Friday, August 30, 2013

When Book Openings Work (for Me)

Just the other day, I was thinking about the different pleasures that reading affords us, and I realized that one of the most crucial aspects of my reading experience is my initial impression of a book. Those very first pages. So I decided that I would blog about why book openings can be such a make-or-break situation for me as a reader. To do that, I would discuss some of the openings that did work for me.

Warning: I will be talking about the prologue/first chapter of five different books (Willow, The Scorpio Races, Divergent, The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer, and Bitterblue). I don't consider this discussion a spoiler since these are beginnings, and they are all less than eight pages long in 300+ page books. However, if that bothers you, you might want to exit from this page.

Although these books have openings that work for me, that doesn't necessarily mean that I think they're the best thing since sliced pie. I don't think that any book is perfect; even the books that define me as a reader have their flaws, yet undoubtedly all of the books in this post have been added to my sometimes-favorites shelf at one point or another. They have such great openings that I'm hard pressed not to like the rest of the book.

Willow by Julia Hoban

I'm not usually a fan of third person present narratives, but this book has convinced me that when done well, they are so effective. Willow is trying to deal with the death of her parents and the guilt she feels for having caused it (see first line of summary). How does she cope? By cutting. The first line of this book is "Maybe it's just a scratch." Willow sees a cut on her classmate's arm; she wonders if the girl is cutting too. The girl turns to whisper to her friends, and Willow starts to think it's about her. Suddenly, she needs to leave the room, and BAM! Here is one of the most powerful scenes of the entire book:

*TRIGGER WARNING*

"The bathroom smells like smoke. There's no one around. Good. The door to one of the stalls swings free. Willow kicks it shut behind her and lowers the toilet seat before sitting down.

She rummages through her bag. Getting frantic because she can't find what she so desperately needs. Did she forget to get more supplies? Finally, just when she's given up hope, when she's about to start howling like a dog, her hand closes on smooth metal. Her fingers test the sharpness of the edge. Perfect. It's a fresh blade.

The girls' voices rustle in her head. Their clamoring pushes out all rational thought. She rolls up her sleeve.

The bite of the blade kills the noise. It wipes out the memory of those staring faces. Willow looks at her arm, at the life springing from her. Tiny pinpricks of red that blossom into giant peonies.

Peonies like the ones my mother used to plant.

Willow shuts her eyes, drinking in the quiet. Her breath deepens with each dip of the razor. Silence reigns, not like when she tripped, but perfect and pure."

  • I love the way this opening depicts: 
    • the drugged, trippy feeling of an addict.
    • the echoes of her dead mother and the almost thoughtless way that observation on her mother's plant comes. (Plus symbolism and all).
    • the feelings of judgment from her classmates and the unerring self-hatred  
    • the need to cut in the middle of the day, while at school, and especially how it's portrayed: the howling like a dog - the pain and grief so intense that they almost turn her into an animal
    • the clear vision of this chapter - it doesn't matter that the school itself isn't described. I filled in that detail myself and what it would've been like had I rushed out of the room. A girl sitting on a toilet in a smoke-filled bathroom, potentially leaning against the wall as blood oozes from her skin -- you can't tell me that's not a haunting image.

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The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater

Let me first say that I was having trouble choosing between the openings for The Scorpio Races, The Raven Boys, and The Dreams Thieves (prologue here). Maggie Stiefvater has some of the best openings that I've ever read. They're dreamy and twisty in a way that I think few others have ever achieved. And here's the mastery of The Scorpio Races:

"It is the first day of November and so, today, someone will die.

Even under the brightest sun, the frigid autumn sea is all the colors of the night: dark blue and black and brown. I watch the ever-changing patterns in the sand as it's pummeled by countless hooves.

They run the horses on the beach, a pale road between the black water and the chalk cliffs. It is never safe, but it's never so dangerous as today, race day.

This time of year, I live and breathe the beach. My cheeks feel raw with the wind throwing sand against them. My thighs sting from the friction of the saddle. My arms ache from holding up two thousand pounds of horse. I have forgotten what it is like to be warm and what a full night's sleep feels like and what my name sounds like spoken instead of shouted across yards of sand.

I am so, so alive."

