Review: Something Wonderful

When I was growing up, my family lived out in the country on a cattle ranch, surrounded by luxurious acres of rolling hills, creek beds lined with ancient trees, and an endless chorus of katydids and bullfrogs that became the background music of our childhood. Perhaps the greatest thing about where we grew up, though, was the fact that our grandparents lived a half mile away — a measly 90-second jaunt down the gravel road on our bikes, refuge from our mother’s chore list in the summertime months.

It was there, in Grandma Simon’s sunken living room — replete with faux-walnut wood paneling and innumerable picture frames that sorely needed dusting — that I came to know (*dramatic pause*) the the-uh-tuh.

Oklahoma! strikes me as the first musical she introduced my sister and me to, but that could just be the fuzzy recollection of twenty-some years gone by. We reenacted Curley’s opening number (“Oh, what a beautiful morning! Oh, what a beautiful day!”) and belted “Oooooooooooooooooooo-klahoma!” at the top of our lungs, most likely whilst racing back home on our be-streamered bicycles.

Grandma showed us The Sound of Music and The King and I and Carousel and South Pacific — I’m pretty sure my sister sang about washing a man outta her hair every time she showered for months after. Rodgers and Hammerstein became the sort of names my sister — who later became a theater major and remains invested in theatrical work to this day — uttered with the reverence one might reserve for May Crowning at church. We lived and breathed musicals during the summer months, when that dratted school couldn’t occupy all of our Grandma-visiting hours.

All this is to say: when I had the opportunity to read Todd Purdum’s newly released biography about the musical gods themselves, titled Something Wonderful, I jumped. And then I dragged my feet a bit, because a year since Grandma’s passing felt too soon to be reading something that reminded me of moments we had shared and cherished so much. When I finally began reading, though, I was thrown into a nostalgic world of musical and theatrical bliss, and filled with a longing to watch the film adaptations of the stories my childhood was steeped in.

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Something Wonderful is, through my rose-tinged perspective, truly something darling. Purdum explores the relationship between the composer and lyricist, starting well before the two ever began collaborating and following their paths to the end. This work is an exhaustive look at the achievements (and failures) of the artists’ lives, no mean feat, to be sure. Purdum takes readers on a tour of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s creative works, starting at the beginning and working his way — albeit slowly — to the bittersweet success of The Sound of Music, which surely remains one of the most widely-known and beloved musicals of all time.

Although the work lacked the fluid telling I’ve come to love in narrative nonfiction (there was so. much. detail.), I was compelled by Purdum’s telling, often chuckling or snorting in disbelief or shedding a tear or two at some tragedy or another. Of course, some of this emotional response is undoubtedly connected to my own attached memories; but I ultimately feel that Purdum captured an essence of life in his book.

The thing about works such as Something Wonderful: I always pick up a nugget or two of historical import that come as an absolute surprise and charm me to bits. In this case, Purdum sprinkles in references about actors and actresses that tried for parts in the iconic duo’s Broadway productions, but weren’t selected — names that stand out today as some of the best-known thespians of the 20th Century. (I won’t spoil the fun for you, readers.) These little surprises managed to lighten some of the more tedious portions of the biography — sections in which name-dropping is exhaustive but means nothing to the moderate theater-lover such as myself.

Something Wonderful is a delightful history of two of the greatest theatrical contributors of all time. For readers with an interest in live productions or Broadway, I can’t recommend this book enough. For the moderate enthusiast — proceed for nostalgia’s sake, but keep another book on hand to temper the reading.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a date with my grandma’s homemade brownie recipe and Julie Andrews’ Austrian foray.

Overall: 4/5 stars.

Henry Holt Books sent me a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. The opinions above are my own and were not influenced in any way by the publisher or author.

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Review: Suicide Club

Imagine a world in which people have achieved near-immortality: It’s possible to live for four-hundred years. Skin is replaced with a tougher, more luminous counterpart that renders pimples a thing of the past and leaves people literally glowing. Organs are seamlessly replaced as needed, stress is discouraged by government mandates, and the science of healthful eating has been unlocked and dispersed for all.

