Small Press, Big Stories: Paladin Unbound

I am excited to be a part of #SmallPressBigStories, conceived of and led by the awesome Runalong the Shelves! Small Press, Big Stories exists to celebrate indie presses and the awesome titles they publish.

Paladin Unbound has become one of my favorite fantasy books. I’ve already reread it once, and plan to read it again before too long. It’s an amazing book to fall into. Here’s my original review, although I think I failed to fully describe my love of the book:

When people ask for books I’d recommend to a fantasy newbie, ones that represent all the wonderful things the genre has to offer, I have a few go-tos. The Hobbit, obviously, and the Dragonlance Chronicles (really, is anyone surprised?), and, more recently, The Ventifact Colossus. Now I’m adding Paladin Unbound to that list, because this book would make anyone fall in love with fantasy.

The story starts with the main character, Umhra, just wanting to find work for himself and his band of mercenaries. When they are hired to find out what has happened to several missing people, they are thrust into a situation that is much darker and more dangerous than Umhra expected.

I was sucked in from page one, which begins at an ending. The ending of a war between gods, no less. The war ends with an asterisk, the sort that always leads to trouble down the road. What I loved about the opening is that it started huge, before moving on to the main storyline which is much more personal. It showcased a fascinating history, one that we continue to get snippets of throughout the book. I love when the history of a world or its belief systems is shared naturally like that, avoiding the dreaded info dump. I have to admit, though, I would actually read an entire book just dedicated to the history and mythology of the world of Evelium, I loved it so much. It was creative and well thought out.

As much as I enjoyed the world building, though, where Paladin Unbound shines is in its characters. There’s an excellent cast who build off each other in the best of ways. The interactions felt natural and allowed each character to grow and develop brilliantly. This was, in some ways, the typical adventuring group sometimes found in ttrpg’s – and that’s a great thing! It works very well, after all. There was Naivara the druid, Laudin the ranger, a mage named Nicholas (I have no idea why, but his name made me smile), Shadow the rogue, Balris the healer, Talus the fighter, and Gromley the warrior priest. While I loved all of them, I must say that I had a soft spot for Shadow.

Then there’s our main character, Umhra. Oh, how I loved Umhra! Being half-orc, he was distrusted, looked down on, or treated poorly quite a lot. He could have been bitter or angry and I wouldn’t have blamed him. But instead, he was an optimist, always looking for the best in every situation. He was, at his core, a good, honorable character. He was not your boring “lawful good”, however. He was incredibly nuanced and I loved reading about him. I haven’t been a huge fan of paladins in the past, but Umhra has me planning to make a paladin for my next D&D campaign.

This book would be perfect for fantasy newbies, ttrpg players, or readers who have traveled the length and breadth of many fantasy worlds and are looking for new adventures to go on. It left me excited and wanting more. Paladin Unbound is fantasy at its finest.

*Paladin Unbound is a Literary Wanderlust title

To Purchase:

Paladin Unbound

Small Press, Big Stories: The Constable Inspector Lunaria Adventures

I am excited to be a part of #SmallPressBigStories, conceived of and led by the awesome Runalong the Shelves! Small Press, Big Stories exists to celebrate indie presses, those wonderful publishers that bring us so many amazing books.

Today, I want to talk a little bit about the Constable Inspector Lunaria Adventures by Geoff Habiger and Coy Kissee. There are three books in the series so far and it’s a series that will appeal vastly to fans of urban fantasy as well as readers who enjoy adventure books. There is always something going on, usually complicated and nearly always dangerous.

In book one, Wrath of the Fury Blade, Constable Inspector Reva Lunaria gets a new case- and a new partner. Their relationship (sometimes colleagues, sometimes friends, always well-written) is what elevates this book above many other urban fantasies. Complicated characters will draw me into a book every time, and the world-building kept me invested. The world is detailed and ambitious, pulsing and alive.

Wrath of the Fury Blade is a fabulous mash-up of fantasy and police procedural. This was a new combination for me, but it works incredibly well.

The characters were interesting, and seeing their relationship develop and grow was a ton of fun. They played off each other well, each enabling the character development in the other. I enjoyed Reva in particular, even though (maybe because?) she came across as prickly sometimes.

