Newest review: This Is Not A Love Letter by Kim Purcell

By Ekta R. Garg

February 15, 2018

Release date: January 30, 2018

Genre: YA mystery

Rated: Bypass it

When a teen goes missing, his girlfriend refuses to believe he’s run away. Instead she focuses on the positive and begins documenting the search for him, hoping to share it with him when he returns. Author Kim Purcell recounts this tale for teens by using the unusual choice of second person point of view that ultimately weakens her novel This Is Not A Love Letter.

Jessie Doone loves her boyfriend, baseball star Chris Kirk, but lately Chris has gotten clingy. He wants to get married before they both graduate from high school, and while Jessie can’t imagine her life without Chris she also wants a chance at pursuing her own dreams outside their small town. She wants to leave it all behind: her mother who struggles with hoarding and the prejudiced residents of Pendling, Washington, who look at her and Chris and see only a biracial couple.

Chris supports her goals of studying the environment in college, but he’s begun pressuring Jessie for a decision on getting married. Jessie finally hits her limit and asks Chris for a break. Just a week, she says, of no contact, to give them both time to think about their futures. Surely, she reasons, a week apart can only yield good results.

Then Jessie gets the news: Chris has gone missing. Unlike other times when Chris would take some time for himself, he has left no note. No one knows where he’s gone.

The police think Chris has run away. Jessie thinks something more sinister is possible. Just weeks earlier, several other baseball players beat up Chris because he’s black. Chris believes deeply in nonviolent forms of protest and didn’t fight back. Now Jessie wishes he had.

Jessie decides to keep a record of the search for him. In her journal entries, she talks directly to Chris in the hopes that sending out her love in strong waves will bring him home. The longer he’s gone, however, the less positive the people around Jessie remain that Chris will come back safe and sound.

Author Kim Purcell presents her story with an unusual choice of point of view: she tells the story in second person, which means the main character addresses the reader as “you” in telling the story. In the case of This Is Not A Love Letter, Jessie tells the story to Chris as she waits for some news of him. She tells him several times throughout the book how much she loves and misses him and wonders why he left. In some ways, the second person point of view might make sense. Unfortunately it doesn’t work.

Because Jessie spends the entire book “talking” to Chris, the majority of the conversation turns into how she feels about him and their relationship. Jessie also spends plenty of time detailing life in Pendling with a mother who can barely leave the house because of her issues with hoarding. What readers won’t get is much time with Chris or anyone else in the book, and because the story contains a mystery at its heart the essential elements for that mystery never get shared.

Chris and Jessie’s friends hint at issues Chris may have, but readers get only those hints. More astute members of the target readership will probably figure out early on what happened to Chris, but receiving confirmation of a correct guess comes with little satisfaction. At a key point in the story, one of the secondary characters reprimands Jessie. Not everything about Chris missing, the character says, is about Jessie. Yet the choice of point of view and the heavy doses of teenage melodrama give readers the distinct feeling that Chris going missing is about Jessie’s feelings.

The book tries to raise some serious issues teens face today, including racism and what it’s like to live with a hoarding family member, but it doesn’t do much justice to any of them. I recommend readers Bypass This Is Not A Love Letter.

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Newest review: The Book of Pearl by Timothee de Fombelle

By Ekta R. Garg

February 8, 2018

Genre: YA fiction/magical realism

Release date: February 6, 2018

Rated: Borrow it

A young man gets sent to the world of ordinary humans, doomed to spend the rest of his life away from his one true love. He does everything he can to go home, but the enemy that chased him away wants him dead. Translators Sarah Ardizzone and Sam Gordon do their best to interpret French author Timothee de Fombelle’s book, The Book of Pearl, but ultimately can’t fill in the blanks of a loose story.

A boy runs—almost literally—into Joshua Pearl, a stranger and loner, in the middle of the woods. The boy wants to escape his own challenges, but when he meets Joshua he reevaluates his life. There’s something about this elderly gentleman that keeps the boy in the woods with him.

Despite his skepticism, Joshua develops a friendship with the boy and reveals his story. Joshua is not, in fact, Joshua Pearl. His true name is Ilian, and he is the younger prince of his land in a place far removed from this world. Ilian’s older brother, jealous and greedy about ruling after the death of their father, banishes Ilian to the land of ordinary humans.

