Sunday Sum-Up

I’m back!

Obviously.

I did not drive off a cliff, get kidnapped by elves, or get washed away by sneaker waves on Reynisfjara. I endured fifteen hours of air travel and airports on a couple of hours of sleep, and I’ve mostly recovered from jet lag thanks to generous doses of iced coffee. Now comes the extensive photo editing and the general absorption of the trip.

To put it shortly, I had a blast in Iceland, and I didn’t need any volcanic eruptions to do so! I stayed at a charming little guesthouse in Reykjavik, and drove to the various places I wanted to see- Reynisfjara, a black sand beach near the little town of Vik; the Snæfellsnes Penninsula and the sea cliffs of Arnarstapi; Gullfoss, a waterfall more powerful than Niagara Falls, and Thingvellir National Park, the site of both the continental divide and the location of the first meeting of Iceland’s parliament in 930CE. I visited multiple bookshops and a couple of museums in Reykjavik. And I took photographs. A lot of photographs.

I’ll be recounting my adventures in later posts, so stay tuned!

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The kitchen in in the guesthouse where I stayed
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Mál og Menning, easily my favorite of the bookshops I visited in Reykjavik
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Seljalandsfoss
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Skógafoss

I bought a book at Mál og Menning. I’d planned to purchase a copy of the Elder and Prose Eddas, but after looking at the wide selection of Icelandic sagas that were available, I picked Njal’s Saga instead. It looked so interesting and is new to me. I’ve already read the Eddas, so I’m not missing out on the story. There were far more sagas than I thought, so it will be fun to explore those in the future!

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I also read far more than I expected to while I was there, due in part to the long evenings I encountered. Sunset wasn’t until around 10:00pm, and it didn’t get fully dark at all. That made it easy to get lost in a book and not realize how much time had passed. Because the kitchen was cozy and quiet and the tea was free, I spent a few evenings resting up after the day’s travel and hiking with a book. I finished up Helen MacDonald’s memoir H is for Hawk, then started and finished The Martian by Andy Weir, Paris in Love by Eloisa James, and What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami. The last two I mostly read on the plane from Reykjavik to Minneapolis/St. Paul because I couldn’t sleep very well, despite how tired I was.

Currently, I’m in the midst of The Republic of Thieves by Scott Lynch and Uprooted by Naomi Novik. I started reading The Republic of Thieves a couple of years ago, but never made past about page 200. I have no idea why, since I enjoyed the first two books in the series and didn’t dislike the story. I’ve gotten much further along this time around. Uprooted was recommended by a couple of different sources I trust. I’m not too far along, but it’s been a wonderful read so far.

I had planned to go downtown after work last night, but after realizing that it would be packed with all the tourists coming in to see the total solar eclipse on Monday, I decided to stay out of downtown and went to Barnes and Noble instead. I got into a conversation about Catherynn M. Valente’s books with one of the booksellers, and she ended up recommending All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders. It’s a blend between science fiction and fantasy, with magic existing side by side with futuristic technology. It had been on my TBR for a while, and the recommendation pushed in over into the ‘books I own’ category.

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Review- The Curse of Chalion

61886The Curse of Chalion
by Lois McMaster Bujold
496 pages
Published 2000

From Goodreads: A man broken in body and spirit, Cazaril, has returned to the noble household he once served as page, and is named, to his great surprise, as the secretary-tutor to the beautiful, strong-willed sister of the impetuous boy who is next in line to rule.

It is an assignment Cazaril dreads, for it will ultimately lead him to the place he fears most, the royal court of Cardegoss, where the powerful enemies, who once placed him in chains, now occupy lofty positions. In addition to the traitorous intrigues of villains, Cazaril and the Royesse Iselle, are faced with a sinister curse that hangs like a sword over the entire blighted House of Chalion and all who stand in their circle. Only by employing the darkest, most forbidden of magics, can Cazaril hope to protect his royal charge—an act that will mark the loyal, damaged servant as a tool of the miraculous, and trap him, flesh and soul, in a maze of demonic paradox, damnation, and death.


