Tag Archives: Fiction

The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir by Jennifer Ryan

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The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir by Jennifer Ryan

The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir
by Jennifer Ryan
Published by Crown Publishing Group

I love when a book of fiction takes something from fact and teaches me something that I didn’t know. Of course, throughout history people have kept journals and correspondence – that’s how we know of things that happened in our past, without the benefit of TV and social media. What I didn’t know was that the British government encouraged those at home to keep journals of their experiences during the war. Again, just another way for the stalwart British to “keep calm and carry on”, but more importantly we are left with the diaries and journals of everyday lives on the home-front.*

This book is told in the epistolary style, through the journals and letters written by the women of Chilbury, and although it is fiction, it doesn’t feel like fiction. You’re peeking into the personal lives of ordinary women that went through this in reality; an amalgamation of the wives, sweethearts, daughters and sisters as they wait at home. Their hopes and dreams, and how they cope with the trepidation of losing a loved one; and the ever growing fear of Nazi invasion.

“Just because the men have gone to war, why do we have to close the choir? And precisely when we need it most!”

It’s the summer of 1940; England is sending its men off to war, leaving the women to keep the home fires burning – and taking on roles typically held by men. And that includes the village choir!

Being told that the choir is being disbanded for lack of men doesn’t sit well with Prim – the high energy, no nonsense, music teacher. Not to be deterred, she convinces the women of Chilbury that they can create their own choir. Some were skeptical, but with the usual aplomb displayed by the British during the worst of times, they pulled together with the knowledge that this one small thing could help keep the worries of the war at bay – even for just a little while. And so, the Chilbury Ladies’ Choir is born.

But this book is more than just a story about a choir, although it’s a central theme. What really pulls these ladies together is the common ground of village life, and how they cope with air raids, food rationing, and of course a little romance and scandal.

The choir is made up of more women than we actually get to hear from, but the letters and journals that we do get to peek at follow an interesting group of women.

Kitty – although still a teenager, she’s an aspiring singer, and under the tutelage of Prim gains her voice and her confidence. She’s got a childhood crush on someone from the village, and it leads her to do something spiteful and mean.

Mrs. Tilling – a lonely widow, now having to cope with the fear of losing her son as he goes off to join the war. She’s the caring nurse that people rely on, and who has guessed an incredible secret.

Miss Paltry – a devious mid-wife, who hatches a plan out of greed, the money that she seeks a disturbing form of redemption for something in her past.

Venetia – the beauty that all the young men want but, of course, she only has eyes for the one that doesn’t give her the time of day. Has she fallen for the wrong guy, and can she face the consequences of her actions?

Sylvie – the youngest, and still a child, is a Jewish refugee that has seen far more than someone should for her age. Will she ever find out what happened to her family, and can she trust someone with her secret?

There are a host of other characters as well, and even though we never get to read their own journals or letters, they are just as important as their lives intertwine with those telling us the story.

From charming and funny, to heartbreaking and hopeful, this book has all the right ingredients to make it a favorite of mine, and one that I would highly recommend.

Another book that it’s very similar to this one, and another that I loved and would recommend, is “The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society” by Annie Barrows and Mary Ann Shaffer. Also written in the epistolary style, this book chronicles the fictional lives of women on Guernsey during the German occupation.

*Known as Mass-Observation, its goal was to record observations of everyday life in Britain, by using untrained volunteer observers. It was criticized as an invasion of privacy, because the observers were not only reporting on their own lives, but on the lives of friends and neighbors as well.  For more information, visit the Wiki page:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mass-Observation

As always, comments are welcome

Crooked Kingdom by Leigh Bardugo

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Crooked Kingdom by Leigh Bardugo

Crooked Kingdom
By Leigh Bardugo
Published by Henry Holt & Co.

[Spoiler Alert – If you haven’t read the first book, Six of Crows, this will give away a big part of that plot.]

You know the old expression, “you can’t choose your family”? Well sometimes you can. And that’s exactly what this bunch of equally lovable and dysfunctional misfits did.

When we last left the crew at the conclusion of Six of Crows, they had just pulled off one of the greatest jailbreaks & heists of all time.  A one two punch combo that even they thought would end badly.  But instead of celebrating their success, and their new found wealth, they were betrayed – and by one of their own.