  • After that line, you learn that Sean's father is one of the participants in this dangerous race. This opening already hints at what happens to his dad (it's never so dangerous as today). And Sean, at the end, pg. 5: "I don't think often on my father's body strung out through the reddening surf. Instead, I remember him as he was before the race: afraid. / I won't make the same mistake."
  • Why I love this opening:
    • As I said before, it's dreamy and twisting. In a sense, it's misleading. You know up front that someone will die, and yet there's Sean talking about how he feels alive on the beach.
    • Great character development? Definitely the promise of it. Sean feels most alive in a place where his father dies, and thinks his father died because he was afraid. That is a seriously messed up but original start to a novel.
    • The sense of the beach, the race, and horse-riding. Cold wind, saddles, the colors of the sea, the pounding of hooves, the weight of a horse, the stress of planning this giant match. So many details are recreated in such a fresh way - a way that allows me, someone who's not a huge fan of cliffs or beaches and has never ridden a horse, to picture what's happening.
    • The actual manifestation of his father's death. You think those images are fresh and real and gritty? Wait till you read what happens to his dad.
    • It takes only five pages for me to envision one of the most defining moments of the protagonist's life, and the danger of the race (the plot) to come. What eerie foreshadowing and mixing of beauty and danger, just like the horses themselves.

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Divergent by Veronica Roth

I've already talked about my love for the beginning of this book here and here, but I'll repeat myself. This book starts off so quietly. A scene with a mirror done in a fresh way, and a scene at school filled with quiet longing for the life that Beatrice (thinks she) wants.

"There is one mirror in my house. It is behind a sliding window in the hallway upstairs. Our faction allows me to stand in front of it on the second day of every third month, the day my mother cuts my hair."

  • Even before we learn that Beatrice is from the selfless faction, we get hints of what that faction might be like:  one mirror, behind a sliding door (as if hidden for the rest of year? Perhaps to discourage wantonness?), a very specific time for when our heroine is allowed to look at it--and only the time when it is necessary. With three sentences, Veronica Roth has already established a strict world/faction that does not seem to tolerate vanity. They are little details, but they're concrete things we know about Abnegation. Roth sets a repressive tone that's appropriate for the start of a dystopian novel. There's also a quiet contemplation - the distance in Beatrice's voice as she lists these facts - that, perhaps, is reflective of the observations Roth will later make on human nature.
  • Tris has a quiet, peaceful, lovely moment with her family, and yet she wants to leave them. The promise of character growth and depth (this contradiction screams: why?).
  • The differences between the various factions at Tris's school and the differences between Tris and her brother and her mother and even her father. The details in the writing, the slightest bits that you might miss if you're not paying attention (the clothes, the faction tension, etc.).
  • The desire to be noticed at school, to be the one watched (the Dauntless jumping off the train) rather than the one who is bullied or ignored (the start of something quiet, but soon to be empowering)
  • There's also the Hunger Games/Lottery-esque Choosing Ceremony and Aptitute Tests looming in the near future, but truthfully that's not what really keeps me reading. The above works well enough. Even if you're not a fan of the various factions--that society would separate into these different virtues--the opening has a certain power that you can't ignore.

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The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer by Michelle Hodkin


This post is now getting a bit long, so I'll direct you elsewhere for the Mara Dyer prologue page and first chapter. This opening is a little more conventional than the others. The voice of a typical YA protagonist is more evident - i.e. those lines about Claire and Rachel's relationship and how Mara isn't Claire's greatest fan - and yet this opening twists everything that you think you know in a way that's definitely not standard YA lit. From the first page, you're told that Mara's an unreliable narrator: Mara is not her real name, and she's got a lawyer. There are multiple layers to what she's writing - "a seventeen-year-old who likes Death Cab for Cutie" may be responsible for the murders, but that hint may not be synonymous with the "B student with a body count." You've got to untangle whether those two facts go together, and if they don't, well, who represents which person? Those are a bunch of questions, but the questions are nothing in comparison to the absolutely thrilling atmosphere created by that handwritten, blocked-out note. And you know, I've read a lot of stories with Ouija boards, but the first chapter for this book sets creepy to another level. It's really the promise of creepiness in this paranormal tale, and the unusual ways it delves into those hints of horror that grab your attention from the start.

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Bitterblue by Kristin Cashore

Don't read anything about Bitterblue if you haven't read Graceling yet. That might be a spoiler, and I'm not going to include the text here for that very reason. But if you are interested in Bitterblue, read this prologue. It is probably the most haunting pieces of writing that I have ever read from Kristin Cashore. Suffice it to say, I don't think that I've ever read such haunting words on the power of words, the abuse of power, sexual and domestic abuse, and a mother's love. And the wonderful way in which we are shown Leck's power - the manifestation of his evil acts and the effect of his words, how others have learned to cope with them and how time gets confused because of him. The hint of what Bitterblue will have to overcome as queen - the legacy that Leck has left even in her own mind. Every bit of that opening is haunting, quiet, disturbing. Textured. Already drawing me into the story.