Ilian then tells his new young friend about Olia, a fairy charged with protecting Ilian in their home country. Ilian and Olia met when the two were young, and through the years developed first a friendship and then a love that seals them to one another. Ilian’s brother knows about Olia, if not exactly the nature of Ilian’s relationship to her, and manages to sideline Olia long enough to send Ilian away.

Ilian arrives in the middle of one of history’s greatest tragedies: the Second World War. He finds himself on a street in Paris where a kind couple takes him in, and he becomes the son they lost years earlier in a tragedy. When the war demands the couple’s son as a soldier, Ilian takes the son’s name and rechristens himself Joshua.

Slowly he learns the ways of this world but is convinced that if he can collect enough artifacts with the sense of magic, they will transport him back to his home. Unknown to Ilian, Olia has found a way to the world of humans and has begun searching for him. Right on her heels, however, is a contingent sent by Ilian’s brother to eliminate him for good.

Author Timothee de Fombelle builds a story with beautiful descriptions. The care taken by translators Sarah Ardizzone and Sam Gordon is evident in the lushness of the English version of the story. If the language is this rich in a translated version, readers will probably wish they could experience the book’s true depth in the original French.

The plot itself has its own share of problems, however. The protagonist recounting Ilian and Olia’s tale remains unnamed, which keeps considerable distance between the readers and him. Because the focus of the book is, in fact, Ilian and Olia and Ilian’s new life as Joshua, readers get little information about the narrator. They may end up wondering why he’s necessary.

Also, Fombelle tries to unfold several ideas at roughly the same time—the narrator’s own angst in life; Ilian’s birth and his brother’s vengeance; Olia’s charge as Ilian’s protector; Ilian’s arrival in Paris; his transformation into Joshua Pearl; Pearl’s mystique and pursuance of artifacts. Unlike other books that have reveled in a multi-story plot—Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus comes immediately to mind—here the various plot points don’t coalesce to create one single pool of shimmering fairy tale magic. It certainly tries but doesn’t quite get there.

Equally frustrating is the way Fombelle tries to duck the need for some necessary story devices. The book moves forward confidently in some parts and in others relies too much on the fact that readers will accept major action because the characters state it. Late in the book, the narrator pops up as an afterthought to take the story to its climax. It’s almost as if Ilian and Olia had to wait for the narrator to arrive before moving forward.

Readers who enjoy the language typically employed in fairy tale stories will appreciate The Book of Pearl. Others may find the multi-plot system and the unnamed narrator too much of a distraction. I recommend readers Borrow The Book of Pearl.

Brand new review: As You Wish by Chelsea Sedoti

By Ekta R. Garg

February 1, 2018

Genre: YA magical realism

Date released: January 1, 2018

Rated: Binge it!

Just before his eighteenth birthday, a teen must make a difficult choice: what to wish for. In a forgotten town in the Mojave Desert, everyone gets one wish and that wish always comes true. Given the unanticipated results of decades of wishes, however, the teen faces his birthday with dread instead of excitement. Author Chelsea Sedoti delights and surprises readers with this interesting premise in her newest novel As You Wish.

Eldon Wilkes is gearing up for his birthday; his eighteenth birthday, in fact. For most teens across the country, turning 18 means becoming an adult. In Madison, Nevada, turning 18 means getting to make a wish and knowing it will come true. In theory that idea would thrill any person. The residents of Madison, though, live with the reality of the fact that while their wishes may have come true, that certainly doesn’t mean the end to their problems.

It doesn’t help that Eldon’s mother expects him to wish for money. Months earlier Eldon’s little sister, Ebba, got into a terrible accident and is in hospice care in Las Vegas. Eldon’s mother is convinced that with enough money the family can hire the world’s best physicians to treat Ebba and make her better, even though the doctors say Ebba’s brain no longer functions. Everyone, it seems, has accepted the truth, except for Eldon’s mother.

His father doesn’t put that kind of pressure on him, but he doesn’t openly support Eldon. As the target of a different wish long ago, Eldon’s father is fated to support his mother for the rest of his life. Again, in theory, it seems like a great concept—never-ending validation from a spouse. In real life, Eldon finds his father’s inability to counter his mother exasperating.

