Elder Race

Lynesse Fourth Daughter, the last and therefore least important of the queen’s daughters, is her family’s wild child. The one who gives the tutors ulcers and tries her mother’s patience. She is also the only one who takes seriously the stories of a demon rampaging through the Ordwood. Who believes it is her family’s responsibility to do something about it.

Nyr Illim Tevitch, anthropologist second class, is the sole remaining member of a scientific expedition sent out as part of a far future Earth’s second, and extremely technologically advanced, wave of galactic exploration. Their mission was to study the descendants of the colonists from the first wave’s slower generation ships. When news came that things were going wrong at home, he volunteered to stay while the rest of the team travelled back to Earth in their faster-than-light ship. They were supposed to return soon. That was centuries ago, and unsurprisingly Nyr is quite depressed. He spends decades at a time in suspended animation, waking only occasionally to check his automated outpost’s maintenance logs, or when one of the locals appears on his doorstep.

Lynesse believes in magic. To fight a demon, she asks a sorcerer for help.

Nyr is a scientist. He doesn’t believe in magic, or demons. He also has a mandate not to interfere in the local’s society.

Together, they have a communication problem.

Arthur C. Clarke’s Third Law—Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic—is the driving idea in Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Elder Race, one of the contenders for this year’s Hugo award in the Best Novella category. This culture clash has been done before, frequently, but it’s an idea that’s still fun when done well, because there are so many possible choices in how or even whether the magician attempts to explain the magic, and in how the other party reacts to it. Here, Nyr does attempt to explain, but Lynesse lacks the vocabulary to make sense of his explanations, a situation compounded by translation software that transforms his technical language without him realising it. The story is told in alternating chapters, her viewpoint and then his, except for one chapter where we are shown side-by-side what he says and what she hears:

Nyr: Your ancestors came to this planet from another, a place called Earth. They came in a spaceship…
Lynesse: The ancients brought men into this world from the otherworld, ferrying them upon a boat through the seas of night…

Nyr: And when I’ve said all that, when I’ve committed that unconscionable betrayal of all the non-contamination rules they pounded into me at anthropology HQ… Lyn says, “Yes, that is how we tell it.”

Nyr is a more fully fleshed-out character than Lynesse, with the book’s secondary focus on his struggles with depression, and his innate decency at odds with the Explorer Corp’s non-interference policy. He copes with his depression with the aid of an “Dissociative Cognition System”, which lets the higher order parts of his brain continue to reason even while aware that his body is suffering emotional stress. The drawback is that he has to regularly shut off the dissociation, and cope with his feelings, before the buildup of emotional stress overwhelms him.

There isn’t much of a plot, and the explanation of the “demon” left me scratching my head, but those are minor quibbles. From the point of view that all science fiction is about the intersection of technology and culture, and interesting only in so far as it has something to say about the human condition, this is a fine story, with a delightful blending of the fantastical and the technological.

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Right Wing Fairy Tales

Once upon a time…

That’s the start of a fairy tale, right? Well…

Once upon a time, a position espoused by the American right wing—the Republicans, the conservatives—was that the government should keep its nose out of personal life, that it had no business getting involved in decisions people make regarding their families.

What decision could possibly be more intimately connected to family life than whether or when to have children?

But if the religious zealots making up the majority of the U.S. Supreme Court strip away the right to abortion, more than half of the state governments will soon be making very intrusive decisions about what pregnant women can and can’t do.

So here’s the fairy tale: that the anti-abortion movement is pro-life. It isn’t. [1] Their theology is debatable, too. [2]

Here are a few more fairy tales: that the right wing is conservative. It isn’t. [3] That America is the land of the free. It isn’t. [4] That the move to restrict abortion rights is anything other than a naked power grab to control women.

Life in the U.S. is already damned hard on transgender children, people of colour, and anyone carrying an unwanted foetus. If the Supreme Court axes abortion rights that are based on an implied right to privacy in the 14th Amendment, other related rights could also be stripped away. They already have their sights on gay marriage. And contraception. [5]

I live in New Zealand, so why should I care about the U.S. Supreme Court? Because—even if I didn’t have family and friends in the U.S., quite a few of them either queer, trans, or women of childbearing age—the U.S. is the 800-pound gorilla. Whatever happens there spills over into the rest of the world. You have to look no further than the MAGA-hat-wearing, Trump-flag-waving covidiots present in the recent NZ parliament occupation to see that. Right wing authoritarian campaigns all over the world have been emboldened by the decline in American democracy.