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Such is the world of debut author Rachel Heng’s Suicide Club, a novel in which members are fixated on both life and death — as if it’s possible to focus on one without the other. Lea Kirino is a member of the elite “lifer” society: she enjoys the benefits of a well-paying career, such as a separate living facility with its own bathroom and views of the city; she lives a virtually stress-free existence; she’s engaged to one of the nation’s wealthiest and most well-established bachelors; and she’s got a nearly-flawless life record, with few tarnishes such as dangerous risk-taking behavior, burger-imbibing, and no limb replacements to date. That is, until she steps into oncoming traffic on her 100th birthday.

In a world where life — and the strife for immortality — is sanctimonious, Lea’s actions (I’ll let you read about her reasons) are cause for immediate observation by government-ordered officials, at work and in public and possibly even within the walls of her own home. It’s illegal to take a life, or to show anything less than zeal for living, and Lea’s little “accident” has put her hopes for the Third Wave (read: the Immortality generation) at odds.

Lea soon becomes acquainted with the “Suicide Club,” a group of high-society Lifers who by all outward appearances, seem to be living with adequate demonstrations of joy. However, it becomes clear these privileged individuals seek more than mere immortality, and Lea is forced to broaden her perspective on what it means to truly be life-loving.

***

I was utterly mesmerized by the world-building Heng accomplishes in her debut novel — honestly, I haven’t been quite so sucked into a fiction-verse like this in many, many years. It sounds cheesy, but I was honestly reminded of my middle- and high-school years when I read a great deal of fantasy and sci-fi, and I found myself quickly steeped in the world that I was reading about.

The book struck me as an interesting portrayal of societal grooming. Characters are taught that living as long as possible is the most worthwhile achievement a person can make. They’re obsessed with prolonging their lives, so much so that relationships — and anything else that is considered cortisol-producing — are minimized and abbreviated. In some ways, the observations in the book felt a bit like a sardonic glance at society’s current fads: characters get their nutrition from a drink, not unlike the juicing and Advocare fanatics who swear by the supreme nutrition of liquefied meals. Characters are zealous about their appearance, fretting over any visible wrinkles or laugh lines, and it is a mark of the truly elite that they are able to receive “treatments” that eliminate signs of aging. Again, I was reminded of our cultural fear of aging, and especially the efforts undertaken to retain youthful features (here’s looking at you, Kardashian troupe).

So, is it possible to enjoy such a novel — one in which characters are ultimately superficial and human relationships are dictated by social class and the placability of such pairings? In a word: YES. I found so much to love in the flawed characters and ideologies of Heng’s futuristic world. This book moved me in deep ways, forcing me to reflect on the darker realities of death as an endpoint — or a destination — of living.

While some bigger questions went unanswered — chiefly, who/what determines the “number” people are assigned at birth? Is it random? Why? — I wasn’t significantly distracted by these flaws in the plot. If you’re a highly cynical reader, though, you may find more to criticize in that respect.

Overall: 4/5 stars. A thoroughly enjoyable read about living and dying; one that I see myself recommending often!

The Neighbor (Part 1)

A woman sits on the edge of her cracked-cement porch. It is evening, after eight, and the sky has grown dim as the promise of day fades into muted blues. There is nothing in her hands; usually, she grips her cell phone like a life raft to the world Beyond. Tonight, her hands are clasped loosely, elbows propped on ample thighs, eyes boring into the nothingness that looms on the horizon. Two houses down, a child shrieks with ecstasy — his father is teasing him on the front lawn, his mother looking onward with approval; a Proctor & Gamble advertisement in the flesh.

The woman doesn’t bat an eye at the startling squeals. She doesn’t budge an inch, either, when a mower roars to life across the street. She is impervious to sound; maybe to life.

The garage door at her house gapes in a nighttime yawn: the man has not returned. He’s a phantom: we rarely see him, and when we do, it is as though he only exists when the man looks you straight in the eye. At all other times, he is a silent wisp, ethereally gliding about in the background. We don’t know the man at all.

We watch the woman, sometimes. Usually at night, when she’s put the children to bed. When it’s temperate, she moseys out to the porch to stare blankly at whatever fantasy smothers the reality before her. When it’s not, she idles in the front room, every light glaring at full force in the house, even the ones in the basement. We watch her absently grasp the remote, but her face remains unembellished by the glow of the television. She picks up a few items from the floor — probably stray children’s socks and colorful wooden blocks and discarded Cheerios — only to move the things elsewhere in the front room.