Broken, hunted, and missing a member of their crew, Kaz Brekker is not one to curl up in a corner feeling sorry for himself.  Those days are over – now, it’s time for revenge.  Kaz has a plan, and not just for this last betrayal; he wants revenge for all of the other wrongs that were done to him and continue to haunt him. He will get Inej back, he will get his revenge, and if he has to battle the entire Island of Ketterdam, so be it! Pity the fool who thinks Kaz Brekker has been defeated.

At the end of the first book Inej doesn’t make it back with the rest of the crew, and we find out that she’s been kidnapped by the merchant Van Eck.  Sadly, Inej doesn’t believe that Kaz will come after her: after all, there’s no profit in it for him. But what she doesn’t realize is that Kaz cares for her more than she knows; even more than Kaz himself will admit!  But Kaz is not going to let Van Eck get away with double-crossing him, and taking one of his crew.  He concocts an intricate plot of revenge, not trusting anyone and keeping some pretty important details on a “need to know” basis, leaving his crew to wonder if this time he’s gone too far.

Murder plots, explosions, a tiny bit romance, and ninja fighting on a high wire – this book has it all! Told by the various points of view of the crew members, each chapter fluctuates back and forth between them, so you see the adventure from different perspectives.  This nonlinear way of storytelling can at times make you feel like you’re losing continuity, but Bardugo does a great job at keeping it from getting disjointed, and fills in the gaps and back stories of the characters.  We learn so much more about the characters and how they came to settle in Ketterdam; what brought them together and how their friendships were forged. Bardugo skimmed the surface in the first book, so I was happy to see that she continued to round out the back stories of each of the characters.  And although the plot for revenge and the action make this book a fast paced and exciting read, it’s the camaraderie that makes this book shine.

With so many “series” books being part of a trilogy, I was surprised to find out that the second book would end the series, but Bardugo does a great job of finishing up the adventure in just the two books.  By doing this, she has eliminated the dreaded middle book syndrome, where so much of a story can drag and make me lose interest.

If you liked the first book, make sure to pick this one up.  It’s full of adventure, twists and turns, great back stories and character development – and the extra added bonus of the big reveal behind the series catchphrase, “No Mourners, No Funerals”. But no hints, you need to read the book for that.

The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

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The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

The Essex Serpent
By Sarah Perry
Published by Serpent’s Tail

This book is beautiful! From the gorgeous cover and end papers, to the way the story is written, it’s just a beautiful book.

I want to thank Simon Savidge, from the Savidge Reads blog and The Readers podcast. He’s mentioned this book a few times, and spoke so highly of it that I had to read it. As of this review it’s not yet available in the U.S., so I had to order it from the UK – and it was worth the wait.

So let’s dive in.

In the opening chapters of the book we learn that Michael Seaborne is dying of cancer, and that he is being attended to by his dutiful wife Cora who, although seems to be taking very good care of him, does not seem to be emotionally distraught over the fact that he’s so ill and close to death. In fact, we learn that Michael is an abusive husband, and Cora is beginning to realize that soon she will be free of him, and he will be leaving her a very wealthy woman.

Also attending to Michael is his doctor, Luke Garrett, who seems to have quite a crush on Cora. When Michael makes it clear that he doesn’t want any treatment that will prolong his life, Dr. Garrett is all to happy to comply. With Cora, though, it’s not immediately clear how she feels about Dr. Garrett. She’s fond of him and relies on his company, but more than anything she wants to be an independent woman and considers herself an equal to men – not very common in the Victorian era.

Rounding out the Seaborne household is Cora and Michael’s son Francis, and Martha, the one time nanny who now also acts as a companion to Cora. Francis, or Frankie as his mother calls him, is an odd, quiet child that likes to collect trinkets – a feather, a shell, anything that catches his eye that he finds interesting and wants to study. Martha is devoted to Cora and Francis, but as a very committed Socialist she has some issues with their wealth and privilege.

