Anatomy: A Love Story by Dana Schwartz // Book Review

Anatomy: A Love Story by Dana Schwartz // Book Review

This is the perfect gothic YA you’ll want to read this fall!

Here’s more about Anatomy: A Love Story

Edinburgh, 1817. Hazel Sinnett is a lady who wants to be a surgeon more than she wants to marry.

Jack Currer is a resurrection man who’s just trying to survive in a city where it’s too easy to die.

When the two of them have a chance encounter outside the Edinburgh Anatomist’s Society, Hazel thinks nothing of it at first. But after she gets kicked out of renowned surgeon Dr. Beecham’s lectures for being the wrong gender, she realizes that her new acquaintance might be more helpful than she first thought. Because Hazel has made a deal with Dr. Beecham: if she can pass the medical examination on her own, the university will allow her to enroll. Without official lessons, though, Hazel will need more than just her books – she’ll need bodies to study, corpses to dissect.

Lucky that she’s made the acquaintance of someone who digs them up for a living, then.

But Jack has his own problems: strange men have been seen skulking around cemeteries, his friends are disappearing off the streets. Hazel and Jack work together to uncover the secrets buried not just in unmarked graves, but in the very heart of Edinburgh society.

A gothic tale full of mystery and romance about a willful female surgeon, a resurrection man who sells bodies for a living, and the buried secrets they must uncover together.

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My thoughts

Anatomy follows young Hazel in 19th century Edinburgh with a dream to become a physician one day. Sadly, this wasn’t the greatest time for women and the dream she so dared to dream required a lot more work to achieve. She’s betrothed to her cousin (keeping it in the family) and made to conform to the position of young woman in high society. Reading manuals on human physiology, bringing dead frogs back from the dead, and disguising herself as a boy to attend classes at an all-boys physiology school, Hazel was determined to be a physician regardless of her sex.

But there was a lot more happening in this book than just her pursuit in science. Not only is there the plot about Hazel wanting to become a doctor, but there’s also a plague going around, bodies going missing, deaths occurring, and a marriage proposal. I loved that this story had so many aspects that wrapped itself together into one bigger story. I loved the mysterious aspects of the story and brought a little bit of suspense to it. I was wondering who might be the person who was causing all the deaths and the reveal was quite satisfying.

It also explored the gothic stories of the time period. I was getting Bronte sisters and even a little Mary Shelley with the descriptions, the strange science experiments and the like. The book taking place in Scotland also lended to the setting. I just imagined misty moors and abandoned graveyards. The atmosphere throughout the story truly set the stage for the events.

While I wish the romance was a tad bit stronger to match the end of the book, I did believe in Jack and Hazel and their wild duo would have been such a great ending. I felt like Jack and Hazel’s relationship didn’t really have the time to develop although I did appreciate their encounters and the way they worked with each other. I just wish the magic in their love story was a bit more prominent.

Just as an aside, but for some reason Jack’s part in the story reminded me a lot of Jack in another historical film that involved a big boat. I wanted him to have a much bigger part, but I also loved that he encouraged Hazel to pursue her dreams by digging up the bodies for her.

I will say, the ending really threw me and had a much different feel to it from the rest of the book. It truly surprised me and while it didn’t match the rest of the story, it did leave me hanging and hoping there’s a second book (there is!).

This is definitely the perfect book for the spooky season if you’d like something a bit spooky without it being all right horrifying. I will say that the level of gore may make you cringe, but I think you’ll also be captured by the story, the romance, and the interesting ending.

Babel by R.F. Kuang // Book Review

Babel by R.F. Kuang // Book Review

As someone who isn’t on the same intelligence level of R.F. Kuang, who humbly reads her books and doesn’t see the multiple sides of the polyhedron that’s her story, I read the story and hours after putting down the book, I can’t help but to think about it. Spoilers ahead, so please proceed with caution!

Here’s more about Babel, or the Necessity of Violence

Traduttore, traditore: An act of translation is always an act of betrayal.

1828. Robin Swift, orphaned by cholera in Canton, is brought to London by the mysterious Professor Lovell. There, he trains for years in Latin, Ancient Greek, and Chinese, all in preparation for the day he’ll enroll in Oxford University’s prestigious Royal Institute of Translation — also known as Babel.

