Author: Nikki

Review – The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo

Posted June 7, 2020 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins ReidThe Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo, Taylor Jenkins Reid

Whoa. I did not expect to be so wildly sucked into this book. I mean, a part of me might have expected it: it’s the kind of gossipy, dramatic book with Big Secrets that is designed to get its hooks in, and I’m as susceptible as anyone else.

Evelyn Hugo is a fictional Hollywood star. Think Elizabeth Taylor and Rita Hayworth. Her career is over now, but she’s a legend. She’s been enticing and entrancing people for years… and she wants rookie journalist Monique to write her biography. She’s going to tell her everything, under just a few conditions. Evelyn Hugo wants to tell the truth, even when it doesn’t paint her in the best light. And she’ll answer Monique’s questions in her own time.

I didn’t know much about this book until someone bought it for me in a Secret Santa book exchange, so I didn’t know what I was getting into… and it’s almost better if you don’t, if you’re into that tantalising question of what exactly Evelyn Hugo’s deal is. It doesn’t take long to get part of the answer, but if you want to be totally surprised, ignore my review and everyone else’s and go in completely fresh.

If those who don’t want spoilers have bailed out…

Let’s talk about the queer content. The big secret of Evelyn Hugo’s life turns out to be that she was bisexual and in love with another film star. Husbands came and went, with several of her domestic arrangements just providing cover for an on-again, off-again relationship. I don’t know if Reid is bisexual or how she identifies, but Evelyn’s voice and experience of bisexuality rang generally true to me as a queer person. The Hollywood setting provides a backdrop to Evelyn’s yearning and messing up and trying again when it comes to her secretive affairs with women. Or mostly just one woman, which is the bit that maybe rings less true for most people: Evelyn has sex with men frequently, and falls in love with some of them too, but when it comes to women we only actually see one attraction, one love.

Now that kind of rings true for me with some of the things she says early on about what sex and attraction mean to her. She has sex in a lot of cases because it’ll get her what she wants, not out of genuine connection; she seems to find real passion only once she’s made connections, once there’s some kind of relationship, and she only finds that with another woman once. She only lets herself find it once, maybe. But it still seemed a little odd.

When it comes to the relationship itself, the beats are familiar and not at all surprising: we can’t let anyone find out! We have to hide! We have to fake it with men! Oops, one of us actually slept with the man and now she’s pregnant! Break up! Make up! Secretttsss! It was a fun read, but I’m really side-eyeing anyone who calls it “groundbreaking”, especially when it comes to the queer content. It rings true, but it’s nothing we haven’t heard before. I’d have been more impressed if the two of them made a go of it without breaking up constantly, maybe?

There is also a whole racial side to the book when it comes to Monique Grant, who defines herself as “biracial”, and to Evelyn, who is Cuban and completely hides it to become a blonde bombshell. I don’t know what Reid’s experience is there, but to me these portrayals felt clunky. Monique literally says she “felt like two halves”; it feels like a cliché to me. There’s one moment that rings maybe a little more true, and that’s when Evelyn’s maid speaks Spanish in front of her totally without realising she can understand, and she realises she’s buried her Cuban identity so deep it’s disappeared… but this is not really a story I feel very familiar with and mostly I feel unqualified to comment on whether it’s representative of real experiences.

In both the sexuality and the racial content, though, it feels like accounts I’ve read before, like it’s been cut out with the same cookie-cutters as a whole bunch of other stories. There’s a reason the cookie-cutters are that shape, but the shapes produced are 2D.

I don’t know if that all makes sense, but it’s how I felt about the book.

The best thing about the book for me was Harry Cameron. He was Evelyn’s best friend, and there is something real and true in the way they protected each other, made things work for one another, made a family together. I would have loved this theme to be stronger — that there was no passion between them, but he was her true partner who stuck with her through everything, who made things work even when it was hard. Evelyn’s female partner and what they did for each other paled for me compared to the truth of two queer people sticking together to make things work, and being a family even when it doesn’t conform.