What makes matters worse is that Eldon has recently suffered from a more common problem: his first breakup. His ex-girlfriend starts dating one of his football teammates who had the opportunity on his own eighteenth birthday to wish to be the best player on the team. Eldon’s always been the best—the best player with the most beautiful girl in school on his arm. Now he’s struggling at practice and trying to figure out what to wish for. When a teacher suggests a research project that entails asking people in Madison what they wished for, Eldon hopes hearing other people’s stories will give him some inspiration. With less than a month left before his own wish day, he’s going to need all the help he can get.

Author Chelsea Sedoti uses her own experience of living in the Mojave Desert to her full advantage. As she describes the blowing of the sand and the searing heat, readers will feel the grit in their own eyes and search for a cool glass of water. The setting of the town, in fact, offers the perfect juxtaposition between its day-to-day sameness of physical landscape and the life-changing wishes of the town’s residents.

In addition to the harsh beauty of the landscape, Sedoti gives readers well-rounded characters that fit right in the target audience of the book. Young adult readers will identify with the evergreen concept of wanting a wish to come true. It also fits into the classic teenage idea that one is invincible. When one’s invincibility is challenged over decades by wishes that tend to disappoint, however, it gets replaced by a melancholic optimism; the teens of Madison know the likely outcome of their lives—staying there forever—yet they keep wishing, and hoping, anyway.

More astute readers may guess what Eldon wishes for, but the ride to that day is so fun that even those who anticipate the drops and twists will enjoy it. While Sedoti could have scaled back on the profanity just a touch, no doubt she’s using it to speak to today’s teens. Her biggest strength in the book comes in the fact that Eldon doesn’t find redemption from any of his problems right away. He struggles with everything, and his struggles knock him down over and over. Sedoti’s approach will refresh readers and, hopefully, remind them that life really isn’t as simple as wishing for something to happen.

I recommend readers Binge As You Wish by Chelsea Sedoti.

New review: Two Girls Down by Louisa Luna

By Ekta R. Garg

January 26, 2018

Genre: Thriller

Release date: January 9, 2018

Rated: Bookmark it!

Two sisters get kidnapped in a small town, and their aunt hires a bounty hunter to find them. The bounty hunter arrives ready to do her job but will need to battle local law enforcement as well as the ghosts from her own past if she wants to bring the children home. Author Louisa Luna combines a smart, compelling plot with evocative writing in her newest book Two Girls Down.

Jamie Brandt leaves her daughters, Kylie and Bailey, in the car at the strip mall parking lot but convinces herself they’ll be okay, because she’ll be gone five minutes, ten minutes tops. She’s just ready to get to the birthday party where they’re headed so the kids can be someone else’s problem for a while. Jamie loves her kids, but single parenting is sucking all the life out of her.

Then she gets back to the car and discovers the girls are missing. What’s left of Jamie’s fragile world begins to fall apart. Her aunt steps in with an answer, which Jamie immediately clings to like a life raft in the middle of the ocean.

Jamie’s aunt finds Alice Vega, a bounty hunter from California with a solid track record. By Alice’s own admission, she’s taken on the responsibility of finding 18 kidnapped children so far—and found all of them. Not all the stories have happy endings but if anyone can find Kylie and Bailey, it’s Alice.

Alice Vega arrives in Denville, Pennsylvania, expecting all the pushback she gets. Local police officers don’t trust anyone outside their jurisdiction, least of all a woman from clear across the country. Some people take one look at her diminutive frame and assume she can’t be much of a force; she’s quick to prove them wrong. She approaches former police officer Max “Cap” Caplan to help her, and he declines with as much professional courtesy as he can muster without rolling his eyes directly in her face.

Cap, however, reconsiders his decision after a heart to heart with someone close to him. He warns Alice of all the skepticism she’s already encountered. She just shrugs and reaffirms her commitment to bring Kylie and Bailey home, no matter what. Together they retrace steps and use resources outside of law enforcement to fight their way to the one goal they have in mind. They know they’re racing against a clock. The longer Bailey and Kylie are missing, the less likely the story ends happily.

Author Louisa Luna accomplishes the rare feat of presenting a compelling thriller novel while at the same time taking great care with the language. Most thrillers offer bare-bone sentences with all the concentration going toward pacing and plot. Luna clearly enjoys narrative that will make readers pause as much for its clever word use as anything else.

