MatthewSean Reviews

Book reviews, movie reviews, and other writing

Book Review – The Fifth Season – N.K. Jemisin — August 28, 2019

Book Review – The Fifth Season – N.K. Jemisin

Book Review – The Fifth Season – N.K. Jemisin

Facts:

Book: The Fifth Season
Author: N.K. Jemisin
Genre: Fantasy
Year of Release: 2015
Read 468-page paperback edition in July 2019

Book Description:

It is a world of despair, poverty, violence, and quakes. There are unpredictable weather patterns and unpredictable fault lines, both geological and political. There are mysterious people called Rogga who somehow have strange and disturbing power. The Guardians control these people, to ensure they don’t misuse their power and hurt the “normal” people in the scattered population on this desolate continent.

Essun comes home to the beginning of a horrible “fifth season” which means unending winter. She comes home to her son killed at the hands of her husband, and her daughter kidnapped. As she travels across a devastated landscape in search of her daughter, she reflects on the tragedy of her life, while meeting a couple of unique traveling companions.

This is how the world comes to an end.

Book Review:

This award-winning book by Jemisin is the start of a powerful, magical trilogy. Jemisin has truly shown us what it means to world build, and does an amazing job of creating a breathtaking landscape. The different peoples, settings, and plot points that occur are imaginative.

There is a lot of history and backstory to the world that Jemisin has created. She spends time throughout the book building on this and sharing key facts that are going to come into play later in this book, or else likely later in the trilogy.

Admittedly, some of these explanations and introductions, especially early on in the novel, sometimes overshadow a quick jump into the plot itself. At early stages of the novel, the pace feels slow. It quickens later on once more of these facts have been established, which is key for a suspenseful read.

The plot is interesting, and Jemisin’s use of second and first person in differing chapters shows us how skilled she is as a writer. Furthermore, her ability to tie different plot strands and characters together in surprising ways at the end of the novel is incredible, and again showcases her brilliance.

The novel ends with the reader excited, and anticipating what will happen in the second installment of the trilogy, and this indicates a successful book overall.

Overall: 4 stars out of 5 stars

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Book Review – Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind – Yuval Noah Harari — August 27, 2019

Book Review – Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind – Yuval Noah Harari

Book Review – Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind – Yuval Noah Harari

Facts:

Book: Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind
Author: Yuval Noah Harari
Genre: Non-Fiction
Year of Release: 2014
Read 442-page paperback edition in July 2019

Book Description:

Historian Professor Yuval Noah Harari takes the reader on a road of discovery into the surprising and exciting past and present of our species. Sapiens is an opportunity to use the best science and factual data gathered to date to understand where our species came from, right from the beginning, up to the 21st century.

Harari summarizes human history into one book, and also finds a way to draw connections through our history to explain why and how we got to where we are today. Harari also has thoughts as to what this means about where we are heading as a species, and what lessons we can draw from the recent and distant past.

Book Review:

This award-winning book is truly incredible. In exploring the human species and its past, Harari has written about a topic of general interest to many and importance to all. This is a very accessible book, yet one also leaves it feeling like there has been a lot gained, and a lot learned.

Harari also does a nice job of not downplaying some of the more serious lessons for the readers. He does a great job writing in a style that is exciting, making the reader want to read on and find out how the history of our species has evolved.

There is much to learn from this book. It is a learning experience, and an enjoyable experience as well. Harari has truly done an incredible job distilling a huge array of historical research and fact about our species down to one book. He has chosen the most important topics, tied them together, and ordered the book in a thoughtful and sensible way.

For me, when finishing this book, which was the first book I had read by the author, I was immediately motivated to read more about the topic he had presented, as well as find out his other titles and consider reading them in the months to come. Those facts alone demonstrate the skill and success that Harari has achieved with this incredible work.

Well done!

Overall: 5 stars out of 5 stars

Book Review – Less – Andrew Sean Greer — July 11, 2019

Book Review – Less – Andrew Sean Greer

Book Review – Less – Andrew Sean Greer

Facts:

Book: Less
Author: Andrew Sean Greer
Genre: Fiction
Year of Release: 2017
Read 262-page paperback edition in June 2019

Book Description:

Arthur Less is a middle-of-the-road, some would say failed, novelist, who is feeling down on his luck as he approaches fifty. He is single, and feeling his age. Then, when his ex-lover announces he is getting married, and sends Arthur a wedding invitation, Arthur decides to plan an around-the-world trip to avoid the wedding.