After Michael’s death, Cora decides that she needs to get away from the home she shared with her cruel and abusive husband. She packs up Frankie and Martha and leaves London, taking up residence in the town of Colchester. It’s there that she happens upon Charles and Katherine Ambrose, old friends who are traveling in the area. From them she learns of the legend of the Essex serpent. It seems there have been some strange occurrences in a nearby town, and the locals believe that the serpent is back and creating these events. Cora is so intrigued, that when Charles Ambrose offers to write an introduction letter to his good friend, the Reverend Will Ransome, Cora at once agrees to travel to Aldwinter to meet the Reverend and his family – with the hope that she’ll get a glimpse of the Essex Serpent.

All seems to go very well for a while; Frankie and Martha have settled in and have made friends with the Ransome family, and Cora delights in the thought that she soon may see this mysterious serpent. But things take an interesting twist as Cora and the Reverend, who have as many things in common as they do differences, become very fast friends – much to the dismay of Dr. Luke Garrett, who is quite jealous; and Martha, who is worried that what’s happening between Cora and Will is quite inappropriate.

While Cora and Will continue their friendship, which entails frequent long walks and copious letter writing, the people of the town are beginning to believe in the curse of the Essex serpent. Children are no longer playing out doors, and the church congregation is growing as people turn to God, and to Will, for comfort in their fear.

Along the way we meet other characters whose lives are entwined with Cora, but the author manages to separate their stories so that there are sub-plots throughout. She does this by adding vignettes to the various sections of the book, which walk you through the passage of time, but always keeps her eye on the ball of the main plot – the serpent. It’s an interesting way to tell a very full story, and it makes the book move along at a very nice pace. This is also used to great advantage in beautifully descriptive passages, such as how the seasons change, how the air smells, and how the fog rolls in. It can go from seemingly so beautiful one minute, then all at once become dark and a bit gothic.

I could go on and on, but I’d be afraid of spoiling this wonderful story – let’s just say that toward the end of the book things start to happen very quickly, and I found myself racing to get to the end. Once I got there, however, I was sad that it was over – I didn’t want the story to end, and I didn’t want to say goodbye to the characters, or to the Essex landscape that was described with such beauty. This is a book that I could see myself re-reading some day – it’s that good!

If you’ve read The Essex Serpent, I’d love to hear your thoughts. As always, please feel free to comment below.

Jane Steele by Lyndsay Faye

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Jane Steele by Lyndsay Faye

Jane Steele by Lyndsay Faye
Published by Penguin Publishing Group

One of the most iconic literary tag lines from the Charlotte Bronte novel Jane Eyre is, “Reader, I married him”. When I heard the tag line from Jane Steele – “Reader, I killed him” – I knew I had to read this book.

I read Jane Eyre the summer before I started eighth grade, and have re-read it numerous times since then. So why mention Jane Eyre, a book published in 1847, in a post about Jane Steele? Because this book does a great job at paying homage to the Bronte classic, and in fact our heroine, Jane Steele, even compares herself to the “fictional” Eyre. It’s done very well, and is really interesting to read Jane Steele’s inner thoughts about Eyre, and how she seems to mock Miss Eyre for being labeled wicked when she hasn’t done anything wrong. Steele, however, believes herself truly wicked, and seems to take offense. It’s almost like she’s telling the reader, “You think she’s wicked? Wait until you hear what I’ve done!” And you can’t wait – the build-up is fantastic.

At the start of the book, Jane and her mother are living in a cottage on her Aunt’s estate. There is some contention that Jane is the true heir to the estate, but circumstances have kept her and her mother living off the charity of her Aunt Patience. That’s never good, and it’s obvious from the start that her Aunt resents the fact that she’s obligated to house them. Add to that Jane’s cousin Edwin, who can’t seem to make up his mind if he wants to torment Jane, or do naughty things to her. Ugh, so creepy!

Then a couple of tragic events take place and Jane finds herself sent off to boarding school. Now, rather than narrate her life in a painstakingly long narrative, Jane tells the reader that she’s going to summarize her life there, as she skips ahead to various times at school. It’s very clever, and you don’t feel like you missed anything – she’s basically saying that some time goes by, and only a small number of events are worth mentioning – so we time jump a couple of years – but not before we learn how horrid her time was there, and how cruelly the girls were treated; and in true Jane Steele fashion she escapes to London – but not alone, Jane’s friend from school comes along as a faithful companion.