In Alice Vega, Luna creates a protagonist who could be classified as a stock character only in the strictest sense. Alice’s challenges from before her career as a bounty hunter may not necessarily surprise anyone, but that doesn’t make those challenges any less real. Luna’s careful use of language will make readers want to offer Alice quiet sympathy. It’s not in Alice’s nature to get all cuddly with anyone, and readers will respect that.

Alice’s thoughts and ideas are crystal clear; it’s Cap who is the more conflicted of the two, but that’s exactly what makes him so interesting. They complement one another in temperament and skill set. The duo work so well together that readers, in fact, may wonder at the end whether another book with Alice and Cap is forthcoming.

The plot itself with keep readers engaged, venturing into places thrillers don’t always like to go. One of the weaker points of the story comes in the number of suspects Luna presents as possible kidnappers. There are just too many to keep track of, which detracts from the overall impact. The climax feels just a touch contrived, and a red herring could possibly frustrate readers a little bit. It won’t prevent them, however, from caring about the girls but ultimately about whether Alice accomplishes her goal.

Weaker points aside, anyone who enjoys a solid thriller will definitely want to read this book. I recommend readers Bookmark Two Girls Down.

Latest review: A Talent for Murder by Andrew Wilson

Reviewed by Ekta R. Garg

January 19, 2018

Genre: Mystery/thriller

Release date: May 18, 2017

Rated: Bordering on Bookmark it!

In December of 1926, the best-selling mystery author of all time disappeared for about 11 days. Servants in Agatha Christie’s home saw her go upstairs to kiss her only daughter good night. No one knows when she slipped out of the house, but the fact remains she did. The fact that she drove away from her house in her own car was also realized and agreed upon later by those close to her and the case.

The question is, what happened next?

British author Andrew Wilson (a self-proclaimed avid fan of Christie’s work) tries to answer that question within the framework of the known facts in his newest novel, A Talent for Murder. The end pieces of that framework start with Christie’s disappearance and conclude with her being found less than two weeks later at a spa hotel hundreds of kilometers north of her home. How did she get there, when her car was found abandoned not long after she was reported missing?

More importantly, why did she go?

Biographers and Agatha Christie experts alike concluded that she suffered temporary but total amnesia brought on by her mother’s recent death and the discovery that her husband cheated on her. Her estate has always maintained the same answer: amnesia or a fugue state. Some people accused her of trying to punish her unfaithful husband. Others say she did it for publicity, although she may not have needed it. She’d already achieved writing success and was writing a new book when she disappeared.

Wilson posits a different scenario by taking into account what Christie wrote about in her books: murder.

A Talent for Murder opens with Agatha agonizing over her recent discovery of the infidelity of her husband, Archie. He’s been carrying on with Nancy Neele, a member of their social circle. The information rubs salt into the wound torn open by her mother’s death.

In her troubled state of mind, she finds it difficult to maintain any objectivity when she’s contacted by general practitioner Dr. Patrick Kurs who threatens to hurt her family’s reputation and do bodily harm to her daughter. Agatha assumes Kurs wants money, but he demands something more difficult: he wants Agatha to murder his wife, Flora, so he can take over Flora’s large estate. She tries to protest, but Kurs makes it a simple case of blackmail.

Agatha balks but caves to Kurs’ demands. He states that in order for her to carry out the murder so that no one is suspected, she must disappear from her home and allow herself to be taken to a hotel where she is to await instructions and the timeline for the murder. Despite her abhorrence of Kurs, she agrees. She slips out of her home on a cold December night after writing a series of vague letters, as per Kurs’ directives, to some of the people closest to her.

Her disappearance causes an international sensation, and Superintendent William Kenward launches an investigation that skews toward Archie Christie. Kenward has been on the police force enough years to know that in most disappearance cases, someone close to the victim is usually to blame. After learning of Archie’s relationship with Nancy Neele, Kenward becomes more convinced that the mystery writer has met a fate similar to the victims in her novels.

Una Crowe, daughter of British diplomat Sir Eyre Crowe, becomes enamored with Agatha’s story. Una wants become a writer herself, and on the recommendation of her close friend and British spy, John Davison, she starts to do some amateur sleuthing into Agatha’s disappearance. As she starts to poke around and ask questions, it whets her appetite for the life of a journalist.

