Review – Clarkesworld #100

Issue 100

Issue 100

Late last year I backed the Clarkesworld Chinese Science Fiction Translation Project and my reward was to get a bunch of issues. The first of those, the bumper-sized Issue 100, arrived on 1st January and it was filled with some tasty SFF goodness!

Clarkesworld is pretty well established as a damn good place to get good short fiction and this issue didn’t disappoint. You can read (and listen) to all the stories and non-fiction pieces in this issue for free over on the Clarkesworld website or get an ebook subscription for a small fee.

Overall this issue gets a 4.5 stars from me. Some truly excellent stories from a few of my favourites but a couple of odd ones too. Individual stories (but not the non-fiction) are rated below.


Three Cups of Grief, by Starlight by Aliette de Bodard
One of de Bodard’s Mindships stories – a loose collection of works that all take place within the same universe but each stand alone. This is a beautiful tale of death, grief and mourning but also of life continuing along and thriving. It captures that essence of grieving – that moment when something so dear to us is ripped away that we feel that the entire world should have stopped in recognition. Bu it doesn’t. It never does. Because no one person, no matter how important or vital they may be to us or to a community, is vital. Life goes on. de Bodard has a light touch is this tale and I’m left tantalised and wanting to spend more time in this unique world. 4.5 stars

A Universal Elegy by Tang Fei
I don’t really know what to say about this one. It’s so very damn weird and that it left me kind of creeped out and I couldn’t say that I enjoyed it but it was clever and it was intriguingly written. Letters sent to a dear brother tell the story of a hopeless romantic who constantly falls for abusive men suddenly whisked away by a handsome alien to a world where creeping plants might be in charge and memory is held in the body. Strange, strange, strange. 2.5 stars

Cat Pictures Please by Naomi Kritzer
What if the reason there’s so many cat pictures online is because Google likes them? And I mean Google as in the search-engine become sentient, obviously. That’s the premise of this wonderfully funny little story told from the computer’s perspective. Given that it knows pretty much all about our lives but can only help us through search results and adverts, how will it choose to help those who give it the best cat pictures? Cuteness embodied. 4 stars

The Apartment Dweller’s Bestiary by Kij Johnson
An A-Z of fantastical creatures that dwell in the modern-day apartment rather than the dungeons and forests of yore. Through the descriptions of the creatures’ habits and the story-tellers experiences with them we learn about life, love, and loneliness in the big city. An intriguing concept that was touching in places but felt a little too long by the time we got to the end of the alphabet. 3 stars

Ether by Zhang Ran
In a world where everything is just, well, kind of boring and normal, one man begins to question if maybe things didn’t used to be this way. Didn’t people used to argue about things on the internet? And weren’t protests held about things other than polite suggestions for lawn maintenance? So he starts to look, and question, and wonder. And then the shit doth hitteth the fan…eth. This was good thriller/sf combination that managed to combine fast action, a fun ‘scientific’ premise, and some interesting thoughts about protest and freedom of communication. 3.5 stars

The Long Goodnight of Violet Wild by Catherynne M. Valente
A stunning, wonderous rainbow of a story that is nigh on impossible to describe because it’s all about the language and the descriptions and the pacing. Masterfully written, it tells us about the life of Violet who lives in the land of purple (everything’s purple, just go with it) that also happens to be the wild west (it makes total sense when she tells it, I promise). There are also family tensions, pictures that give advice, a unicorn of grief, and the intriguing lands of blue and red beckoning on the horizon. 5 Perfect, magical, shiny rainbow stars. 

An Exile of the Heart by Jay Lake
Like Romeo and Juliet except on a space station. And with lesbians. And they don’t kill themselves like nitwits. Actually not really like Romeo and Juliet at all then. Except, you know, an epic love story across two houses. Whatever. It’s pretty damn cool. 4 stars

The Wind Blowing, and This Tide by Damien Broderick
An alien spacecraft has been discovered on one of Saturn’s moons, preserved behind a forcefield, covered in a blanket of flowers. It’s quite the image to start with and sets a thoughtful solemn tone for what could otherwise be at time slightly funny. Set in a science fictional future with space bases across the solar system, this future also has psychics and a theory that dinosaurs were intelligent space-faring beings. It sounds funny but somehow it’s carried perfectly seriously and you’re entirely focused on the far more human tale of the narrator’s history and emotions. A reminder that no matter the grandeur and weirdness of SFF we only ever see it on our own human scale. 4 stars