My Thoughts

I came across The Curse of Chalion while wandering around Barnes and Noble one summer day some years ago. I was in the midst of a reading slump, having finished up the latest volumes of the various series I was reading. I was having a hard time finding new titles to read, as at the time I was stuck to the fantasy genre and read very little outside of it. But it had come to a point where new series/trilogies just weren’t appealing to me. It seemed like everything was either overly formulaic or trying too hard to be original. I’d picked up a variety of standalone novels and been utterly unimpressed with any of them. So I didn’t have very high hopes when I came across this little paperback book with a shiny gold cover.

The synopsis was interesting, though it sounded like most of the others, which promised world- or kingdom-ending consequences if the protagonists failed in their missions, but they rarely delivered on those promises. So I bought the shiny little book, took it home, and cracked it open.

I was hooked from the very first page.

There aren’t many openings that can paint such a vivid picture of a world, the people who inhabit it, their culture, and establish a fascinating main character within the first few chapters, but Bujold accomplishes just that. From the first few pages, you understand Cazaril and his motives. He begins the story as a broken man, recently recovered from injury and illness after his enslavement at the hands of his country’s enemies. While he wants nothing more than a quiet life, he is given the job as secretary-tutor to a teenaged princess. He must teach her about the world they inhabit and how to survive the deadly game of court politics, even as he strives to keep his enemies at bay as he seeks a way to end the curse that hangs over the royal house of Chalion.

It’s a daunting task. Writers with less skill than Bujold would spend several books explaining the world of the five gods, letting the details bog down the plot until it turned into a multi-book saga no one wants to read. But Bujold is better than that. She can paint a picture of a far away county with a few deft strokes and provide a wealth of sensory detail without chattering on about inconsequential bits. Bujold’s story is so engaging that she needs only mention the orange blossoms once or twice to fill your imagination with the scent.

The characters, too, are so fleshed out that they feel real. I don’t need to imagine what actor might play Cazaril. His oft-maligned and patchy beard is as perfectly imaginable as the determined look on the Royesse Iselle’s face, or Lady Betriz’s dimples. Everyone, from Cazaril on down to minor characters is believable, even the villains. The dangerous dy Jironal brothers are treacherous in their own way, but never become the mustache-twirling, melodramatic arch-villains with a master plan to take over the world. Their motives are just as human as everyone else’s, their vices and virtues as recognizable as their own.

“This wasn’t prayer anyway, it was just argument with the gods.
Prayer, he suspected as he hoisted himself up and turned for the door, was putting one foot in front of the other. Moving all the same.”

-Lois McMaster Bujold, The Curse of Chalion

Religion plays a major role in the story. Unlike many fantasy stories I’ve read, you don’t have a God of Death, a Goddess of the Harvest, or a God of Trees or whatnot (or, as Eddie Izzard might say, “Jeff, the God of Biscuits and Simon, the God of Hairdos”). The Chalionese religion suffuses the lives of its followers, regardless of their piety. Just like the Christian church did in the medieval world (and still does, to a great degree). There are temples to all five gods, a religious hierarchy, and living saints. There are sermons and prayers, holy days, funeral rites, and marriage customs. The people offers prayers and offerings, and while some do it with true faith guiding their actions, others merely pay lip service.

And when a god appears to someone, that person undergoes a fundamental change in perspective. To brush up against the divine is to be forever changed.

This notion– that gods are beyond anything the human mind can truly comprehend– is not something that often comes up in fantasy novels. Often, when a god is mentioned at all, he/she/it seems to be altogether human in their perspective. Their wisdom is often that of a college professor- like someone who has read more books than anyone else. Their influence is direct and obvious, like the Dungeons and Dragons cleric who prays for a resurrection spell and is granted it.

The Chalionese gods are more ambiguous. Did the Lady of Spring guide Iselle when she lit the first flame during the Daughter’s Day rites, or did Iselle manage to light the flame on the first try because she is young and has steady hands? Did the crow fly to Cazaril because he’d been feeding it, or did the Bastard guide the crow? These questions come up, but it’s impossible to answer them for sure because the divine is ineffable. Only a living saint can see the proof of a god’s hand, but being a saint in Chalion is to be marked as utterly different.

Bujold’s prose, too, sets The Curse of Chalion apart. It is lyrical at times, or philosophical; economical when it comes to Chalion’s history, and sarcastic when Cazaril is feeling snarky. It is never clunky or clumsy. It’s light enough on its feet to dance around the reader, but never gets so full of itself that it leaves the reader behind.

