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Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Empress of a Thousand Skies - Rhoda Belleza (Empress of a Thousand Skies #1)

Empress of a Thousand Skies (Empress of a Thousand Skies, #1)Empress of a Thousand Skies belongs to that genre which is recently coming to popularity in the young adult fiction world: the space opera.  Other examples: These Broken Stars and Starflight.  All of these tend to be lifestyles of the rich and famous meets the poor and suppressed and the world is changed--in space!  In this case, the two main characters are Rhiannon, the heir apparent to a galactic empire who is due to be crowned any day, and Alyosha, a young man in the military and the star of a reality TV show along with his co-pilot.  Rhee lost her entire family when their ship exploded when she was younger; she survived because she'd sneaked off to get a lucky token.  Aly lost his family and home in the war that destroyed his home planet.  After Rhee escapes an assassination attempt, she finds herself on the run--and Aly finds himself framed for the attempt on her life, putting him on the run, as well.

I kept expecting the stories of these two characters to merge into one, but they never did.  Each of them is keenly aware of the other's predicament--Rhee knows that Aly isn't the one who tried to kill her, and Aly knows that Rhee is actually alive--but even when they cross paths, they never actually meet and become a pair, taking separate routes on their respective exiles.  I thought the plot itself, including both the big "twists," was pretty transparent, but the characters and their paths through the universe were interesting.  Belleza includes a variety of species and I don't think any of the main characters are actually what we would consider "white," which was cool.  Aly definitely isn't, and Rhee, though human, might possibly be of Native American descent, given that her dynasty is called the Ta'an, but I'm not 100% sure on that one.  Rhee herself has a strong sense of duty, but it's overlaid by a deep desire for revenge against the man who assassinated her family.  Consequently, she doesn't always make the most logical decisions, and this is compounded by the fact that she's only fifteen for much of the book--not exactly a prime decision-making age, even if you've been raised to be empress.  This isn't always the most flattering characterization, but it seemed likely to me.

Aly, on the other hand, just wants to be liked.  His race is blamed for the war that tore apart much of the galaxy, and he sees his role on the Revolutionary Boys show as a way to be a sort of ambassador to the other races of the galaxy, even though he actually hates being on the show itself.  What he wants more than anything is to clear his name and show people that the Wraetans aren't all bad.  His life is understandably thrown into chaos when Rhee's supposed assassination is blamed on him, and he's desperate to prove himself innocent--but he's not willing to do so at any cost.  He also has a keen sense of what's going on in the universe around him, as terrible as it might be, even when he doesn't want to believe it, and tries to navigate his new circumstances accordingly.

Lurking behind all this is a narrative about the potential horrors of everyone being connected all the time, about the grips of reality TV on our lives (Hunger Games, anyone?), and about finding your place in the universe.  The plot itself isn't revolutionary, it's true, but I think the characters, the galaxy, and the themes are strong enough to support the weaker plot here.  Am I chomping at the bit to read the next one?  No, which is good, because it's not out until 2018.  But I am looking forward to it when it eventually becomes available.

3.5 stars out of 5.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Days of Blood & Starlight - Laini Taylor (Daughter of Smoke & Bone #2)

12812550I was so excited to read this sequel to Daughter of Smoke and Bone after devouring that first book.  Taylor had built up such a wonderous world and conflict, and I loved the reincarnation premise that the romance revolved around.  It was all right up my alley.  But with so much deliciousness in the first book, I was apprehensive that the second volume would fall victim to the dreaded "second book syndrome."  Did it?

Well...kind of.  This is a book in which not a heck of a lot actually happens, at least on one half the book.  Karou has found a place for the surviving chimera to live, a kasbah in Morocco, and has taken up Brimstone's mantel as a resurrectionist in hopes of reviving her shattered people.  On the other side, Akiva has returned to Eretz and the other seraphim, convinced that Karou is dead after finding a thurible with her name on it in his search for her.  Meanwhile, Karou's friend Zuzana and her boyfriend Mik are in search of Karou themselves, following what they think is a string of clues Karou left in a single email she sent letting them know she was still alive.

