Being Nikki by Meg Cabot

It’s no secret that I’m a big fan of Meg Cabot, according to the Blogger search feature I’ve mentioned her in over 13 posts over the past few years. I’ve read almost every book she’s written except Nicola and the Viscount. Thus it’s no surprise that I ran out and bought Being Nikki the day it came out a week or two ago.

Being Nikki by Meg Cabot is the sequel to last year’s Airhead. Airhead introduces plucky, smart (and slightly geeky) girl next door Emerson Watts. Em is forced by their parents to take her brand snob of a younger sister to the grand opening of a store Em and her best friend would much rather be boycotting. A terrible accident occurs and poor Em wakes up in the hospital to find her life irrevocably changed.

Spoiler Alert!

When Em wakes up she finds herself in the body of super model Nikki Howard. From sweats wearing computer game aficionado to emancipated minor, face of her generation party girl Em’s life is upended. This is no Freaky Friday transformation either. Em was the recipient of full on brain transfer surgery. Her body and name are gone, she IS Nikki Howard and is now legally bound to fulfill Ms. Howard’s modeling contracts, no matter how loathsome the prospect.

Em learns to cope, but she still has a lot to learn about Being Nikki. When a good looking young man in a Navy uniform shows up in her apartment lobby claiming to be her brother, Nikki/Em’s world is turned upside down. Again. Things are not what they seem to be in Em’s new life and she is reminded again that there is no going backward, only forward.

Cabot’s deft mixture of real world high school living, bizarre science, MTV party scene, evil coroprate giants and lots of humor make for a great little series. Being Nikki ends with quite a surprise, and rather than being annoyed at the cliff-hanger I found myself simply thrilled that there would be a third book. Another job well done, Meg!

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Bloodhound by Tamora Pierce

Bloodhound by Tamora Pierce is the second book in the Legend of Beka Cooper series. Set in the land of Tortall, almost two hundred years before her popular series Song of the Lioness, Bloodhound is a different sort of beast from Pierce’s previous books.

One of the biggest differences of this series is that it is written in first person. At first the change was jarring for me, but Beka’s voice is so strong it is almost impossible not to be sucked into her world. Beka is a “Dog,” a sort of medival peacekeeper or policewoman in the country’s capital city. Both Bloodhound and the previous entry in the trilogy, Terrier, are written as journal entries that Beka writes. First she writes to keep track of her trainee year and later continues her journals as an exercise to hone her observation skills. This format could be a dangerous one, especially when it comes to giving details about the surroundings, but Pierce really has a knack for the journal entries and manages incredible world building without ever losing sight of the fact that each chapter is meant to be an “entry” in a young woman’s journal.

Beka lives in the slums of her city. She works hard and loves her job, even though it is not glamorous. All of the Tortall novels prior to this have dealt with Knights, mages and nobles who are in the periphery, if not the confidants of, Kings and Queens. They are all wonderful books, full of daring-do and a pageantry. However, there is something comforting about Beka’s smaller world where every day things like buying bread and having to worry about clean uniforms enter into the equation.

Tamora Pierce’s cities came alive for me. Both the capital city of Corus and the seaside Port Caynn are characters of their own with colorful rogues, their own slang and manner of speaking, customs and foods. From riots over bread prices to finding lost children, the early examples of police work are presented realistically in these places. I would never have thought the subject of counterfitting could be fascinating, or even exciting, but it was. I reread Terrier in anticipation of Bloodhound’s release in April and found myself so deeply into Beka’s world that I didn’t want to come out. I started Bloodhound again for a second read almost as soon as I finished it. That, more than anything I can tell you about the novel, including hints at the plot or characters, should tell you that this was a great book!

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3 Willows by Ann Brashares

3 Willows: The Sisterhood Grows by Ann Brashares

Set in the same hometown as Brasheres‘ bestselling Travelling Pants novels, 3 Willows picks up after the previous series has ended. The book introduces three new friends Ama, Jo and Polly and focuses on that awkward summer that happens after eighth grade. Friends since third grade the girls are finding that they don’t have as much in common now as they hover on the brink of entering high school. Written in the same format as the Pants book, the novel alternates between each of the three characters and documents their changes and discoveries over the course of a summer.