Most of us draw the shades in the evening, in search for a bit of privacy; but not the woman.

She leaves them gaping into the night, lets the dark seep into the house in its familiar prowl, until the lights from her house gleam brightest on the block.

***

At dusk, the garage door is still agape. We rub crust from the corners of our eyes, dash our coffee with possibly-sour milk from the back corner of the fridge, and grumble about our Monday agendas. Perhaps the Sandman dosed us extra heavy last night, or perhaps we’ve become immune to caffeine; either way, none of us notice the heavy boards nailed to the insides of the window frames.

It’s gone ten o’clock when the whispering begins. It starts with a text:

Did you see the Garbler place this a.m.?

And then the flood begins; a practically community-wide group chat devoted to unearthing the truth.

No — but I heard the house is all boarded up! WTF?

It’s from THE INSIDE. I just know that woman is holding her kids hostage…

LOL right?! She’s always been a bit unhinged.

I always thought she seemed nice…a little sad, maybe, but not violent.

That’s what’cha get for thinkin’, June.

GUYS. Back to the issue at hand: who’s gonna knock on her door and find out what’s going on?

The silence is characteristic of small towns: we want to know our neighbors’ business, but we damn sure don’t want to know it from their mouths. Most certainly not when that business involves five-inch nails and two-by-fours. Especially not when it involves the woman.

There are several minutes of silence, several dot-dot-dots hovering in the group message, several collective moments of held breath and nervous chuckles — How could they seriously expect me to knock on her door? I don’t even know the woman! — before the ping comes through.

***

She knows they’re whispering this morning. She can sense their fear, can feel its vibration on the air that is curling up from the gap beneath the back door. People are always suspicious of unknown women.

The boards are an ominous addition to her living room; they’re a pale fir, which shouldn’t seem looming, but the absence of light makes the woman shudder. She can hear nothing beyond the walls of her house; truthfully, nothing more than ten inches from where she sits. The boards have blanketed all sound.

It’s only a matter of time, she reminds herself. Only a matter of time before someone comes knocking.

Outside, the sun continues its ascent.

Review: Whistle in the Dark

The first time I read Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper,” I was thrilled to my core. Over a decade later, I still remember the tremble of fascination and eeriness that delighted me as the narrator and I spiraled toward the dark conclusion. (If you’ve never read the story, follow the link and do so — it’s a quick read. And one that I consider required reading of like, everyone.)

I suppose the slow-moving paranoia and dedication to uncovering something (that may or may not exist) is what draws me in to Gilman’s work; and it is this same fascination with obsession and the potential for “craziness” that made Emma Healey’s latest novel, Whistle in the Dark, a compelling and spine-tingling read.

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Due out next Tuesday, July 24, from Harper Books, Whistle in the Dark is a slow-burning story about a mother and daughter. The book isn’t rife with action, and it isn’t a “thriller” in the trendy sense of the word, but I was captivated, and I was thrilled, by the time the novel met its end.

Synopsis: Jen Maddox has a pretty normal life: she’s mother to Meg, 26 years old and who’s just told her parents she’s pregnant; and Lana, 15 years old and the epitome of angsty teen. Her husband, Hugh, is a nice guy and the two of them exchange witty banter on a regular basis. “Normal” is the perfect adjective to describe the foursome — until, that is, Lana goes missing on a mother-daughter painting holiday and doesn’t resurface for four days . . . seemingly without a memory of where she was during that time, what happened, and who — if anyone — she was with. As Jen puzzles over the circumstances surrounding her youngest daughter’s disappearance (& recovery), readers learn that Lana has a history of suicidal ideations and depression. Jen is certain this disruption of their lives will lead Lana down a dark path, and frantically seeks to uncover the truth (no matter what the police or her husband think).

I will admit: the book wasn’t quite what I expected when I set out to read it. Based on the cover description, I thought Whistle in the Dark would be more of a fast-paced mystery/suspense novel in which a mother sets off on a journey to uncover the truth about her daughter’s disappearance. And in some ways, this is a fair description of the things that happen in the book; however, a majority of the book is actually devoted to the relationships between family members and Jen’s uncertainty — and resulting timidity — as a mother.