Thanks to a mix of speaking, teaching, and friend invitations, he can have a very low cost set of experiences in New York City, Mexico, Italy, Germany, France, Morocco, India, and Japan. It gives Arthur a chance to escape his stress, anxiety, and the situation at hand. And maybe along the way it will give him some life lessons and some perspective as well.

Book Review:

This Pulitzer-prize winning book by Andrew Sean Greer had a lot going for it. One of the quickest things to note in picking up this novel is that it is slim. Greer does not waste words, and his tight prose is effective in showing us Arthur Less, and all his feelings and foibles. Less becomes a real character, with pros and cons to him, throughout this novel, and the reader can really end up in his corner, hoping for the best for Arthur.

Greer has written a story that is funny while at the same time being sad and melancholy as well. His ability to combine the seriousness and thoughtful with the humour of life is a true success of this novel.

The premise of going to numerous countries to avoid the wedding of an ex is a good one. Greer does an excellent job of taking a few pages near the beginning (pages 18-21) to go through, in order, each of the locations Arthur Less plans to visit, and why he is going there. This is a great roadmap for the rest of the novel, which is then organized in one chapter per location. The structure and setup of this novel makes it easy for the reader to follow and helps to set up a page turner.

We really do cheer for Arthur, especially as we see what he is thrown in life. For example, one tour guide / writing fair leader in Mexico who perhaps doesn’t realize what he is saying, bluntly tells Arthur:

“You and me, we’ve met geniuses. And we know we’re not like them, don’t we? What is it like to go on, knowing you are not a genius, knowing you are a mediocrity? I think it’s the worst kind of hell.”

– Less, Page 56

This is a great example of the many times people say things to Arthur, whether intentional or not, which serves to knock him another notch down. And these statements often make us reflect on life in general, and can be melancholy in general, but they also make us laugh, and by extension love our main character Arthur Less all the more.

Overall, Greer has done a great job writing a tight, enjoyable, thoughtful, and funny novel. It does have an ending that some might say isn’t really in keeping with the rest of the novel. But at the same time, we really have grown to appreciate and respect the main character Arthur, so we can also be okay with that too.

Overall: 4.5 stars out of 5 stars

Book Review – The Bookshop of Yesterdays – Amy Meyerson — July 10, 2019

Book Review – The Bookshop of Yesterdays – Amy Meyerson

Book Review – The Bookshop of Yesterdays – Amy Meyerson

Facts:

Book: The Bookshop of Yesterdays
Author: Amy Meyerson
Genre: Fiction
Year of Release: 2018
Read 366-page paperback edition in June 2019

Book Description:

Miranda Brooks is living her life with her boyfriend, both of them having fun as teachers at the same school, when Miranda hears sad news from back home in Los Angeles: her uncle Billy has died.

What makes the situation stranger though is that she has been estranged from Billy since she was a pre-teen, when Billy and her mom had an extreme falling out. However, Billy has left his small, independent bookstore to Miranda.

When she heads home to attend the funeral and learn more about Billy, and the bookstore, she is pulled into a leadership position in trying to save the bookstore, which is on the brink of bankruptcy. More importantly however, she also tries to learn more about her family history, and just what happened to alienate Billy from her family, all those years ago.

Book Review:

Any book lover is going to enjoy reading this book, where bookstores, cafes, and reading are prominent. The idea of treasure hunts through book clues, and the idea of owning a bookstore where you can sleep in the 2nd floor apartment over the many books below you, is simply irresistible! Author Amy Meyerson has done a nice job illustrating these feelings and transmitting them to the reader, and she certainly doesn’t have to convince us that this would be a great setup.

Meyerson does a good job writing an interesting story that has a good mix of upbeat energy but also a great deal of melancholy throughout. From the characters drinking coffee in the slow bookstore to the main character Miranda trying to learn from her mom and other characters just what the family secret is, there is a lot emotion built into this story. Meyerson delivers that emotion well, through a good cast of characters.

