Category Archives: Uncategorized

Fall or Dodge in Hell by Neal Stephenson

Fall, or Dodge in HellFall, or Dodge in Hell by Neal Stephenson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Stephenson’s latest novel is both highly imaginative and somewhat creepy. Lurking somewhere between plausible sci-fi and total fantasy, he posits a world where the human population is slowly diminishing and being replaced by robots, but at the same time cryogenics and quantum computers are giving people the option upon death of having their brains scanned and being uploaded into digiworld to achieve a sort of immortality. The action switches back and forth from the real world (meatspace) to what’s going on in the computing miasma, a world incorporating the Earth’s entire computing power. In turns out there’s quite a lot going on there as two computing giants, i.e. people who in life had been tech billionaires (imagine Gates and Bezos, or Jobs and Musk if you prefer), are fighting it out for dominance. At the same time, their families and loyalists back in meatspace are at odds over computing resources.

Once again the author has needlessly subjected readers to a massive tome (over 800 pages) that could have been better written in 250 pages. It’s very readable and contains some satire worth reading, but it can be a slog. The last third or so of the book focuses too much on the digital world which becomes increasingly like a video game or even the board game Quest, populated by giants and fanciful shape-shifting creatures with lots of world-building and slaying going on. The author rather boldly, or perhaps grossly, goes into how the digital beings discover sex, described clinically always as copulation. This ground has been well-trod already in movies and books (Wall-e, Tron, Wreck-it Ralph, Ready Player One). All in all it filled some hours with entertainment. That’s about the highest praise I can give it, but perhaps that’s all it was shooting for.

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Google Trends

Here are some recent Google Trends results I found interesting. The maps show which search terms are the most popular in which states over the last five years.

The scuba/snowboard one was mostly a test and the north-south split was much as expected, but I was a bit surprised by a few states. California has some great snowboarding, I’m sure, but I would have thought there would be more interest in scuba. In fact, depending on the season, the popularities switched. But really, it’s Iowa, Nebraska and Kansas that fooled me the most. Sure, you can scuba in lakes, and they may be too flat for much snowboarding, but Minnesota and Colorado are close and it’s awfully cold there.

The middle one, falafel/grits is rather interesting and surpising to me, but I’ll let you draw your own conclusions from it. I’m not sure why the distribution on the three mainstream TV channels, but it’s probably unfair. The term ABC is common for other uses while the others are not, so the overwhelming red may be misleading. In fact if you add the term “network” after each, you get very different results. See below. Then there’s issue as to whether you’re thinking of news, sports, or regular programming,

Recursion by Blake Crouch

RecursionRecursion by Blake Crouch
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

In this time shifting novel the two main characters, Helena and Barry, meet and re-meet under varying and mostly frightening circumstances in different timelines. Deaths happen and then unhappen. It took quite a while for the premise to become fully obvious and the book went downhill at that point. The plot became so preposterous and irritatingly repetitive that I skimmed and skipped liberally through the second half. So much of sci-fi literature is really just fantasy or pseudo-science and this book, unfortunately, falls into that category.

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Natural Palindromes

There are lots of artificially constructed palindromes out there, easily found on the Internet. Inspired by an email from Anu Garg at Wordsmith.org i decided to search for palindromes that occur naturally in various books, documents or forms of literature. A palindrome is a word or phrase (or set of sentences) that reads the same backward or forward, although usually it is permitted to ignore spacing and punctuation. The best-known English one I know of is “Madam, I’m Adam.”

Here are some examples I’ve found:
sensuousnes(s) – this appears in many, many works. I’ve seen “is sensuousness – I” and several variations.
“la minima minima+ (L” part of the scientific name of a gray-cheeked thrush)
“name not one man”
“kramer’s remark”
“drawn inward”, “drawn onward” – full-word phrases
“Palamala, Talamala), p” – at 17 letters, the longest I’ve found, tied with the next one.
“e madame! Vive madame”
“no man; even amon(g)” is the longest in the King James Bible (Isaiah 41:28)