“Any man can be kind when he is comfortable. I’d always thought kindness a trivial virtue therefore. But when we were hungry, thirsty, sick, frightened, with our deaths shouting at us, in the heart of horror, you were still as unfailingly courteous as a gentleman at his ease before his own hearth.”

“Events may be horrible or inescapable. Men have always a choice – if not whether, then how they may endure.”

-Lois McMaster Bujold, The Curse of Chalion

There are few books that I declare to be favorites after the first reading. It often takes multiple readings for that declaration. The Curse of Chalion took one of those top spots in my heart from the first. I take great care with my books– I want them to last forever– but my shiny gold paperback copy is starting to fall apart. The front cover is slowly coming away from the spine and I fear the first couple of chapters will go with it. While I have a digital copy, I don’t think it will be long before I go in search of a new, physical version.

The Curse of Chalion doesn’t show up on many ‘Top Ten Fantasy Novels to Read This Summer/Winter/Before You Die’ lists, and that’s a shame. It doesn’t have bold print “New York Times Bestseller” tag on the top, and it’s not new enough to have a flashy book trailer. No one is making a movie or TV series from it. Come to that, I can hardly find it in bookstores. If you can track it down, though, or download an eBook version, it would be well worth your time and money. Cazaril is a different kind of hero from any other you’ll find. His story is complex, beautifully written, and utterly engaging.

 

July Summary and August Preview

I survived July! The heatwave left me tired and a bit stupid and I didn’t finish many of the books I intended to, but oh well. I do not do well in the heat. My face tries to melt off, I have no energy, I can’t sleep, and my Snow White-worthy skin sunburns in ten minutes flat. Seriously. I sunburned in Ireland. And in Scotland. And through tinted windows on the way to Minnesota. Give me autumn and its sweater weather or winter’s snows any day. This week and next promise to be much cooler, though. I have turned off my jankety window air conditioner, so I can actually sleep and hear things again!

Things like the new album from Offa Rex, a collaboration between The Decemberists and Olivia Cheney. Voices I love singing English folk songs? Yes, please!

 

Onto the books! Goodreads says I read twelve books in July. I don’t feel that’s entirely accurate, as three of them were Penny Dreadful comic issues, and so were very short. I finished three of them within half an hour.

  1. Practical Magic by Alice Hoffman
  2. Moonstone: The Boy Who Never Was by Sjón
  3. The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle
  4. Red Sister by Mark Lawrence
  5. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
  6. The Awaking: Penny Dreadful #1 by Chris King
  7. Penny Dreadful: The Awakening #2.2 by Chris King
  8. Penny Dreadful: The Awakening #2.3
  9. Penny Dreadful Vol. 1 by Andrew Hinderaker
  10. My Soul to Take by Yrsa Sigurdardóttir
  11. Crown of Midnight by Sarah J. Maas
  12. The Curse of Chalion by Lois McMaster Bujold

I decided to start doing the Bookstagram thing, so I made an Instagram account for the blog. You can find me there at traveling.gladly

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What’s on for August? I’m going to Iceland!! I leave next Tuesday evening, and will land at Keflavik International Airport on Wednesday morning. I have several excursions planned to places like Vik, the Snæfellsnes peninsula, and Gullfoss. There are several bookshops in Reykjavik I want to visit, too. I’ve made it a habit of buying a book that’s particular to the place I’m in- Sherlock Holmes books in London, Irish epics in Galway, etc.- and my plan so far is to pick up copies of The Elder Edda and The Prose Edda while I’m there. And photographs. Lots of photographs. I’ll be taking two cameras (three, counting my phone’s camera), and a couple hundred gigabytes’ worth of memory cards. I’m getting more excited by the day!

In light of my upcoming travels, combined with the fact that I won’t be taking trains or buses in Iceland (and thus will have less time to read while I’m gone), plus the inevitable jet lag that follows international travel (Iceland is five hours ahead of my home time zone), I’ve only set aside four books from my collection to read:

  1. The Illustrated Man by Ray Bradbury
  2. The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin
  3. Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen
  4. Rebel Queen by Michelle Moran

I will undoubtedly read other books, too. That’s always how it goes. But I think it’s more likely that I’ll finish this set, as opposed to July’s selections, which were maybe a little more dense than the hot days of summer would allow for. August’s selections are relatively short and sound wonderfully interesting.