The one downside with the novel was that although emotion is good, at times the drama and intensity level seemed a little too over the top and extreme. When it gets to the point of disbelief and the reader is jarred out of the story, you know maybe it’s a little bit too much. This happened several times in the novel. For example, on page 200 of this version, Miranda and her boyfriend back home, Jay, get in a huge fight over the phone about commitment. Although this makes sense, and of course it may also be because they haven’t seen each other in awhile, the fight on the phone gets way out of hand and escalates extremely quickly, without any preamble or explanation for it. This seems unrealistic.

The novel does have some great moments though. The treasure hunt of reading and book-related clues are fun. Quotes from well-known works and books include:

“What’s past is prologue.”

– From The Tempest – Page 1 of The Bookshop of Yesterdays

“The rarer action is

In virtue than in vengeance.”

Prospero in The Tempest – Page 308 of The Bookshop of Yesterdays

Overall, this was a fun and enjoyable book that had an intense plot, a good twist, and thoughtful lessons. Also, a great novel for book lovers!

Overall: 4 stars out of 5 stars

Book Review – Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell – Susanna Clarke — July 9, 2019

Book Review – Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell – Susanna Clarke

Book Review – Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell – Susanna Clarke

Facts:

Book: Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell
Author: Susanna Clarke
Genre: Fantasy
Year of Release: 2004
Re-Read 789-page paperback edition in May 2019

Book Description:

In the early 1800s, there are a number of magical societies throughout England. The majority of magicians involved are theoretical in nature, trying to understand how magic works and used to work in practice, particularly centuries ago when the famed, magical Raven King lived.

However, the mysterious and isolated Mr. Norrell ambles onto the public scene, and demonstrates that his lengthy period of quiet study has given him the talents of a magician who can actually succeed in practice. However, he is hesitant to demonstrate his skills, and is hesitant of anyone else joining him as a practical magician.

When Mr. Norrell decides to move to London to help use his talents for the war effort, he ends up befriending gentlemen who may be looking to use him. Meanwhile, he encounters the gregarious, social, extroverted Jonathan Strange, who wants to study under him. Mr. Norrell agrees, particularly when he sees the promise and skill of Jonathan Strange.

However, the two disagree, and their friendship sours and becomes rivalry. Each has different approaches to life, magic, and views on the Raven King.

Book Review:

This debut novel by British author Susanna Clarke was, in a word, fantastic. Clarke has succeeded in writing a sprawling, complex story, woven together with detailed plotlines and fascinating characters. She describes a variety of settings in the early 1800s, from London and rural Britain to France and Spain. Clarke does a great job making us feel like we are there, as we see a wide cast of characters interact with each other in a magical setting. She is truly successful at creating a historical setting that feels real, yet has adjustments to allow and describe the magic going on.

Clarke does a great job creating her two main characters. Mr. Norrell comes off as a difficult, stubborn man, but also with a great deal of endearment as well. Jonathan Strange comes across as afun-loving guy who you’d love to hang out with, but also with major lapses in judgment at times. It is these complexities and shades of grey in their traits that allows us to really believe in these characters. They feel real and true. Their multi-dimensional appearance, description, and actions make for a better novel.

Minor characters are also interesting and at times make a big difference in the outcome of the story.

Clarke’s plot is large and complex. The beginning of each of the three main sections of the novel are all interesting, and she is able to gather the reader’s interests quickly. Furthermore, the last 100 pages of the novel becomes intense and suspenseful, creating a page turner as the reader wants to know what is going to happen. We have become invested in these characters, a testament of Clarke’s strong development of them.

A couple small weaknesses could be noted about this otherwise fabulous novel. One, the story slowed down in the middle section, at times feeling a bit plodding. Second, at times the numerous plot strands didn’t perfectly come together. For example, the chapter entitled The Old Lady of Cannargeio was a fascinating, enjoyable, and downright bizarre chapter. But looking back, it was difficult to see how it fit into the broader narrative at all.

That being said, the story Clarke weaves is complex and enjoyable. It also has a mix of dramatic and deadpan humourous notes. For example, upon taking a potion, Jonathan Strange observes about himself:

“He found he could no longer recall whether people had candles in their heads or not. He knew that there was a world of difference between the two notions: one was sane and the other was not. but he could not for the life of him remember which was which. This was a little unsettling.”

– Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, Page 595

One other interesting thing about the novel were the optional footnotes, sometimes lengthy ones, that readers could enjoy. They usually provided “historical facts” to further explain the magical world we find ourselves in. While readers can choose to skip over these, and usually not be missing out on the main plot of the story, readers who take in these footnotes get to enjoy additional world building and background to the story, often descriptions of how this 1800s world connects with earlier years, when the Raven King was alive and wielding powerful magic. In addition, Clarke does an excellent job of building in foreshadowing through the footnotes of what is to come in the main plot, or using them to help explain what may have happened before in a different way. The use of footnotes here is unique and impressive.

Overall, this is an excellent fantasy novel, and one that is highly recommended. Truly enjoyable for its magical story, setting, and ensemble of characters.

Overall: 4.5 stars out of 5 stars

Book Review – Stories Best Left Untold – Gord Mackintosh —

Book Review – Stories Best Left Untold – Gord Mackintosh

Book Review – Stories Best Left Untold – Gord Mackintosh

Facts:

Book: Stories Best Left Untold
Author: Gord Mackintosh
Genre: Memoir
Year of Release: 2017
Read 352-page paperback edition in April 2019

Book Description:

Gord Mackintosh is a long-serving and recently retired Member of the Manitoba Legislature (MLA), one of the Prairie provinces of Canada. In his memoir, written shortly after his retirement, we join him in an exploration of the successes, and trials, of being an MLA and Minister, told from his unique and often humourous point of view.

The book allows us to learn more about Mackintosh’s childhood and early days, as well as his close relationship with his wife and children. It allows us to see where and how his political beliefs were shaped. The majority of the book focuses on his time in the Manitoba Legislature, both his years in opposition and especially as a Minister of the government. Many lessons learned, successes, and often funny frustrations, are shared throughout this memoir.

Book Review:

This memoir from Mackintosh is filled with amusing anecdotes, both on the political side and the personal side. Mackintosh is at his best when he is reflecting on lessons learned, and when he is inserting his trademark humour into the stories he tells. There are many side points and tales he points out along the way, and most of them are funny and enjoyable for the reader.

Of note is early in the book when Mackintosh speaks of the importance of his mother in shaping his political views. Mackintosh helps us understand his philosophy better, and the bond he has with his mother is touching and well explained. Furthermore, Mackintosh connects us to his musical inspirations as well, which is an enjoyable insight into his personal life. When he speaks of The Guess Who for example, a Canadian band that was key in the Canadian music scene during Mackintosh’s formative years, the memoir is insightful and interesting, making the reader want to pull out those songs from The Guess Who and listen to them again.

The one downside to the memoir, which was present throughout, was a scattered writing style. Although Mackintosh may have been going for this approach, the memoir was often very jumpy, with different side topics being introduced half-way through a paragraph or topic. This approach made it sometimes hard to follow, as we were treated to so many different small topics and stories buried within stories, and no central key theme to stick with, even for a few pages. Although many of the stories and topics were funny and interesting, it was a choppy product as a whole.

Overall: 3 stars out of 5 stars

Book Review – The Sun Does Shine – Anthony Ray Hinton — June 5, 2019

Book Review – The Sun Does Shine – Anthony Ray Hinton

Book Review – The Sun Does Shine – Anthony Ray Hinton

Facts:

Book: The Sun Does Shine: How I Found Life and Freedom on Death Row
Author: Anthony Ray Hinton
Genre: Non-Fiction
Year of Release: 2018
Read 250-page hardcover edition in May 2019

Book Description:

In this memoir by Anthony Ray Hinton, we learn the inspirational and shocking story of his life, a man who was on death row for a crime he did not commit for 28-years.

Hinton tells us of his childhood growing up black in the south, and the racism he faced at school and in his community. He also tells of his arrest and trial before an all-white jury and judge, who found him guilty despite a lack of any solid evidence and a poor investigation by racist detectives in Alabama.

The majority of the memoir focuses on his detention on death row, and his resolve and strength, including the ability to find a way to be a leader in the prison and support other people.

Book Review:

This memoir was a powerful and inspiring story. It tells the story of a man, who like many other black men in the United States, faces extreme forms of racism in the justice system, even to this day. At the same time, the inspiration comes from Hinton’s ability to stay true to his values and beliefs, stay focused on the love his mom and best friend had for him, and look for ways to be supportive to others around him, from others on death row to the staff and guards at the jail.