The series hypes up, with each book building on the last. The situations Reva and her partner Ansee Carya find themselves in run the gambit of creativity, with some truly awesome monsters showing up to impress and creep out readers.

The Constable Inspector Lunaria Adventures continue to entertain and surprise. They’re a thrill ride that somehow also squeezes in a vast world and excellent character development. I highly suggest picking the series up. Go ahead and grab all three books: you’ll want to continue the adventure as soon as you finish the first book.

This series is published by Artemesia Publishing. Purchase link:

Wrath of the Fury Blade

Empire of Exiles by Erin M. Evans

The empire moved on. 

Now, when Quill, an apprentice scribe, arrives in the capital city, he believes he’s on a simple errand for another pompous noble: fetch ancient artifacts from the magical Imperial Archives. He’s always found his apprenticeship to a lawman to be dull work. But these aren’t just any artifacts — these are the instruments of revolution, the banners under which the Duke lead his coup. 

Just as the artifacts are unearthed, the city is shaken by a brutal murder that seems to have been caused by a weapon not seen since the days of rebellion. With Quill being the main witness to the murder, and no one in power believing his story, he must join the Archivists — a young mage, a seasoned archivist, and a disillusioned detective — to solve the truth of the attack. And what they uncover will be the key to saving the empire – or destroying it again. (Taken from Amazon

Thank you to Orbit Books and Angela Man for providing me with this book in exchange for my honest opinion. Empire of Exiles is available now.

When an author combines extraordinary worldbuilding with a strong understanding of human nature, something magical happens. Empire of Exiles is spectacular, a feast for those who crave complex characters and sinister plots. Author Erin M. Evans has created the sort of book that will be treasured for years to come. The description of the book, while making me desperate to read it, doesn’t begin to show the full scope of what waits inside its pages.

The book opens with an errand. Quill comes to the Archives with a request: he needs some artifacts. A simple job, and nothing spectacular. But, then there’s a grisly murder with Quill involved for the most upsetting of reasons, and each theory leads to more questions. The twists and turns were brilliant, weaving a surprising story with much larger implications than anyone realizes.

It became less of a “whodunnit” and more of a question of how bad the fallout would be. The danger grew even bigger with each page, threatening to swallow everyone in it. By the end of the book, my house could have been on fire and I would have been annoyed at the interruption to my reading.

The plot wove between the past and the present, showing that history does not exist in a vacuum. Everything past had a connection to the present. I loved that, despite everything being connected in some way, the world was nonetheless huge. The book focused on a small cast of characters but did not exclude the rest of the world or make the story small in any way.

And what a cast! I can’t pick a favorite. I loved Quill’s tenacity and his willingness to admit that he was way outside his depth. Then there was Yinni, devout and oh-so-lost, completely unaware that everyone feels alone sometimes. Her character growth was astounding. I loved prickly Tunuk, who made me smile. And Amadea, full of secrets and questions herself, trying to hide her insecurities by being the pillar of strength for everyone else. As incredible as the world was and as fascinating as the storyline was, it was the characters that made me fall in love.

Well, that and the way the magic system perfectly described what my anxiety disorder is like. I was in tears at parts and the self-deceptive litany of “I’m fine” that could be found throughout Empire of Exiles felt so incredibly familiar. I loved the way the magic worked, how it threatened to swallow the character when they “spiraled”. I read that the author’s magic system was created from her wondering what a magic system that felt like an anxiety disorder would be like. I can say with confidence that she nailed it. I was in awe at the way she put words to the indescribable.

The history of the world was fantastic, with hints of more to come. I loved the Changelings and the layers to their mystery. I’m a fan of changelings in books anyway, and these were so creatively done. The questions of morality that were raised with their inclusion added an intriguing facet.

I’m desperate to continue the story and will be waiting impatiently for book two. Empire of Exiles is truly incredible, captivating, and thought-provoking. I loved every word.

Small Press, Big Stories: Dragons of Different Tail: 17 Unusual Dragon Tales

Runalong the Shelves has created the coolest event: a month-long series celebrating small/indie publishing. I have read so many great indie titles and am excited to be taking part in this series. Today, I want to discuss a great collection of dragon-related stories, Dragons of a Different Tail: 17 Unusual Dragon Tales.