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Review- Crown of Midnight

DSC01749Crown of Midnight (Throne of Glass #2)
by Sarah J. Maas
418 pages
Published 2013

From Goodreads:  “A line that should never be crossed is about to be breached.

It puts this entire castle in jeopardy—and the life of your friend.”

From the throne of glass rules a king with a fist of iron and a soul as black as pitch. Assassin Celaena Sardothien won a brutal contest to become his Champion. Yet Celaena is far from loyal to the crown. She hides her secret vigilantly; she knows that the man she serves is bent on evil.

Keeping up the deadly charade becomes increasingly difficult when Celaena realizes she is not the only one seeking justice. As she tries to untangle the mysteries buried deep within the glass castle, her closest relationships suffer. It seems no one is above questioning her allegiances—not the Crown Prince Dorian; not Chaol, the Captain of the Guard; not even her best friend, Nehemia, a foreign princess with a rebel heart.

Then one terrible night, the secrets they have all been keeping lead to an unspeakable tragedy. As Celaena’s world shatters, she will be forced to give up the very thing most precious to her and decide once and for all where her true loyalties lie… and whom she is ultimately willing to fight for.


My Thoughts

I read Crown of Midnight as a buddy read with Danielle over at Books, Vertigo & Tea. I probably wouldn’t have read it otherwise. I found the first book, Throne of Glassdisappointing, as Celaena read like a wish-fulfilling Mary Sue instead of a fully fleshed, dynamic character, and Maas’s writing was clunky and uninspired.

Crown of Midnight… is marginally better. Celaena has more depth this time around, and because the story is not lurching toward the end of a protracted contest there is more time to explore her growth as a person and develop her relationships, both romantic and platonic. She’s an assassin with a heart of gold, and it’s made clear early on that she’s only pretending to carry out the king’s orders. Celaena’s ruses go off without a hitch, so that even her closest friends believe that she’s killed all those people.

And, of course, her friends- Chaol, Dorian, and Nehemia- look at her sidewards because Celaena is an awful person for killing them (even though she hasn’t). Despite the fact that they already knew she was an assassin.

What did they think she did before they met her? Skip through meadows and pick flowers while singing to the animals?

*sighs*

Odd expectations of an assassin’s morality aside, the other characters did a little growing up, too. Dorian rose in my regard after he made a particular discovery, though he’s still content to sit back and watch his evil father continue to plan evil things. It seems his idea of ‘making a difference’ is to object to some of dad’s plans in the council chamber, but his objections hardly seem to make much of a difference. I’m sorry, Dorian, but you can’t just thumb your nose at authority and expect things to change on a fundamental level.

Nehemia continues to be one of the most interesting characters in the story, but alas, we hear more from a doorknob than we do the princess of Eyllwe.

Maas’s writing has improved since the first book though the prose is still workaday, walking from one event to the next and doing its job without much flair, like it just wants to get through the day so it can go home and take a nap. Plot twists are telegraphed so far in advance that you could use binoculars to see them coming. There’s no surprise to them, just the satisfaction of knowing you were right.

I have had an issue with the lack of specificity in the two books. We’re accustomed to fantasy novels having foundations in historical lands, whether it’s the Anglo-Saxon-based setting of Tolkien’s Rohan, the medieval Russia of Katherine Arden’s The Bear and the Nightingale, or the late-Renaissance Amsterdam-like atmosphere of Leigh Bardugo’s Six of Crows. The world of Throne of Glass is harder to pin down and so it’s harder to get a sense of the place, as Maas pulls from a variety of sources to inhabit her world. The character of Baba Yellowlegs, for example, is analogous to the crone Baba Yaga from Russian tales, while the fae spoken of in other parts of the books resemble those of Welsh and Irish stories. In the first book Celaena listens to minuets, a type of dance popular in eighteenth century France. While I realize that Celaena’s world has a variety of cultures, the lack of specificity about any of them makes it difficult to get a concrete sense of the place and thereby get lost in the world. I kept coming across vague terminology (or things that were just used incorrectly) which would make me stop and ask, “What kind of weapon is Celaena using? It just says ‘sword’. There are a lot of different kinds of swords”.