Babel is the world’s center of translation and, more importantly, of silver-working: the art of manifesting the meaning lost in translation through enchanted silver bars, to magical effect. Silver-working has made the British Empire unparalleled in power, and Babel’s research in foreign languages serves the Empire’s quest to colonize everything it encounters.

Oxford, the city of dreaming spires, is a fairytale for Robin; a utopia dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge. But knowledge serves power, and for Robin, a Chinese boy raised in Britain, serving Babel inevitably means betraying his motherland. As his studies progress Robin finds himself caught between Babel and the shadowy Hermes Society, an organization dedicated to sabotaging the silver-working that supports imperial expansion. When Britain pursues an unjust war with China over silver and opium, Robin must decide: Can powerful institutions be changed from within, or does revolution always require violence? What is he willing to sacrifice to bring Babel down?

Babel — a thematic response to The Secret History and a tonal response to Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell — grapples with student revolutions, colonial resistance, and the use of translation as a tool of empire.

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My thoughts

It’s going to be quite difficult for me to write this review without spoilers, but I’m going to try. I don’t want to spoil anything especially in this story because there’s so much nuance, complexity, and deep introspection once you’re done. It’s honestly the kind of book you want to read on your own and make your own opinion on because the subjects it brings up are meant for deeper thinking.

Babel is two stories melded into one. The first is the young academic with the opportunity to learn at Oxford, this prestigious school that’s hundreds of years old and taught the brightest people in the world. You follow Robin Swift from his beginnings in China through his entire time at Oxford and the events that take place there. There’s so much romanticized in the world of Babel that really gives you the academia vibe. I honestly imagined myself in the gown running across campus in order to make it to class. The rainy days spent in the library poring over books and theories. I was sitting with Ramy, Letty, and Victoire as they ate day-old scones with tea and discussing the finer points of translation. And most of this book is about translation, which was my favorite part. Kuang does not skimp on the study of language, its translation, and even the magical elements that translation brings. She’s even able to capture the political and economic needs for translation. I loved this so much. I always find etymology and language to be such an fascinating subject and seeing it shared here in such a big way just gave me a level of excitement for the academic pursuit. It’s extremely well researched with various languages I know Kuang can’t speak herself, but shows how deeply ingrained language is and means to culture and people.

This book was more an alternate history than a fantasy, but the story was still brilliantly developed. Kuang is an excellent world-builder and through her descriptions you’re able to fall deeply into this world and imagine yourself in it. I loved that Kuang builds this idyllic version of student life and makes her readers fall so madly in love with the concept, but you also get a really big dose of reality because this is R.F. Kuang and she doesn’t take things lightly.

The second story is where the rage comes in. Robin Swift may have this wonderful opportunity to study and learn at Oxford, but it wasn’t without its difficulties. He was stolen from China right after his mother dies. He’s forced to change his name to something more English-friendly erasing his connection with his homeland. He’s victim to child abuse from his guardian and scrutinized as some sort of science experiment from the other white students. He’s also one of four students that weren’t both white and male going to Oxford. The world Robin becomes a part of turns him and his friends into the “other.” It was the fuel to the fire that leads to their rebellion. It was the dark underbelly of academia where regardless of the prestige, the opportunity, and the first-rate education they’re receiving, it will never make them a part of this world and it will never fully accept or respect them as the scholars they are.

And that’s a sentiment I can understand and have been forced to feel. It’s already difficult to understand where you belong. I’ve felt straddled between being Asian and being American my entire life. While most of the time I’ve let my anger go, it’s always the little jabs that come your way from strangers, from friends, from work colleagues that brings back those feelings. It’s a frustrating feeling and when things become more dire for the young translation students at Babel, that’s when the violence comes in. I think the most important component to keep in mind when reading this book is the subtitle: Babel, or the necessity of violence. Because violence is a huge part of this story. From the abuse Robin goes through as a child to the final stand at the tower of Babel, violence threads its way through these characters like a cancer to the point where the youthful naivete of scholarly pursuits becomes a battlefield of resistance and a desire for acceptance.

It’s such an interesting topic to explore and while I think the final moments of this story took that narrative to the most extreme level, you really get an idea of the anger that fuels their rebellion. You understand why they took it so far and why sometimes you need to go to the extremes in order to make a statement.