Hinton does a great job through anecdotes of his time on death row, and looking at his life as a whole, at expressing hope, joy, love, pain, frustration, faith, and forgiveness. Hinton does a solid job in this memoir at bringing these feelings and these values to the forefront. The reader can’t help but be moved during the story, both on an individual level for Hinton, but also be moved with anger at the larger systems that just don’t support people like Hinton.

Hinton has written some meaningful thoughts and comments that really do an exceptional job at evoking emotional responses for the reader. For example:

“Despair was a choice. Hatred was a choice. Anger was a choice. I still had choices, and that knowledge rocked me. … I could choose to give up or hang on. Hope was a choice. Faith was a choice. And more than anything else, love was a choice. Compassion was a choice.”

<Hinton’s thought process before calling out to offer verbal support to another inmate crying on death row.>

Page 115, hardcover edition, The Sun Does Shine by Anthony Ray Hinton

The only slight issue with the memoir was that at times the sentences and paragraphs felt slightly broken, and not strongly flowing together. That being said, this is a small issue.

Overall, this memoir is critical and important, for the key themes that were brought forward. From why the death penalty itself is dangerous, to how society treats people in prison and how it reflects on society, to the feelings of one individual in the corrupt and racist system, this memoir is an important comment on society, justice, and humanity itself.

Overall: 4.5 stars out of 5 stars

Book Review – Rich People Problems – Kevin Kwan — June 2, 2019

Book Review – Rich People Problems – Kevin Kwan

Book Review – Rich People Problems – Kevin Kwan

Facts:

Book: Rich People Problems
Author: Kevin Kwan
Genre: Fiction
Year of Release: 2017
Read 544-page paperback edition in April 2019

Book Description:

In the final volume of the Crazy Rich Asians trilogy, we find Nicholas Young’s beloved grandmother Su Yi on her deathbed. She is quite old, and her health now appears to be on a serious decline. The entire extended family has come to Singapore to say goodbye – and find out how her extremely large fortune will be divided up.

Nick, who has been estranged from most of his family since deciding not to break off his marriage to Rachel, comes home as well, with the goal of reconnecting with his grandma. But with betrayal, intrigue, and suspicion everywhere, it is difficult to know what may happen, and if there is time to make good their relationship.

There may also be family secrets that get revealed amongst all the attention and scandal.

Book Review:

Author Kevin Kwan has successfully delivered another humourous and thoughtful book as he closes his Crazy Rich Asians trilogy.

Kwan has done a great job focusing in on family dynamics in this third volume, and looking at the complex interplay of a large, rich family. Scenes of the various family members descending on Singapore and interacting together are written with humour but also demonstrating family fault lines, which many readers will likely be able to relate to, unlike the shear wealth of the family. Kwan’s ability to connect us to themes we do understand, while poking fun at the money of these characters, is well executed.

Kwan has also done a nice job building tension throughout the novel, both with Nick’s connection to his grandmother, and with the different extended family members and their goals for what may happen to the fortune after the grandmother’s passing. with senses and with setting. Tension points throughout are well defined and create another page-turner of a novel.

The one downside to this novel, which made it slightly less enjoyable than volumes one and two, was the increased focus on other characters, and the decreased focus on Nick and Rachel. The two main characters took a bit of a backseat in this volume. Part of the reasoning makes sense, because the more expansive plot needed to be played out, and the full series needed to be brought to conclusion. That being said, as a reader it might have bene more enjoyable to have a little bit more attention played on these two principal characters, who had been so much fun in volumes one and two.

That being said though, this was a great novel, and a great closing novel to the trilogy. Kwan has created a fun series with enjoyable characters and snappy dialogue.

Overall: 4 stars out of 5 stars

Book Review – China Rich Girlfriend – Kevin Kwan — June 1, 2019

Book Review – China Rich Girlfriend – Kevin Kwan

Book Review – China Rich Girlfriend – Kevin Kwan

Facts:

Book: China Rich Girlfriend
Author: Kevin Kwan
Genre: Fiction
Year of Release: 2015
Read 481-page paperback edition in March 2019

Book Description:

In this sequel to the bestselling hit Crazy Rich Asians, we glimpse an excited Rachel Chu, whose wedding to Nicholas Young is fast approaching. Rachel is excited to have her wedding surrounded by her family in California, even though much of Nick’s family will not be present after everything that happened in Asia.