Laika’s Ghost by Karl Schroeder
This felt like a cross between classic science fiction and one of those old cold war spy novels. A UN weapons inspector must help to escort a American political refugee to a hiding place in Europe and investigate reports of worrying activities on former Soviet nuclear test sites. The two obviosuly turn out to be connected and then there’s bad men from Google and the government and a die-hard USSR splinter group and chases and mysteries and FUN. A really well paced and enjoyable story with characters who managed to feel very real despite the short word count and plot that felt straight out of the golden age. 4 stars

I’m not reviewing the non-fiction but I wasn’t overly enamoured with any of it in this issue though #PurpleSF by Cat Rambo was a nice inspiring piece.

Don’t forget you can read all the stories for free on the Clarkesworld website or subscribe to the ebook versions for a small fee.

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Rereads – The Water That Falls on You From Nowhere by John Chu

Water drops splashing I first read The Water That Falls on You From Nowhere last year when it was announced as a nominee for the Hugo Awards.

It floored me with its simple and elegant telling of a man trying to come out to his family. The SF-nal twist is that, at an unspecified point in the past, water began falling from nowhere onto the heads of those who told lies. The concept is strange and somehwat unsettling on first meeting – why, you want to know, has this happened? I don’t know, my sweets, it’s never explained and I never thought to ask. Because soon enough the thing you care about isn’t the fantastical but the human. The sweet, sad, achingly familiar dilemma of having to reveal a part of yourself to people whose judgement has the power to hurt you very deeply.

Add to this the problems of crossing cultures and generations, of (mis)translation and (mis)understanding and you can probably see why I fell in love with this story, put it at the top of my ballot, and cried actual tears watching John Chu’s acceptance speech when he won.

I decided to re-read it recently because I wanted to introduce my lovely friend Jason to the wonders of SFF. And so I read the entire thing out loud over the phone and fell in love all over again (and Jason did too). It’s amazing what just a few months distance can do to your memory of things – I’d completely forgotten the heart-achingly familiar ending, my own mind had inflated the amount of time I thought was spent on scenes I saw as important, and the added layer of misunderstanding provided by untranslated Chinese characters – gone.

The story I’d been remembering was good but I’d changed it somehow, perhaps to be something more similar to my own experiences, perhaps to cut out the quivering uncertainty I felt as I reread the ending and came close to tears. I don’t know. But it’s made me wonder about just about every other book I’ve read – what have I forgotten, what have I rewritten to suit my own narrative, and what should I reread next?

 

Review – Uncanny Magazine #1

Issue 1

Issue 1


[This post was edited as I wrongly stated that Michael was editor of QDSF. He contributed an essay but is not editing. He did co-edit Queers Dig Time Lords though which is very shiny.]

I mentioned a few weeks ago that I helped to kickstart a new SFF magazine called Uncanny. The first issue shipped way back in early November and I FINALLY got around to finishing it just the other day. My bad.

Because, obviously, Uncanny Magazine is a shiny jewel of wonderousness. There was no way it wasn’t going to be because it’s edited by Lynne M. Thomas & Michael Damian Thomas who have an amazing history of editorship (Is that even a word? Am I just making shit up now?!) and who, from their twitter feeds, appear to be two of the nicest humans on earth. Incidentally Michael has contributed an essay as part of Queers Destroy Science Fiction, a Lightspeed special edition issue that is kickstarting RIGHT NOW. I highly recommend backing it and also reading Michael’s essay in the updates section which had me in tears yesterday.

The magazine they’ve put together is something rather special and most certainly lives up to its name. Each story and poem was pleasantly odd – definitely science fiction and fantasy, but strange and slippery like they don’t want to be held to those definitions too tightly, their shapes shifting and blurred at the edges. Interviews and non-fiction also provided lots of a food for thought. I’m intrigued to see how this style is carried over into another issue and if it continues to shape the magazine’s content in the future.

Individual stories get mini-reviews below. Overall rating: 5 stars.

