Seeing Dozier in there was a pleasant surprise for this die-hard Twins fan!

Feel free to compare these with the actual All-Star Game voting. There may be various rules keeping some players listed above from being considered for the voting. I just don't know. Overall, though, the All-Star Game voting is clearly a popularity contest.

I think that's fine, for an exhibition game. I think it's crappy, for a game that counts.

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Short-Ass Book Reviews for June 2014

Posted: Friday June 06 2014 @ 12:53pm

Religious Order: Books

Whee! Short book reviews! In no particular order!

Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World - Haruki Murakami

There's really two things you need from a book with parallel plot-lines:

  1. Do you stay interested in each plot?
  2. Do they come together in a pleasing way at the end?

This book succeeds at both. The two plot-lines trade chapters and I was continually looking forward to each switch. Neither overshadowed the other. The conclusion and melding also worked for me.

I've read that this isn't his best work. I don't care. I'm not familiar with his other work, and I liked this book.

Note: It was part of an article on SF books by non-SF authors. I'm still trying to find Gore Vidal's apocalyptic fiction book.

The Great Agnostic - Susan Jacoby

Readable and short biography of Robert G. Ingersoll. He was a pretty freakin' awesome guy, ahead of society in so many ways. Jacoby works hard at rehabilitating Ingersoll's chumminess with plutocrats.

Tropic of Cancer - Henry Miller

Gee, Henry Miller really likes the word cunt.

I'm tempted to leave it at that, but I won't. Yeah, the controversial stuff doesn't hit with much of a wallop anymore. Yeah, he's a misogynistic racist. No, there's no real plot. Is it a commentary on the human condition? Eh, certainly not my human condition.

All that said, there are some simply wonderful descriptions and passages here, interspersed in a lot of tedious nattering. I read it in segments, which is easy to do when there's no plot.

The 34-Ton Bat: The Story of Baseball as Told Through Bobbleheads, Cracker Jacks, Jockstraps, Eye Black, and 375 Other Strange and Unforgettable Objects - Steve Rushin

Entertaining book about baseball stuff. Not just a list of oddball [heh] baseball trivia, it has a nice cohesive flow that takes you through several aspects of the physical objects surrounding the game.

Make It So: Interaction Design Lessons From Science Fiction - Nathan Shedroff & Christopher Noessel

Entertaining look at human interfaces in the world of science fiction movies and how they can be applied to real-world stuff. Entertaining, but not gripping. This is a book to peruse, not read straight through. Suffers in eBook form, on an eInk eReader, due to the poor resulting quality of the example screenshots.

The Edible Exile - Carl Hiaasen

Hiaasen found an old short story of his and decided to publish it. It's not very good. The found copy was missing its ending, so he added a new one. It's also not very good. I mean, it's somewhat entertaining, but overpriced for what you get.

Assemblers of Infinity - Kevin J. Anderson & Doug Beason

Serviceable SF. It's not great, but it's entertaining enough. The authors have a really bad habit of changing scene without any notification to the reader, so there are plenty of places where I was momentarily confused. The ending isn't much of a conclusion, serving really more to try and draw you into future books.

Alligator - The Harvard Lampoon

I mentioned last fall how much I disliked a history of the National Lampoon I read. It did make be curious, however, about a James Bond spoof they wrote back in the day called Alligator. So I read it and enjoyed it plenty. It's funny and clever for fans of the books. It may not work for you if your only experience with James Bond is via the movies.

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An Experiment Gone Meh

Posted: Friday May 23 2014 @ 6:17am

Religious Order: Books

John Scalzi has reached a point in his career where he can do pretty much whatever he wants. This lets him experiment, the results of which can be awesome, or, well, meh.

A good example of this experimentation working well was Redshirts. (A number of his fans think that it was his worst book ever. They're wrong. Clearly his worst book ever was The Android's Dream.)

So, while writing his latest novel, Lock In, he thought something along the lines of Hey, I've always wanted to write an oral history. I'll write a novella intro to the book as an oral history!

How do I know this? He told us all. He tweets a lot.

Anyway, so he wrote the novella, called Unlocked: An Oral History of Haden's Syndrome. How is it? Meh.

It's not bad. Scalzi's too skilled for that. It's just not compelling. None of the characters stand out. It reads more like a Wikipedia history section minus the neutral point of view. Without fleshed-out characters, what's the point of an oral history?

The novella includes the first chapter of Lock In. That first chapter is meh, too. It appears to be The Caves of Steel, except R. Daneel Olivaw is remote-controlled by a person.

Okay, seriously, I suspect it'll be much more than that, but I base that suspicion on Scalzi's skill, not on the provided first chapter.

Despite all the meh, I still pre-ordered the full book. It's a very rare occasion when Scalzi writes a bad book. (See The Android's Dream, above.)