There were many cases of long repeated sequences like “No, no, no,…” etc. that I dismiss as not in the spirit of what I am trying to find. Feel free to paste any natural palindromes you find in the comments. Please, no constructed ones.

wit’s end by James Geary

Wit's End: What Wit Is, How It Works, and Why We Need ItWit’s End: What Wit Is, How It Works, and Why We Need It by James Geary
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The author muses at the beginning that an analysis of wit or any form of humor may kill the pleasure of it. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what he has done in this book. I had hoped it would contain many amusing examples of wittiness, but there are very few. Instead there are lots of quotes and opinions about what wit is or should be. That and a series of bizarre typographic choices like new typefaces and font size for every chapter, changing from one to two columns and back again, italics, colored background, etc. made this book somewhat irritating to read. It was a disappointment to me although there were a few interesting moments. I can barely squeeze out a 3 for this one.

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The 39 Steps by John Buchan

The 39 Steps (Richard Hannay, #1)The 39 Steps by John Buchan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The author wrote this now classic book intending it to be in the genre he called “a shocker.” Today we’d call it a thriller. You could call it a murder mystery, but really it’s more of a pursuit book, in the same category as the popular TV show The Fugitive or the Australian TV series Wanted. The main character is an innocent man who finds himself in an unlucky circumstance leading to the police pursuing him for murder and at the same time the bad guys out to kill him for what he may have learned from the victim.

It takes place in England and Scotland in the time just before World War I. The appeal it may have had to readers back then has been superseded by a nostalgia of sorts today’s readers will experience for a time when life was simpler, more direct, and devoid of the kind of political correctness we have today. There are lots of descriptions of the Scottish countryside and inhabitants that will make modern readers gape in surprise or yearn to see first-hand. The plot is quite implausible, but full of suspense and action. It was made into a very successful movie by Alfred Hitchcock and subsequently by several other directors. One of my five stars can be chalked up to that nostalgia, so it may be more of a four star book, but I enjoyed it greatly.

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22556 W Ravensbury Avenue, Los Altos, CA 94024

Every month Google sends me an email notifying me of my Google Maps Timeline. If I click on the link it takes me to a map with red dots showing places I’ve been during the preceding month. Every month it shows me visiting 22556 W Ravensbury Avenue, Los Altos, CA 94024. That’s a valid address, a house in a very expensive area. According to Zillow, it’s worth about $5,000,000, consists of 2.5 acres, and has 3 bedrooms and 4.5 baths (that last fact seems odd to me, one and a half times as many bathrooms as bedrooms). I don’t know who lives there and I’ve only been on that street two or three times in my life, years ago.

I’ve figured out what’s going on. Every week I run in Rancho San Antonio County Park, usually on the Rogue Valley trail, which runs parallel to Ravensbury for a short stretch. It’s not all that close to the street, and there is another trail, also parallel to Ravensbury and closer to it, on the other side of a creek. Apparently, though, my phone gets close enough on those occasions to pick up the wi-fi signal of that house. The house is on a ridge looking down on the trails, with nothing but air and a few bushes between them. My phone then notifies Google Maps which in turn knows where that wi-fi is located. Those cars you see with the cameras on top also record where all the wi-fi signals they detect are. It’s a popular hiking and running trail. It makes me wonder how many other people Google thinks visit that house.

So here’s where I’m going with this: if the Russians really want to screw up America, they should have some dodgy Russian exchange student or “businessman” rent or buy that house. The NSA will provide the FBI with a massive list of people visiting with the suspected Russian spy den, many with clearances from NASA, Lockheed, or the many other defense contractors nearby, and be too distracted or overwhelmed to focus on the real spies. Maybe the owner of that house will search his or her address online and come up with this blog. If enough other people discover this same issue and mention the address, they may find their privacy too invaded to continue living there. Isn’t the Internet wonderful?

Unpopular movies

I’ve got one! Passengers (2016) starring Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt. It gets a whopping 30% on Rotten Tomatoes from the critics. Viewers give it 63%, so maybe that doesn’t count. My wife liked it, my daughter liked it and a friend of mine and his wife liked it. I haven’t met anyone who didn’t like it. For some reason critics don’t like romantic comedies. They love trash filled with violence, sadism, gore, pornography and anything politically correct (i.e. to those of liberal persuasion) but not so much things that are actually fun to watch.