Evelyn herself… she’s a strong character, and there’s a lot to like and hate about her. Again, I wouldn’t say she’s a particularly groundbreaking character, and I called most of the twists and turns of her motivations and manipulations.

In the end, it was a fun read. I tore right through it. I don’t think it was the best book in the world and I wouldn’t call it profound, despite the evident effort to make us believe in a love that transcended Evelyn’s seven husbands, the real love of her life. The answer should’ve been Harry Cameron, and for me, it missed its mark in downplaying his importance.

It’s enormously fun, though.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – How To Invent Everything

Posted June 7, 2020 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of How to Invent Everything by Ryan NorthHow To Invent Everything, Ryan North

I love the idea of books like this: here in one book, we’re going to impart to you the principles behind everything you need to know to rebuild all the comforts of home from nothing. This one has a fun gimmick: it’s been found embedded deep within rocks, and it claims to be the repair manual for a time machine. Since you can’t repair the time machine, instead here’s how to create the comforts of civilisation that you’re used to by accelerating technological progress. To that end, it has some flowcharts for figuring out what time period you’ve ended up in, and technology trees to help you trace out what you need to do to get particular results.

It’s also packed with information, which it delivers in a pretty light style, keeping to the basics. It’s all easy to understand, and the unfortunate thing is that for me the jovial tone got old. Yes, I know, we need XYZ invention to eventually have pizza. I get it. The pizza joke is old now!

The lists for me were kind of… I didn’t like dipping in and out, but it’s also not a great experience to just sit and read it all the way through, either. (For one thing, I think that’s why I got sick of the jokes.)

It’s a really fun gimmick, and there’s a lot of information in here and plenty to pique your curiosity, if a) you know a bit less about science than I do and b) you’re a dip-in-and-out sort of reader. I am just a curmudgeon.

Rating: 3/5

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WWW Wednesday

Posted June 3, 2020 by Nikki in General / 1 Comment

It’s that time again! Check out Taking On A World Of Words to chat with everyone else who has posted what they’re reading right now!

Cover of The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins ReidWhat are you currently reading?

In theory a whoooole bunch of things, but not many of them are giving me joy in this particular moment and there’s only one book on my mind, which is Taylor Jenkins Reid’s The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo. Someone sent me this via the LibraryThing/Litsy Secret Santa, and I wasn’t sure because I normally think of myself as a genre person… but on the other hand, I like so many different genres and… well, I gave it a try.

I blasted through 200 pages in an hour without really wanting to put it down; I’m a little annoyed that I have put it down. I’m not sure what I think of it, yet, but it’s fun and gossipy and I want to know Evelyn’s secrets, so it’s a success on that front.

Cover of Language Myths by Laurie Bauer and Peter TrudgillWhat have you recently finished reading?

Language Myths, ed. Laurie Bauer. I read it for the Dewey Decimal challenge. It was interesting, but I could tell it was very surface level and so some arguments just felt rather glib and like a straw man was installed just to be dismantled as quickly as possible. I didn’t disagree with any of it or think any of it sounded untrue to my experience or other reading, but… each linguist’s response was very brief.

Cover of The Lost Plot by Genevieve CogmanWhat will you be reading next? 

That all depends on whether either of my libraries purchases the books I’ve been recommending, I guess. In terms of what I’m going to focus on next, I have the Secret Barrister’s book due back in a couple of days, so I should finish reading that… and I also want to finish rereading Genevieve Cogman’s The Lost Plot finally. However, I’m hoping that the library orders copies of Felix Ever After and Black Girl Unlimited. (Or I might just pick them up myself come Saturday, which is my book ordering day.)

What about you?

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Top Ten Tuesday: Books by Black Authors

Posted June 2, 2020 by Nikki in General / 2 Comments

This week, I’ve gone off-piste to talk about some books by non-white authors. For no apparent reason.

I’ve picked out books I love: four and five-star reads. I’ve picked ten different authors and some different genres, in hopes that everyone can find something that sounds interesting if they go exploring and try to pick up one of these.