There's not a lot of forward motion in this book.  Karou never really leaves the kasbah, and Akiva spends a lot of time pining and talking about revolution before he decides to actually do anything.  The thing is, that didn't seem to actually matter in this book.  Taylor's writing remains so lush and riveting that even though the forward motion was minimal, I kept reading because I wanted to know more about these characters.  And their inner struggles also progressed here; for Karou, she wants to help bring her people back and turn the tide against the seraphim, but becomes increasingly aware of the price that might bear.  For Akiva, it's pretty much the same thing--and so, once again, Karou and Akiva are facing exile from their peoples.  It's a tale as old as time, Romeo and Juliet on steroids, except...well, Karou gets into that "except" herself.  And while this book was a bit slow in overall pace, it was still evenly paced, unlike the first book which had a good first two-thirds and then a lopsided and slow final third.  I was glad to see that more even pacing throughout, and felt that, even though this wasn't a "fast" book, it didn't fall prey to the typical symptoms of second book syndrome.  Of course, everything is still ultimately set up for the third book, which is the fate of all second books in trilogies, and at the end everything has truly gone to hell in a handbasket--but that's for the next installment to deal with.

Overall, absolutely lovely still.  Not quite as vibrant as the first, but with better pacing and still a very solid story, and with a great setup for the third book.

4 stars out of 5.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Dreams of Gods and Monsters - Laini Taylor (Daughter of Smoke & Bone #3)

Dreams of Gods & Monsters (Daughter of Smoke & Bone, #3)I was so excited to dive in to the last book of this trilogy, but also apprehensive, because the second book was not as magical as the first, and I was concerned about the third following in that path.  And there's the rub: I was right to be apprehensive.

With seraphim invading the human world, our heroine Karou and hero Akiva find themselves trying to force the remaining Misbegotten seraphim and a paltry bunch of chimaera to get along long enough to save both Earth and Eretz.  But here's the thing...Taylor can't seem to be satisfied with that as a plot.  Instead, she starts throwing in new ones, like a looming cataclysm and a backstory that hasn't been mentioned until now and worlds-threatening monsters that don't ever actually end up getting resolved.  And while some of this is cushioned by another burgeoning romance between Liraz and Ziri (THANK GOD, because I couldn't put up with any more of his pining) and of course Karou and Akiva trying to come together once again, it just felt like too much, especially because the story didn't really just end, it just kind of trailed off.

I'm not really sure there's that much more to say about this.  There were some excellent moments in here--the confrontation in the Vatican comes to mind, Eliza's return to her true self, Mik and Zuze and the stormhunters as well--but overall I'm not sure they could really redeem a book that felt kind of scattered.  It definitely didn't have the magic of the first book, the snap and sizzle and all of the tropes made over and new again; instead, it felt much more like a generic fantasy story, and one that didn't come to a soaring or even a crashing conclusion, but instead just sort of petered out.  While Karou and Akiva were wonderful and even Liraz got some redemption (but what the heck was up with Haxaya?  Something else that was never explained) there were just too many holes and dropped strings here to make me really like it as a book.  Ultimately, the first book was the best of this series, and it was a bit of a downhill slide from there.  I'm interested in Taylor's more recent book, but this series ultimately didn't deliver what I had really hoped it would.  It read a lot like the upwards-of-a-million-word-long RP a friend and I have had going off and on for years--and while it might be fun to write your own melodrama and jump from plot to plot and have things dropped, there's the potential of it all coming back together again later.  I kept hoping things would come together here, but they never did, and that was a disappointment.

2 stars out of 5.

Friday, August 11, 2017

The Queen of Attolia - Megan Whalen Turner (The Queen's Thief #2)

The Queen of Attolia (The Queen's Thief, #2)This is the second book in Megan Whalen Turner's The Queen's Thief series, aka the series of sequels to The Thief that I didn't know existed until very recently.  It seems to take place not too long after the thief, and spans a couple of years, but the feel is very different from the original book.

First, this book switches to a third-person point of view, instead of the first-person one used in The Thief.  The new point of view is necessary so that the plot can feature periods focused on the titular Queen of Attolia, the Queen of Eddis, and sometimes a few other characters when they're not in the direct presence of Eugenides.  This has the side-effect of not everything being from Eugenides smug perspective; one my least favorite parts of The Thief was how bratty Gen was and how much I wanted to smack him across the face because of it.  That's also greatly lessened here because the book starts with some events that give Gen a serious case of PTSD for the duration of the book, though of course the characters don't know what PTSD is.