I admire Brashares’ deft handling or presentation of being a teenager. The girls are both needy and fiercely independant, determined and insecure and full of the riotous emotions I recall so clearly from those years of my own life. The parents are also well done; they are shown as loving and imperfect without being idiots or completley absentee as many parents are handled in this genre.

Tibby’s family, Brian, and Lena’s sister, Effie, all make appearances in the book, which will thrill fans of the Pants books. In fact, the four friends of Traveling Pants fame are legends in their own high school. Ama, Jo and Polly are enamoured of the idea of a magical friendship and have been searching for their own shareablel talisman. Believing they need something concrete to bind them together, the girls begin to drift until they learn that there are many different types of friendships and that you don’t need a pair of pants to have magic in your life.

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Gods Behaving Badly by Marie Phillips

Gods Behaving Badly by Marie Phillips

The Greek Gods of myth are alive and well and living in London as the world’s most dysfunctional family in one extraordinary, dilapidated house. Their powers are waning after millions of years and it looks like death is upon them until a bizarre set of circumstances sends a modern day mortal hero on a quest to the underworld to save them all. Sounds intriguing, doesn’t it?

It gets better: Aphrodite works as a sex phone provider, Artemis is a professional dog walker and Apollo (with a little help from Cupid’s arrow) falls in love with a cleaning lady. The cleaning lady loves a desk jockey reminiscent of the 40 Year Old Virgen and their idea of a hot date is a game of Scrabble on an iPhone…

Sadly, as cute as the premise of the book is, the final product just wasn’t as appealing to read as it should have been. Is it meant to be a humor novel? If so it wasn’t funny enough. Is it a romance? There isn’t quite enough heart. All in all the novel felt like a promising screenplay: good enough to receive a green light but seriously in need of tweaking and fleshing out.

For a first novel this is still a great debut and I will be curious to see future offerings by this writer. Like her debut book, Phillips shows promise.

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The Seasoning of a Chef by Doug Psaltis

The Seasoning of a Chef by Doug Psaltis (with Michael Psaltis) is subtitled “My Journey from Diner to Ducasse and Beyond.” I picked it up at a hotel while on vacation as part of a Read It and Return It program which also supports literacy and book buying charities. I had no idea who Alain Ducasse was but I liked the style of first chapter and kept reading.

The first half of this book is grand, the reader cannot help but root for the spunky preteen working for his grizzled diner owning grandpa. The hard working young man, just out of high school and looking for his place in life is just as endearing. It took me so long to learn what I wanted to do with my life that seeing someone else figure that out and set goals, then achieve them made for a wonderful story.

The second half of the memoir made me more melancholy. It was not because of anything happening in the book, which remained well written and engaging. In fact, it was because it was so descriptive that I began to want to see some of these places the young chef slaved away in. I wanted to eat at them and experience them! As I’m unlikely to ever go to Monaco and dine at a Ducasse restaurant it was a sort of bittersweet longing.

I was so fascinated by this new world of international cuisine that I began to wiki and google some of the restaurants and chef’s mentioned within. I managed to broaden my horizons about the world of high class food, but I also discovered that it is a rather insular world. Entire online communities exist made up of chefs and food reviewers. I noticed that there is a mixed reaction to this book in those places. I don’t know enough about any of their complaints to say one way or another if they are accurate. As a reader unfamiliar with their world I CAN say that I did not feel it portrayed any person or restaurant negatively. Seasoning of a Chef was a fascinating and enjoying read for me. Because of the book I am MUCH more likely to eat at the type of restaurant mentioned. The naysayers should be thankful that Chef Psaltis and his brother are as handy with words as with food and bring new custom to all of their restaurants! Perhaps someday, on just such a trip, I’ll get to try a duck confit. (Genre: Memoir)

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How to Ditch Your Fairy by Justine Larbalestier and other books

How to Ditch Your Fairy by Justine Larbalestier

I’ve been following Justine Larbalestier’s blog since reading her Magic or Madness books. The author splits her time between the States and Australia and has many wickedly funny observations on life. She also has lots of good advice for writers and shares what it is really like to be part of the publishing business. Long before I got to read this book I saw it referred to on the blog as a work in progress. Justine called the “Great Australian Feminist Monkey-Knife-Fighting Elvis Cricket Mangosteen novel.” If that doesn’t clue you in that this is one YA book that defies categorization I don’t know what would.