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Gems and Rocks

Posted: Thursday May 22 2014 @ 8:52am

Religious Order: Politics


I gleaned some really sweet quotes from Women in Secularism last weekend. Here are four that I particularly loved. One came very early on, in the very first session:

The reality is not that [women] speak too much. It's that we're expected to speak less.
-Soraya Chemaly

This one was part of a panel on multiculturalism:

I love everyones culture, until they are harmful.
-Taslima Nasreen

Note that this next one is likely paraphrased a bit. Everyone quoting it online has it a little different.

The extent to which religion is not dangerous to women is the degree to which it has been forced to adopt secular ideas.
-Susan Jacoby

This last one comes from the closing comments and wraps things up appropriately:

A person's life is not an argument to disprove.
-Lauren Becker

There were, of course, many other great things said.


There will always be those who don't like a conference and will voice their opinion, as is their right. This year, the #wiscfi tag wasn't trolled as hard as last year. I think that's partially because CFI CEO Ron Lindsey actually welcomed attendees instead of, literally, scolding them for not listening to white men often enough. This new-found civility led to a lack of outrage all around. Still, there was some naysaying.

Complaints about the conference, and about many of those presenting, are generally some form of:

I have differing opinions, and those with whom I disagree aren't giving me a forum in which to voice them!

Let's look at a few and laugh at them!

No drama at wiscfi prives we wouldn't have a Boko Haram problem if Nigeria had instituted a harassment policy. Or outlawed disagreement.

So, this one seems to think folks are saying that insisting on harassment policies at conferences means that we think harassment policies will solve all our problems! That's some simplistic thinking there! It's a common refrain that if something doesn't solve all the problems, then that something is, in fact useless. I see this in Libertarians a lot, in which law X doesn't totally eliminate behavior Y, so law X is bad. (I'm not fond of Libertarians. I suspect the overlap between Libertarians and sexist assholes is quite large.)

A nice touch is the implication that disagreement is outlawed. What they mean by this is that they were banned from some forum at some point. Again, they're insisting that those with whom they disagree are duty-bound to provide them with a soapbox for their disagreement.

I'm amazed at atheists who rightfully claim that they're under no obligation to debate with every Christian who comes along, then turn right around and insist that feminists who don't debate them are censoring cowards.

Moving on...

So sad. Very few attendees, 50% fat middle-aged men, and everything paid for by the patriarchy. Fail.

I don't have a good handle on actual numbers of attendees. The room was much larger than last year, spreading folks out, which made for a nicer experience for the myriad introverts. Offhand, I'd say there was a similar number to last year, perhaps more.

I love the bit about fat middle-aged men, as one of those fat middle-aged men. In addition to being pointlessly ageist and sizeist, it's just mind-boggling that gaining allies in a fight is somehow a bad thing.

Everything paid for by the Patriarchy? Really? My wife's registration fee was paid for by the Patriarchy? All the donations to CFI that helped fund the conference came from the Patriarchy?

Let us close with this beauty, in which a white man shakes his head sadly that others won't be able to partake of his tweets.

Sadly, many at wiscfi such as Greta Christina won't see my tweets because they have pathetically shielded themselves with block bot,

I love the assumption that he deserves an audience. It's so sad that others are deprived of it.

And it's pathetic that others would avail themselves of means of not being his deserved audience. Because that's what's really missing, the perspective of a random white guy.

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Tiny and Tasty

Posted: Tuesday May 20 2014 @ 7:52am

Religious Order: Food

So, we were up in Alexandria last weekend at the Women in Secularism III conference. (See yesterday's rant.) Just two blocks from the hotel was a tiny BBQ place called Sweet Fire Donna's. We ate there twice and liked the food both times. Here's a quick review:


Normally, I'm a bigger fan of pork over beef when it comes to BBQ. That said, Sweet Fire Donna's really does beef well. Here's all the meats we tried, in order of decreasing deliciousness:

I'll note that Sweet Fire Donna's provides four BBQ sauces. There's a traditional sweet one, which was fine. There's a chipotle one that wasn't very hot at all, but did pack in a nice flavor profile. The mustard-based one was weird. It was more of a flavored mustard than a Carolina Gold sort of sauce. Tasty, but not what I was expecting. Worked great with the sausage, but was simply too much for the pulled pork. Then there was a very nice North Carolina vinegar sauce, puckery but not too puckery. This worked wonderfully on the pulled pork. Its only flaw was that the pepper flakes sometimes jammed the hole in the squeeze bottle.


Pretty much anything you order comes with two sides, in addition to specials that add on even more. So we were able to try most of the sides. Again, in order of decreasing deliciousness:

Despite some disappointments, this was very good BBQ, especially when it came to beef. If I lived nearby, this would be a place I would visit far too often.

Oh, here's a photo. Trust me, this photo doesn't do the food justice. Also note that the Burnt Ends were nearly gone by the time I remembered to take a photo.