That’s why this poem seems particularly pertinent right now:

First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—
     Because I was not a socialist.

Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—
     Because I was not a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
     Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

— Friedrich Gustav Emil Martin Niemöller, German Theologian writing about the Nazi’s rise to power.

I’m a woman, a feminist, a liberal, a Unitarian. Authoritarians don’t like me, either.

So, my American friends, in this year’s elections, get out and vote as if your life depends on it. Because it does.

[1] Pregnancy is dangerous, especially for poor women. Do the anti-abortionists care about the life of the mother? Apparently not, given the proposed laws that don’t allow for any exceptions—not for rape, not for incest, not for the mother’s health. And they don’t appear to give a shit for babies once they’ve been born, either.

Here are a few things that would be pro-life: Abolition of the death penalty. Strict gun control laws. Widespread access to inexpensive pre-natal health care. Parental leave commensurate with parental leave in other wealthy countries. Continuation of 2021’s expanded Child Tax Credit. Don’t hold your breath waiting for any of those.

[2] The Christian Bible doesn’t outlaw abortion. The few places it says anything related (not nearly as many references as, say, explicit passages stating the government’s obligation to help the poor), some can be read as pro-choice, some as anti. But, their argument goes, we know more science now than we did when the Bible was written, and we now know that life begins at conception.

But here’s the thing: this “scientific” argument only goes halfway into what we now know from the science. Only about one-third of fertilised eggs ever come to term. Most are flushed before the mother ever knows she’s pregnant. So tell me again that it’s God’s will that every fertilised egg should produce a baby?

[3] The right wing has ruined the word conservative. The Cambridge English dictionary’s first definition of conservative is “not usually liking or trusting change, especially sudden change.” By that definition, stripping away a right the American public had until the mid 1800s, and has had again for the past fifty years, is hardly a conservative position. The right wing wants to turn America into something it has never been: a religious theocracy. The Founding Fathers—many of them Deists or Unitarians, not believers in the divinity of Jesus of Nazareth—were quite clear about the separation of church and state. (And I won’t call their theocracy a Christian one, because their theology bears little resemblance to the compassion at the heart of Christ’s teachings.)

[4] The so-called Land of the Free has the highest incarceration rate in the entire world. And then there’s this, by David Bentley Hart in Commonweal magazine, who says it much better than I can:

Americans are, of course, the most thoroughly and passively indoctrinated people on earth. They know next to nothing as a rule about their own history, or the histories of other nations … Chiefly, what they have been trained not to know or even suspect is that, in many ways, they enjoy far fewer freedoms, and suffer under a more intrusive centralized state, than do the citizens of countries with more vigorous social-democratic institutions. … An enormous number of Americans have been persuaded to believe that they are freer in the abstract than, say, Germans or Danes precisely because they possess far fewer freedoms in the concrete. They are far more vulnerable to medical and financial crisis, far more likely to receive inadequate health coverage, far more prone to irreparable insolvency, far more unprotected against predatory creditors, far more subject to income inequality, and so forth, while effectively paying more in tax (when one figures in federal, state, local, and sales taxes, and then compounds those by all the expenditures that in this country, as almost nowhere else, their taxes do not cover). … One has to ask, what state apparatus in the “free” world could be more powerful and tyrannical than the one that taxes its citizens while providing no substantial civic benefits in return, solely in order to enrich a piratically overinflated military-industrial complex and to ease the tax burdens of the immensely wealthy?

[5] You would think, wouldn’t you, that the people the most concerned about eliminating abortions would have a stake in reducing the number of unplanned, unwanted pregnancies? And that the logical steps towards that would be making inexpensive contraception and real sex education (proven to be more effective than that abstinence-only rot) widely available? Apparently logic isn’t their strong suit. The fact that many of them consider contraception itself a sin gives away the game that this is about controlling sexuality, not saving babies.