HtDYF is set in a city that’s not American or Australian and seems to part of an alternate reality that combines the best of both into a new sort of place. Larbalestier has hit a home run of a novel that should appeal to fans of sports, Meg Cabot, fantasy and school novels like the A-List or Gossip Girls. It’s got something for everyone, and manages to be poignant, humorous and real while still focusing on “parking fairies” and the luge. Quite an accomplishment, really, and fun to read. I reccomend it highly. (Genre YA)

Other books read in February 2009:

Glitter Baby by Susan Elizabeth Phillips This title was one of SEP’s early novels and has been out of print for ages. She recently went over it with a fine tooth comb, adding and tweaking and or in her words she” spent four months freshening up the original manuscript—developing the characters a bit more, adding a few new scenes—and I’m delighted with the outcome.” I was delighted with the outcome, too, but I’m a sucker for her novels. They combine humor, glamor and slightly over the top scenarios with characters that have real world problems, emotions and a healthy amount of growth. This one was no exception. (Genre: Contemporary Romantic Comedy)

Beauty by Robin McKinley
Originally published in 1978, my copy hails from an ’85 reissue and features the Boris cover. I have no idea how many times I’ve read this book since I first discovered it while in middle school. It’s an old friend, a comfort read and unlike some I discovered at that time (Merceces Lackey pops to mind) the story remains as magically charming on the gazillionth read as it did on the first. (Genre: sometimes considered YA, other times Fantasy.)

First Lady by Susan Elizabeth Phillips
My enjoyment of her two new books (one read in Jan) made this fun little piece a must to re-read after I discovered it in a box of books that had been in storage in my in-laws basement. The premise is that the widow of an American President needs space after being an icon for so long and goes to great lengths to get it. It’s marvelously fun, but feels just a tad dated in a post-Obama world. (Genre: Contemporary Romantic Comedy)

Cat-Tales Books 3 and 4 by Chris Dee
I mentioned these last month as being an unusual additon to my reading list. They are online fanfiction but still quite superior adventures. I reccomend them highly. Chris’s Selina Kyle is all woman and all cat, full of contradictions, characterized by periods of playfullness and solemninty. The Rogue’s gallery in the elseworld created here like a dysfunctional sitcome with a maniacal bent, and yet poignant too, in a strange way.

Promises in Death by J.D. Robb (Nora Roberts)The latest case to call NYPD Lt. Eve Dallas out onto the streets hits closer to home than most. The murder victim is a fellow police officer, and new significant other of a long recurring character in the series. Like a kicked ant hill, the cops go into hyperdrive to achive justice and closure for one of their own. The grief is heavy in this book because of the closeness of the death, instead of just solving the who-done it, there is sorrow and frustration and more all close to the surface. Even with that, though, the author still deftly inserts developments for all of the supporting cast, a wedding shower and certain elements of humor and daily life. I maintain that these books are some of Roberts best work as she gets to play with and develop recurring characters and explore a married relationship instead of just setting up the one two punch of falling in love that happen in her more mundane romance novels.

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The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins and other books

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins.

The Hunger Games is one of those dystopian futures novels like Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies novels, A Brave New World or even Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale. Collins’ book is riveting from the get go. Every year two teenagers (one male, one female) from each of twelve districts are chosen via lottery to participate in the Hunger Games. The games take place in a wilderness arena and requires the 24 young contestants to fight to the death. The action is televised and everyone in the home districts are forced to watch. This brutal custom is one of the ways that the ruling class prevent an uprising from the working classes.

Katniss Everdeen is the sixteen year old girl who volunteers to represent her district in the games in order to spare her younger sister, who was the one chosen via lottery. Katniss is an intriguing young women, with a great voice. She isn’t perfect at all, and that is perhaps part of her charm. The Hunger Games is a wonderful book. I first heard buzz about it last Labor Day from librarians who were on panel at Dragon*Con. These ladies know their stuff; I was not disappointed. YA Sci/Fi, reccomended highly.