Here’s what I liked about it:

  • Jen’s character, though often frustrating, feels so true to life. While I was irked by her sometimes-passivity, I found her fearfulness of botching things with her tempestuous daughter to be very accurate.
  • The storyline trundles along slowly, but the details that Healey gives us in the family’s daily excursions and mealtimes and arguments feel like a breadcrumb trail that leads to something magnanimous.
  • Whistle in the Dark has just one perspective/POV to follow, and God bless it for that.
  • The prose is something else, my friends. It’s absolutely beautiful in its deliberate, thoughtful way, and I just wanted to write down all the damn phrases to store away somewhere safe, for looking at on rainy days. If ever there were a time to slow clap for an author’s writing style, this would be it.

Here’s what I didn’t love:

  • LANA. She drove me nuts (I feel you, Jen) and I was often repulsed by her behavior. That being said . . . I felt that she, too, was pretty well drawn for a teenager struggling with *not teen angst but real, actual depression*. So, while I hated her a lot, I also related to her, and felt the urge to text my mom several times and say Sorry for being such a difficult depressed shithead in high school. Oof.

Whistle in the Dark is a marvelously drawn, character-driven novel that creates this intimate portrait of a family dealing with the realities of chronic depression and the paranoia that (I assume) exists in parents of children who’ve attempted suicide. There’s an element of dark mystery lurking beneath the surface, as the book centers on the aftermath of Lana’s disappearance/return, and Healey’s ability to produce Jen’s anxiety in the reader (me!) was a truly surreal experience.

Overall: 4.5 stars. Read Whistle in the Dark if you’re okay with slow burns and moseying plots and enjoy a dark story with a payoff at the end.

Review: What We Were Promised

Last week, a highly-anticipated novel made its debut: What We Were Promised, by Lucy Tan. Little, Brown sent me a copy in exchange for an honest review — thanks, publisher friends! — and I decided to dive right in almost immediately after I opened the package.

What We Were Promised is a family saga, of sorts, and chock-full of d-r-a-m-a. Tan crafts a story around the Zhen family: Wei and Lina grew up in China before moving to America to pursue lofty dreams of higher education and corporate success. After twenty-some years, the couple has returned to their motherland, a couple decades older and joined this time by their teenage daughter, Karen. During their years abroad, they accrued wealth and success, and Wei was offered the opportunity to oversee his budding company’s newly-opened Shanghai-branch. They move into an elite hotel community at Lanson Suites, where their laundry, cooking, and cleaning are all accomplished by staff members and Lina doesn’t have to lift a finger to do more than shop for extravagant clothes and accessories. Karen spends most of the year in America at an elite boarding school, but summers with her parents in a land that is completely foreign to her.

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The family lives together, but each person seems to occupy a separate sphere of existence, interacting superficially at mealtimes (when Wei makes it home in time) and during rare moments of collective free time. At first glance, I chalked the characters up as superficial; but after deeper reflections on Wei and Lina’s complicated early relationship, I began to see the characters as complex — albeit often shallow — and savored the unwinding of their histories and present lives.

Woven into the narrative of the Zhen family’s daily life, in poignant juxtaposition, is the telling of Sunny’s experiences as first the family’s maid, and later, their ayi (nanny). Sunny is an anomaly: she’s in her late twenties/early thirties (her age is a bit ambiguous) and although she was married once before, she lives a simple, work-driven life as a single woman — childless, no less — in a society that seems to value women more when they are homemakers and wives and mothers. Sunny’s observations bring another dimension to What We Were Promised, offering readers a juicy (and often, maddening) outsider evaluation of the Zhen household.

While this book didn’t quite shake me as much as I expected it to, I did find a great deal to appreciate in Tan’s work. Her themes of cultural displacement + collective identity gave WWWP a dimension I didn’t think I’d find at the onset of the novel. The family dynamic (or quiet dysfunction, if you will), combined with the bitter taste of rotting dreams, created an atmosphere of regret and desire that made this book a compelling read.