I think the brilliance of this book is that Kuang presents you both sides of the same coin; the story of a young academic seeking knowledge at a prestigious school and the story of a young academic who finally sees the level of racism, classism, and exploitation the school takes from him. However, I wish I saw more of Robin’s personal struggle throughout the story. I felt like there was a small amount in the beginning, but then at one point it’s a full 180 and he’s leading a rebellion he didn’t want to be a part of in the first place. I don’t blame him for the violence or even the extreme measures that he takes, but I wish we dived deeper into that dichotomy instead of falling head first in the pursuit for justice.

Overall, this immersive story will keep you reading. You might be compelled by the translation discussions, or you might be compelled by the rebellion of these students, but there is a little bit of everything for everyone and if you’re not thinking about the bigger themes of the story after putting the book down, then you might have missed the entire point. I had some issues with the character development and some of the plot either moved too quickly or stagnated at a snail’s pace, but it was truly a masterful book that isn’t subtle and will make you hurt and wonder at the same time. I commend R.F. Kuang for this incredible endeavor. This truly is a feather in her writing cap and brings to light some truly interesting themes in an understandable way.

Our Violent Ends by Chloe Gong // Book Review

Our Violent Ends by Chloe Gong // Book Review

The sequel to These Violent Delights will dazzle you with its action-packed retelling of both Romeo and Juliet and the Shanghai Massacre of 1927. Filled with mystery, political intrigue, and romance, this one will keep you reading all the way to the end.

Here’s more about Our Violent Ends

The year is 1927, and Shanghai teeters on the edge of revolution.

After sacrificing her relationship with Roma to protect him from the blood feud, Juliette has been a girl on the warpath. One wrong move, and her cousin will step in to usurp her place as the Scarlet Gang’s heir. The only way to save the boy she loves from the wrath of the Scarlets is to have him want her dead for murdering his best friend in cold blood. If Juliette were actually guilty of the crime Roma believes she committed, his rejection might sting less.

Roma is still reeling from Marshall’s death, and his cousin Benedikt will barely speak to him. Roma knows it’s his fault for letting the ruthless Juliette back into his life, and he’s determined to set things right—even if that means killing the girl he hates and loves with equal measure.

Then a new monstrous danger emerges in the city, and though secrets keep them apart, Juliette must secure Roma’s cooperation if they are to end this threat once and for all. Shanghai is already at a boiling point: The Nationalists are marching in, whispers of civil war brew louder every day, and gangster rule faces complete annihilation. Roma and Juliette must put aside their differences to combat monsters and politics, but they aren’t prepared for the biggest threat of all: protecting their hearts from each other.

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My thoughts

I read the first book only last month, so it was pretty fresh in my mind and made the experience for this one even richer. I felt like the first book was good, but it definitely had a few flaws that many readers brought up. However, I saw this sequel as flawless and I would highly recommend checking it out if you read the first one and liked it. I’m probably bias because I loved it so much and overlooking some smaller issues, but it really blew me away.

The biggest components that I adored was using real Chinese history during the early part of the 20th century to help tell this tale. The communist and nationalist parties working in tandem with the gangsters was so intriguing. Incorporating them into creating Chloe’s own retelling of those events really made the story way more interesting! Of course, the gangs working alongside these two parties really brought another dynamic level to the story that really reminded me of Fonda Lee and her Jade City trilogy.

The characters were a huge part of why I loved this book. Roma and Juliette, of course, were so interesting and very different from each other. Roma is more of a lover than a fighter, but has no problems with pulling the trigger when needed. Juliette is always fighting for approval as a female heir to one of the biggest gangs in Shanghai, so she tries to keep a pretty stern air about her. But I love that you see all of that change for both of the characters throughout the second book. They grow and change into the people they’re supposed to be, which I loved reading throughout the process.

I think another surprising set of characters were Marshall and Benedikt. I loved seeing their friendship grow over time and although I don’t want to spoil anything, the book definitely dives further into that for you. And I think my favorite character of all was Alisa. In the first book, there wasn’t much about her. She was more the naive younger sister who was infected by the bugs, but in this book, she grows exponentially.

