Utopirama: Hygge – Living the Danish Way

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If ever there was a time that needed a bit of added cosiness and sheltering from the winds of doubt and division, I think we can all probably agree that that time is now.  We see ourselves as contributors to the peace and unity of the world here on the Shelf and to that end, allow me to introduce you to Charlotte Abrahams new offering, Hygge: A Celebration of Simple Pleasures, Living the Danish Way.  Don’t be alarmed though, for this is not another quick-fix, self-help, de-clutter-and-you-will-be-happy sort of book – quite the opposite in fact – but an exploration of the Danish concept of hygge and how it may contribute to the fact that Danes often top polls about the happiest nations on Earth.  We received a copy from Hachette Australia for review, and here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Candlelight is hygge; the smell of freshly brewed coffee is hygge; the feel of crisp, clean bed linen is hygge; dinner with friends is hygge. ‘Hygge’, pronounced ‘hoo-ga’, is a Danish philosophy that roughly translates to ‘cosiness’. But it is so much more than that. It’s a way of life that encourages us to be kinder to ourselves, to take pleasure in the modest, the mundane and the familiar. It is a celebration of the everyday, of sensual experiences rather then things. It’s an entire attitude to life that results in Denmark regularly being voted one of the happiest countries in the world.

So, with two divorces behind her and her 50th birthday rapidly approaching, journalist Charlotte Abrahams ponders whether it’s hygge that’s been missing from her life. Is it a philosophy we can all embrace? In a society where lifestyle trends tend to centre on deprivation – be it no sugar, no gluten, no possessions – what does cherishing yourself actually mean? And will it make her happy?

In Hygge, Charlotte Abrahams weaves the history of hygge and its role in Danish culture with her own attempts, as an English woman, to embrace a more hygge life. In this beautifully written and stylishly designed book, she examines the impact this has on her home, her health, her relationships and, of course, her happiness.

Light a candle, pour yourself a glass of wine, and get ready to enjoy your more hygge life.

hygge

Quick Overview:

Hygge is simple, hygge is person-centred, hygge is conscious enjoyment of things we find life-giving.  Hygge dispenses with guilt and deprivation in favour of full enjoyment of an experience while it is happening.  Given that this is a book exploring the Danish concept of comfort, cocooning and design that contributes to a happier life, I can only think that the author and publisher must consider it a success that I found the reading experience to be remarkably hyggelige indeed!  Even the cover of the book, which features some delightfully tactile felt trees reflects the mindset that happiness involves enjoying the moment – and if the moment you are in currently involves reading a book, why not make that book inviting to hold, to physically demonstrate how a simple, everyday thing can be turned into something special and pleasurable?

Abrahams is an Englishwoman researching the concept and lifestyle of hygge and therefore is an outsider, looking in on a practice and mindset that is intrinsic to being Danish (it appears), yet foreign to the rest of us.  In that respect, she has done a wonderful and accessible job in laying out the ideas behind hygge and its physical manifestations, given that we don’t even have a word for the conceptual whole she is describing in the English language.

The book is divided into a series of sections relating to the different aspects of hygge, beginning with the people-centred design behind many Danish objects – from furniture to lampshades to public spaces – and moving on to ways in which hygge manifests in peoples’ social connections and guilt-free indulgences.  In between examples of the ways in which Danes create hygge in various situations are interludes in which Abrahams examines her own life and describes her attempts to make small changes here and there to bring about a cumulative and conscious experience of heightened happiness.

Given that the Danes experience weather that is practically polar opposite (literally, I suppose) from that found in Queensland, some parts of the book relating to cosiness and retreat from raging frost and snow seemed a bit unattainable for Australian climates (which is probably why Australians didn’t come up with the concept of hygge), however Abrahams has done a great job of laying out the concept in a way that allows the reader to apply it to their own situation.

As I mentioned, reading the book – slowly, chapter by chapter – felt really hyggelig to me.  Even though reading multiple books is something I do every day, I don’t necessarily take the time to consciously note and enhance my reading experience if I happen to enjoy a book.  Inspired by Abraham’s small efforts, I ended up finishing this book while swinging in a hammock on the deck of a Queenslander, while jacarandas bloomed in front of me and a light breeze ruffled my stony ears.  Hygge! Australian style!