Other books I read in January:

The New Year’s Quilt by Jennifer Chiaverini – though I usually enjoy the quilter’s series of novels this one seemed like a string of anecdotes cut out of previous books and loosely strung together like a flashback episode of a long running sitcom to create a pocket sized novella to market for the holidays. Skip this one and read one of the more substantial novels like the Winding Ways Quilt.

Trickster’s Choice and Trickster’s Queen by Tamora Pierce - I think this was my third or fourth reread of these books. Originally they were a disappointment to me. I so loved Kel, the hero of the previous quartet that I had a hard time getting to like the very different protaganist of the Trickster books. Ali is actually probably one of the more realistic heroines of Pierce’s novels, seemingly lazy and unmotivated in the begining and slowly finding her place and her passions in life by the end of the story. It has grown on me more with every reading until it is, almost surprisingly, now a favorite. Highly reccomended YA Fantasy.

Cat-Tales book one and two by Chris Dee- I don’t usually include fan-fic on this sort of list. Chris Dee’s work is a world apart from the usual fare one finds. This is a DC Comics based alternative universe story where Catwoman and Batman fall in love, but there is so much more to it than that. The character grow and change and evolve in a way that is never allowed in the comic book medium. It’s a change I was thirsting for as a fan, and an adult with an adult’s perspecitve on life and not a kids love of thrills and sameness. I could happily never read another comic as long as this talented author is putting out the stories I love with the characters I’ve grown up with. Five stars for comic books fans who don’t mind strong women who say it like it is.

Salvation in Death by J.D. Robb (Nora Roberts) – another entry in the futuristic case files of NYPD Homicide Detective Eve Dallas. This book covers two murder investigations, one of a priest in a Catholic Church in Spanish Harlem and one of a televangalist in town for a revival. I enjoyed watching the prickly detective run up against the devout priest she learns to admire. I hope that he becomes part of the greater supporting cast in this excellent series. Recommended series: strong on the murder mystery with slight sci-fi overtones and healthy doses of humor and married romance.

What I Did For Love by Susan Elizabeth Phillips - tired of Brangelina and Jennifer? I think this author was too. Her tale of America’s sweetheart dealing with a wandering ex- husband and his new paragon of a wife while trying to keep her own cool and get the press off of her back seems familiar. Like all of SEP’s novels, this enchanting tale combines humor and crazy sit-com situtations with a certain undeniable pathos and a surprising deepness of character for her cast. I’m almost glad the author isn’t more prolific because I always find myself reading through the night to finish these books when I get them. I got a slight head start on this one, at least, and made it to bed by midnight… Romance/Humor recommended strongly.

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Discoveries in 2008

Everyone’s reading habits vary. Some readers chose by subject, others by author, even more are genre oriented. I have rather eclectic tastes that cross many genre’s depending on my mood and current interests. I do have favorite authors, though, and I do like to reread. This means my list for the year has a handful of names that get repeated a lot. It’s always fun to “discover” new authors to add to that list of favorites, and this year I came across several:

Scott Westerfeld is the American husband of Justine Larbalestier. I first discovered him through her blog, but it took me awhile to get around to his books. Shame on me for dawdling, since they are wonderful. I raved about the Uglies books enough that even my husband read them. They aren’t perfect, who is? What they are is fun and intriguing and hugely popular with teens. In fact Westerfeld is cited by some as single handedly introducing a whole new generation to true science fiction (vs fantasy.) He sneaks in science lessons and social issues while entertaining with rusted roller coasters and exciting high speed chases.

Katie Fforde is veddy veddy British and veddy veddy funny. I picked up “Bidding for Love” on a whim at the library and adored it once I got beyond the hokey title (the action is set in an auction house.) Fforde delivers humor, whimsy, romance and happy endings that aren’t perhaps the pairings you’d expect in the beginning chapters of the books…and if that’s not an accomplishment for a romance writer I don’t know what is. I’ve read almost all of her books this year, and while some ranked higher on my favorite list than others the author hasn’t disappointed yet.