Dragons of a Different Tail was one of the most creative and entertaining anthologies I’ve had the pleasure of reading. The sheer variety of tails-ahem, tales- in this book is astonishing. There’s generally a story or two that doesn’t connect with me in anthologies, but that wasn’t the case here. Between the subject matter and some extremely talented authors, this is a win from beginning to end.

While I enjoyed every story in Dragons of a Different Tail, there were a few that stood out to me. Chasing the Dragon by Sean Gibson was delightful and the perfect way to start the book. It follows Celare and Stanley, two detectives in Victorian era London. Their job entails slightly more than what most people picture when thinking of Victorian era P.I.’s. They find their into an opium den, where they discover something way out of the ordinary.

I loved the banter between Stanley and Celare! Celare was delightfully snarky with the sort of attitude that is a blast to read. The ending was brilliant (although I’m not sure I can forgive author Sean Gibson for such a cliffhanger!), but my favorite part of the tale was the nature of the beast. It’s not something I find often in fantasy, and I loved it. I won’t say more, for fear of giving spoilers, but it was fantastic.

Spirit of the Dragon by J.C. Mastro rocked (quite literally). It is about the DragonFraggen, a metal band in search for inspiration for a new song. Fortunately for the reader, but unfortunately for them, they find it in the form of an old, mysterious text. Things go a little wonky and the next thing DragonFraggen knows, their live concert might end up with someone dead.

I loved how unique this story was! Aside from the band having a bit of a Spinal Tap feel (word to the wise: never be the drummer in a band), their earnestness made me laugh. The dragon was killer, pun intended, and the entire tale left a big smile on my face.

The other story that most stood out to me was Wei Ling and the Water Dragon by Jeff Burns. Wei Ling decides to track down the thieves that stole her village’s dragon idol and steal it back. It doesn’t go quite as simply planned, but she ends up with the most unlikely of friends.

Wei Ling and the Water Dragon is action-packed and quick moving. Wei Ling herself was a ball of sass and the dragon in this tale was entertainingly smug. Both Wei Ling and the Dragon were well-written. They developed beautifully together, with a surprising amount of character in such a short amount of time.

Dragons of a Different Tail: 17 Unusual Dragon Tales is a great anthology, one with something new and unexpected on each page. This is an excellent book for readers who love dragons and people who love fantasy in general. Pick this one up!

Dragons of Different Tail would be an excellent Christmas gift for fantasy lovers (or anyone who wants something new and different).

*This is a Cabbit Crossing Publishing title

Amazon

Books that Caught My 1st Grader’s Eye

Well, as much as I want it to slow down, time keeps passing. My youngest is now a first grader and a precocious one at that. He enjoys a mix of picture and chapter books, with the occasional comic sneaking in as well. Here are a few that he loves and my thoughts on them.

Lives of the Scientists: Experiments, Explosions (and What the Neighbors Thought) by Kathleen Krull and Kathyrn Hewitt

The “Lives of” books are actually a series, one that my youngest loves so much that he begged for them at Christmas last year. Some of them are tough to find, but they’re worth the hunt. He loves the pictures and the history (if you’ve read my blog for a while, you know he’s a little history buff. You should see the walls of the house. They’re so covered with “history people” coloring pages, it looks a little like a murder board on a police procedural). I like the delivery: it doesn’t talk down to kids, but it doesn’t overload them either.

Bunnicula by James Howe

I’ve waited YEARS to share this one with my youngest! I have loved it since I was young, and both my kids also fell in love with the silly dog, paranoid cat, and (vampire?) rabbit. My son was on the edge of his seat and we split the reading time, which was awesome. He learned several new words and was proud of his ability to read a “big kid chapter book”. We’re continuing the series and are currently on book three.

Dog Man by Dav Pilkey

My youngest loves the Dog Man books. I mean, he absolutely loves them. He knows when the next one is set to be released (March 28, 2023) and has to bring at least three books each time we go anywhere in the car. What do I think of them? To be honest, I’m not a big fan. The grammar is often purposefully wrong, which is difficult when I’m trying to teach him proper grammar (homeschool mom here). He loves them, though, and that’s what matters. You can be sure he’ll get a brand new copy of the latest Dog Man come March.

He also really enjoys Cat Kid Comic Club by the same author.