Utopian Themes:

Guilt-free experience

Mindfulness

Shelter from the storms of life

Companionship

Equal Participation

Protective Bubble-o-meter:

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Five out of five protective bubbles for the liberating experience of telling deprivation-freaks to sod off; that you’re ditching the ascetic, paleo, fun-free dinner out for a glass of whatever you fancy and time spent with people you actually like

Until next time,

Bruce

Utopirama: Precious and Grace…

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After an extended break, I am happy to report that I have made some time to catch up with an old friend: Precious Ramotswe, that traditionally built lady and founder of the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency.  I was delighted to receive a copy of Precious and Grace, book number seventeen in Alexander McCall Smith’s excellent series set in Botswana, from Hachette Australia for review.  Of course, with such a series there could be no more appropriate review format than that of Utopirama and so here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

The delightful seventeenth installment of the ever-popular, perennially best-selling No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series.

Precious Ramotswe, Botswana’s premier lady detective, is a little short on help. The co-director of the agency, Grace Makutsi, is busy with her own case, her client none other than their erstwhile assistant, Mr. Polopetsi, who has unwittingly involved himself in a pyramid scheme. The agency’s other assistant, Charlie, may also need more help than he can offer, as he is newly embroiled in a romance with a glamorous woman about whom the others have their doubts.

So when a young Canadian woman approaches Mma Ramotswe with a complex case, it’s up to her alone to solve it with her signature intuition and insight, of course. The young woman spent part of her childhood in Botswana and needs help finding a long-lost acquaintance. But much time has passed, and her memory yields few clues. The difficult search and the unexpected results will remind them all that sometimes it’s those we think we know best who most surprise us.”

precious and grace

Quick Overview:

I am a little behind on this series as of this moment.  The last book of the series I read was The Saturday Big Tent Wedding Party, which puts me at a four book disadvantage but this is one of those series in which it doesn’t really matter if you miss a few books because coming back to the story is like coming back to a group of old, forgiving friends.  That, and the fact that the author does a neat little summary at the beginning of most of the books so as you don’t miss any of the big plot points.

If you haven’t read any books in this series, you really should.  Start with the first and then skip about as you fancy, but definitely make a start and you will no doubt fall in love with the darling characters who inhabit the pages.  Precious and Grace felt like a microcosm of the series as a whole: beguiling, gentle, and following its own rhythm toward a satisfying and thought-provoking conclusion.  After the initial recap in which the reader is reacquainted with the current situations of each of the characters, we are introduced to Mma Ramotswe’s main case for the book, that of a lady born in Botsawana, whose move to Canada as a small child has opened up feelings of homesickness.  On the surface, this seems like a simple case of a lady wanting to revisit her roots, but as ever, Mma Ramotswe discovers the truth behind the lady’s quest and peels back the layers of emotion to get at the nub of the matter.

In the meantime there are subplots about a dog almost made late by Fanwell, that ends up in the most perfect situation, and a very shady scheme indeed in which Mr Polopetsi has unwisely placed his hopes.  The growth of Mma Makutsi’s character is interesting in this one – possibly I have missed something telling in the previous four books – but she seems to be more forthright and abrupt than even her normal resting level of forthright abruptness.  Something to investigate, indeed!

Coupled with the gentle humour of the story is the unflinching commitment in the narrative to the idea that humanity can always redeem itself; that no matter how low we can sink in our perpetuation of the suffering of others, there is always the opportunity for positive change.  The ending of this story had me feeling quite emotional especially in the current climate of fear and distrust that is often exploited by the media.  The unassuming exhortation to be better is at the heart of these novels and was proffered particularly deftly this time around.

This felt to me like an intake of breath in the series; a pause, if you will, before more significant life events unfold.  As such, it was the perfect choice for the situation of feeling like I had too many books to read and not enough time to read them.  This familiar, gentle little gem put me back on the road to internal harmony and helped me avoid a possible reading slump.  