  1. Redemption in Indigo, by Karen Lord. I don’t remember this book well enough and reading my old review leaves me itching to reread it. I loved it and the fable-like structure and narration.
  2. The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, by N.K. Jemisin. The whole trilogy is great, and I’m sure her later books that I haven’t read are great, but this is where I started and I was totally riveted.
  3. The Hate U Give, by Angie Thomas. This got a lot of hype, but I really felt it was worth it… and it’s topical as hell right now.
  4. Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race, by Reni Eddo-Lodge. If you want to read a more British examination of racism, this is a great starting point.
  5. The Black God’s Drums, by P. Djèlí Clark. This is a novella, and when I finished I was dyiiiing for more.
  6. Fledgling, by Octavia Butler. This was a disturbing and difficult read, and it left a huge impression on me. Kindred is being recommended a lot, and I rated it higher at the time, but Fledgling is the one that stayed with me.
  7. The Colour Purple, by Alice Walker. Okay, this one is totally and absolutely obvious, but I took so long to read it. Still, it got my rare accolade of five stars, and I couldn’t leave it off the list. It’s moving and beautifully written, making such great use of dialect and the epistolary form.
  8. Things Fall Apart, by Chinua Achebe. Same here. This is such an obvious one — but I have to say that nobody ever really sold this book to me, and the same thing happened with The Color Purple. I was told I should read it and not why, beyond “it’s important”… and that isn’t always the most enticing. I found it genuinely riveting, though, so definitely don’t dismiss it because it’s viewed as a classic.
  9. Hidden Figures, by Margot Lee Shetterly. This book is obviously pretty well known by now, but when I read it, I was completely boggled by this history of women that I’d never heard of, never dreamed of. And from what I hear, the movie bears only a glancing resemblance to the truth, so if you’ve only seen the movie… do yourself a favour!
  10. The Salt Roads, by Nalo Hopkinson. My memories of this book are full of sense-memories, tastes and smells and colour. And while it isn’t as topical as The Hate U Give, for instance… you’ll find it has a lot of resonance.

Aaand in the process of this I realised that I still have a few other books by some of these authors that I haven’t even read, which is a lovely thought.

I think all of these are in the US, but Twitter has a list of Black-owned bookshops you can order from going around, if you’d like to order any of these.

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Weekly Roundup

Posted May 31, 2020 by Nikki in General / 2 Comments

Greetings, everybody. It’s been a heck of a week out there, so I hope you’re all okay.

Here in self-imposed self-isolation (for the foreseeable future, though my dad may come over and converse with me from two metres away while pulling up weeds) it’s been quiet, including on the reading front…

Linking up with The Sunday Post @ The Caffeinated Reviewer and Stacking the Shelves @ Reading Reality & Tynga’s Reviews.

Acquired this week:

Cover of Language Myths by Laurie Bauer and Peter Trudgill

Books read this week:

Cover of Around the World in 80 Words by Paul Anthony Jones Cover of How to Invent Everything by Ryan North Cover of The Colour of Murder by Julian Symons

Reviews posted this week:

The Ghosts of Sherwood, by Carrie Vaughn. This review’s been waiting for a while to go up because of Tor’s restrictions on when you can publish — which means the book is due out soon! It’s an enjoyable aftermath of the Robin Hood myth, with some nice characterisation when it comes to Marian and Robin. Not wholly sold, but I do have the sequel to review! 3/5 stars
Around the World in 80 Words, by Paul Anthony Jones. Not bad, but a bit random at times and more for dipping into than reading in a couple of sittings. 3/5 stars
The Colour of Murder, by Julian Symons. An interesting psychological take on a potential murderer, with questions left trailing at the end. 3/5 stars

Other posts:

Top Ten Tuesday: Favourite Opening Lines. A real mix here, with mystery, fantasy, SF and historical fiction.
WWW Wednesday. Discussing… lots of books at once, as usual!

How’re you all doing?