After a few years living in a squalid boarding house, with a drunken landlord who also doubles as a business partner, Jane finds herself a sort of “journalist” writing stories about the lurid crimes committed in and around London. But once again, a tragic event occurs, and Jane finds herself trying to reconcile what she’s done; and what she needs to do. Heartbroken, she finds herself alone and in a bad way.

At this point in the story we get a glimpse of Jane living a sort of comfortable life, if not a bit seedy, but we don’t know exactly how she comes to be here as Jane swiftly narrates her way through that part of her life. It’s here that Jane soon reads an advertisement in the paper for a governess in none other than her old home. She learns that her aunt Patience has died and Highgate House has been inherited by a distant relative of her aunt. Jane decides to answer the advertisement, and begins to plot the downfall of the new owner, Charles Thornfield.

Jane easily falls into her routine as governess, and as she begins to learn a little about the quirky inhabitants of the household she finds herself having genuine affection for them. And it’s not before too long that she realizes she’s actually falling in love with Charles Thornfield.

I admit I’m not a fan of romance novels, and I fully expected to part ways with the book at this point because the story does start to take a bit of a romantic twist. But, happily, this is where the book really begins to shine. It’s not overly romantic, and in fact is the best part of the book. The characters are really bright, and Lyndsay Faye does a marvelous job at writing some of the wittiest and smartest dialogue at this juncture. The interaction between Jane and Charles has so much spark and humor that I found myself chuckling quite a bit.

Add to this a mystery about missing jewels, family secrets and tragedies, and a murderess for a governess; what’s not to like? This book is very entertaining, and although there were many points where it could have gotten bogged down, it never did. It was very well paced and the author kept it moving right to the very end. I really enjoyed it!

One last note – there was a recent announcement that Chris Columbus’ 1492 Pictures has acquired the movie rights, so I’ll be sure to keep my eye out for that. I’m curious to see who they cast for the main characters.

I’d love to hear your thoughts, please feel free to leave a comment below. And if you’ve already read Jane Steele and are excited about the movie, who do you think they should cast as Jane and Charles, as well as the other characters.

A Gathering of Shadows by V.E. Schwab

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A Gathering of Shadows by V.E. Schwab

A Gathering of Shadows by V.E. Schwab
Published by Tor Books

In the Acknowledgments section of the book, Victoria Schwab writes “Here we are again. The end of another book.” Indeed, the end of this one, but happily not the end of the adventure. There is more to come!

But for now, let’s talk about this one.

So here we are, about four months after the events of A Darker Shade of Magic. Lila is part of the crew on a pirate ship, living her dream of being on the high seas, and working closely with her Captain who is teaching her about her newfound powers. When she learns of the Essen Tasch — a magical competition being held in Red London – Lila is torn between wanting to test her abilities and the possibility of running into Kell, who she is still trying to reconcile her feelings for.

Kell is also struggling with his feelings for Lila, but even more importantly he’s feeling a tremendous amount of guilt at what transpired those four months ago. The people of Red London seem to fear him now; his own adoptive parents mistrust him and are desperately trying to keep him from leaving the Palace. His smuggling days are over. They know that if anything happens to him, it also happens to Rhy, his brother, and heir to the throne. This leaves Kell feeling trapped and stifled.

Rhy knows his brother is struggling, but he’s also feeling the effects of that fateful night that bound them forever. He’s suffering from horrific nightmares that are keeping him from sleeping, and he’s not very good at keeping this from Kell. But Rhy has an idea! He’s decided that Kell will compete in the Essen Tasch – but it’s not going to be easy, and he devises a plan to deceive the competitors, the spectators and even his parents. His only problem? Getting Kell to agree.

In the meantime, while all this is going on in Red London, another London is having an awakening. As a dark force is rising, Kell, Rhy, and all of Red London are oblivious – they’re enjoying the Essen Tasch.

Unlike the first book, A Darker Shade of Magic, this book delves more into each individual character and we get a lot more insight into how they tick, while the world building takes a back seat. I really liked that aspect of this book. Although I appreciate how an author uses so much creativity to build a world unlike our own – with magic, no less – I do tend to favor books that are more character driven.