Utopian Themes:

Forgive and forget and remember

Finding one’s home

Life’s second chances

Drought-breaking rain

Protective Bubble-o-meter:

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Five out of five protective bubbles for the contented snoring of a dog who has found his people.

Until next time,

Bruce

Monday Upliftivism: The Moonlight Dreamers…and a Guest Post from Author Siobhan Curham!

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It’s been a bit of a tough few weeks for us round the shelf lately.  The winter plague has invaded the household and I can barely think, let alone read, for all the coughing, hacking, moaning and prayers for deliverance, or a speedy death.  This week therefore, will be spent catching up on reviewing a whole bunch of books that have been eagerly awaiting their spot in the limelight.

Kicking off the week, in case you too are plagued by illness or general despair at the state of the world, I offer some upliftivism with new release YA novel from Walker Books, The Moonlight Dreamers by Siobhan Curham.  I should also mention that Siobhan has written a guest post for us about how to create authentic teen characters, which those budding writers amongst you (and I know there are a few!) will no doubt want to feast your eyes on.  Let me introduce you to the delightful and too-sweet-for-words, Moonlight Dreamers, which we received from Walker Books Australia for review.  Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

An inspirational, heart-warming book about four girls trying to find their place in the world. Siobhan Curham celebrates very different but like-minded friends in this captivating novel.

Amber craves excitement and adventure. Instead, she’s being bullied at school for having two dads, and life at home isn’t much better. Inspired by Oscar Wilde, Amber realizes that among the millions of people in London, there must be others who feel the same as she does; other dreamers – moonlight dreamers. After chance encounters with Maali, Sky and Rose, Amber soon recruits the three girls to the Moonlight Dreamers. It’s high time they started pursuing their dreams, and how better than with the support of friends?

moonlight dreamers

Quick Overview:

I have to say that if ever there was a book for younger readers that fit the Utopirama mould, then The Moonlight Dreamers is it.  While some unfortunate things do befall the characters in the novel, the overall feel of the book is so warm and subtly positive, that you just know that each girl will eventually find her way.  The book begins with Amber, a young woman with two dads who faces bullying at school, ostensibly because she is “different”.  Amber decides to take a risk and passes out invitations to form a secret society – the Moonlight Dreamers – to girls she encounters that look like they might share her desire to revel in uniqueness and go after their dreams.

The characters in the book struck me as particularly authentic creations.  Maali, the youngest of the group, possesses a wonderful naivety and sense of openness to the world around her – yet struggles with the simple task of talking to a boy.  Amber, on the outside, has all the makings of a confident young woman who isn’t afraid to walk to the beat of her own drum, but worries endlessly about being too different for people to like her for who she is.  Skye is still grieving the death of her mother and desperately wants to take the next step and perform her poetry in public, but is in conflict with her father over his new relationship.  And Rose, the accidental Dreamer, seems so worldly-wise, but desperately needs the approval of friends who are prepared to get to know her outside of her famous parents’ shadows, in order to gain the confidence to follow her dreams.

There’s something amazingly engaging about watching these characters tackle what are, for the most part, typical problems that many teens face.  The story is told in alternating perspectives so by the end of the book, the reader has had plenty of time to get to know each of the girls as individuals and watch how their interactions propel them towards facing their fears.  There’s a refreshing simplicity in the telling of the story that allows the characters to come to the fore without being shackled to the stereotypical portrayals that are grist for the mill of many contemporary YA books, where the focus is on predictable romantic relationships or fitting into expected social roles at school.  The author has managed to clearly show the girls as they are, and want to be, because the girls themselves – rather than their romantic interests or school troubles – are the focus.

If you know a young reader (or an older one!) who could really do with a bit of positivity in their lives and an affirmation that they are perfectly okay just as they are, then I would highly recommend getting a copy of The Moonlight Dreamers into their hands.  Apart from the fact that it will inspire you to pursue your dreams under fortuitous moonlight, it’s just a cracking good read and a story to soothe the fears and worries of the troubled soul.