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Review – The Colour of Murder

Posted May 30, 2020 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Colour of Murder by Julian SymonsThe Colour of Murder, Julian Symons

This British Library Crime Classic is from later in the development of the genre than some others, with half the book consisting of the rambling story a man tells to a psychologist after being accused of a murder he can’t remember committing. It’s powerfully cringy, as you can see the narrator deluding himself, and pitiful too, because he’s half-aware of himself, and there’s (as someone later remarks) a sort of innocence about him. He seems to have ended up where he is by accident, and without quite understanding, and his mind seems to be gently unravelling… even though now and then he shows insight.

As a piece of writing, it’s excellent; it makes for discomforting reading.

The latter half of the book pulls back, finally admitting just who has been killed (it was one of the two characters I would’ve predicted), and showing the preparations for the trial (and finally the trial itself). This bit is more of a sketch, lingering on details here and there… but mostly just wrapping up the story implied by the opening narrative, which I found a lot stronger.

The ending is sort of predictable once you’ve seen all those details. It makes sense that the story needs wrapping up — you can’t leave that narrative on its own — and yet it all rather weakens and cheapens the effect. A bit of a mixed one for me, now I think about it in that light. Definitely worth a read if you’re interested in the Crime Classics series, though; this is definitely a stand-out for that narrative voice.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Around the World in 80 Words

Posted May 29, 2020 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Around the World in 80 Words by Paul Anthony JonesAround the World in 80 Words, Paul Anthony Jones

I think I’ve mentioned before that I normally try to join in with a series of challenges on Habitica called the “Keeping It Real” challenges. Each month, the creator picks a Dewey Decimal category and the participants get to pick any book they want from within that category. I did try a different book first this month, but I didn’t make much headway with this, but then I bethought me of Haggard Hawks. I know of that Twitter because Thea Gilmore’s gorgeous “Grandam Gold” (featuring vocals from Cara Dillon as well!) was based on one of those tweets… and I knew there were also books. Aha! I thought.

And lo and behold, Scribd had this one, so I downloaded it and set to work. I’ll admit, reading it straight through would not be my recommended way of reading this book: it’s more of a dip in-and-out book, one to read during odd breaks and at the bus stop (provided your buses are normally punctual). When you try to read it all in one go, it starts to pall rather.

The thing is, it feels a little random. There’s the theme of going round the world, but the countries that are chosen do often feel like afterthoughts, while there are several different entries for the UK (and I’m not just talking about one from Wales, one from Ireland, one from Scotland, etc — in fact, I don’t think there’s any mention of Wales whatsoever, and we could’ve managed at least cawl or even hiraeth!).

Anyway, some interesting facts, but not a total winner for me.

Rating: 3/5 

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WWW Wednesday

Posted May 27, 2020 by Nikki in General / 14 Comments

It’s that time again! Check out Taking On A World Of Words to chat with everyone else who has posted what they’re reading right now!

Cover of The Colour of Murder by Julian SymonsWhat are you currently reading?

Fiction: I just started The Colour of Murder, by Julian Symons. It’s one of the British Library Crime Classics collection, one of the post-war ones; the first half at least consists of a sort of confessional meander to a psychologist about the events leading up to the murder. It’s interesting because it’s not a “whodunnit”, and you don’t even yet know who has been killed, though my two candidates are basically the female characters.

Non-fiction: I’m in the middle of How to Invent Everything, by Ryan North, and Around the World in 80 Words, by Paul Anthony Jones. The former is interesting, but the jocular tone and asides about pizza are starting to irritate. I don’t read non-fiction for the authorial voice to intrude quite so much, usually. Around the World in 80 Days is for the Dewey decimal challenge I think I’ve mentioned before, since How Language Began felt too heavy to finish in a week. It’s okay; a bit random, and sometimes really stretching. Some of these words are neither terribly interesting nor terribly relevant, whereas the author’s Twitter has a tendency to come out with a perfectly apposite word for the current political situation… which I like more.

Cover of Unfit to Print by K.J. CharlesWhat have you recently finished reading?

I think it was K.J. Charles’ Unfit to Print, which is a lot of fun; I do enjoy righteous, caring Vikram, even if Gil is a bit of a hedgehog (prickly to stop you getting too close) and rather reluctant to do the right thing. Not my usual sort of character, but Vikram is more to my taste, so they balance one another out.