Bailey’s Story: A Dog’s Purpose Puppy Tale by W. Bruce Cameron

My youngest loves dogs. Unfortunately, our landlord won’t let us own one, so my son lives the dog-owner life through books. He read this on his own and I’m so proud: it’s meant for grades 4-6, so he’s reading above his age level. and happily sounding out new words!

Nate the Great Talks Turkey by Marjorie Weinman Sharmat and Mitchell Sharmat

These books bring me back to my own childhood. They weren’t favorites of mine, but they were always floating around the house. The same seems to be true now that I’m an adult. My youngest has read this a few times over the past month and is asking for a trip to the library to grab more.

What about you, parents and teachers? What do your first graders enjoy reading?

Shadow Shinjuku by Ryu Takeshi

The streets of Tokyo are different at night. There is darkness behind the glitter and the neon lights, and people who prefer to stay in the shadows, to dwell in the underworld – whores, gangsters, the homeless, the lost. People like Sato. He’s part of this world, he always has been, but a feeling of change is lingering in the heavy air of the bustling city. A feeling brought to life by fateful encounters of solitary souls.

Shadow Shinjuku is a dark, yet magical journey into the depths of Tokyo’s nightlife and the depths of the human soul. Ryu Takeshi’s first novel is both a noir crime thriller and urban fantasy. It’s a unique and mesmerizing blend of the imagery of Japanese animation and film, the colors and details of street photography, and the mystical lyricism of soulful music. But above everything, it is a gripping story that doesn’t let go. (Taken from Amazon)

Sometimes I read a book that gives me pause, one that is thought-provoking and so unique that my brain takes a while to come to conclusions. Shadow Shinjuku is such a book. It is immersive and detailed, full of dark corners and complex ideas. 

I really can’t remember reading another book that even mentions the Yakuza, so everything was new to me. I went into this book with eyes wide with curiosity, and my curiosity was rewarded with beautiful descriptions and fascinating locations. 

Shadow Shinjuku is ostensibly an urban fantasy with a splash of noir, set in the unexplored corners of Tokyo. Sato went from living on the streets to killing for the Yakuza family (who rescued him from said streets) but ends up questioning the direction his life has taken, leading to an introspective book that is more inner musing than anything else. That isn’t a bad thing, but it was unexpected. I had to make an “expectation shift”, tossing aside everything I erroneously assumed this book to be. 

I have to admit that I didn’t like Sato. His unflinching openness about things I don’t normally read in books was a little off-putting, although it added a layer of grittiness to the book and made him a more complex character. He also failed at the most basic of human emotions, so there’s that. Sato was deeply flawed, which made him interesting. I am one of those people who don’t need to like a character or relate to them to enjoy a book, so the fact that I didn’t like Sato wasn’t a deal-breaker for me. 

There was a bit of a supernatural aspect to the book, although at the end of the day it really wasn’t the part of the book that stood out to me. While the magical bits didn’t detract from the book, I would almost say that they aren’t necessary. 

A good chunk of Shadow Shinjuku was meandering, taking its time and focusing on an inner journey, rather than on action. The build-up is not rushed, so if you are the sort of person who wants a quick beginning, this book is not for you. This is a book unlike others I’ve read and, while my thoughts on it defy a “like” or “dislike” categorization, I like to think this is what the author was going for. 

Gritty yet beautiful, complicated but with common themes of loyalty and what we do for those we consider family, Shadow Shinjuku was a study in contradictions. Pick this up if you like introspective characters, and living, pulsing settings. 

*Review originally published on Before We Go Blog

Everyone in My Family Has Killed Someone by Benjamin Stevenson

Everyone in my family has killed someone. Some of us, the high achievers, have killed more than once. I’m not trying to be dramatic, but it is the truth. Some of us are good, others are bad, and some just unfortunate.
I’m Ernest Cunningham. Call me Ern or Ernie. I wish I’d killed whoever decided our family reunion should be at a ski resort, but it’s a little more complicated than that.
Have I killed someone? Yes. I have.
Who was it?
Let’s get started.
EVERYONE IN MY FAMILY HAS KILLED SOMEONE
My brother
My stepsister
My wife
My father
My mother
My sister-in-law
My uncle
My stepfather
My aunt
Me (Taken from Amazon)

Thank you to Netgalley for providing me with this book in exchange for my honest opinion. Everyone in My Family Has Killed Someone will be available on January 17th.