Utopian Themes:

Books as solace for the weary heart

The wit and wisdom of Wilde

Friendship as a transformative power

Serendipitous discoveries

Youthful exuberance

Protective Bubble-o-meter:

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Five out of five protective bubbles for the security of knowing that one is not alone in one’s difference.

Although this certainly isn’t the type of YA that I generally go for, I did thoroughly enjoy The Moonlight Dreamers and was left with a warm, fuzzy feeling in my stony jaded heart by the end of it.  It also got me thinking about starting my own secret society, but I haven’t decided on a theme yet, so until then, keep my idea under your hat.

Don’t forget to check out author of The Moonlight Dreamers,  Siobhan Curham’s guest post about creating authentic teen characters!

Until next time,

Bruce

Utopirama: Pigeons, the Elderly and Personal Growth…

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It has been a considerable while since I last put up a novel in the Utopirama category, but today’s delightful little tome simply could not fit anywhere else.  We received a copy of Soft in the Head by Marie-Sabine Roger via Netgalley and as it is a translation from the original French, I should probably mention that the translator was Frank Wynne – this will be important to know later.  Let us begin.  Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

A humorous, heartwarming story follows the intellectually dim-witted 45-year-old Germain as he meets and slowly gets to know 85-year-old Margueritte, who sits in the park every day watching the pigeons and reading. She speaks to him as an equal, something his friends rarely do, and reads to him, sparking in him a previously undiscovered interest in books and reading. When she reveals to Germain that she is starting to lose her eyesight to macular degeneration, he is inspired for the first time in his life to work at reading so that he can read fluently to his new friend.

soft in the head

Quick Overview:

This is a novel in which, I can happily report, nothing particularly distressing occurs.  The old lady does not die in the end.  There is a bit of language and sexual allusions, to warn those who are squeamish about such things, but overall the story explores the developing friendship between Germain and Margueritte, as well as charting Germain’s growth in self esteem, motivation and personal purpose.  If this sounds like it flies a bit too close to the winds of tedium for you, I can assure you that the gentle pace is more than made up for by the charmingly personable narration of Germain.  The effect of the whole story is a lingering sense of upliftedness and an appreciation for the small things in life.

I have had a bit of trouble with translations from French in the past, for reasons that I can’t quite pick.  Perhaps I’m just not finely attuned to the French sense of humour.  This translation though, was excellent, in that it kept the Frenchness of the characters and story and setting, yet seamlessly incorporated turns of phrase in the English vernacular that added to the atmosphere and allowed the characters to be more fleshed out for an audience unfamiliar with the nuances of the French language and lifestyle.  The narrative style was immediately engaging, and Germain is such a likable and sympathetic narrator that I couldn’t help but take his arm and stroll along into the story.

If you are unfamiliar with Netgalley, you will be unaware that reviewers may request books months before their release date and it was just such a circumstance that had me completely forgetting the specifics of the blurb before I began reading.  For this reason, I went into this story thinking that Germain was in his early twenties rather than mid-forties.  His style of narration and continual admissions to being slightly below par in the intelligence stakes did nothing to dispel this misconception, so I was more than a little surprised when Germain mentions about halfway through the book that he is actually 45!  After allowing my brain a few chapters to reconceptualise the main character, I quite easily got back into enjoying the flow of the story.

This would be the perfect pick for a lazy holiday read or to keep on your nightstand for when you need a gentle easing into sleep.  It’s funny, touching and generally focused on finding the good in people and the magic that can happen when an unexpected friendship bears the fruit of positive change in the participants.

Utopian Themes:

Books as solace for the weary heart

Traditional skills and hobbies

Intergenerational friendship

Overcoming adversity

Forgiveness

Protective Bubble-o-meter:

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Five out of five protective bubbles for the simple pleasure of feeding pigeons from a sunny spot on a park bench.