The other way in which the book is vastly different from the first is the theme.  The first book, while it involved political wheeling and dealing and deceptions, but it was first and foremost and adventure story.  That's not the case here.  This is definitely a political story rather than an adventure one.  There are still adventurous parts carried out by Gen, but they mostly take a back seat and definitely aren't described in the same level of detail as his theft of Hamiathes' Gift in the first book.  Instead, the focus is on the brewing three-way or even possibly four-way war on the continent int he story, and how the Queen of Attolia is getting her country further and further entangled while trying to keep her head above the water.  While this is interesting, combined with the more violent content it means that this is aimed at a decidedly older audience than The Thief was.  It's a strange disconnect and I think it could be very off-putting to someone expecting something similar to the first book in coming to this second one.

I think those two big differences were either beneficial to (the first) or neutral to (the second) the overall "worth" of the book.  However, there was one thing about the book that I didn't like.  Ultimately, what's at the heart of the book is supposed to be a love story.  However, I didn't buy this for one second.  It's no more a romance than Love In A Time of Cholera is a romance.  It's more a story of obsession than one of love and feelings, and it leads to a very strange-feeling ending.  There's an attempt to back-fill the gaps here by saying it's been going on for longer than this book, but it's not a very convincing one, not in the least because it still only fills in one side of the story.  And then there's another attempt at, "I didn't know I loved you until..."  But there's really no reason or opportunity for these two characters to fall in love, particularly after what they've done to each other.  Ultimately, this felt like an attempt to add another dimension to appear to older audiences, but I don't think there was enough of a foundation there to build this aspect on.

Overall, I liked this book, and it seems like the third book is going to narrow back down from this large, three-kingdom scope to a narrower one again, focusing more singularly on Eugenides.  I'm looking forward to reading it--so this book kind of feels just like a stepping stone to that one.  But still decent!

3 stars out of 5.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Because of Low - Abbi Glines (Sea Breeze #2)

Because of Low (Sea Breeze, #2)OMG, what a cheesy cover.  XD  The expression that guy's face just makes me want to cackle with laughter.  Okay, moving on now.

Because of Low was my pick for the "A college romance" category of the Unapologetic Romance Readers 2017 Reading Challenge.  It's the second in the Sea Breeze series, and the main character, Marcus Hardy, was apparently a side character in the first book.  However, you definitely don't need to have read that first book in order to read this one.  While the couple from the first book appear here, there's nothing you can't really intuit about what happened.  The plot of this one is about Marcus and Willow, aka Low.  Marcus has moved back to Sea Breeze from Tuscaloosa to deal with family troubles, mainly that his father has been having an affair with devastating effects on Marcus' mother and sister.  He moves in with the friend of a friend, Cage, who happens to be the best friend of Willow, who basically lives with Cage, even sleeping in his bed, because she doesn't have a home of her own since her sister kicked her out.  Cage swears he's going to marry Willow, even though there's no romantic relationship between them, and Marcus is immediately attracted to her as well.

The "big reveal" of this book isn't really as such, because its' pretty apparent from the beginning what's going on, and when you factor in that the very first page of the book has Marcus saying he has to choose between his family and Willow...well, there's only one reason for that, now isn't there?  But overall, this was a light and cute romance.  The timeline seems a little funky, sometimes seeming like it's taking place over a few days and sometimes over the course of weeks.  Additionally, while both the characters are in college and are taking classes (Willow at a community college, Marcus online) there's not really a "college" vibe here, but I guess it technically counts.  However, I honestly found Willow and Marcus to be very bland characters.  You can see the protagonists of future books lining up on the sidelines here, and honestly I feel like they had more potential than these main characters.  While Marucs and Willow are both very good people who care for each other, their friends, their families...they kind of have the type of lives you'd want to live (family drama excepted, but that's not them, that's their families) not the ones you really want to read about.

So, yeah. This was good, and light, and fast; a decent summer read, even though it doesn't take place in summer.  But it wasn't anything electric or riveting.  I might check out the other books in the series since I do think this was a character thing rather than something to do with the writing or plotting, but they won't be immediately at the top of my priority list.

3 stars out of 5.