Interestingly, the critics gave Isn’t It Romantic  a 69% positive, but the fans gave it less than 50%. It’s also a romantic comedy, but I think it must be the fact that it satirizes rom-coms that made the critics like it. My wife and I liked it, too.

Pangrams

Once again I’m playing around with words, this time with pangrams. A pangram is a sentence or phrase that contains all 26 letters of the alphabet. I found all of the following in various public domain works in gutenberg.org. The length and source is provided for each. Feel free to add your own in the comments, although if they’re already well-known they’re probably not worth adding. Shorter is better, of course.

(43) William Jex quickly caught five dozen Republicans
from A COLLECTION OF SALUTATORY, VALEDICTORY AND
OTHER ADDRESSES DELIVERED AT THE FIRST FIVE COMMENCEMENTS OF THE FEMALE
STENOGRAPHIC AND TYPEWRITING CLASS OF THE GENERAL SOCIETY
OF MECHANICS AND TRADESMEN OF THE CITY OF NEW YORK
W.L. MASON 1892
This one was a well-known typist’s exercise as far back as 1892

(86) Ivory Knife Handles, with Portraits of Queen Elizabeth and James I. Englis
The “Milkmaid Cup”
Saxon Brooch
from Arts and Crafts in the Middle Ages by Julia De Wolf Addison (Table of contents)

(110) “You — you — ” and Jack glanced at his father perplexedly; “you exhibited him in the store!” he said. ” Why, yes, as a great Velasquez I had just bought.
from Over The Pass by Frederick Palmer

(114) John Knox.–His uncompromising character.–Knox’s interview with
Mary.–His sternness subdued.–The four Maries.–Queen Elizabeth’s
insincerity.
from Mary Queen of Scots, Makers of History by Jacob Abbot

Here are a couple from more widely regarded sources of literature:

(180) “I am in a manner bound to do so as the representative of the attorney of the late Sir Joseph Mason ; and by Heavens, Mr. Cooke, I’ll do my duty!” “I dare say you’re right,” said Mr. Crabwitz, mixing a quarter of a glass more brandy-and- water.
Orley Farm by Anthony Trollope

(172) In the narrow side-street dance rooms of Florence and in the great avenue restaurants of Paris they were performing exactly the same gyrations—wiggle, squirm, shake. And over all the American jazz music boomed.
One Basket by Edna Ferber

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

A Gentleman in MoscowA Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Alexander, aka “The Count,” is a nobleman in Moscow at the time of the Russian Revolution. He manages to survive the purge, but is subjected to a sort of house arrest in his residence at the luxurious Metropol Hotel. He is exiled to a small attic room. Undaunted, he lives out a full life within the confines of the hotel, conferring his wisdom and opinions on food, wine, and pretty much everything else to the staff and visitors.

There’s nothing inherently objectionable in the book, but it just didn’t capture my interest. The writer seemed to have an obsession with food and drink, which wines pair with what, and that sort of thing. The Count is goodnatured but rather pretentious and condescending at times. At 719 pages (for the large print edition) it was way too long. Perhaps its biggest shortcoming, though, was the lack of a real plot. Rather, it is more like a book of fairy tales – individual small, very implausible, stories that are unrelated but always have a happy ending.

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Human Errors by Nathan H. Lents

Human Errors: A Panorama of Our Glitches, from Pointless Bones to Broken GenesHuman Errors: A Panorama of Our Glitches, from Pointless Bones to Broken Genes by Nathan H. Lents
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This fascinating book lists and explains many of the human body’s flaws from structural to genetic to psychological. The author is a biologist with a detailed knowledge of how the body works – or doesn’t. For example, he explains why mammals’ retinas are installed backward and why humans are one of the very few animals that don’t make their own vitamin C and thus must eat fresh fruits and vegetables regularly to avoid scurvy. His predictions, or perhaps speculations, as to the future of human evolution are especially riveting and very plausible to me. I found his section on human brains a bit too pop-culturish. The fact the people’s memories are not accurate is old hat as proven many times. Yes, people gamble even knowing they’re going to lose and they smoke cigarettes even though they know that they taste terrible, make them sick, and will eventually give them cancer, but these are not errors of the brain, they are results of risk-taking mate-attracting behavior that has, or at least had, an evolutionary advantage. Aside from that one chapter, I thought the book was chock full of fun, good stuff.