Until next time,

Bruce

Utopirama: Shelter Dogs in a Photo Booth…

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It’s Utopirama time again and today’s guaranteed mood-lifter is the perfect coffee table book for those times when your internet connection is dodgy and your access to funny animal videos is cut off.  We received Shelter Dogs in a Photo Booth by Guinnevere Shuster from the publisher via Netgalley and you’ll be pleased to know that inside the book you can expect to find exactly what it says on the cover.  Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Man’s best friend! What better way to showcase adoptable dogs than by letting their true personalities shine in a photo booth! In the tradition of the best-selling dog photography book, Underwater Dogs, Shelter Dogs in a Photo Booth wins the heart of all dog lovers.

Often seen as sad, rejected, and behind cold metal bars, it’s no wonder people would avoid images of shelter dogs awaiting forever homes. From talented photographer (and now public figure and adoption champion) Guinnivere Shuster comes Shelter Dogs in a Photo Booth, a guaranteed-to-make-you-smile photo book featuring shelter dogs in a brand-new light. Get ready to see the cutest canine portraits you’ve ever seen! Guinnevere’s fantastic photos went viral  and have been featured on websites, in magazines, and on television programs all over the world: Good Morning America, NBC, ABC, MSNBC, The Huffington Post, Time, The Daily Mail . . . even celebrities have gotten in on the action: Amy Poehler, Cesar Millan, and Zooey Deschanel have made statements and posts declaring their love of Guinnevere’s work. After the adorable and up-for-adoption photos of these furry friends were seen and enjoyed by millions, adoption rates at Utah’s Humane Society skyrocketed.

The book features 100 dog photo booth style photographs, each accompanied by a short story about the dog’s personality, how the dog ended up in the shelter, and the adoption date. A follow-up will conclude the book, with photos of some of them with their new families.

A portion of the proceeds of this book will benefit the Humane Society of Utah and Best Friends Animal Society.shelter dogs.jpg

Quick Overview:

There’s not much to say about the content of this book that you can’t already infer from the title, but each page features a different shelter dog with four images and a little blurb about how it came to be in a shelter in the first place. If you’re a dog lover, the book is worth it for the images alone: some are pretty funny, like the one on the cover, while others are more subdued.  They portray a wide range of breeds and personalities however, and having a quick peek at the next dog becomes a bit addictive after a few idle page flicks.  The end of the book shows some of the dogs in their new forever homes with their new families which is a nice touch and no doubt goes some way to fulfil part of the book’s purpose – to encourage people to adopt shelter dogs rather than buy from pet shops or sellers who may be engaging in inhumane practices like puppy farming.

The only thing that I found dystopian about the book were the excuses given for the dogs ending up in the shelter in the first place.  There were far too many “owner had to move and couldn’t take the dog with them” type stories for my liking, which begs the question, “why didn’t you think about that before you bought the damn dog?” or alternately, “why can’t you find a dog friendly place to move to?”

As well as all the cute dog pictures, proceeds of the book’s sales go to help animal rescue centres in the US.  Winning!

Utopian Themes:

Human’s best friend

From despair to hope

Saving the day

Smile for the camera

Protective Bubble-o-Meter:

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Five out of five protective bubbles for the joyful flapping ears of a rescue dog heading to its forever home with its head out the window of the car.

Until next time,

Bruce

 

Utopirama!: Consider the Clothesline…

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imageToday’s Utopirama is sponsored by everyone’s favourite massive ball of incandescent gas, the Sun! And Echo Publishing, who kindly sent us today’s book for review.  When I saw the title of this gorgeous photo-filled coffee table book, it was instantly apparent to me that to pass it by would be a grave dereliction of my blogging duty.  I give you: Consider the Clothesline: Vibrant Images of Laundry and Life by Frances Andrijich and Susan Maushart.  Here is the blurb from Echo Publishing:

Photographer Frances Andrijich’s unusual fascination with the clothesline has made the world just a little brighter. Paired with Susan Maushart’s witty and illuminating text, these images are by turns whimsical, meditative and transgressive, and have all the intoxicating freshness of a basket of sun-dried sheets.

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Quick Overview:

While an homage to the ever-growing washing pile might seem to be the antithesis of utopia for many people, a leisurely flick through this hefty tome, accompanied by a cup of tea, while the incessant churn of the washing machine providing background music, is certain to heighten your mood and have you revelling in the breezy, everyday joy of a chore well done.  The images in this book are absolutely beautiful and run the gamut from a string lashed between two trees to the iconic Aussie Hills Hoist and everything in between.  There are plenty of pictures taken in Australia’s various desert environments and having gazed upon the endless red dust that covers the land in these locales, it really is a wonder that anyone out that way gets anything clean at all!