I did want to touch on Romeo and Juliet and how it plays out in this part of the book. If you’ve read the first book, then you know exactly where the story kind of leads you, but ultimately this second half of the book is no way similar to the play. And honestly, I preferred it. Chloe Gong has created something special here with her story and I don’t think the play was necessary. It was fun to see the nods to the play and see how she’s used the components within her own story, but I wouldn’t go into reading this series thinking you’re going to get a verbatim retelling. It’s way better than that!

Finally, the bugs aka the sci-fi element in the story that drew me to the book in the first place. It felt like it took a backseat in the second book and didn’t play as big of a role as it did in the first book. My anxiety thanks Chloe Gong for that. However, I think she did a good job incorporating into the story and making it a part of the bigger plot. I loved that the bugs formed a riff in power within Shanghai and subsequently led to the people wanting to move away from gang rule, but aside from that I like that she kept the bugs to a minimum (gross).

Overall, I absolutely loved this ending. The story wrapped up beautifully, surprised me all the time, and really captured the tragedy of the massacre days before it happened. Honestly, I couldn’t have asked for a better sequel.

A Clash of Steel by CB Lee // Book Review

A Clash of Steel by CB Lee // Book Review

I’ll be honest, I really wanted to like this one. Swashbuckling pirates, destinies to chase, coming-of-age, and treasures to find. It was honestly the perfect setup for a super fun pirate book. However, it just didn’t hit the mark for me. Thanks to Fierce Reads for gifting me a copy of this book.

Here’s more about A Clash of Steel

1826. The sun is setting on the golden age of piracy, and the legendary Dragon Fleet, the scourge of the South China Sea, is no more. Its ruthless leader, a woman known only as the Head of the Dragon, is now only a story, like the ones Xiang has grown up with all her life. She desperately wants to prove her worth, especially to her mother, a shrewd businesswoman who never seems to have enough time for Xiang. Her father is also only a story, dead at sea before Xiang was born. Her single memento of him is a pendant she always wears, a simple but plain piece of gold jewelry.

But the pendant’s true nature is revealed when a mysterious girl named Anh steals it, only to return it to Xiang in exchange for her help in decoding the tiny map scroll hidden inside. The revelation that Xiang’s father sailed with the Dragon Fleet and tucked away this secret changes everything. Rumor has it that the legendary Head of the Dragon had one last treasure—the plunder of a thousand ports—that for decades has only been a myth, a fool’s journey.

Xiang is convinced this map could lead to the fabled treasure. Captivated with the thrill of adventure, she joins Anh and her motley crew off in pursuit of the island. But the girls soon find that the sea—and especially those who sail it—are far more dangerous than the legends led them to believe.

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My thoughts

In many ways, this book has all the things I’m looking for in a really good pirate story. It has adventures to mysterious lands, pirates with quirky personalities, a little bit of romance, and a whole lot of coming-to-age and understanding that your parents aren’t always the superheroes. It has everything and even buried treasure to be found with an encrypted map that only a handful of people could actually understand. It had the potential to be a phenomenal story, but I think I came away from this book really wanting more.

Much of the story felt like a historical YA story rather than a historical pirate story. The focus was more on Xiang, her life, her upbringing, the people around her, and her mysterious father. She wears a pendant she was told was a token from her father before he passed, but that’s pretty much all she knew about him. The beginning shares her sheltered life. She lives in a super small village with her caretakers and her mentor. The only exploration she knows is what she’s traveled through town and in the books she reads.

Then one day, she asks her mother to take her to Canton to see what the rest of the world looks like. While she’s there, she meets Anh who steals her pendant and reveals to her that the pendant actually had something hidden inside of it; a treasure map to one of the most famous pirate’s buried riches.

In a desperate attempt to make Xiang’s mother proud of her (and avoid the marriage proposals her mother keeps pushing on her), Xiang leaves with Anh and her family’s ship to set sail for a world of exploration, daring adventures, and finding out more about the treasure map she found.

From that point on, the story has so many twists and turns. The drama in Xiang’s life is so unreal and with each new surprise, I was drawn to finding out more. I wish I can talk about them here, but I might give too much away. But be prepared to find how much Xiang’s family has been keeping from her.