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Death Report by Eric Racker

Death Report (The Sergeant Braun Series, #1)Death Report by Erik Racker
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This classic police procedural features major crimes detective sergeant Brad Braun, a big fellow with a beard. The pun on “brawn” is intended by the author; he even sticks in a joke about looking like the Brawny Paper Towels guy. It takes place in and around Pasco County, Florida. The serial killer, Troy, is a recently fired TV news anchor now scraping by as a field reporter at a down-market station. This is revealed right at the beginning, so it’s no spoiler. He likes to strangle young women and then freeze them and saw them up with a hacksaw. He does this in order to be first on the scene with a camera crew and make a name for himself in the newsroom. Hacksaw becomes his nickname in the press since he leaves notes with the bags of body parts.

There are things to like and things not to like about the book. As former law enforcement, I appreciated that Braun was polite and professional at all times, not one of these wacko antihero cops. He even lives near his parents and sees them regularly like a good son. The investigation was also straightforward and credible, exactly as I believe a homicide detective would proceed. That allowed me to get into the story. The flip side of that, though, is that the investigation itself was rather boring. It consisted mostly of responding to crime scenes, interviewing people who didn’t see anything, and reviewing camera footage that didn’t show anything useful. There were no “aha!” moments or great insights from Braun or any other cop. No Sherlock Holmes here.

All the action was driven by Troy, who, unfortunately, is not a credible character. To insert some action the author described the murders and dismemberments in some detail, which I found distasteful. The other downside to this style is that there just wasn’t much of a plot, so the author filled up a lot of pages with irrelevant descriptions. He describes every building Braun enters in detail, telling us how many left and right turns it took to get wherever, what was in the offices or the hallways, the decor of every restaurant, what Braun ate. It was obvious to me as a writer that he was just trying build up enough pages to fit the publishers’ required minimum. Still, I liked that he didn’t do that with sex or romance. There’s a hint of a romance for Braun in the story line but it doesn’t distract as in some other novels in the genre. The bottom line is that this is not a mystery – we know who the killer is from the beginning – it’s just a step by step description of police response until the good guys catch up with the bad guy. The writing was journeyman quality.  There’s enough action to satisfy people who require that but I would have preferred more of a plot. This is the first in a series. I doubt I’ll read more of them.

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What3Words name game

What3Words is a company that provides a unique service. It has named every spot (3 meters square) on the globe using a set of three words. I invented a name game using this site and a while back posted a few fun examples Here.  It’s time to play again. Tip: it’s usually more fun to view the W3W links in satellite view; click on the icon in the upper left.

The 2020 presidential race is already underway. I learned that the Louisiana demo.party.primary is taking place in a swamp near Lake Salvador. I guess that’s better than Trumps.party.primary in the Andes of Argentina. If you’re surprised to learn that extreme.liberal.politics are to be found in rural Utah, then prepare to be amazed that there are extremely.liberal.politics in the mountains near Cody, Wyoming.

Enough politics. Let’s take it easy. I went to Waikiki where I found on the beach in this very diverse city families.races.relaxing. What surprised me was that here were galleries.strictly.managed, while at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York were plenty.limp.punks with modest.sailor.shorts. I would have thought it would be the other way around.

Switching to food, the finest.fried.chicken is to be found in Datong, China, but closer to home many.tasty.foods are located in Navesink, New Jersey. Gourmets will go around the world for fine meals.

Use the link at the beginning of the post to make your own.