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So Sick of Assholes

Posted: Monday May 19 2014 @ 1:32pm

Religious Order: Politics

Spent the weekend in Alexandria, at the Women in Secularism III conference. While there was lots of great stuff heard, it also pisses me off as I hear the stories about what women go through when asserting themselves. Here's my reactionary rant:

I'm so sick of MRA assholes. I'm so sick of women receiving multiple daily threats of rape and death because they spoke up online. I'm sick of them receiving even more threats because they mention the threats they already receive. I'm sick of claims that those threats are just words, are not really harmful. I'm sick of the assumption that this is stuff women have to fix, that it's their problem. I'm sick of it mainly coming from smug atheists with a tenuous grasp on social realities. I'm sick of men who think free speech means they can send threats to women or stalk them online, but that others can't moderate comments on their own blog. I'm sick of people who think free speech means they shouldn't be criticized. I'm sick of entitled white men thinking that the world owes them a hearing. I'm sick of whiny white men complaining that every small decrease in their privilege is a calamity, that every loss they have in life is the gravest injustice and proof that the system is actually against them, that misandry runs rampant. (Everyone loses at times, even when they're in the right. Get used to it. Women and folks of color have to deal with it *all the time.*) I'm sick of simplistic shallow Libertarian thought and the pitiful need Libertarians have for drawing bright lines, because they gave up on God but can't deal with the resulting lack of objective rules.

And I'm a 6 foot tall white guy. In my over 20 years on the Internet, I've received a grand total of one threat of violence. (For drawing Mohammed, from someone located in the Middle East.) While it wasn't a remotely realistic threat, it still bothered me. I can't even imagine what it would be like to actually be a female feminist and have to deal with this shit day after day after day.

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A Love/Hate Relationship

Posted: Wednesday April 16 2014 @ 6:23pm

Religious Order: Books

Back when I used to read paper books, I picked up Elizabeth Moon's The Speed of Dark from a paperback swap club. Then I bought a Nook, and the book sat with a bunch of other paperbacks on a shelf, neglected. This winter, I purchased an exercise bike, to try and keep up some sort of exercise regimen during the cold days. Since I didn't want to drip sweat on my Nook, I've been going through old paperbacks, starting with the long neglected The Speed of Dark.

If you look at reviews on Goodreads, you'll see some folks who think this is the best book ever. Others think it's crap, an inferior rip of Flowers for Algernon. Neither are fully correct. I both liked and disliked it intensely.

On the positive side, most of it is from the first-person perspective of an autistic man, albeit one with some near-future therapies applied. These parts are really touching and insightful. They do make you look at folks differently, with better understanding. It's very effective and evocative writing. I fully understand readers who laud the book based on this, and while I'm only dedicating a paragraph to this aspect of the book, it's equally as important as all my complaints to come. For you see, The Speed of Dark has a, well, dark side...


Actually, it's nothing sinister, it's just that the story is tepid and antagonists are awful. Let's talk about the story first. The gist of the book is that the protagonist has a chance to take advantage of a new treatment for autism. Should he avail himself of it? Seems simple, no? The story tries to be a mechanism by which the protagonist grows as a person, but it's utterly unnecessary. His growth occurs as part of his daily activities, which happen alongside the main storyline. Meanwhile, the main storyline itself churns along, adding very little. Yes, it forces a decision, but it does so in a very clunky manner. Midway, there's some intrigue suggested behind the therapy, but it's just left to sit there, as a vague threat. It's never developed. (If you want to see this threat actually developed, I highly recommend Vernor Vinge's A Deepness in the Sky. That book also does an excellent job providing a viewpoint from a radically different perspective.)

The book would be better without that storyline. Just give us the day-to-day personal growth of a compelling individual.

It's also worth noting that the whole book is very different from Flowers for Algernon in that most of the book leads up to decisions about the treatment. The book would have been fine stopping at the decision rather than continuing on with a couple more chapters showing the ramifications. The decision stands alone without need to be justified either way by subsequent events.

The second problem is with the antagonists. There's a main one, who propels the main storyline. He is, well, just awful. He may as well be twirling a mustache while he cackles his hatred of the protagonist, a hatred which is neither explained nor justified. It reminds me of reviews of The Lord of the Rings, complaining that Sauron is just this evil bad dude with no real motivation. (He actually has tons of motivation, but you need to read much more Tolkien before you see it. Or so I'm told. I haven't read that much.) Every time the book brings this guy in, I would cringe.

The second and tertiary antagonists are more realistic, in different degrees. It's weird. I totally buy the tertiary one and partially buy the secondary. It seems like the less central the antagonist, the better job she does making them real people with real motivations.

One other aspect that bothered me was that most of the book is written in the first person perspective, but it occasionally shifts to third-person to show things not apparent to the protagonist. This causes two problems. First, it lends an objectivity to the antagonists described above. Without these third-person sections, I could chalk the shallowness of the characters up to the differing perceptions of the protagonist. With those third-person sections in, I have to accept that those characters are just poorly written.

Second, it takes me out of the sense of immersion into which she so masterfully puts me for most of the book. Because most of these third-person sections involve the main storyline, they could just as easily be jettisoned.

So, final judgment? It's a really great book with some really big flaws. I enjoyed my time reading it, but I never felt compelled to read more. Normally, it's the plot that drives me to keep picking up a book. Instead, I picked it up, here and there, eventually reaching the end.

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