If You Were a Tiger I’d Have to Wear White by Maria Dahvana Headley 
Weirdly dark tale set in Jungleland, a Hollywood retirement complex for the celebrity animals like Leo the MGM lion. Think of the song The Piano Has Been Drinking by Tom Waits, add in the Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas darkness and sleaze, some faded and chipped Hollywood glamour, and then let the animals start talking. Grimy and beautiful and heart-wrenching. 3.5 stars. 

Presence by Ken Liu 
A son cares for his dying mother through the means of a remotely-operated care robot – allowing him to be present, yet absent. In such a short piece Liu manages to cover so much that I wonder how to get it all into a review let alone how he turned it into a beautiful story. The benefits of technology and their amazing ability to connect us across the world whilst simultaneously failing to do exactly that. It is also the story of emigration, of families divided by distance, by culture, and generations. It is beautiful. 4.5 stars. 

Late Nights at the Cape and Cane by Max Gladstone
Supervillains in their off-hours congregate at the Cape and Cane for few beers and commiserations between colleagues. Except this time it’s a bit too real, and one villain has to face up to the consequences of his actions and his emotions. A wonderful bit of superhero life that you don’t usually get to see. 4 stars. 

Celia and the Conservation of Entropy by Amelia Beamer
At first just a cute little story about a girl who manages to time travel back to see her Grandfather when he was writing a book about time travel. The style stays sweet and simplistic but the concepts start making your head loop. But the concepts start making your head loop. pool daeh rouy gnikam trats stpecnoc eht tuB. 3.5 stars

Migration by Kat Howard
A strange and beautiful tale of two dying women in a world where souls are carried to the afterlife and then back to their reincarnated bodies by different birds. The plot is simple but the telling is elegant. 4 stars

The Boy Who Grew Up by Christopher Barzak
A strange little tale about a teenage boy who runs away from problems at home only to find Peter Pan who takes him away in a boat to Neverland. A story of growing-up and the tragedies of children’s lives that make them want to never do that. 3.5 stars

Her Fingers Like Whips, Her Eyes Like Razors by Jay Lake
A stunning piece from the late Jay Lake that tells of the guardians of the door of death, of cancer, and loss, and is filled with so much anger and joy and passion for the world that I just don’t know how to tell you about it. 5 stars

Additionally I totally recommend Tansy Raynor Roberts’ piece Does Sex Make Science Fiction Soft?. A wonderful look at some of the things SFF could (and should) learn from the romance genre.

Go forth and get it for yourselves – Uncanny Magazine is available for free and for subscribers (subscribers get content earlier – yay!).

Review – Gardens of the Moon by Steven Erikson

coverThe first part of the 10-book Malazan Book of the Fallen series this novel is pretty notorious among fantasy fans for being a complex world to get into. I was warned multiple times that it would “baffling” and “crazy” but to keep going and trust the author because all would become clear. I mean,with warnings like that I was expecting the damned Voynich manuscript (seriously, look it up, it’s amazing). So I put on my big girl socks and prepared myself for an intense reading experience…….

…….……. Seriously you guys, WTF? This isn’t weird or crazy or difficult or complicated. It’s standard drill, dragons and assassins, taken to pieces by Terry Pratchett,  epic fantasy. That’s it. All those warnings about complexity are because the author doesn’t really do much in the way of info-dumping, instead relying on you to pick up information through dialogue and descriptions of things that characters see. And without meaning huge amounts of offence to my fellow readers – was that really so difficult for you?

What, like it's hard?

All this should not suggest that I hated the book, I didn’t. I just don’t understand the hype. But let’s move on to a discussion of what the book is rather than what it is is not. Gardens of the Moon is based around the vast Malazan Empire whose massive armies are conquering neighbouring cities and states in a seemingly never-ending reign of terror. We follow a host of different characters who come together in Darujihstan, next on the Empire’s list for destruction. There’s grizzled soldiers, possessed teenage killers, gods, monsters and demons galore. It is, to be fair to all those aforementioned fans, pretty damned epic in scale. And this one book is just a tiny slice of what’s to come. So much is hinted at, so much is set up ready for a vast unraveling plot of wonder, that you can practically feel this giant world unfolding in front of you.