Overall: 4 stars. Read this one if you’re a fan of family dramas and stories that span cultures. What We Were Promised is in the vein of The Leavers (think longing to belong and unfulfilling life choices), Winter Garden (think tension, unresolved pasts, and sibling rivalry/competition/contempt), and

Review: The Ruin

While I find myself increasingly ambivalent about the suspense/thriller genre as a whole, I am finding an increased appreciation for the artfully constructed detective novel. Perhaps this is a nod to earlier years in which I pored over Nancy Drew and Mandie novels, hell-bent on solving the mysteries before they could; perhaps it’s merely a fascination with the minds of those far cleverer than I. At any rate, I don’t even need a rainy day any more to excuse curling up in a poorly-lit room with a dark mystery and my trusty tobacco pipe. (I kid, I kid.)

Dervla McTiernan’s newly-released (in the US) DI novel is an ideal blend of dark, twisty, and Irish — and what more can you ask for in a work of detective fiction?

The novel opens in the past: 1993, rural Ireland, a young Cormac Reilly dispatched on one of his first cases — what he believes to be a routine domestic disturbance call. When he arrives, he discovers a house in disrepair, two young children equally neglected, and a deceased woman, whom he finds to be the mother of the children (and deceased for hours). When Cormac also finds signs of abuse mingled in with the obvious markings of neglect, he gathers the children up and takes them to the nearest hospital. Later, the case is removed from his hands and he moves on with his career.

Twenty years later, in Galway, a young man commits suicide. When his sister returns from the (presumed) dead days later, Cormac Reilly is called to the case by his superiors: it would seem he made the acquaintance of the two some decades previously, on the night their mother died. . . .

As the past and present are immersed in a tangled dance of fates, Cormac enters a dangerous game with members of the force — some who can be trusted, and others, apparently, who cannot. As the mystery unravels, McTiernan hurtles readers toward a conclusion that is both unforeseeable and nail-bitingly suspenseful. I raced through this work in a couple of sittings and, truthfully, wouldn’t have put it down if it would’ve been considered socially acceptable to let my 1-year-old fend for himself for a day or two. Sink or swim, right? 😉

The Good: See above for sung praises. I was adequately pleased by character construction, plotting, and the not-so-meandering stories-within-the-story. McTiernan has kicked off what I anticipate will be a brilliant dark series, and I can’t wait to get my hands on the second book (rumor on the street has it coming out March 2019).

The Bad: There are several timelines, stories, and characters — seemingly disjointed — being drawn together in The Ruin. At times, the various side stories can be confusing, if not a bit distracting. For the most part, the conclusion of this work cleared up ambiguities and made the short-lived confusion worthwhile.

The Verdict: 4.5 stars. If you enjoy smart, carefully constructed detective fiction à la Tana French and Robert Galbraith, give The Ruin a closer look.

5 Reasons to Drop What You’re Doing and Read Brooklyn, Now

In high school, I started a years-long love affair with classic literature. I’m not entirely certain what sparked my interest — most likely, the challenge such books posed — but it soon became my goal to read every title on my English teachers’ shelves. One of those teachers was lucky enough to have a class titled “Novels,” in which members selected works to read in groups and discuss during and after the reading process. Her shelves were lined with alluring titles and promising covers — RebeccaThe Red PonyThe Old Man and the SeaEast of EdenA Tale of Two Cities.

I devoured these works and sought out others. Anna Karenina and The Fountainhead remain the most daunting (length-wise) tomes I’ve ever tackled, and though I’m certain I didn’t pick up on all of the allusions and nuances within the pages, I can remember finding something to love in each of the works. Anna Karenina remains one of my favorite works of classic literature, and I have every intent of rereading it, now that I’ve got a few more years under my belt.

Now that I’m a teacher, I struggle to incorporate classics into my classroom. I’ve heard from numerous administrators that there’s “no point” in teaching these difficult works to students who barely even speak the same language anymore. They tell me that Shakespeare is frivolous, Dickens outdated, Steinbeck — “Who’s that again?”

But I find a degree of beauty, wit, and artistry in classic works that modern authors rarely come close to grazing with their tawdry tales of adultery (why is this the major plot concept in 95% of adult fiction?) and crime.