I also really loved the characters in this book. The entire crew on Captain Hoa’s ship were all interesting characters that I wish had more time to learn about them. I wanted to know so much about each of the characters and how they make up this beautiful found family. Xiang and Anh’s relationship also deepens as they get to know each other. Xiang learns to fight, the importance of working hard, and discovers a lot about her past that’s been kept hidden from her. Honestly, I was so surprised with all the reveals that kept rolling in.

The pacing in this story felt a little out of sorts. At first, it was slow-paced, which I liked. I felt like I was getting into a seriously big story with tons of adventure and action, but then the second half of the book seemed to rush focusing less on the treasure and more on the drama. I think if I had set my expectations a little differently when I started the book then I would have enjoyed it more than I did.

Overall, it was a fun adventure story filled with a lot of learnings, surprises, and pirate-y action. While it wasn’t my favorite, I know many folks out there will really love this one.

Luck of the Titanic by Stacey Lee // Book Review

Luck of the Titanic by Stacey Lee // Book Review

I’m going to start off by saying that I don’t normally read historical fiction. However, when it’s a historical fiction that 1) takes place on the Titanic 2) brings in an under-represented group that wouldn’t normally be on the Titanic, then I need to investigate. And much like Valora Luck, I got lucky with this one.

Here’s More About Luck of the Titanic

Southampton, 1912: Seventeen-year-old British-Chinese Valora Luck has quit her job and smuggled herself aboard the Titanic with two goals in mind: to reunite with her twin brother Jamie–her only family now that both their parents are dead–and to convince a part-owner of the Ringling Brothers Circus to take the twins on as acrobats. Quick-thinking Val talks her way into opulent firstclass accommodations and finds Jamie with a group of fellow Chinese laborers in third class. But in the rigidly stratified world of the luxury liner, Val’s ruse can only last so long, and after two long years apart, it’s unclear if Jamie even wants the life Val proposes. Then, one moonless night in the North Atlantic, the unthinkable happens–the supposedly unsinkable ship is dealt a fatal blow–and Val and her companions suddenly find themselves in a race to survive.

Stacey Lee, master of historical fiction, brings a fresh perspective to an infamous tragedy, loosely inspired by the recently uncovered account of six Titanic survivors of Chinese descent.

My Thoughts

This was a slow burning story about young Valora Luck; a Chinese British person who’s trying to get to America and become an acrobat in the Ringling Bros Circus. While it was slow burning, I also remembered this story takes place on the Titanic and perhaps it was more the anticipation of what happens to the ship that made it feel slow. But it was definitely entertaining. Watching Valora pull off being a boy to hang out with her brother and his friends in third class to pretending to be Mrs. Sloane in first class, I loved seeing her dynamically navigate through those different worlds. It was also quite fun especially when she’s fooling the rich folks that she’s also rich and white.

It was interesting to see the dichotomy between first class and third class. Naturally, we’ve seen these class wars in movies like Titanic, but what Titanic failed to recognize was the level of discrimination people of color from third class were faced. It wasn’t only Valora, Jamie, and the boys who are discriminated against and it made sense with the story. And although they were faced with a lot of discrimination, there were also people on board who looked beyond their ethnicity and befriended them. It made me happy to see a few allies in the mix.

I also loved that this story was loosely based off the six Titanic survivors who are of Chinese descent. It blew my mind reading the author’s note at the end and seeing the inspiration for the story. Personally, as a Korean American, I never imagined someone who looked like me on board the Titanic. I think the biggest depiction of life then was that big blockbuster movie we all know and love. And in many ways, I was worried with the direction this story went. I was worried she would fall in love with some rich white guy and abandon her plans to be independent, but it didn’t turn out that way! It actually made me so happy that she was so stubborn!

This book also deals a bit in grief/loss. When Valora boards the ship, there’s a lot of recall to her mother and father who both tragically passed away. It fueled her determination to follow her dream especially since it was her parents that got her and Jamie into acrobatics in the first place.

The ending was definitely where all the action was. I mean, this is the Titanic and I don’t think it’s a spoiler with what happens to that ship at the end. But it was interesting to see this represented. I appreciate so much what Stacey Lee was able to do with this book. I loved the story and imagining myself in such a historical moment. Although, I am glad I wasn’t on that boat in real life.

Thanks Penguin Teen for gifting me a copy of this book. My opinions have not been influenced by the publisher or the author.