But, my sweet darlings, this promise of things to come is not an entirely good thing. 700+ pages is not a length I find acceptable for a setup. There was action, there were story arcs that arc in a fairly satisfying manner but goddamn there was a whole mess of unanswered questions just left in a big tangled heap. I’ve been promised by those who have read the entire series that many of these things will be answered but too many of them were introduced far too late for me to be satisfied with that as my answer. One particularly grating example came at the denouement when the big bad is (of course) defeated by the appearance of a never before seen or mentioned god tree thing. Fucking deus ex machina. Well, deus ex abore really. You get my point. I have been assured that it is explained in later books but my dissatisfaction remains. Long plot arcs rock, clunky individual parts do not.

I think that the characters and world that have were begun in this book are wonderful in their detail but I’m not sure that the detail can make up for what was essentially a pretty standard fantasy world with some boilerplate characters and settings – assassins guild, night-watchmen, master spy in plain sight, mysterious dark anti-hero, grizzled soldier with true honour and a tight knit crew – did you read Discworld? Yes, it’s likely better written and more complex than metric fuckton of fantasy out there. But writing the same damn fantasy novel in more detail does not a perfect read make.

Maybe I’m being overly harsh, maybe I need to read more of the series to give it a fair go, but this one book didn’t do it for me.

But everybody likes me

Rating: 2.5 stars out of 5

Review – The Just City by Jo Walton

Just City coverAuthor: Jo Walton

Publisher: Tor Books

Publication Date: 13 January 2015

Length: Novel (368 pages)

Format I read: eBook

Disclaimer: I received this book for free from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.


The Just City was created as an experiment by the goddess Pallas Athene to see if Plato’s thought experiment, as set out in The Republic, could work in real life. How would the idealistic but strange rules he sets out work when they come up against imperfect humans? A few hundred adults, one thousand ten-year olds, a bunch of futuristic robot helpers, and two gods in human form. It’s the recipe for some fascinating times.

The story is told by three characters: Pytheas, who is secretly the god Apollo trapped in a child’s body and vulnerable to the emotions and imperfections of mortal life; Maia, formerly a Victorian lady trapped by her social position and now fighting to impose equality in the Just City, and Simmea, an intelligent child eager for knowledge who embraces the Platonic ideal and befriends Pytheas.

Then, a few years in, Sokrates arrives to ask all the troublesome questions that both Plato and Athene would really rather you just wouldn’t.

Jo Walton is one of those writers that you can happily recommend to people who love SFF and people who think they don’t. Her novels are always something different (she’s a  genre blurring genius) , something special and something that will leave you with a lot of thinking to do.

If you’ve ever read any of Jostein Gaarder’s philosophical novels (The Solitaire Mystery, The Christmas Mystery, Sophie’s World) then this book will feel somewhat familiar. Obviously the gods and their divine intervention put this in the fantasy field but the real meat of the novel is in the philosophical exploration. It pulls apart Plato’s ideas and examines the problems within it – How would you correct for people’s preexisting ideas? How would the proportions of children to adults work? How do you deal with the necessity of work? How do you populate the city? It’s full of intriguing questions and also explores, through the actions of the characters, things like equality of work, slavery, misogyny, rape, political power, and the importance of individual agency versus the importance of the state. That’s some big things to cope with.

But it does so well. Jo Walton has this effortless-seeming light touch to her writing. You’re just swept along, happily enjoying the story before suddenly realising that you’ve learned significant amounts about philosophy, engaged in socratic dialogues about the ethical basis for society, and had a thoroughly good time doing it. Her characters are, as ever, wonderful: witty, intriguing, flawed and wonderful. And I loved being able to see how the society both helped and held back our three protagonists with their very different viewpoints. And the robots. You’re going to love the robots.

All I can say is that I’m glad there’s more to come. The adventure continues with THE PHILOSOPHER KINGS in July 2015 and NECESSITY soon after that.

Rating: 4 .5 out of 5 stars

The Power of Stories – Lev Grossman’s Magicians trilogy

I wanted to talk about Lev Grossman’s Magicians series a bit without totally spoilering the action. So instead I thought I’d a sort of overview via the idea of stories. There’s a (slightly shorter) video version which you can watch or feel free to skip it and read the discussion below. Or do both, I won’t judge you.