How can you see a title like this and not be immediately intrigued? The book blurb hinted at intrigue and some wacky secrets waiting to be revealed, and the book more than delivered. The story starts with a murder and the body count piles up as the pages turn. The twists had twists and the narration was a delight.

Ernie is on his way to the most awkward family reunion he’s ever attended and that’s saying something. He prefers to avoid them, but this one is different: his brother, just released from prison, will be there. And that’s the awkward part. Ernie is the one who cemented his brother’s conviction. Ernie expects a long, uncomfortable weekend. He just didn’t expect the dead body. As far as family drama goes, the drama in this book is a doozy.

Ernie’s narration guides the reader through a morass of secrets and mysterious happenings. He isn’t an unreliable narrator (as he mentions multiple times), but he manipulates the information he gives, leaving you guessing. Okay, maybe he is a bit unreliable. He was a fantastic character. Oh- and he happens to be a writer. Can you guess what he writes? Books on how to write mysteries! He talks to the readers, even guiding us through the hows and whats of mystery writing. I loved when he admitted that something happening was stereotypical of a murder mystery (he had a lot to say about phone batteries). He was fully aware that he wasn’t any less guilty of deception than any of the other characters in the book, he just felt a little bit worse about it.

His tone was wry and more than a little snarky. And the chapter titles cracked me up! There was one chapter that consisted solely of an “I don’t want to talk about that”. Genius.

A book like this relies on strong characters to keep it interesting. If the characters are boring, then the mystery becomes stagnant. Ernie’s family members were all shifty and dishonest, with their own agendas. It was awesome. They were more than just caricatures, instead being fully developed, shady people. Relationships and alliances shifted throughout, adding an extra layer to this already complex story.

Some of the twists were overly convoluted, but the majority landed and added fogginess and fun. I did call the final “whodunnit” (I have a knack for that in books, for some reason), but I missed a million other things and I had the motive way wrong. Going back through, the clues were all there. Mysteries like that are the best.

Everyone in My Family Has Killed Someone is smart, bloody, and darkly funny. This is my first book by Benjamin Stevenson, but I guarantee it won’t be my last. I loved it.

A Practical Guide to Conquering the World by KJ Parker

 This is the true story of Aemilius Felix Boioannes the younger, the intended and unintended consequences of his life, the bad stuff he did on purpose, and the good stuff that happened in spite of him.

It is, in other words, the tale of a war to end all wars, and the man responsible. (Taken from Amazon)

Thank you to Orbit Books and Angela Man for providing me with this book in exchange for my honest opinion. A Practical Guide to Conquering the World is available now.

K.J. Parker once again knocks it out of the park with this third installment in the Siege trilogy. Felix’s accidental machinations (accidentally, on purpose?) and his wry observations make for an incredibly clever and vastly entertaining fantasy.

Felix is a busy guy. He’s an ambassador/translator to the Echmen, who becomes the last Robur, as everyone else in his country is completely wiped out. In between trying to survive, he reads a crap-ton of books (hiding in a library when everyone wants you dead isn’t a horrible idea, to be honest, and is a good bit better than the alternative), escapes with a Hus princess that he saved from execution due to a grammatical error, sort-of starts a new religion, and…what am I forgetting? Oh, yes. Conquers the world.

In case you couldn’t tell, this isn’t your typical fantasy and Felix isn’t your typical main character. First of all, he’s not a warrior by any stretch of the imagination. Secondly, he’s a linguist who knows several languages (he is fluent in twelve and can do okay in nine others). Thirdly, he’s not necessarily trustworthy, which lends itself to the question: does any of what happens actually occur in the way he describes? It’s a fantastic puzzle to mull over and one which added another delicious layer to this unique concoction.

The Hus princess is a fantastic addition to the story. She is a foul-mouthed bundle of teenage pissiness. Watching Felix translate her insult-laden words into more socially acceptable ones (it’s best to be diplomatic when trying to avoid death) never got old. That she also becomes a religious symbol makes it doubly funny. While it’s not necessarily a comedic fantasy, life can be hilarious at times, and this book had me laughing out loud at parts.

One thing I really appreciate about author K.J. Parker is the amount of time he spends on the different cultures in his world. There are multiple religions and no less than six creation stories! He’s also an excellent study of human nature, making A Practical Guide to Conquering the World fascinating and surprisingly relatable.