I feel like I haven’t really been reading much, and indeed, I finished Unfit to Print on Saturday. Yipes. My 500-books-a-year days are so far behind me, and I miss them rather.

Cover of The Boy in the Red Dress by Kristin LambertWhat will you be reading next?

Goodness knows, but the book I picked up this week was Kristin Lambert’s The Boy in the Red Dress, which sounds like a lot of fun. Someone called it a queerer Phryne Fisher, which sounds right up my street. I also intend to pick up the book I got last week as soon as I’m reading slightly fewer non-fiction books concurrently.

What are you currently reading?

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Top Ten Tuesday: Favourite Opening Lines

Posted May 26, 2020 by Nikki in General / 21 Comments

This week’s prompt from That Artsy Reader Girl is “opening lines”, and I definitely have some favourites to share, ranging around my shelves! I’m sure I’ve done a favourite first lines before for TTT, but it’s been so long — and I have some new answers.

Cover of Have His Carcase by Dorothy L. Sayers Cover of The Secret Casebook of Simon Feximal by K.J. Charles Cover of A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab Cover of The Hobbit, by J.R.R. Tolkien Cover of The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell

  1. Have His Carcase, Dorothy L. Sayers: “The best remedy for a bruised heart is not, as so many people seem to think, repose upon a manly bosom. Much more efficacious are honest work, physical activity, and the sudden acquisition of wealth. After being acquitted of murdering her lover, and indeed, in consequence of that acquittal, Harriet Vane found all three specifics abundantly at her disposal; and although Lord Peter Wimsey, with a touching faith in tradition, persisted day in and day out in presenting the bosom for her approval, she showed no inclination to recline upon it.”

    This one gets me every time — it’s funny and playful, and though the mystery at the heart of this book is rather sad and pathetic, there are some amazing bits playing Peter and Harriet off against each other for wit and banter, and I adore it.

  2. The Secret Casebook of Simon Feximal, by K.J. Charles: “I am, my friends agree, a fairly easy-going sort of chap, not quick to anger or to fear. Thus, when I came to live in Caldwell Place, I paid no mind to the screams in the night, which could well have been foxes or cats (never mind that they sprang from the empty air of my bedroom). I scarcely objected to the muffled moans, which could have come from a neighbour’s pleasures (if the house had not stood alone, with no neighbour for a mile to either side). But I did feel it was a bit much when the walls began to bleed.”

    Bahahaha. This is not technically quite the opening lines, but shush.

  3. A Darker Shade of Magic, by V.E. Schwab: “Kell wore a very peculiar coat.
    It had neither one side, which would be conventional, nor two, which would be unexpected, but several, which was, of course, impossible.”

    Had me at hello.

  4. The Hobbit, by J.R.R. Tolkien: “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.”

    It’s not just that I love the book, but also that I love the story of that opening line (scribbled on a student’s exam paper during marking) and I love the way it immediately begs a whole bunch of questions.

  5. The Sparrow, by Mary Doria Russell: “The Jesuit scientists went to learn, not to proselytize. They went so that they might come to know and love God’s other children. They went for the reason Jesuits have always gone to the farthest frontiers of human exploration. They went ad majorem Dei gloriam: for the greater glory of God.
    They meant no harm.”

    Technically not the opening lines, but from the very brief prologue, and a complete oh shit what — …which the book amply lives up to!

  6. I Capture the Castle, by Dodie Smith: “I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.”

    I will never be over this book, though it’s been a long time since I read it. “Only the margin left to write on now. I love you, I love you, I love you.” Opening and closing lines are burned into my heart!

  7. The Girl who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, by Catherynne M. Valente: “Once upon a time, a girl named September grew very tired indeed of her parents’ house, where she washed the same pink and yellow teacups and matching gravy boats every day, slept on the same embroidered pillow, and played with the same small and amiable dog. Because she had been born in May, and because she had a mole on her left cheek, and because her feet were very large and ungainly, the Green Wind took pity on her, and flew to her window one evening just after her eleventh birthday. He was dressed in a green smoking jacket, and a green carriage-driver’s cloak, and green jodhpurs, and green snowshoes. It is very cold above the clouds, in the shanty-towns where the Six Winds live.”