I have to admit, I was a bit frustrated that Lila and Kell had so little time together – but when they finally connected, it was crackling with the same snappy and smart dialogue that I loved so much in the first book. This is where Schwab shines. She has a way with dialogue that makes reading conversations between our favorite characters fun and easy. And it’s not just Lila and Kell. There is also the relationship between Lila and her captain, Alucard. A new character to the series, Alucard has become a kind of mentor for Lila – and I really like this addition. For all of the angst that we read between Kell and Rhy, the character of Alucard adds quite a bit of humor and mystery.

Now for me, the elephant in the room is the Essen Tasch. This contest of magical abilities is the slowest part of the book for me. I just don’t like reading about any type of competition, and I found myself skipping over paragraphs just to get it done. But to give the book credit, it’s a small part of the book, and it doesn’t drag on too long.

All in all, another hit for V. E. Schwab that I enjoyed, and I already pre-ordered “A Conjuring of Light”, the last book of the series. I’m going to miss these characters. Let’s hope that the last book wraps everything up in a nice tidy bow – and to our liking!

You can follow the author on Twitter @veschwab, where she’s pretty active, and pretty funny.

You can read my thoughts on the first book of the series, “A Darker Shade of Magic” in an earlier post.

As always, please feel free to comment below!

A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab

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A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab

A Darker Shade of Magic
By V.E. Schwab
Published by Tor Books

This book has everything that I love in a book; great characters, snappy dialogue, fantastic world building, and an adventure with a ton of action. I could not have been more pleased from the moment I started reading.

Let’s talk about the world building first. There are three different versions of London, all existing in parallel worlds. The basic landscape is the same, but the worlds are much different. Two of the Londons, Red London and White London, are aware of magic, and some are able to use it regularly – it’s just part of their world and they don’t know any differently. Then there is the third London, the historical version that we’ve all studied and read about. This London, Grey London, has no idea that the other versions of London exist, or that magic is real.  But let’s not forget that there was once four Londons. At one time there was a Black London, but something horrible happened in that London, and no one wants to remember or talk about that. That will come up later!

There is a lot of thought and creativity in the way the author describes each London, and the locations are just as much characters of the story as the characters themselves. I was really able to get a feeling of each version.  Red London felt warm and sunny, White London cold and icy, and Grey London felt grimy and rainy. I loved this about the book as much as I loved the story.

So, let’s begin.

The story opens with Kell, as he travels from his home in Red London to the London that we’re  familiar with, Grey London. Kell is able to travel from London to London because he is Antari, which means he was born with magic in his blood.  This is considered rare, as there are only two known Antari in existence left between the three worlds.

Grey London is ruled by King George III – the mad king – and Kell is acting as emissary for the Royal Family of Red London, of which he is a member; although not a member by blood. Kell was adopted by the Royal Family as a child, and the first five years of his life are a complete mystery to him. He has no idea what happened to his parents or why he was adopted, and for some reason his adoptive family is keeping that information a secret.

But Kell has a secret of his own. He’s a smuggler. As he travels from world to world, he picks up trinkets that he trades from one London to another. He knows that he’s breaking the law – it’s forbidden to bring items from one London to another, but he’s careful not to get caught. Until he’s not!

One night, in an act of kindness to an old woman and against his better judgement, Kell agrees to take a letter from White London to Red London. That one act of kindness sets in motion a world of trouble for Kell, and an encounter with a pickpocket named Lila Bard.

Lila is an orphan with secrets of her own. Forced to steal for a living, Lila dreams of becoming a pirate and sailing away from her dismal home in Grey London. When Lila steals something from Kell, she has no idea that there are parallel versions of London, or that real magic exists. Her actions set off a string of events that pits good against evil, and lands both herself and Kell in an wild adventure to try to set things right.

This book crackles with snappy dialogue between Kell and Lila, and their adventure forges a bond of friendship that I hope to see continue. I’ve already pre-ordered the second book, “A Gathering of Shadows”, which is scheduled for release in February 2016, and I look forward to seeing how this story and these characters continue.