The book also contains some fascinating little tidbits that absolutely boggled my stony mind.  Did you know that in some places it is illegal to hang out your washing? ILLEGAL!! Fancy denying people the right to use perfectly free wind and solar power to dry their washing and instead force them to use energy-sapping dryers!  Surely the reverse should be the default option: everyone should be required to air their dirty laundry unless they can show good cause as to why a dryer is needed. But I digress.

Although the topic might be one that doesn’t necessarily spring instantly to mind when selecting a tome to raise your mood, the mundane act of hanging out the washing, when captured in such stunning photography, really does provide a sense of serenity and good feeling.  This book should be distributed amongst the waiting rooms of counsellors, psychologists and psychiatrists everywhere.

Utopian Themes:

Eco-friendly reading

The human condition

Summer breezes and seaside gusts

Mentioning your unmentionables

Protective Bubble-o-Meter:

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4 out of 5 bubbles for the comforting snap of sheets in the wind

I am also submitting this tome for the Alphabet Soup Reading Challenge 2016, hosted by Escape with Dollycas:

alphabet soup challenge 2016

You can check out my progress toward that challenge here!

Until next time,

Bruce

 

 

Utopirama: Book Cover Designs

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It’s been a good long while, but the time has finally come for another Utopirama post!  For those unfamiliar with the concept of my Utopirama posts, the idea is to present some reading options for those times when you just need a book that will inspire feelings of calm and relaxation.  Cosy reads, if you will, in which nothing bad happens and only the good things intrinsic to living in this crazy world are highlighted.  Today’s book is one for all of you, I can just tell: Book Cover Designs by Matthew Goodman.  Yes indeedy, this is a book about book covers.  Brilliant!

We received a copy from the publisher via Netgalley and here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Browse more than 500 book cover designs and listen to more than 50 of today’s top designers discuss their process for creating the perfect book cover. Award-winning creative professionals fromaround the world have applied astonishingly clever cover concepts that playslyly on titles and themes of international bestsellers, both classic andmodern, adding new dimensions to the books and breathing new lifeinto bright ideas. Literature lovers and graphic illustrators of all types, aswell as book design students and professionals, will relish thisinspiring collection of covers of fiction and nonfiction, history and sciencebooks, novels and short stories, from old favorites to popular 21st-centurytitles. For future designers looking for inspiration, as well as hopeless coverlovers, Book Cover Designs is a must-have design reference for any collection. Feelfree to judge these books by their covers.

book cover designsQuick Overview:

Essentially, this book does what it says on the proverbial tin, providing pages and pages and pages of mesmerising book covers for your viewing pleasure.  The book is divided by designer, with each featured designer having an introductory page in which their background and design approach is listed, followed by a number of pages of their designs.  The perfect coffee table book, Book Cover Designs offers a wonderful selection of covers of which some will be familiar and some will be so fresh and intriguing that you’ll rush off to pop the title on your TBR list.

The only niggle that I could find in these pages is the fact that the majority of the designers featured are young and Caucasian.  This may not be a bother to you in the slightest if you are focusing on the covers themselves, but I thought it a shame that there wasn’t a greater diversity of designers – in age and race particularly – and their work, presented.  Perhaps that could be something for the publishers to consider when signing off on Book Cover Designs: The Second Edition!  Similarly, the books featured here are generally adult titles (with a few YA thrown in) and I would dearly love to see the same concept developed using children’s books.

Whatever though, if you are a fan of reading and you enjoy a good browse, you will definitely derive pleasure from flicking through this tome.

Utopian themes:

Guilt-free judgement

A Reader’s Paradise

Aesthetic Pleasure

Cover Love

Protective Bubble-o-Meter:

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3 out of 5 protective bubbles for the reverent first touch of a brand new book cover

Until next time,

Bruce