Monday, August 7, 2017

The Hundredth Queen - Emily R. King (The Hundredth Queen #1)

The Hundredth Queen (The Hundredth Queen, #1)The Hundredth Queen was one of the options for Kindle First a few months ago, a program where Amazon Prime members can get a free copy of a book each month.  Fantasy books are pretty rare in the First selections, so I jumped at the chance to get this one.  Plus, just look at that cover--so gorgeous.  And the premise, about a young woman torn from her convent home in order to become the hundredth wife of the rajah of her country, and who hides a secret power, was just too good to pass up.

The thing is, the book doesn't really deliver on its premise.  Our main character, Kalinda, doesn't learn about her abilities until relatively late in the book, though clearly the reader is clued in much earlier than that.  Additionally, the idea that Kalinda is going to have to fight for her throne and her place among the rajah's other ninety-nine wives and his many courtesans isn't really played out in the way that seems promised, either.  And finally, I wasn't convinced about the world building.  We learn partway through the book that many of the things we think are true are not, and have actually only come to be the way they are in the past two decades because of actions of the rajah.  I can totally buy Kalinda not knowing this--she was raised in a very secluded place, taught certain things by a select group of people who were forced into that way by benefactors who would have otherwise withdrawn their support.  However.  The entire country seems to have suddenly forgotten the way things used to be, and don't even whisper about it.  The only group of people who seem to remember are blatant rebels.  There are apparently only two camps here: totally fine with things or in outright rebellion, which seems quite unlikely to me.

But there were things I liked about this.  I found the culture interesting; the religion is apparently loosely based on that of ancient Sumeria, and I found the concept of the wives, the rank tournaments, all of that so intriguing.  A fantasy that's not based around a traditional medieval European setting, while becoming more common, is still very refreshing to me.  Additionally, there (presumably) aren't any white characters in this!  Yay for diversity!  And finally, even though the premise of the book revolves around women fighting each other for their places at the whims of men, there are still strong female friendships here.  Kalinda has a best friend present throughout the book, and even though a few rivals emerge once she's in the palace, other women present themselves as friendly and some who are are initially enemies ultimately come to her side.  It was so nice to not see women constantly clawing each others' hair out over a guy...even if there was a snake in Kalinda's bed at one point.  Ah, well, I guess you can't win them all.

Overall, I think this had an interesting premise, but King got too invested in a side romance than in what could have been Kalinda's growth and fight for her place in an unfamiliar world.  The writing is okay, but there are gaps in the world that shouldn't have been there and overall this just wasn't as robust as it could have been.  Not sure I'm intrigued enough to read the others in the series.

2 stars out of 5.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Crazy Rich Asians - Kevin Kwan (Crazy Rich Asians #1)

Crazy Rich AsiansMy first impression after finishing this book is that there should be a comma in the title.  Or maybe not.  Indeed, these Asians are crazy rich, with crazy being used as an adverb modifying "rich" to show the degree of their wealth.  But they're also crazy as in crazy, meddling and pushing and driving people away.  Wow.

This book is the story of several intertwined Singapore Chinese families and one normal Americanized Chinese girl who inadvertently stumbles into the middle of them.  Rachel Chu is thrilled when her boyfriend Nick invites her to go to Asia for the summer--apprehensive, because she's never met his family before, but also excited, because she suspects this might be leading up to a proposal.  But what she didn't expect was that everyone knew who she was before she even arrived, and they're ready to drive her out in order to preserve Nick for someone they consider one of their own.  Rachel has few friends in Singapore, and though she tries to maintain firm, the forces against her sometimes seem insurmountable.

This was a very good book.  It is, at its core, a family drama, but it's funny.  It's kind of like Gossip Girl or something similar, but the characters are adults instead of teenagers.  The drama is over the top, yes, and is in no way supposed to be representative of all Chinese society or Singaporean society or Asian society in general.  But even when the characters are at their most back-stabbing and undermining, the drama still manages to be amusing, mainly because everything is so over the top.  For a while, I was concerned that Kwan was really going to bring down the book with a realistic-but-unhappy ending; fortunately, that wasn't the case.  Everything else was so crazy here, it didn't make sense to have a downer ending that suddenly fit the facts, so I'm glad that Kwan went the way he did.  The writing is extremely readable, and there are lots of terms that are thrown in and foot-noted so that you know what they are.  There's educational aspects about food, drink, and customs among the insanely rich in Singapore.  Rachel, meanwhile, serves as our bridge character--the one who helps bring us into this ridiculous world while maintaining a sense of stability and normalcy.  A character like this was definitely needed, or else all of the crazy might have just been too much.