Author Wilson brings all of these players together and blends fact with fiction—Superintendent William Kenward was, indeed, the one to lead the investigation, but Una Crowe (while a real person) seemingly had no connection to Agatha Christie. In effect, the entire book is Wilson playing that favorite game of writers, “What if…?”

The plot may feel a little too convenient in some places—after all, why, really, does Kurs need Agatha to disappear to commit a murder? Why not force her into it as soon as possible and just let her take the blame while he walks away with his wife’s money? Also, during her time at the spa hotel, Agatha is free to move around. She goes shopping and interacts with several people. Despite the fact that she uses an assumed name (a throwback to the facts when she was found at the hotel using a different name,) Agatha does nothing else to disguise herself. It’s a little bit of a stretch, then, that a woman as smart and insightful as her is content to just sit and wring her hands for more than a week until Kurs gives her the go ahead.

Wilson writes the Agatha portions of the story in first person, so readers get constant reminders that the main reason why she’s subjecting herself to Kurs’ awful plan is because of her own fragile psychological state. The choice of point of view is a smart one. Readers may be asked to stretch plausibility for a little bit, but Wilson writes Agatha as a sympathetic character. It’s hard not to agree with what she does within the confines of the story world Wilson builds.

Other fans of Christie’s work may disagree with Wilson’s conclusions, but for once it’s refreshing to see someone famous portrayed as a person in charge of their own decisions. Whether those decisions are good or bad is another discussion, but at least in Wilson’s world Agatha isn’t suffering from drug problems or even the amnestic state her estate and other biographers claim. She’s a person forced into a hard situation and does what she can to get out of it.

For those reasons, I recommend that Andrew Wilson’s A Talent for Murder Borders on Bookmarking it!

Latest review: Before I Let Go by Marieke Nijkamp

By Ekta R. Garg

January 10, 2018

Genre: YA mystery/thriller

Release date: January 2, 2018

Rated: Bordering on Bypass it

When a teen in a small town dies under mysterious circumstances, her best friend tries to find out what happened. The residents of the town resist all inquiries, leaving the friend to wonder whether something more sinister is afoot. Author Marieke Nijkamp’s second novel contains a weak storyline that tries to skate on its intensity in Before I Let Go.

The 200 or so residents of the town of Lost Creek, Alaska, don’t approve of outsiders. Or anyone different. Or anything that goes against everything the town has stood for in all the decades it’s existed. That’s why Corey Johnson finds some relief when her mother gets a job in another city and they move away.

In some ways, leaving Lost Creek feels like a foreign concept. Corey can’t stand the thought of separating from Kyra Henderson, her best friend since time immemorial. But she does want to get away from the oppression of small-town life, which she’s experienced firsthand. Ever since Kyra’s official diagnosis of bipolar disorder, the town’s residents treat Kyra like a pariah. They ostracize her from town life and give her a wide berth when she walks down the street. Corey knows she’s Kyra’s first line of defense, but the effort to remain so is exhausting her.

She thinks about Kyra constantly, but a new school and new friends begin to occupy her time more and more. Anyway, nothing has changed in Lost Creek since the town’s founding, so Corey has no doubt that everything will remain status quo until her next visit back. When she gets the phone call, then, that Kyra has died, everything Corey knows about Lost Creek comes into question.

Corey rushes home expecting the town’s residents to be relieved that Kyra is gone. What she gets is a town that reveres Kyra and her art. Corey tries to confront various people, including Kyra’s parents, about the sudden change of heart towards her gentle friend. No one has any concrete answers about anything, including how or why Kyra died, and the more Corey digs the more she learns that Lost Creek really is lost in more ways than one.

Author Marieke Nijkamp’s first book This Is Where It Ends offered readers a compelling plot that follows students at a school under the threat of a shooter. She maintains the same level of tension in Before I Let Go but lets down her characters as well as the readers with a plot that doesn’t measure up to the premise proposed. While it’s easy to understand the stereotypical wariness small-town citizens harbor for anything out of the ordinary, Nijkamp can’t quite make a convincing argument about why those same citizens would suddenly turn on one of their own.

The hostile behavior of the residents of Lost Creek feels forced. Readers will understand Corey’s relief at leaving, and the subsequent guilt that follows, but when Corey comes back to Lost Creek to look into Kyra’s death the town turns on her too. Again, the hostility seems almost thrust upon Corey, as if no other antagonist would have sufficed in the plot.