FBI Myths and Misconceptions by Jerri Williams

FBI Myths and MisconceptionsFBI Myths and Misconceptions by Jerri Williams
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The author characterizes this book as a reference book, “A Manual for Armchair Detectives,” and it is that, but it is much more. It’s also a fun, entertaining read. Williams is both a retired FBI Special Agent and a crime novelist. She understands the need to tell a good story or make a good movie and the resulting necessity of condensing, conflating, and exaggerating. She also shares a certain dismay with me and other FBI retirees over the gross inaccuracies that crop up in the entertainment world about the FBI. One of the reasons I wrote my crime novels was to correct some of those misconceptions, but I admit to falling prey to some of the same cliches and shortcuts that a good narrative requires.

What Williams has done that makes this book work so well is to include specific examples from the movies and television to illustrate her points. Then she shares the real life story as told by guests on her podcast, and lastly she provides a cracking good review of the show. She not only writes great reviews, and includes whether she enjoyed the movie, but then she applies her own rating scale as to how accurate it is. She throws her shoes at the worst offenders, so we hear a lot about her footwear. I got a kick out of that, no pun intended.

The bottom line is that she educates as what is false and what is true, but also refrains from criticizing or ranting. She’s not trying to spoil our fun. I do hope this book helps to prevent a few people from falling prey to the CSI effect.

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Mystery Novels

There are many ways to categorize mystery novels. Amazon, for example, has categories for serial murderers and British detectives among many others. I have my own system and I thought I’d share it with you here, both as a Venn diagram and a table. I’ll explain more after the images.

All mystery novels have some things in common – there’s a mystery, for one thing – and they have characters which they develop to some extent or another. I find that the best mysteries have one overweening characteristic that sets them apart. I’ve listed 20 mystery series or individual books that illustrate these features. I’ve shown them as four main subgenres: Procedural, Setting, Humor, and Action. Here’s how I define those:

1. Procedural – often called Police Procedural even though it applies to private detectives and amateurs as well, these emphasize the detailed, professional way the main investigator goes about the task of solving the case. The intelligence and inside knowledge of the investigator is the key feature. Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch is the quintessential example. Sherlock Holmes fits here, but actually has a large action element, too.

2. Setting – These feature the setting, especially the geographic locale, but also the time frame or even vehicle/structure like a cruise ship or palace. Historical mysteries fall in this category, although I haven’t featured any on my chart. All stories have a setting, but I’ve chosen books where it is the predominate attraction of the book or series. You may quibble over Nancy Drew, but I include those here because many of her books were set in interesting places like the Crocodile Island one. Of course, how interesting or exotic a locale is depends heavily on the reader’s education and life experience.

3. Humor – These are characterized by a light, witty tone, or a black humor. Cozy mysteries always fit here although they have other elements. However, many regular, i.e. non-cozy mysteries also share this characteristic. Snappy dialogue is a typical trait of these. The delightful No. 1. Ladies’ Detective Agency series falls equally into Humor and Setting.

4. Action – These are typified by gunfights, fistfights, car chases, animal attacks, explosions or crashes, or to a lesser extent, suspense, such as whether a character will escape or survive a dangerous situation or pursuer. Virtually all mysteries have at least a bit of this, but only some have it as the main stylistic element for a series. I don’t like the Spenser books, but I’ve used them as an example of this type since that’s pretty much all they are – kick-ass action thrillers more than mysteries. Some LEO characters like Bosch and Pickett have substantial action elements, but the over-the-top stuff usually is confined to the private side because of the illegality of much of it.

I’ve also broken the diagram into black boxes to show the type of main character, usually the lead investigator. I don’t think that trait matters much to a mystery, not as much as the above subgenre anyway, but some people consider it important. There is also usually a lot of overlap. Amateurs and private eyes almost always have someone in the law enforcement world as a resource so that they can obtain police reports or other inside information not generally available to the public. Amateur is rather self-explanatory but may include some rather sophisticated investigators such as reporters. Police and Law Enforcement Officers (LEO) includes FBI, forest rangers, etc. Private Eye/Pro includes non-governmental professional investigators like Sue Grafton’s insurance investigator Kinsey Millhone and defense lawyers like Connelly’s Mickey Haller character (not on the chart). Many private eye protagonists are former LEO or may transition from one class to another during a series (e.g. Cliff Knowles). Making the main character a non-LEO provides the author a lot more freedom of action for the main character, but poses other problems.