 

First a really quick overview just so you’re not totally lost. The Magicians trilogy is made up of The Magicians, The Magician King, and The Magician’s Land and they sort of centre around a guy called Quentin Coldwater. They are fantasy books that take place partly in our modern day world but where magic exists secretly just like in Harry Potter or whatever. And partly in a completely magical parallel land called Fillory which only a few people ever discover. Fillory is basically Narnia and like Narnia it featured in a beloved series of children’s books. Except that y’know, it turns out that Fillory is actually real.

The writing in these books is fantastic. Grossman is a very clever guy and his writing reflects it. These aren’t trad fanatsy or even urban fantasy. They mix a literary fiction style with fantasy’s epic plots, and some pop culture insouciance. The characters are realistic – they swear, they quote TV shows, hell they even quote Harry Potter (and I love it when fantasy characters are actually aware of the existence of fantasy books), and they relate each other with the studied, scared indifference of true millenials.

Ghost World love.

Ghost World love.

So, storytelling:

For me, these stories are all about how stories affect our lives and how we learn to deal with reality and growing up and relationship partly with their help, but partly through accepting that they are not, and cannot, truly reflect reality.

The first book explores some famous escapist fantasy stories – the magical schools like Harry Potter and the magical land like Narnia. And it shows us how a reality based in those stories would be very different and very very dangerous. We, the reader, experience this through Quentin and his fellow wizards. It begins as they’re accepted into a secret magical university. So far, so Harry Potter. And the characters know that too, they love it and love acting like it; reading mysterious tomes in the library and playing bizarre sports (fuck me magical boarding schools are so pretentious, Eton Wall game anyone?). But then, maybe 1/3 of the way through book one they graduate from magical university. And well, then what?

That’s when Harry Potter conveniently jumps forward twenty years past all that floundering when you try to figure out what the hell it is you’re meant to be doing with your life. Whereas Lev Grossman just dives right in to the epic fuckup that is a bunch of super intelligent, over privileged kids in their early twenties let loose on a world with almost unlimited magical powers. Let’s just say that it isn’t pretty. And then Quentin experiences this disconnect between the stories and the reality of them again when he discovers that his beloved Fillory, the Narnia like land from his childhood books, is real. But living there is far more dangerous and monstrous and down right awful than he could possibly imagined.

The second book continues this idea as we see Quentin yet again trying to mould his life to be like a story by deciding to set off on A Heroic Quest to a far off island. Exactly what he’s questing for neither we, or he, are quite sure. It turns out that the quest is not only not quite what he expected, he’s not even really the main character in this story.

Because the other half of this book is all about Janet who was rejected from magical university at the start of book one. But we now get to see her life, the life of someone who is so often left out these magical land stories. Someone who didn’t fall through the wardrobe in their giant mansion, who didn’t get invited to the upper-middle class haven of magical boarding school, who was rejected, who fought and hurt and broke. This is the untold story.

People, eh

People, eh?

The final book is where we see Quentin finally beginning to relinquish this idea of living in stories, where he finds out the truth behind them, the human cost, the flawed architects of their creation. And there’s adventure and intrigue both within Fillory and outside it. In fact the final book allows us to revisit most of the characters and locations seen in the first two books – we the readers, and Quentin, reexamine them with older, more experienced, eyes. They are no longer features with Quentin’s mental hero-narrative but at once more complex and nuanced, and much more simple and mundane.

Grossman revels and celebrates the power that books have over us, how they provide us with an escape and their power to shape how we think about the world. But it’s something of a cautionary tale, to not attempt to abandon reality or to neglect the real people in your life. It takes Quentin to his late twenties and well into the third book to realise this.

Honestly trying to explain these books without going into the plot is a bit difficult but I don’t want to be too spoilery because they are wonderful things to experience for yourself. But be warned, these aren’t like Harry Potter, they aren’t YA, and they most certainly aren’t nice. The characters aren’t nice and the things that happen aren’t nice. There’s sex, drugs, extreme violence, death, and rape. A lot of people loathe Quentin – he is a whiny, miserable, self-pitying, self-centred, prick – but I thought that was brilliant. This isn’t the hero anyone is looking for, he’s me on my very worst days, he doesn’t deserve what he gets, but damnit that works so well. And Janet, dear god, if you ever wanted a badass heroine then here she is. She’s broken and messed up but she knows her shit and I do love a good brain.

So there you go, nasty messed up people with magic and stories and three fucking beautiful books. Lev Grossman, I salute you.