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Anna Pigeon is enjoying her temporary assignment as Acting Supervisory Ranger of the Dry Tortugas National Park. The Dry Tortugas, seventy miles further into the Gulf of Mexico than Key West, is one of the U.S. National Park System’s least accessible parks; a perfect place for someone needing time to think over one of life’s big decisions in a low stress, thinly populated environment.

And then, on a hot, calm night, a blast rips through the silence. A boat sinks, taking at least one body with it to rest on the sea floor. A park ranger vanishes. As Anna directs the hunt for the missing ranger and the investigation of the accident, she soon learns that those are just the beginnings of a series of disturbing and deadly incidents.

Explosions, near drownings, body parts, bullets, a brewing tropical storm… These are not a recipe for a low-stress assignment, but they do make for an exciting story. Flashback, by Nevada Barr, gets off to a bit of a slow start, with the first few chapters just exploring the setting and establishing the main characters, but once it cranks into high gear it stays there.

The book contains two intertwined stories, told in alternating chapters. The first one, involving Anna, is a thriller set in the near present-day (2003). The second story, also a mystery/thriller, takes place in the late 1860s, and is told in a series of letters from the fictional wife of the Union Army officer in command of the real Fort Jefferson, the park’s centrepiece. The gimmick tying the two stories together is that the letters have been handed down in Anna’s family from her great-great-aunt, and her sister sends them to her to make her stay in Fort Jefferson more interesting.

The letters build a mystery around a real historical event. Fort Jefferson is massive, the largest brick masonry structure in the Western Hemisphere, containing more than 16,000,000 bricks, and almost completely encloses the island it is built on. It was built in the mid 1800s to protect the shipping lanes to and from the Mississippi River. It stayed in Union hands throughout the war, and after the war it was used as a federal prison. (It would have been even harder to swim away from than Alcatraz.)

Its most famous prisoners were the men convicted of conspiracy to assassinate President Abraham Lincoln. Those prisoners included Dr. Samuel Mudd, who remains a controversial figure, as his role in the conspiracy has never been fully established. The actions in the story told by the letters, including torture and murder, are driven by his attempt to prove his innocence. This second story doesn’t have quite the same momentum as the first, but it is still interesting on its own.

Flashback is the 11th in a series with Anna working in a variety of locations as a law enforcement officer for the National Park Service. This is the second I’ve read, and had no difficulty reading them out of order. Anna is a bit of a quirky character, not entirely likeable, but the depictions of the national parks makes up for her shortcomings. Barr’s writing has a strong sense of place; I feel almost as if I’ve experienced the sand, the heat, and gone diving in the waters of the Dry Tortugas, even though I’ve never been, and probably never will be, close to the Florida Keys.

A couple of minor quibbles: I’m not sure exactly how old Anna is supposed to be, but she must be at least in her mid-forties, if not older. She is described as being a physically active person, but it still strains the imagination a bit when she takes one beating after another over the course of a few days and still manages to kick ass. Short, middle-aged, female action hero? Yeah, right.

Also, the short section where Anna speculates on the nature of the pair of lesbian, possibly trans, lighthouse keepers was squicky, unnecessary, and heavy on stereotyping.

And on a side note: book blurbs frequently seem to have been written by marketing people who have, at best, skimmed the book, if they looked at it at all. The blurb for this one talks about unidentifiable body parts. Um, no. I think I would have preferred if some of the collected body parts had been a little less clearly identified.

Trigger warnings: Violence and gore, lots of it. Drugs. Near drownings. Mention of rape. Claustrophobia-inducing situations.

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Death and Taxes

Death and taxes: the only things certain in this world, and they’ve taken a toll on us over the last few weeks. Between a funeral (of a friend and former neighbour, not a family member) and some complications in our taxes, I’ve had no time or energy to deal with much else. (Being subject to two tax regimes—US and NZ—stinks, let me tell ya.)

A month ago I was gung-ho about finishing the first draft of my new novel, and then I got side-tracked. I’m three chapters from the end, and I’ve gotten zilch done on it this week. Grrrr.

With no emotional energy to spare, I’m reading for pure relaxation and escapism. As much as I like SF&F, right now I’m more interested in detective novels: stories with intelligent, fundamentally decent and humane protagonists who unravel a complex problem and give us, the readers, the reassurance that justice of some sort is achievable.