It does verge on being too much at some points, and I had some doubts about some of the characters, like Araminta, so I'm not sure all of their intentions were clearly marked in the end.  Close to the end, there's also a giant infodump to clear up a little plot involving Rachel's background and Nick's family's attempts to get rid of here.  That really dragged down the pacing at a point that really needed it the least, the climax--the last thing you want to do at the climax of your story is dump in a bunch of background information that disrupts the flow, and that's exactly what happened here.  Still, considering this was a debut novel, it was remarkably good!  Such a funny story and family drama, with good central characters who help anchor all of the crazy ones and lend a sense of "down to earth" that was really needed to balance the plot.  I am definitely looking forward to reading more from Kevin Kwan!

4 stars out of 5.

Good Morning, Midnight - Lily Brooks-Dalton

Good Morning, MidnightWow, what a lovely book!  With both a cover and a plot evocative of the equally-lovely Station Eleven from a few years ago, Good Morning, Midnight looks at a few individuals left alive, for various reasons, after the mysterious end of human civilization in the rest of the world.  In fact, the writing styles and feel are so similar that it's easy to imagine that this book takes place in the same world as Station Eleven, just in different physical locations on it.

There are two halves to this book that are told in alternating chapters.  First, astronomer Augie has been left alone--or almost alone--at an observatory in the Arctic Circle after he refused to evacuate with the rest of the staff.  He planned to live out his last days in solitude, until he discovers a young girl, maybe nine or ten years old, named Iris and who appears to have been forgotten during the evacuation.  Augie and Iris try to make a life in the observatory in the silence that the rest of the world has left behind.  Meanwhile, Sully is a communications specialist aboard the Aether, a ship completing the first manned mission to Jupiter and its moons and which is now on its way back to Earth--but they know something is wrong, because Earth has gone silent.  Told over the course of a year, the book is very much a tale of people searching for purpose when the lives that they have known are suddenly, completely, and irrevocably changed.

There are no zombies to fight here, no nuclear hazard zones, no diseases to outrun.  The apocalypse, whatever it was, happened and then was done.  We don't know what caused it.  We just know that something happened, and now the world is silent.  Augie appears to be the last man on Earth, though it's hard to imagine he actually is; certainly other isolated spots would have survived, like maybe in the Antarctic research stations, out in Siberia, high in the mountains--something.  Maybe Augie is just the last man on earth who knows how to use a ham radio.  The writing is simple and beautiful, relying on two extraordinary settings to showcase a story of survival and belonging.  There's some funny business going on in the background that I started to suss out fairly early, but I wasn't quite on track with exactly what it was until close the end, which was nice.  There is a very ambiguous ending--it clears up one part, which is the part that I'd been poking about, but what ultimately happens to some of the characters is left up to the reader to decide, something that I think probably has to be done in a book of this nature and with this particular plot.

It's not a long book, but it was an absolute joy to read.  The characters have depth and dimension and are so perfectly suited for their roles; the settings are evoked with beautiful prose; and the whole thing has such a lovely feel to it that I didn't want it to end.  Is some of the science squishy?  Yes, very.  But this isn't meant to be the next of kin to Andy Weir's The Martian.  It has an entirely different focus and purpose, and with that in mind is set at some point in the future where science has advanced somewhat, making a trip to Jupiter possible in a year and having Voyager I go offline, along with its successors including the fictional Voyager III.  It's not supposed to be a "hard" science book though it definitely falls into the sci-fi genre.  With that in mind, I think it can be forgiven for its squishy science, because the rest of the book more than makes up for that.

I absolutely loved this, and after a string of books recently that were only "okay," it was a pleasure to read.

5 stars out of 5.

Friday, August 4, 2017

Eleanor & Park - Rainbow Rowell

Eleanor & ParkBut what were the three words?  That is the question plaguing me after this one.  There's an obvious guess, but with Rainbow Rowell, can we ever really know?  (She actually has an answer to this up on her FAQ but is it real or not?)