Sarah Strohmeyer wrote Sweet Love which had more depth than I expected and really pulled my heartstrings. I’m not sure if it was a wonderful book, or if the plight of the main character just happened to match up with some real life stuff going on in my extended family in a manner that made an impression on me. Whatever the case I’ve got Strohmeyer on my short list of authors to keep an eye out for.

Kristin Cashore’s debut novel Graceling was probably one of the best books I read this year. The prose has been dinged by some reviewers as a little clunky, but I didn’t notice. I was too captivated by the storytelling. The world came alive for me. Part coming of age, part robin hood and part Jack London wilderness adventure all seasoned with a dash of romance and intrigue Graceling has a little something for everyone. I read this book and was satisfied. I was content to ponder upon it for almost a week without reading anything else. Not many books do that to me.

Mary Kay Andrews set Deep Dish in the southeastern US of A. I’m a sucker for books set in my neck of the woods. Factor in cooking, humor and pets and this is one Dish that I’ve been serving to all of my friends. Seriously, I’ve passed it around to at least four different people. It’s with my step-mother right now and I think I’ll be due for a reread by the time it gets back to me.

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On Parenting in Childrens and Young Adult Literature; or How Harry Gets it Right Again

Children’s picture books frequently feature wonderful relationships between little kids and their parents, or grandparents. Moms are heroes, Dad’s idolized and a day with Grandma is the ultimate fun. Then you get to chapter books. Early chapter books have less and less of a presence of parents at all, which is sort of understandable since there’s limited word space and content. These books are usually topic heavy and formulaic as well. Still, by the time one reaches the intermediate and YA novels. parents are either absent (physically or emotionally) or the enemy. I love to read and I love to read to my children. I look forward to the day I can share some of my childhood favorites with them, but at the same time those favorites don’t always pass the test of being viewed through the lens of my adulthood.

I started ruminating on this topic while reflecting on “new” author Eva Ibbotson’s novels and how they remind me a little bit of the feel of Noel Streatfield. Ms. Ibbotson’s books have recently been republished. I missed them the first time around in the mid-eighties, which is a shame, since I would have been the perfect age for them. Her books are a wonderful combination of sweet romance and that sort of spunky princess character provided by many Disney movies. They are a nice fit for young teens who are not ready for adult romance novels, or sexually explicit content, but who also crave something more mature or romantic than intermediate books offer.

I began to think about the books that I DID enjoy at that age. There were no Barnes and Noble booksellers with huge YA selections. Waldenbooks was as big as it got, and they were in the shopping mall over thirty minutes away. Being car-less and living in a small town I mostly relied on K-Mart or the library. As a middle schooler I had a long lasting love of Trixie Belden, but little interest in Nancy Drew. Sweet Valley High held my attention for approximately a year and a half around eight grade. I discovered Robin McKinley around that same time, but she only had the three published novels then and a book of short stories. Jean Slaughter Doty’s books also were great favorites of mine as were Sally Watson and Noel Streatfield. All of those were probably for younger readers than I, but I loved the stories. I still do. Eventually I discovered Anne McCaffrey (probably while trying to find more McKinley novels) and from then on out it was genre all the way through to my mid-twenties when I picked up a second job working as an assistant to the children’s librarian one of the public libraries and rediscovered the joy of reading Children’s and YA literature.

So many of those books have absentee parents or orphaned children. Now that I’m a mom that sort of bothers me. Now, I never noticed this phenomena as a child or teenager. Plucky orphans making the best of it by performing in the theatre? Seven teenagers of various age running wild through the town and country solving mysteries and making friends? The TV addict who wins the heart of her new school’s star basketball player and resident hottie? I loved them all. There was barely a parent or guardian to be seen anywhere, although I do recall a sister in the book about the boob tube junkie. I know there were adults used as veritable MacGuffins in some of the mystery series, else how do our intrepid teens make the trip to the ranch out west, or to England to see the crown jewels and foil foul happening in the wax museum? Still, not one of the books I read then had any kind of parent figure that I saw in my own life, or that of my friends.