I have a stack of books on my desk, waiting for me. They are all by writers I’m already familiar with, so I can reach in and pluck one out at random, and be reasonably sure it will be something I enjoy. The authors and series currently represented include:

  • Faye Kellerman: Detective Peter Decker & Rina Lazarus in contemporary Los Angeles.
  • Bruce Alexander: Blind magistrate Sir John Fielding in 18th-century London.
  • C J Sansom: Lawyer Matthew Shardlake in 16th-century London.
  • Ellis Peters: Detective Inspector Geoge Felse in post WWII Shropshire. (Not quite as good as the Brother Cadfael novels, but I’ve read all of those.)
  • Susanna Gregory: Doctor Matthew Bartholomew in 14th-century Cambridge.
  • Elizabeth George: Detective Inspector Thomas Lynley and Detective Sergeant Barbara Havers at the contemporary Scotland Yard.
  • Margaret Frazer: Dame Frevisse, a 15th-century English nun.
  • Ben Aaronovitch: Police Constable Peter Grant in contemporary London. (This one is also fantasy. The overlap between police procedural and the supernatural is terrific.)
  • Reginald Hill: Detectives Andrew Dalziel and Peter Pascoe in late 20th-century Yorkshire.
  • Anne Perry: Thomas and Charlotte Pitt in 19th-century London.
  • Nevada Barr: National Park Ranger Anna Pigeon in the contemporary US.
  • Louise Penny: Chief Inspector Armand Gamache in contemporary Canada.

Hmm… Until I made this list, I hadn’t realised how heavily slanted my reading material was towards English detectives. Maybe I should branch out a bit… After tax season is over…

Posted in A Writer's Life, Historical Mysteries, Mysteries, On Reading | 2 Comments

A Few Short Disasters

I’ve been reading more short fiction lately than I used to. Here are a few stories I’ve stumbled across and enjoyed enough to want to share. The only thread that they have in common is that the main event in each one is a disaster of some sort.

  • One Hundred Seconds to Midnight by Lauren Ring has monsters, insurance salespeople, and the impulse to make connections with complete strangers when disaster strikes. Plus the setting (the Charlotte Douglas airport) hooked me in right away; I’ve been through that airport many times, on my way to or from visiting family in the Carolinas.
  • Anyone who has ever worked for a penny-pinching, soul-stealing corporation should be able to relate to the call centre employee narrating Thank You For Your Patience by Rebecca Campbell. Like One Hundred Seconds to Midnight, the focus is on the ordinary human need to help out other people in trouble.
  • The Eight-Thousanders by Jason Sanford is about a mountain climber’s encounter with a vampire on Mount Everest, but the real story is about the toxic masculinity that drives people to take ridiculous risks.
  • Of the four stories here, The Longest Season in the Garden of the Tea-Fish by Jo Miles is one most clearly “speculative fiction.” The main character in this story isn’t human, but she’s a person who can suffer loneliness, despair, and exhaustion, and who will do whatever it takes to ensure her daughter’s survival.

Reminder: Nominations for the 2022 Sir Julius Vogel awards close at the end of March.  If you read and liked The Wordsmith, please consider nominating it in the Best Novel category. Anyone can make a nomination. The guidelines are here; the nomination form is here.

And if you’d rather nominate some other New Zealand writer’s work, do that, too. The awards are all about what the fans like, so speak up!

Posted in Short stories, Speculative fiction | Leave a comment

Isobar Precinct

Lestari Cassidy and her two friends have witnessed a murder. Or have they? The video they captured on a cell phone agrees with what they reported to the police—a man’s throat is slit; blood sprays out, soaking the shrubbery—but the police find no trace of blood or any other evidence of a crime at the location in the inner-city cemetery where the event, whatever it was, occurred.

Other strange things are happening around Lestari. People appear and disappear, and some seem to be in the throes of reactions to bad drugs, spewing purple vomit. Her tattoo parlour is subject to targeted, repeated break-ins, as if someone has a vendetta against her and her partner. She finds a picture of herself from high school, sporting a tattoo that she didn’t acquire until years later. And then she has a chance encounter with her father, who had disappeared from her life when she was fifteen. She learns that he believed that terrible things would happen if he ever saw her again. And he was right.