And so, while the characters have grown more likeable in Crown of Midnight, and there is some political intrigue going on, I just don’t have enough interest in the story to want to go out and read the rest of them. I’ll be the first to admit that I am a snobby reader, but when there are so many amazing fantasy novels with more engaging stories than those of the Throne of Glass books, I just can’t see myself taking the time away from them to read about characters I only sort of like.

Sunday Sum-Up

Another week has come and gone, and once again I’m wondering where all that time went. I really need to get that temporal vortex out of my closet. I know some of the time was spent in finally watching Stranger Things on Netflix, and a little bit was spent watching Will. As for the rest of it? I dunno. Not nearly enough of it was spent sleeping.

*sighs*

DSC01749I only finished one of the books I started the week with, and that was Sarah J. Maas’s Crown of Midnight, the second book in the Throne of Glass series. I’ll have a longer write-up later this week, but for now I’ll just say that, while Maas’s writing has improved somewhat, I’m still not a fan. It was fun to do the buddy read with Danielle from Books, Vertigo & Tea, though, and I’m hoping she’ll want to do it again.

 

The other book I’ve been reading is Lois McMaster Bujold’s The Curse of Chalion, which is one of my all-time favorite books. If you want a master class in world building and political intrigue in a fantasy setting, then this is the book for you. The characters are beautifully written and utterly believable, and even the villains have logical reasons for what they do. And while the world of the five gods has more books, The Curse of Chalion can act as a standalone novel if you’re not in the mood to embark on yet another lengthy series. I’ll have a further review when I finish it.

In other news, I picked up a couple more books this week, because why not? One was a ‘blind date with a classic’ from one of the indie bookstores downtown. My last experience with a ‘blind date’ book was dreadful, as I ended up with Philippa Gregory’s The Other Boleyn Girl, which remains the only book I’ve ever thrown at a wall. This one sounded more interesting, though, and given that it was in the classics section I figured another Philippa Gregory incident would be unlikely.

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So what did I get?

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It looks fascinating. I’m debating taking it to Iceland with me to read on the plane. We shall see.

I bought two books in all last night. Passing because of the intrigue factor of the ‘blind date with a classic’, and The Ramayana, because I want to develop a better understanding of more literature from around the world.

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What’s up for this week? Lots of preparation. I leave for Iceland on August eighth, and while I’m prepared as far as reservations, passports, and currency, I will need to do laundry and give my apartment a good cleaning so I don’t have to do that when I get home and am exhausted and jet-lagged. I’ll also need to figure out how to pack my camera gear, since I’m taking most of it with me and security restrictions regarding electronics are higher these days. C’est la vie.

As for books, I’ll read what I can. I should finish up The Curse of Chalion in the next day or so, and then it’ll be on to Ann Cleeves’s Raven Black, a mystery series set in the Shetland Islands off the northern Scottish coast. I have a friend who grew up in the Shetlands, so I’m interested in where he’s from. Also, there’s a great TV series based on the books, Shetland. I think there are only about eight episodes, but it’s fantastic. It’s available on Netflix streaming, though you’ll probably want to turn on the subtitles as their accents are quick thick.

I started listening to a new-to-me podcast today. It’s called Writing Excuses, and features four writers who discuss various elements of writing and how to do things like world building and pointing out that descriptions of a thing can change drastically based on a character’s point of view. It’s entertaining and three episodes in (they’re all about 15-20 minutes long), the hosts have given me a lot to think about regarding my own writing and in the books I’d reading.

Sunday Sum-Up

I am pleased to report that I did not melt this week after dealing with heat indexes approaching 108°F (42°C), and actual temperatures that didn’t drop below 90°F until after 10:00pm. I felt like I swam to work yesterday morning through 90% humidity. But thanks to several coffee shops and bookstores with their wonderful air conditioning, I survived the heat wave. This morning is much cooler, and without my window unit rattling away, I’ve been able to properly listen to my podcasts, in particular, LeVar Burton Reads. The newest episode is, ‘Graham Greene’ by Percival Everett. It’s an intriguing story set in Wyoming, about a man contacted by a 102 year-old woman who wants him to find her son.