However, a surprise bombshell occurs right before the wedding: Nick’s family brings news that they have found out the identity of Rachel’s long-lost father, who is located in mainland China.

Rachel and Nick end up with various family members in Shanghai and other areas of China, in a world of super-rich Chinese people.

Book Review:

This book was a fantastic second novel in the trilogy written by celebrated breakout author Kevin Kwan.

Kwan has done another outstanding job creating scene after scene of the Asian super-elite, which is usually over-the-top, involves lots of money, and has a lot of humour. These characters that the more grounded Nick and Rachel interact with live on a completely different level from most of us in the world, and seeing our main characters interact with this group leads to a lot of laugh out loud moments.

Kwan continues to do a great job with our sensory experience of Asia in this novel. He describes the sights, sounds, and tastes of China throughout, and the reader really does feel sucked into the exotic locations through the writing.

Kwan has again written a page-turned, as the story is fast-paced and suspenseful. The reader cares about the next steps in the plot, and the reader cares about the main characters – and some of the secondary characters too!

From the first novel, Kwan has smoothed out his writing style, and distinct thoughts and topics are in different paragraphs, creating an easier reading experience.

Overall, this second novel to the trilogy was an amusing and fun read. Well done!

Overall: 5 stars out of 5 stars

Book Review – Crazy Rich Asians – Kevin Kwan — March 24, 2019

Book Review – Crazy Rich Asians – Kevin Kwan

Book Review – Crazy Rich Asians – Kevin Kwan

Facts:

Book: Crazy Rich Asians
Author: Kevin Kwan
Genre: Fiction
Year of Release: 2013
Read 529-page paperback edition in March 2019

Book Description:

Chinese-American Rachel Chu has been dating Nicholas Young for a couple of years in New York. Nick has met Rachel’s mother and extended family in Los Angeles, but Rachel has not learned much of Nick’s family, who are all in Singapore.

When Nick invites Rachel to come with him to go to a family wedding back home, and then for a vacation through Asia, Rachel decides it will be a great way to have some fun with Nick and finally meet his family.

What she doesn’t know is that Nick comes from a super-rich family, and Nick doesn’t prepare her well for the shocking people and wealth that she is going to encounter when she arrives.

Book Review:

This book was absolutely amusing in every way. Author Kevin Kwan’s debut novel, based in part on his own childhood in Singapore, felt real in many ways, and then at times when the decadence and wealth felt totally over the top, it was written in a way that made you laugh out loud.

Kwan has done a great job writing about the culture of the Asian super wealthy, and creating characters that don’t know just how funny they are. But he has also done a great job capturing the various cultural elements of what is means to be Asian, and what is means to be Asian from different countries, including as an immigrant in the western world. And when these different groups from different places all get together, it can lead to serious tension and drama. Kwan does a good job building tension and providing serious thought in the midst of all the laughter.

Kwan has also done a great job with senses and with setting. The senses of taste are captured throughout the novel, with a variety of decadent Asian food described so nicely throughout. The desire for this reader to go to Singapore and try the food immediately shows how nicely Kwan has captured this element! The setting is also described nicely by Kwan, with scenes in Singapore, Malaysia, Hong Kong, Macau, London, and New York City all highlighting the beauty and majesty of these locales.

Kwan has some memorable scenes in this adventurous romp, including the prologue in the London hotel and the bachelor and bachelorette parties in Macau and a remote island respectively. Kwan has written a great story here, which is a true page-turner. You care about the main characters, and want to read on to find out what happens next.

The only complaint I have about the writing is that while it is almost always fun and light, perfect for a humourous beach read, at times the perspective of who is thinking changes mid-way through a paragraph, from sentence to sentence. This can sometimes lead to a bit of choppiness, where a paragraph break would have solved that issue.

Overall, this was an enjoyable and hilarious novel, with memorable characters and a great story. At the end of the novel, I was excited to read book number two: and that is always a good sign!

Overall: 4.5 stars out of 5 stars