Anyway.  This is a young adult romance novel about the two titular characters, Eleanor and Park.  I don't remember either of their last names, if they were ever mentioned.  Eleanor is on the heavy side, and big in general.  She's just starting a new school after her mother retrieves her from the family friends she's been living with for the past year, ever since her abusive stepfather threw her out.  Her mother and stepfather are still together, though, and Eleanor shares a small bedroom with her five siblings, has no privacy, is bullied at school, and is generally miserable.  Park is half-Korean, an oddity in their town, and is into comic books and music.  When Eleanor sits next to him on the bus, they form a wary truce, then a strange friendship, and eventually a romance.

Both characters are sixteen, sophomores in high school, and, as the book blurb says, "smart enough to know that first love almost never lasts."  There's a sense of inevitability about their relationship because of that, and one that seems to play out at several parts of the book.  And it's kind of heartbreaking, in more than one sense.  Eleanor's home life is absolutely terrible.  Her stepfather isn't physically abusive towards her, as it's suggested he is towards her mother, but he's definitely emotionally and mentally abusive towards the whole family, has rage and alcohol issues, and generally makes life hell for Eleanor and her siblings.  Pair that with the bullying Eleanor gets at school, for being big and redheaded, and life is pretty awful for her in general.  Park is a light in her life.  And while Park genuinely does care about Eleanor, he's just not as interesting of a character.  His race isn't really an issue in the book--not that it has to be, but it would be the obviously bullying point of Rowell had chosen to go in that direction, which she didn't--his family is pretty nice in general, and his biggest worry other than Eleanor seems to be learning to drive a stick shift so that he can get his license.  Now, I don't think both main characters needed to have bad lives; that would have made for a very dark and downer book, and probably not one for the audience Rowell was aiming for.  But I just didn't care as much about Park, because I didn't need to.  He was fine, so I could focus my emotional efforts on Eleanor, and I think Park as a character suffered because of that.

I listened to this as an audiobook.  I think the narrators fit the characters pretty well, which was nice.  Eleanor's narrator is the same woman who narrated Dark Places, which was kind of a weird mental disconnect for most of the book because DP and E&P differ so much in content, but that kind of came full circle toward the end of the book.  Some of the voices they do for different characters are goofy, and I continue to lament that not all audiobooks are done with an ensemble cast for every character who speaks.  Sigh.

But yes, an enjoyable young adult romance.  I think people who like comics and the types of music that the characters listen to would like this, too, because it's kind of unusual in books.

4 stars out of 5.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

The Couple Next Door - Shari Lapena

The Couple Next DoorAh, the "trouble woman thriller."  This seems to be a bigger genre than ever these days, and I totally blame Gone Girl.  And yes, I liked Gone Girl.  But much as Twilight (which I did not like) seemed to spawn a mess of vampire-teen-romances, so had Gone Girl spawned so many others that dream of following in its footsteps.  The Couple Next Door doesn't follow Gone Girl's plot, but it does aim for its feel and twists and such, but it doesn't really succeed.

The main characters here, Marco and Anne, leave their infant daughter alone in her crib while they attend a dinner party next door, taking their baby monitor with them and checking on the infant every half hour.  But when they return home, the baby is gone.  What follows is an investigation into the kidnapping in which suspicion immediately falls on the parents, for various reasons, and the couple's secrets start to come out a little bit at a time.

While the central story here is fine, I guess, I found the writing flat and a few characterizations that really, really bothered me.  First, those characterizations.  Within the first few pages, Anne is casting dispersions upon her neighbors, particularly the wife, because "they are childless by choice."  Clearly, this means they must be terrible, right?  Yes, the couple next door are up to some shady stuff and they're not great people...but Lapena sets all of this up by implying that not having or not wanting children somehow makes you a bad person.  What?  Since when is that true?  And then, of course, another female character has to be mentally unstable, because women who are mentally stable don't have problems, right?  Obviously.  So frustrating.  Meanwhile, the detective investigating the case is almost entirely useless, even though he is a man, because why would you ever feature a competent law officer in a book where he isn't the main character?  Sigh.

This one of the extra books I picked up from Book of the Month a while ago, in addition to my normal monthly selection, and I didn't get to it until now.  Now I see why.  Overall?  Very disappointing.

2 stars out of 5.