I recently read the modern classic A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, a semi-autobiographical novel penned by Betty Smith in 1943. Most of my acquaintances today — and in truth, many avid readers, too — would deem this novel boring, aimless, and plodding. Admittedly, very little “action” occurs in Brooklyn, but in this case, that doesn’t detract from the work at all. It is, simply put, a masterpiece.

Here’s why:

  1. Brooklyn spans some 520-odd pages and a handful of years in Francie Nolan’s life as the daughter of first-generation Irish and Austrian immigrants. Set in the early 1910s, the novel portrays a very realistic — and often heartbreaking — image of life for the impoverished immigrant families that comprised a majority of New York City. Such accounts, though fictionalized, are crucial in understanding the history and development of our country.
  2. As far as character studies go, Brooklyn is unrivaled. Truly, the book is entirely character-driven: Francie’s observations, choices, and reactions propel the story forward. But Smith doesn’t stop there; rather, readers are also treated to intimate portraits of Katie and Johnny (Francie’s parents) and Neeley, her younger brother. Each individual is exquisitely crafted to reflect a unique set of core beliefs, dreams, and fears which affect their relationships with one another. You will not find characters of this caliber in much of contemporary fiction.
  3. Francie’s naive interpretation of the world in her early years (and honestly, into her teen years) is a breath of fresh air. She has not been tainted by unsupervised access to internet porn or trashy adult cartoons that her parents allow her to watch because they’re too lazy to, you know, parent — the heroine of this book is remarkably trusting in her worldview and untarnished by modern obsessions with gore, sex, and violence. Few children of my own generation, and certainly even fewer in the generations to follow, have any concept of the true naiveté that accompanied childhood a century ago. Francie’s story is a sweet (and often amusing) deviation from our modern world.
  4. The prose — oh! the prose! — is simply divine. For example:

The one tree in Francie’s yard was neither a pine nor a hemlock. It had pointed leaves which grew along green switches which radiated from the bough and made a tree which looked like a lot of opened green umbrellas. Some people called it the Tree of Heaven. No matter where its seed fell, it made a tree which struggled to reach the sky. It grew in boarded-up lots and out of neglected rubbish heaps and it was the only tree that grew out of cement. It grew lushly, but only in the tenements districts. (p. 6)

and:

The spruce trees began coming into the neighborhood the week before Christmas. Their branches were corded to hold back the glory of their spreading and probably to make shipping easier. Vendors rented space on the curb before a store and stretched a rope from pole to pole and leaned the trees against it. All day they walked up and down this one-sided avenue of aromatic leaning trees, blowing on stiff ungloved fingers and looking with bleak hope at those people who paused. A few ordered a tree set aside for the day; others stopped to price, inspect and conjecture. But most came just to touch the boughs and surreptitiously pinch a fingerful of spruce needles together to release the fragrance. And the air was cold and still, and full of the pine smell and the smell of tangerines which appeared in the stores only at Christmas time and the mean street was truly wonderful for a little while.

5. There’s a wonderful, tender undercurrent of perseverance and hope in Brooklyn. Amid the pathetic, drunken fathers and the failed dreams and the unglorious starvation, there is an unfailing thread of hope that pushes Francie — and readers — forward, ever seeking a future of possibility. This folklore-esque spirit of the American Dream, long-since tarnished, is bittersweet and evocative of a time when less wasn’t more but it wasn’t all that bad, either.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn isn’t a thriller. It’s not a fast-paced action novel, it’s not a tale of romance and guile, and it’s not a laugh-out-loud sort of book. But it is a brilliant retelling of an all-but-forgotten era in what was once the most dreamed-of country in the world; a coming-of-age story gilded with intentional prose and simple but striking imagery.

If I’m being quite honest with myself, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is also my favorite book. Period. And that’s a designation that hasn’t changed in ten or fifteen years, so.

Do yourself a favor: borrow, buy, or steal (from a friend) a copy today. Savor Francie’s story. Share it with someone else. Read it again. Roll the words around in your mind until 1912 Brooklyn comes to life with an eleven-year-old girl perched on the fire escape of her tenement home, reading a book while her empty stomach grumbles at the lack of food. Let the story move you from start to blessed finish.

Overall: 5 blindingly shiny stars.