I understand that part of what makes reading fun is the escape from reality, the sense of empowerment a young reader gets from empathizing with a character who is able to problem solve on their own, or do things that the reader wishes they could do. It’s just so darned unrealistic. Peaches, a recent read of mine, was pretty enjoyable in that “YA chick lit feel good sort of way.” However the adults in it were all idiots or caricatures. Ann Brashares parents in the Traveling Pants series from the same sub-genre are more well rounded. They are actually engaged in the lives of their teenagers which is pleasant to see. This is such a rarity though, that it is one of the standout features of her series. I’ll want to read those books with my own daughter some day and discuss how the different women interact. Much more common, however are the books where the teenagers are more mature, or capable than the adults. Such disparate books as Eoin Colfer’s Artemis Foul and Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight feature teen and preteen protagonist who make decisions for the betterment of their parents lives. It makes me wonder if that’s just how teenagers SEE adults; as caricatures or peripheral necessities to cough up gas money and groceries or even worse as victims of a strange middle age senility.

Intermediate readers have the same problem. The younger characters often still love their parents, but the protagonists usually know better than the adults. It’s a sort of insidious thing to encounter, as I think kids, pre-teens and teenagers rather naturally go through times when they think they know better than their parents. Reading these sort of books encourages a certain amount of back talk, acting out and rebelliousness. I’m reminded of Snape’s description of Harry as a boy who can’t follow rules that are there for his own safety. It’s so true! By addressing the trope within the novel itself Rowling somehow makes it work while saying that it’s not okay.

In fact, digressing to more Potter talk – one almost can’t converse on this genre any more without doing so (ignore the elephant in the quidditch robes!) – Rowling’s parents are awesome. Though she embraces the orphan making good storyline that I loved as a child, Harry’s parents are still an important part of the story. Although James and Lily Potter are dead, their love for their son and each other is palpably real throughout the series. The Weasley’s are the most in-touch, focused parents I’ve seen in a book in a long time. Scenes of Mrs. Weasley worrying about her family are exactly how I’d feel as a mother, and of course there’s her moment in the arena in the last book as well. Not only do the Weasley family have active parents, they also have sibling rivalry financial problems and tempers which add to the realism. The students of Hogwarts have parents who stay abreast of the news in their world, are concerned about the kids and communicate with them on a regular basis. The Dursley’s are comically deluded but they do love their son. Even Narcissa Malfoy is willing to lie to Voldemort for the sake of her boy. It fascinates me that the best parents to hit the market are in a fantasy series.

As a parent I’d like to see more of this sort of thing. I’m curious how much of the non-parent thing is the story-tellers and how much is the audience. Is it laziness on the part of an author to have a single parent household where death or divorce has created part of the drama for the story? Is it parents in refrigerators?* Or does it have more to do with that insane self absorption that comes from being thirteen (or any other “teen.”) Are they catering to the audience? Maybe Rowling’s broken more ground than just length of novels. Hopeful other authors and editors will realize that parents don’t have to be the bad guys to bring the readers in. In the meantime I guess I can rest assured that, while I may notice the lack of parents in the novels, my kids will remain oblivious.

*This refers to a comic phenomena called Women in Refrigerators that refers to the practice of killing or maiming a hero’s female love interest in order to give him angst, or inspiration. I’m trying to be funny in referring to the parents this way, but the more I think about it the more it bothers me as I mentally rack up a tally of books with dead parents. It’s not just for Disney, folks!

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Agnes and the Hitman by Jennifer Cruise and Bob Mayer

Take one writer with a weekly food column and anger management issues, add in a frying pan, a drooling hound, a hitman, the mob, a wedding and a two flamingos and you have a recipe for a great time.

Agnes and the Hitman is the second collaboration between Jennifer Cruise and Bob Mayer. The combination of he said/she said writing leads to a fabulously humorous adventure where both the kitchen disasters, fashion faux pas and sex scenes read with the same deft touch as the guns, bombs and explosives. That’s not to say that men can’t write sex, or women can’t write about guns. It is just an example of the various expertise these particular two writers bring into play. Cruise and Mayer together bring more to the table than they do individually, and as they are both very readable authors on their own this is high praise indeed.

Don’t Look Down was their first collaboration, and should not be missed. In fact, there is a guest appearance from Don’t Look Down in the new book, and not one the reader would expect. Check them both out! You won’t be sorry and might learn a few new uses for a frying pan that you hadn’t thought of.

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