It’s impossible to list all possible distinguishing traits of a book. Other factors some consider important or interesting are first person/third person; single/multiple narrators; unreliable narrator; age of the investigator; nature of the crime; amount of gore or bad language. I hope what I’ve chosen here is of use to you in evaluating a book.

 

The Captured by Scott Zesch

The Captured: A True Story of Abduction by Indians on the Texas FrontierThe Captured: A True Story of Abduction by Indians on the Texas Frontier by Scott Zesch
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Describing a book as educational can be the kiss of death, but this book is educational as well as enjoyable reading. Perhaps informative is a better word. It is a non-fiction history of white children captured in Texas, mostly by Comanches, but also by Apaches, and who were returned to white society. It’s quite remarkable how quickly young children adapt to the Indian ways and even lose the ability to speak English. Some readjusted well after returning to their white families, but many others, especially the boys, always considered themselves Indians and preferred that way of life until their death, even those who watched their captors brutally slaughter their family members. I was surprised at how spoiled the children, especially the boys, were by their adoptive families. The Comanches had long raided other tribes or Mexicans to acquire more warriors to build up their tribe, even before the white Texans moved into Indian territory. They were equal opportunity employers and the captives became full-fledged warriors with all the rights and privileges thereof. Even those who readjusted to white society defended the Indians and their way of life. The biggest knock I had with the book is that it’s history, which is not a favorite subject of mine, and it becomes a bit repetitive.

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The Suspect by Fiona Barton

The Suspect (Kate Waters, #3)The Suspect by Fiona Barton
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I recently read The Child and enjoyed it so I tried this 3rd installment in the series. I liked this one even more. Barton has a real knack for clever dialogue, especially when the main character Kate is in a give-and-take with her fellow journalists. The plot is well done as well, keeping me guessing until near the end. There’s a bit more mother-son relationship stuff in there than I would have liked, but it didn’t distract from the main story line. Barton is a newspaper journalist, which no doubt makes the insider feel of the reporter’s life feel very real. It’s much the same appeal as Michael Connelly’s insider detail in his Bosch novels that brings it to nitty gritty life.

Although it may be a bit exaggerated in the book, the horrors of an exotic vacation gone wrong can serve as a warning to any young people planning to go off to Thailand or any other second or third world country for an adventure or to find themselves. It’s not as much fun as you think, at least, not unless you plan well and stay vigilant.

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Night Passage by Robert B. Parker

Night Passage (Jesse Stone, #1)Night Passage by Robert B. Parker
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Three stars is a stretch, but it’s an easy read and filled a few hours. Jesse Stone is a burnt-out, failed LAPD detective with an ex-wife and a drinking problem. He gets hired to be the new police chief of a small Massachusetts town because the selectmen want a lush they can control. The leading man of the town, Hasty Hastings, is corrupt and also leads a group of paranoid neo-nazi types. Jesse is the classic anti-hero cop. The plot doesn’t really exist. Jesse just exists there while the bad guys implode around him. If you’re looking for clever detecting or a police procedural, this isn’t it.

The style was interesting. Parker is obviously a journeyman schlock noir crime novelist. The story flows along with ease despite being content-free. He and the publishers know all the tricks. Almost all of it is dialogue with very short sentences and wide margins. This means almost every page is 96% white space. Chapters are on average three pages long with every new chapter starting halfway down the next page, so there’s an extra load of emptiness. This is a 75-page book stretched to 322 pages. One odd choice was irritating: for some reason every chapter’s first line was in a weird mock handwriting font that was hard to read. Jesse and nearly every other character respond to questions and many other comments with the one word “sure.” Much of the conversation is psycho-babble or other filler. Example:
“Jenn called the other night,” Jesse said.
“Oh?”
“She broke up with Elliott.”
“The producer?”
“Yes.”
“So what does that mean?” Abby said.
“I don’t know.”
“Well, what does it mean to us?” Abby said.
“Us?”
“Us. You know, you and me…”
This riveting dialogue takes up most of a page.

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