The Conductors by Nicole Glover // Book Review

The Conductors by Nicole Glover // Book Review

I was really excited to read this one especially since historical fantasy is a sub-genre I’m really into lately. But what I read felt more like a historical fiction with a touch of fantasy. It may be perfect for those who love alternate history or a historical fiction that takes place during the late 19th century.

Here’s More about The Conductors

A compelling debut by a new voice in fantasy fiction, The Conductors features the magic and mystery of Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files written with the sensibility and historical setting of Octavia Butler’s Kindred: Introducing Hetty Rhodes, a magic-user and former conductor on the Underground Railroad who now solves crimes in post–Civil War Philadelphia.

As a conductor on the Underground Railroad, Hetty Rhodes helped usher dozens of people north with her wits and magic. Now that the Civil War is over, Hetty and her husband Benjy have settled in Philadelphia, solving murders and mysteries that the white authorities won’t touch. When they find one of their friends slain in an alley, Hetty and Benjy bury the body and set off to find answers. But the secrets and intricate lies of the elites of Black Philadelphia only serve to dredge up more questions. To solve this mystery, they will have to face ugly truths all around them, including the ones about each other.

In this vibrant and original novel, Nicole Glover joins a roster of contemporary writers within fantasy, such as Victor LaValle and Zen Cho, who use speculative fiction to delve into important historical and cultural threads.

My Thoughts

I liked this one! While it wasn’t entirely what I’m usually reading (more on the fantasy side than the historical side), I still appreciated the story and the world Nicole Glover’s built for Hetty and Benjy. This was such an interesting world and while I imagined it being more like a crime noire story, I’m still happy with the results.

I really loved the magic. While it could have done with a bit more explanation on how they all work (what’s the difference between sigil magic and sorcery?), I loved how it’s used. I loved reading Hettie sitting and sewing constellations into the collars of her shirts and how she’s able to lift an entire bathtub with her things in it and move. The magic felt romantic especially when it’s using constellations. I loved seeing the different signs of the zodiac come to life and help Hettie and Benjy on their missions.

I also liked the setting. I’ve read a few historical fiction stories that are set in this post Civil-War America, I liked how this one still continues to look back at the events prior to the war and how it affects the characters in the book. You can tell from the subtle nods to enslavement and the war that this is still fresh in the characters’ minds and how their decisions are sometimes based on the world they used to live in. But I also appreciated reading about how this young Philadelphian town is thriving with affluent Black Americans making a name for themselves after the war.

Hettie was definitely my favorite character and while Benjy does have his moments, I loved following Hettie along. Perhaps it’s because most of the flashbacks are about Hettie and her life, but she’s also such a humble and strong character who isn’t as showy as some of the other characters. She’s a seamstress who doesn’t want to be bulldozed into working for little money. She’s a detective who can use magic, but she doesn’t use it for just anyone. Even though some characters bugged Hettie, she still kept her cool and composure and never showing her full hand before figuring out the situations.

And for the other characters in the book, I don’t know how but I fell in love with them as well. Everyone from Penelope who seems just so kind and brews potions for Hettie to Alice, the passing Black elite looking for her sister. There were so many characters and each of them had such different and interesting personalities. I loved how developed they were and how they relate back to Hettie and Benjy.

However, I wasn’t a fan of the mystery. I think it’s because it didn’t feel like the most important part of the book. I found it much more interesting to read about Hettie and her journey to find her sister, to help out the local townspeople, and contribute to society. But when it came to the mystery behind the murders, it almost felt like an afterthought. I was surprised by the big reveal at the end because there weren’t enough breadcrumbs or clues within the text to suggest otherwise. I think this is the first book in a really long time that I couldn’t figure out who did it before the reveal. You can definitely tell there’s something going on and there are hints throughout the story, but I also felt they were too few and far between. Every time it came back to the mystery component, I’d completely forgotten it was a part of the book.

Overall, I would recommend this book to anyone who loves a good historical fiction novel with a bit of magic and a bit of mystery. I wouldn’t hold out for figuring out the culprit before the end of the book because it may get in the way of your enjoyment of the story.

Thanks to HMH Books for sending me a copy of this book. My opinions have not been influenced by the publisher or the author.