As always, please feel free to comment!

Books for Kids and Teens – Part Two: Jackaby by William Ritter

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Books for Kids and Teens – Part Two: Jackaby by William Ritter

Jackaby Series
By William Ritter
Published by Algonquin Young Readers
This series is marketed to teens, ages 12 and up.

I was thrilled when I received a signed copy of Jackaby from a Book Riot giveaway, and it didn’t let me down. I found it charming and humorous, and I think there’s an opportunity for some great character development as the series continues. As far as the mystery goes, it’s a pretty good one, but for me the mystery took a back seat to the characters. I just love quirky characters, and I got to know some of those quirks without being too concerned with solving the mystery.

Here’s what we have so far; the first book in the series is titled “Jackaby”, currently available in all formats. Also currently available is “The Map: A Jackaby Story”, a novella that was released as a free ebook, which holds us over until the new book, “Beastly Bones” is released in September. However, and I found this really interesting, you can also download the first seven chapters of “Beastly Bones” for free as a sneak peek. It looks to be much more than the typical sample size that you get when you download a sample from Amazon, or any of the other popular ebook formats.

This post will focus on “Jackaby”and “The Map”, which I found so wonderful, that I decided that I’m not going to read the sneak peak. I prefer to be fully surprised when “Beastly Bones” is released.

JACKABY
Billed as Sherlock meets Doctor Who, I have to admit I was really curious about this one. I’m a huge fan of anything Sherlocky, but admittedly just a fair weather fan of Dr. Who. Taking place in the fictional town of New Fiddleham, New England, 1892, the book is narrated by Abigail Rook. Abigail has just arrived in America after working on an archeological dig in the Carpathian Mountains. That immediately told me that Abigail was not going to be a typical female of that time, and that I could expect someone that was independent and adventurous. I liked her narration right off the bat.

Without much money, Abigail begins to look for lodgings, and possible employment playing the piano at a local tavern. It’s there that she meets a strange man, who seems to know an awful lot about where she’s been. Later, that chance encounter turns out to be very fortuitous as she learns that the man, R. F. Jackaby, is looking for an assistant.

Jackaby is a private investigator of sorts, and is at first reluctant to hire Abigail as his assistant. It isn’t until he realizes that she has a gift for being extraordinarily observant that he decides she’s exactly the right person for the job. And it’s a good thing too, as they become embroiled in a case of murder on her first day on the job. But this is no ordinary case, and Jackaby is convinced that the serial killer is not human!

Oh, did I forget to mention that Jackaby has the ability to see supernatural beings? Surprise!

This book is delightful, and I really enjoyed it. I’m looking forward to “Beastly Bones” in September.

In the meantime, let’s take a look at “The Map: A Jackaby Story”.
This novella is more of an adventure than a mystery, and I just loved it. Once again narrated by Abigail Rook, it begins with Jackaby attempting to cook a birthday breakfast for Abigail – much to her dismay. She is determined not to celebrate her birthday. Undaunted, Jackaby forgoes the breakfast and declares that they’re going to the market. But Abigail is in for a huge surprise when, through the magic of popping a party cracker, they are transported to the Zandermacht Market. Reminiscent of Diagon Alley from Harry Potter,  the market is filled with unique creatures and shops. It’s in one of these shops that Abigail finds a treasure map. When Jackaby asks what she’s found, she tells him it’s nothing and put’s it back where she found it.

But again, Jacakby is not to give up so easily. Unbeknownst to Abigail, Jackaby purchases the map for her, and the adventure begins. The story is filled with goblins, a castle, a cave, a remote island, and don’t even get me started on the giant vegetables.

“The Map” is filled with so much fun and wit, and again I have to say that it’s just a delight. This is the perfect middle story between the first book, and the now highly anticipated “Beastly Bones”. The relationship between Abigail and Jackaby grows stronger and I just love the interaction between them. I really hope this series goes on for a long time.

Check out the description for Beastly Bones, and hats off to Algonquin, you can even download Abigail’s journal – Algonquin Young Readers – Beastly Bones

Please give Jackaby a try, and if you do, leave a comment below. I’d love to know what you think.