Elbow dance time

Elbow dance time

Review: A Stranger in Olondria by Sofia Samatar

Stranger in OlondriaAuthor: Sofia Samatar

Publisher: Small Beer Press

Publication Date: 30 April 2013

Length: Novel (317 pages)

Format I read: Audiobook from Kindle


This beautiful novel is centred around a coming of age story – that of Jevick, son of a rich spice grower on the remote islands of Tyom. Taught to read and write by a foreign tutor from the distant country of Olondria, Jevick becomes enraptured by books and by language, by the possibilities held in thoughts made corporeal, by the land and histories of Olondria that he reads about. The death of his father gives Jevick the opportunity to travel to Olondria to sell his pepper crop but when there he becomes haunted by ghost of a girl from his homeland that he met whilst travelling. This haunting is considered at once sacred and profane in the two opposing religions of Olondria and Jevick becomes an unwitting pawn in political and religious battles between the two sides.

The concepts of language, writing, and stories are at the core of this book. It’s about how language and stories shape us and how they affect the world around us. Jevick learns to love stories but he learns it through another country’s language. His adoration of Olondria sets him apart from his home land, makes him question his own beliefs. But it’s when he’s seen Olondria and lived its stories that he learns to better appreciate and understand his own language and culture and begins his attempts to translate them into a written form.

It’s also about how we use words and stories to enforce, persuade, negate, and celebrate different ways of thinking. The priests of the various religions consistently tell Jevick stories to justify their actions, the tales of the islanders and the Olondrians shape how they react to different occurrences. And, we’re not just hearing Jevick’s story but all of those that interweave with it; we learn the lives of the people he meets, the poems, the mythology of the two countries, their histories, and their religions.

It’s so densely written and packed with tales that you forget what it is you’re reading – I was two seconds from fact-checking wikipedia at a couple of points before remembering that the entire world was fictional. It wasn’t easy going sometimes, at points I was waiting for some plot point to happen and then a character would state the terrible lines: “do you know the story of…”. Noooooooooooooo. But actually that all played into the creation of this thoroughly realistic world. I know this history of Olondria, the religions of the island of Tyom, the life of Jissavet. I know them like I know my own name.

Rating: A qualified 4 out of 5 stars
I feel like I should state that I almost gave up on this book a couple of times but that failure was totally on me. This isn’t a book where you can just wizz through and enjoy the plot. It needs to be savoured and appreciated for its beautiful and complex self and once I got in the zone I was good.

Note: Pretty sure this was a bad pick for audiobook because the book is so descriptive and based around the cleverness of language, especially that of writing in books, that it felt like the wrong format.

Review – Skin in the Game by Sabrina Vourvoulias

Author: Sabrina Vourvoulias

Publisher: Tor.com

Publication Date: 3 December 2014

Format: Short story

Read it: free online at Tor.com


Starting 2015 right – an amazing story by Vourvoulias and one that is so very relevant to current events.

This short tells us about Jimena Villagrán, a police officer in Zombie City – a grimy downbeat precinct home only to addicts, dealers, and the homeless. But this is a city with magic and monsters of the supernatural variety as well the as the mundane kind. A spate of gruesome murders brings up a personal history that Jimena would rather stayed hidden and forces her to confront her heritage and question her place in her community.

First up, this is unquestionably a beautifully written piece. Vorvoulias is masterful is her creation of vividly realised characters and settings within such a short space. The story unfolds gradually, slowly leading you through each revelation until you see the whole. There were a remarkable number of characters but not one was under-described or without purpose, not one line felt out of place. Such is the beauty of short fiction.

The themes that this story deals with are difficult; racial and cultural heritage, identity, police relations to non-white characters, corruption and brutality, racism. That’s not a list of issues that I’d like to try and encapsulate in just a few thousand words. But I think this story manages to capture so much and with surprising delicacy and elegance.

One of the overwhelming images was that of complex identities, of multiple, layered selves that escape definition. This related to both the characters (” It’s not my name, but what she calls me…I’ve got more nicknames than I can keep track of”), the places (“…maps are pure fantasy. What is real doesn’t fit on a grid.”), the language, and the histories. And it made me think about how the news, and other stories we tell ourselves, seek to represent these things simply. But again and again things defy simplicty, they deny easy labels. Things are fluid, multiple and complex.

Rating: 4.5 stars