Her father, a former golden surfer boy, has struggled for decades with mental illness, not helped by his participation in a clinical trial of a psychoactive drug expected to help depression. The drug trial went off the rails when all but one of the original participants died. That would have been the end of it if the sole surviver, Lestari’s father, hadn’t demonstrated some very unexpected side effects. Since then, the covert trials have continued, using society’s most vulnerable—vagrants, runaways, the mentally ill—as its test subjects.

Isobar Precinct, a speculative fiction novel by New Zealand author Angelique Kasmara, gets off to an excellent start with a high-stakes opening chapter, and moves briskly along through a convoluted plot that takes the reader on a whirlwind ride through some of the grittier parts of downtown Auckland. I was engrossed.

Lestari is a great character: warm, caring, active, with a distinct voice, and an unusual profession. (Unusual to me, anyway. I don’t recall ever before reading a book with a tattoo artist as the main character.) Her instincts are to help; when trouble happens she runs towards it rather than away. She picks up waifs and strays: a homeless Samoan boy, an old vagrant, even the young man she catches breaking into her work premises tugs at her sense of responsibility.

Other characters are equally well-drawn. Her alcoholic immigrant mother earns more sympathy than censure. (A lawyer in her native Indonesia, she had to take minimum wage grunt work in New Zealand to support her daughter and deteriorating husband. That might drive me to drink, too.) Even minor characters appearing only briefly—an old woman getting her first tattoo, a prostitute at the Sex Worker’s Collective, etc.—feel like real people. (The only one that felt like a cliché was the monomaniacal evil scientist running the drug trials.)

And like real people, they are all wracked by regrets and the wish to go back and have a second chance at a few things. In Lestari’s case, she desperately wants to replay a missed chance to connect with her father on the day he disappeared. With the lines blurring between her reality, alternate realities, and drug-induced distortions, it’s that desire to do things over that leads her into trouble. Like the rebellious ouroboros tattoo on her right calf, her life doubles back on itself as the plot becomes increasingly tangled.

This is a striking and beautifully written book, and quite impressive for a debut novel. The fundamental humanity of the people involved leavens the grim grittiness of their daily lives, and the ending is optimistic. Hopepunk, not grimdark.

Posted in Kiwi author, Modern literary fiction, Speculative fiction | Leave a comment

Against the Grain

Against the Grain, by Melanie Harding-Shaw, is a great little comfort read, best enjoyed with a cup of your favourite hot beverage (hot chocolate for me) and a plate of warm baked goods close at hand. Part of the Witchy Fiction collection, it is a novella combining a couple of delightful characters with romance, magic, and suspense. Just the recipe for a relaxing weekend read.

Powerful witch Trinity and her shape-shifting demon familiar, Saifa, have to keep moving. If they settle in any one place too long, bad things happen. So when she rents a flat over a bistro in the Wellington suburb of Karori, with an appealing baker (Charlie) for a landlord, she’s torn. She knows better than to get romantically involved, even with a man who is sympathetic to her physical ailments (coeliac disease) and who enlists her as a taste tester for all sorts of gluten-free goodies.

But then she discovers she can’t leave Karori, even if she wanted to. Someone has built a magical barrier around the suburb, trapping Saifa, and by extension, her. Who would want to trap them, and why? Is the perpetrator after any witch who falls into the trap, or after her specifically? While they search for answers, her romantic life gets more complicated, and the danger mounts for her, Saifa, and her new friend, Charlie.

The romance in this story was sweet, but underdeveloped. The real sparks were between Trinity and Saifa. Their relationship—intense, conflicted, and more than a little snarky—was the best part of the story.

Posted in Contemporary Romance, Fantasy, Kiwi author | Leave a comment

Book Launch Reminder

Reminder: the launch of The Forge, the fifth and final book in the Reforging series, will be held this weekend, on Sunday, 23 January, at 1:00pm New Zealand Daylight Time.