Nijkamp seems to want to tackle several subjects all at the same time, and in doing so she sacrifices full commitment to any one of those topics. Corey leaves and Kyra stays, but no satisfying explanation is offered as to why that particular event makes the town embrace Kyra without question. Smart readers might wonder whether Corey was the problem all along, and if she’s got a great new life in a new city then they might ask what the big deal about the way Lost Creek treats Kyra is after all. Everything works out in the end, more or less.

Fans of Nijkamp’s previous book might want to pick this one up; her writing is solid is ever and she offers some lovely turns of phrase. But for the most part, Before I Let Go is Bordering on Bypass it.

Brand new review: The Border by Steve Schafer

Reviewed by Ekta R. Garg

December 20, 2017

Genre: YA fiction

Release date: September 5, 2017

Rated: Binge it!

Four teens in Northern Mexico run for their lives when a drug cartel targets them. The teens decide to cross the border into the United States and learn firsthand of the excruciating hardships undertaken by those who follow the same path. Author Steve Schafer does a brilliant job of making the excoriating desert heat a reality in his realistic, heartbreaking novel The Border.

Cousins and best friends Pato and Arbo can’t wait for the start of Arbo’s sister’s quinceañera. A quince, as it’s known for short, always means great food and a family celebration. Life may be hard in their small town in Northern Mexico there on the edge of the Sonoran Desert, but Pato and Arbo have no complaints. Their fathers, brothers, share a construction business and always talk about bringing the boys into it one day. Now that they’re both 16, Pato can practically see himself and Arbo working side by side in the family business.

For now, though, the boys get ready to enjoy Carmen’s quince. Invited to the party, among others, is Marcos, a year older than Pato and Arbo and soccer superstar. Marcos oozes confidence, on the field as well as with girls. His little sister, Gladys, also tags along to the party, and Pato has always noticed her. She stands out from all the other girls because of a quiet dignity that she possesses and that Pato appreciates.

At Carmen’s quinceañera, the four teens sneak behind the house to smoke a cigarette. As they talk, they hear gunshots, which have come from Arbo’s home. The targets? Everyone at the party, particularly Pato and Arbo’s fathers. In a burst of bravery, Marcos runs into the home and manages to shoot one of the killers before the four teens run.

The small act of revenge brings on life-changing consequences. After seeking help from an unlikely friend, the teens find out that the people who attacked their families weren’t just run-of-the-mill mercenaries. They were members of the drug cartel La Frontera, Spanish for The Border, and they had serious problems with Pato and Arbo’s fathers. Since Marcos killed one of the gang members, La Frontera now wants to find Pato, Arbo, Marcos, and Gladys and execute them as well.

They’ve lost their entire families, and now they must face the reality of giving up the only home they’ve ever known. But what other choice do they have? If they stay in Mexico, no matter where they go, La Frontera will find them. Leaving means crossing the other border, the one that leads them north to the U.S. and a life full of uncertainty. Eventually, they opt for the latter. A life of uncertainty at least means they’re alive. But they’ll have to conquer the desert before they can think of living again.

Author Steve Schafer explains in an author’s note about the extensive research he did for the story, and the novel is all the better for it. He builds well rounded characters in the four teens, and while Pato leads the way as the point-of-view character readers will feel like they know all four of the travelers by the end.

In addition to the people, however, Schafer allows the desert to become a fifth protagonist in the book, and, really, the desert turns into the story’s linchpin. It becomes just as crucial for Pato, Arbo, Marcos, and Gladys to get along with desert conditions as it is for them to accommodate one another. At some point, in fact, the drug cartel turns into a distant second to their worries about how to survive crossing the Sonoran.

Schafer doesn’t hold back on all the other story points, which results in a richly layered novel. From the initial attack at the quinceañera to the grief the teens experience at losing their families and the entire experience of securing a coyote to take them across the desert, Schafer draws readers into the story and will keep them turning pages with the most intimate details. The book’s authenticity, thanks to the sound research, makes it feel almost like a memoir.

While Schafer may have intended the book for the YA audience, adult readers will certainly enjoy and benefit from reading this story. It could offer a necessary component to the larger conversation today on immigration, its necessity, and its challenges. I recommend all readers Binge The Border by Steve Schafer.