If you are looking for a stabby sort of fantasy, this book will disappoint you. But if you want something a wee bit different, check this out. A Practical Guide to Conquering the World is a massively enjoyable foray into the mind of an unreliable but undoubtedly smart man who may have more planned than he chooses to admit.

The Hummingbird’s Tear by C.M. Kerley

Witty and Sarcastic Bookclub

In the high towers of Castle Kraner the King has chosen to hide away, leaving his kingdom undefended, open to attack from men, monsters and magic users.His loyal son Prince Orren, despairing of his father’s wilful ignorance, is doing all he can to gather the men and women he believes can help him avert the war before it starts, to save his land before it needs saving. Brennan and his young brother Calem find themselves drawn to Kraner; as their innate powers begin to manifest and they are woven into the mad schemes of rulers and invaders they must decide what to believe, who to trust, and how far they’re willing to go to fight an enemy they can’t see. (Taken from Amazon)

Thank you to the author for providing me with this book in exchange for my honest opinion. The Hummingbird’s Tear is available for purchase now.

Prophecies, meddling…

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We Sold Our Souls by Grady Hendrix

Only a girl with a guitar can save us all.

Every morning, Kris Pulaski wakes up in hell. In the 1990s she was lead guitarist of Dürt Würk, a heavy-metal band on the brink of breakout success until lead singer Terry Hunt embarked on a solo career and rocketed to stardom, leaving his bandmates to rot in obscurity.

Now Kris works as night manager of a Best Western; she’s tired, broke, and unhappy. Then one day everything changes—a shocking act of violence turns her life upside down, and she begins to suspect that Terry sabotaged more than just the band. Kris hits the road, hoping to reunite with Dürt Würk and confront the man who ruined her life. Her journey will take her from the Pennsylvania rust belt to a celebrity rehab center to a satanic music festival. 

A spine-tingling horror novel, We Sold Our Souls is an epic journey into the heart of a conspiracy-crazed, pill-popping, paranoid country that seems to have lost its very soul. (taken from Amazon)

Metal will steal your soul. Or save it. It’s kind of a toss-up for Kris, ex-lead guitarist of Dürt Würk (the name made me laugh). Years after the band broke up dramatically, Kris is working at a hotel and wondering what to do with her life. A billboard announcing the final tour of The Blind King, the man who ruined everything, galvanizes her and starts a mission to confront the evil at the heart of every broken dream. Or something.

This is my second Hendrix book, the first being My Best Friend’s Exorcism. As with My Best Friend’s Exorcism, there was a lot I enjoyed and a few things that just didn’t work for me. The good far outweighed the bad, making this a fun spooky read.

Kris was an awesome main character. She vacillated between feeling sorry for herself and just taking the crap hand life dealt her and doing what she could with it. She was extremely relatable and also made a good window into the bizarre goings-on of the book. And We Sold Our Souls was chock-full of bizarre.

The other characters dipped in and out of the book. As is the nature of horror, not many of them lasted long. There were a few that I wish had bigger roles, just because they were so much fun. My favorite was JD, drummer and conspiracy theorist. He cracked me up. He also helped get the book back on track after it seemed to veer off course a little bit.

The unexpected doses of humor made We Sold Our Souls as much fun as spooky. In fact, despite being a horror, it never really veered into scary territory. It reminded me more of movies like Scream and Halloween. It was over-the-top, nutty, gory fun, with a smattering of humor and social commentary mixed in for good measure.

There were lyrics “from” Dürt Würk scattered throughout the book, which helped illustrate whatever was happening at the time. This was a clever way to help set the tone. I also couldn’t help picturing the lyrics being screamed at a crowd of metal fans, so kudos to Hendrix for adding that extra layer to the picture he painted.

The story meandered a bit about 3/4 of the way through but right when I started to lose interest, it came roaring back to end things with a crescendo. The ending made sense in relation to the rest of the book, and the folktale status one of the characters achieved at the end was a fantastic end to their story arc.

The book wasn’t perfect. Some parts were stretched out for much longer than they needed to be, while other things felt rushed. The social commentary, while right on the money (in my opinion), got a little heavy-handed at times. There were a few things that were never really explained-but so what? We Sold Our Souls was devilishly entertaining, and at the end of the day, that’s what I was hoping for.

Rock on.