6260576It felt like I didn’t read very much this week, and part of that is due to the heat and the humidity frying my brain and making it difficult to sleep. I started and finished Yrsa Sigurðardóttir’s My Soul To Take, which was fine. I didn’t find it to be particularly creepy, as the reviews say it is. But then, my reaction to creepy stuff has always been rather blase. I doubt I’ll read any more of this particular series. I didn’t object to the writing, translation, or the pacing, but the MC, Thora, just didn’t interest me very much.

After getting excited upon hearing that they were going to be releasing a series of comics based on the Showtime series, Penny Dreadful, I sort of forgot about it until something reminded me of it the other day. I did a quick search through my Hoopla app, and there they were! Volume 1 is a prequel to the series and does a good job of fleshing out certain questions I had regarding the first season, namely, ‘What happened to Jonathan Harker and the others who were in Dracula?’ and ‘What brought Malcom and Sembene together?’ and ‘Why is Malcolm not phased by this supernatural lunacy going on around him?’ The art is fine, though it doesn’t approach the brilliance of Sana Takeda’s work in the Monstress series.

The second set of comics deals with the aftermath of the series. While the show ended they way I always thought it would, it felt a bit abrupt. So it’s good to see that they’re continuing the story (and not pulling any punches). Once again, the art is fine, and while the dialogue is true to the Victorian nature of the show, the pacing leaves out much of the poetry and the quiet scenes many of the characters shared. I’ll be curious to see if future issues flesh out those quiet moments more than the current ones have.

 

Because Danielle over at Books, Vertigo & Tea and I have been planning to do a buddy read of Sarah J. Maas’s second Throne of Glass book, Crown of Midnight, I bought a digital copy, since I didn’t want to have to wait for a library hold to come through. I’ve written before about how disappointed I was in the first book in the series, so I’m hoping that the second book takes a big leap forward quality-wise, as I have yet to see why so many people say that Maas is ‘one of the best fantasy writers out there’.

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I had to go downtown on my day off to run some errands. I don’t know what I would have done if I couldn’t have made some pit stops at the two independent book stores there. They offered me free iced tea when I walked in the door at Francie & Finch, and Indigo Bridge Books has always had a great little cafe with both hot and cold drinks. I bought an iced coffee and spent about an hour wandering around looking at all the books. I picked a book at each shop- Ann Patchett’s The Magician’s Assistant and volume 2 of Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda’s graphic novel series, Monstress. They go along with the copy of Ray Bradbury’s The Illustrated Man I bought at Barnes and Noble the night before. The heat may make it hard to sleep, but at least I have some new books to read while I’m lying awake at night!

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I intended to do a lot of things when I got home last night, but it was so hot and gross, and I was so tired after a week of lousy sleep that I ended up not doing much of anything. What I mainly did was discover that the entire current season of The Great British Baking Show is available through Nebraska’s PBS streaming service. I have an NPR membership, which gives me free access to the service (yay NPR!) I had been watching an episode every Friday night, thinking that they were premiering on the streaming service when the episodes were playing on TV. But they weren’t! The whole season was available right from the start! So I binge-watched the remaining few last night, and was thrilled to see that my favorite baker won the whole thing!

I have not caught up on TNT’s Will. I meant to last week, but it didn’t happen. I blame the heat and general fatigue for that. It’s hard to get excited about anything when, outside of work, you feel like you’re trying to breathe soup. This week? A little cooler! I might have some energy!

New Acquisition

If it wasn’t so hot out, I wouldn’t be spending my evenings in bookstores. I don’t buy very much, but I’m still there. Looking. Adding to my TBR.

I haven’t read Ray Bradbury’s The Illustrated Man, so I picked up a copy of it last night.

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I would have preferred to get Something Wicked This Way Comes, but they only had one copy, and the cover art was not nearly as good as this. It seems like all of Bradbury’s books have gotten a great redesign, except my favorite one. The search continues..

In other news, I bought a new lighting setup! Well, I’m still using my lamp, but I bought a light tent to better diffuse the light so I get less glare and shadow. Aesthetic backgrounds will come later. Probably.

Also, I’m doing the bookstagram thing on Instagram now at traveling.gladly. Follow me there so we can see each other’s book photos!