    Whimsical and fairytale-like and yet also with unusual details. Sign me up!

  8. All Systems Red, by Martha Wells: “I could have become a mass murderer after I hacked my governor module, but then I realized I could access the combined feed of entertainment channels carried on the company satellites. It had been well over 35,000 hours or so since then, with still not much murdering, but probably, I don’t know, a little under 35,000 hours of movies, serials, books, plays, and music consumed. As a heartless killing machine, I was a terrible failure.”

    Murderbot, your style speaks to me from the very first moment.

  9. The Fifth Season, by N.K. Jemisin. “Let’s start with the end of the world, why don’t we? Get it over with and move on to more interesting things.”

    I still haven’t read this book properly, but this opening line still sticks in my head.

  10. The Eagle of the Ninth, by Rosemary Sutcliff: “From the Fosseway westward to Isca Dumnoniorum the road was simply a British trackway, broadened and roughly stalled, strengthened by corduroys of logs in the softest places, but otherwise unchanged from its old estate, as it wound among the hills, thrusting further and further into the wilderness.”

    This is perhaps a more personal choice than the others: not the most compelling opening for someone who doesn’t know the delights that lay ahead (Marcus! Cottia! Cub!) — this book is a window into my childhood, when this was one of the books I read to bits, and one of the ones that has stood up best because of Sutcliff’s careful sketching in of the Romano-British world as she understood it. I have no visual imagination and yet there are some scenes in this book I could almost draw.

Cover of I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith Cover of The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne M. Valente Cover of All Systems Red by Martha Wells Cover of The Fifth Season, by N.K. Jemisin Cover of The Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliff

So there you go! What are your favourite first lines? Did you do something different for this week’s theme, if you joined in? Link me!

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Review – The Ghosts of Sherwood

Posted May 26, 2020 by Nikki in Uncategorized / 3 Comments

Cover of The Ghosts of Sherwood by Carrie VaughnThe Ghosts of Sherwood, Carrie Vaughn

Received to review via Netgalley; publication date 9th June 2020

I was eager to snap this up when I saw it on Netgalley, because Robin Hood stories are kind of a Thing for me. I did a module on Robin Hood stories during my BA, wrote a handful of my essays about it, and have always rather enjoyed Robin Hood stories. (Starting in childhood with Enid Blyton’s Tales of Daring Adventure, which is the only book handed down from both my parents. I believe I still have both their copies, with Dad’s in a better state and retaining its dustcover. I have also frequently heard the stories of my mother as a child deeply concerning her parents by sobbing inconsolably over the death of Robin Hood.)

So, this fairly gentle story fits right into that warm and cosy spot in my heart. Robin and Marian are married and respectable, with three children; it’s sort of inserted into real history, with King John signing the Magna Carta in part because of Robin’s insistence and William Marshall showing up to say hi. The story also tries for realism in discussing their relationship, Marian’s pregnancies, the way they fit into the world.

At the start of the novella, they’re returning from London, with Robin having decided that their eldest daughter will marry — and Marian isn’t happy. It carries on in this rather domestic way, until the children are kidnapped by a band of men… and a much-missed friend, long absent from Robin’s circle after his first decision to respect King John’s succession to the throne, witnesses the kidnapping and rushes to Robin for help.

Things move a lot faster at that point, and from the blurb it feels like that’s meant to be the centre of the story. It doesn’t feel like it, though, and I was surprised to learn there’s meant to be another linked book. I was happier with it as a sort of coda to the Robin Hood story; as the introduction to something more, it actually feels lacking for me, because I didn’t connect to the original characters in that way. I thought it was about Robin’s group, his relationship with Marian, and how an outlaw steps out of legend and becomes part of the world. I’m less interested in reading for the kids — I just liked seeing the old gang come back together.

Rating: 3/5

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