If you haven’t been following the series, here’s on overview:

In an alternate Europe, Charlemagne, the great Earth wizard and king of the Franks, turned north to conquer the British Isles instead of going south and east into Italy and Saxony. With Europe a roiling mess of conflict, he directed his wisest and most powerful witches and wizards to use their magic to protect the kingdom’s borders, enforce its laws, and encourage trade. Their response was the creation of four powerful magical entities named the offices, each working in a symbiotic relationship with the head of the corresponding elemental magic guild. The most powerful, the Fire Office, provided the country’s defences. The weakest, the Water Office, dispensed justice.

These four offices served the kingdom of Frankland well for hundreds of years, but a thousand years after their forging, the country is strangling in their iron grip. Frankland’s needs have changed, but the offices couldn’t adapt. In their haste to build the offices, the offices’ creators never considered that repairs might be needed.

The Reforging series follows a small group of Frankland’s most powerful witches and wizards, dedicated to rebuilding the four offices, and the challenges they encounter along the way: conspiracies and secrets, magical defences built into the offices that threaten to destroy anyone tampering with them, a rigid aristocracy that would rather indulge in civil war than lose any of their privileges, and a greedy neighbour planning to invade when Frankland’s Fire Office is out of commission for repairs.

The men and women involved in the Reforging effort are Frankland’s finest, but are even they enough to overcome mistakes calcified into stone a thousand years ago?

Posted in A Writer's Life, Epic Fantasy, Noblebright Fantasy | Leave a comment

The Forge Book Launch

The launch of The Forge, the fifth and final book in the Reforging series, will be an online event on Sunday, 23 January, at 1:00pm* New Zealand Daylight Time. Looking forward to seeing you then!

Reminder: IFWG Publishing Australia is offering the whole series at a reduced price until the end of January. If you don’t have copies already, this is an excellent deal. (It includes shipping anywhere in the world.)

Also, nominations for the 2022 Sir Julius Vogel awards (awards given by The Science Fiction and Fantasy Association of New Zealand to recognise excellence in science fiction, fantasy, and horror) are now open.

The Wordsmith, the fourth book in the series, was published in 2021, and is eligible for an award. If you read it and liked it, please consider nominating it in the Best Novel category. Anyone (Kiwi or not, in New Zealand or not) can make a nomination. The guidelines are here; the nomination form is here.

The Forge’s official release date was in December 2021, so it is eligible, too, but I don’t expect any of you have read it yet. If you feel that it deserves a nomination, too, then by all means, go ahead!

If you feel that some other New Zealand author’s work should get some attention, then nominate them, too. The awards are completely fan-based, so if you don’t speak up, who will?

Related to that, reviews, on whatever platform you choose—goodreads, amazonthestorygraph, your own blog, etc.—are always, always appreciated.

*If you’re not in New Zealand, here’s the time in a few other time zones:

  • Eastern Standard Time (New York): 7:00pm, Saturday, 22 January
  • Pacific Standard Time (San Francisco): 4:00pm, Saturday, 22 January
  • Australian Eastern Daylight Saving Time (Sydney): 11am, Sunday, 23 January
  • Or you can use this handy time zone converter.
Posted in A Writer's Life, Epic Fantasy, Kiwi author | Leave a comment

2022 Preview

My family are the best! They gave me books, chocolate, and a lovely large blank book for the next instalment in my reader’s journal. I’m all set. Between the books in the picture above, and several more on my e-reader, I have a half-dozen that I am looking forward to reading soon:

  • Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir: More science adventure in space by the author of The Martian.
  • The House in the Cerulean Sea by T. J. Klune: A fantasy billed as an uplifting story about found family.
  • The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu: More hard sci-fi about first contact with aliens, set against the backdrop of China’s Cultural Revolution.
  • The Hands of the Emperor by Victoria Goddard: The rave reviews this has been getting, with many people comparing it to The Goblin Emperor were enough to get me hooked.
  • Witchmark by C. L. Polk: Murder, magic, and romance, in a world supposedly similar to Edwardian England. Plus it has a gorgeous cover.
  • When the Tiger Came down the Mountain by Night Vo: Another novella set in the same world as The Empress of Salt and Fortune. If it’s anywhere close to the first one, it will be lovely.

This is, of course, just the beginning of the list for next year. My TBR pile never seems to shrink, but so what? I’ll always have something to look forward to.

Posted in A Writer's Life, On Reading | Leave a comment