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For me, it's not always about the action, or even about raising questions. It's not that I immediately care what happens to these characters, though the feelings in these scenes are quite poignant. Rather it's that the mood, the tone, the atmosphere of each of these openings convinces me that I'm in for a good ride. It's about the quiet, the subtle manipulation that worms its way into my mind. This is especially why I love Maggie Stiefvater's openings. She has blogged many times about how she writes - how she wants readers to feel the story she's telling. These books are all from different genres - magical realism, contemporary, high fantasy, dystopian, paranormal romance - and yet they share this haunting quality that I innately feel. A funny, upbeat, original voice doesn't even come close to the sense of wonder that these openings give me. (Of course, there's the wonderfully wry humor in the opening of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone that also conveys a sense of wonder, but hey, Harry Potter gets enough attention. And makes nearly every good list of mine--I just won't always tell you that.)

What makes a book opening work for you? What are some of your favorites? Do they match with your favorite books?

21 comments:

  1. It's a lovely collection of great beginnings. The only thing that this list lacks is The Book Thief. There is nothing like seeing "YOU ARE GOING TO DIE" on the first page of a book.


    I also love the one for The Scorpio Races. All the danger presented into that first chapter.

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  2. Book openings can be make-or-break for me too. I've actually picked up and put down about five different books this week because I just couldn't get into them. It doesn't help that I can be very impatient at times... But I agree with your choices! I haven't read Willow (or even heard of it - I will have to check that out!), but The Scorpio Races prologue and that first creepy chapter of The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer are two of my favourite openings. I also agree with Shanelle and love the opening of The Book Thief. Stacey Jay's prologue in Of Beast and Beauty is another good one.

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  3. I really liked the beginning of The Scorpio Races, especially that first line. The beginning really showcases Stiefvater's writing abilities. I did also like the beginning of Mara Dyer though I didn't like the entire book in the end unfortunately. Book openings don't hold too much weight for me, I'll still continue to read a book regardless of how good or bad the opening was. What eventually will make me decide if I like it or not is the story mostly.

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  4. Biting through the first chapter of Mara Dyer was hard for me. The prologue was good, but I didn't really connect with this book as much as I would have hoped. Lucky for me, Evolution tied my heart with a huge rope, put it in a box and threw it away since I am still ever-in-love with that one and I still don't know what is true and what's not. I think Mara Dyer #1 is either a hit or miss and it depends largely on whether you like the beginning or not. I liked it, but I didn't love it.

    As for Divergent, Veronica said in an interview that you can't really write a book where you start with instant world building talk or a look back to your life. No. You have to get the reader intrigued by going into details in a roundabout way and jump into action right away, too. Otherwise, it may very well happen, that the person reading your story may not be intrigued and is likely to not finish it. I think she got the beginning right even if some people don't actually like the story. I do think it makes you intrigued. Why are the mirrors covered? Who says so? Is it like this in every home? yada yada yada. It bring up questions that you immediately want answers to. I agree, the fact that she doesn't want to stay and practically hates this faction makes us question why does she feel that way. Plus, her mom and brother are so awesome and I enjoyed their characters already in the first chapter.

    I haven't read The Scorpio Races so I can't really say anything about that, but I did love the beginning of The Raven Boys:) I read your discussion though and I'm thoroughly intrigued by Sean and Maggie's writing is magical so I think it's a must for me;)

    There are two other favorite beginnings of mine that came to me when I thought about it for a second. Firstly, The Sea of Tranquility. When you finally read it, you'll meet Nastya. It's a dual POV, but it's really more of Nastya's story than Josh's and her closed off personality is so intriguing and painful that you just can't put the book down until you know what happened to her. What could possibly cause this much pain for a person to shut down completely. I feel my eyes getting wet, because this story is so special to me. (btw, even if you end up disliking it, it's no big deal. I'm a big girl and I know how you love your fantasy, beginnings, characters, writing--this book may not work for you at all, but I'm keeping my fingers crossed it will.) I'll quote you something that I included in my teaser tuesday post and review last year:

    "Thankfully it’s a short ride, because loud sounds make me edgy. It’s not the sound itself that bothers me; it’s just the fact that it’s loud. The loud sounds make it impossible to hear the soft ones and the soft sounds are the ones you have to be afraid of. I can handle it now because we’re in a car, and I usually feel safe in cars. Outside is a different story. I never feel safe outside."

    --this is what REALLY stood out to me and I had to read more and more and more until the next morning, I was out of this world sleepy, but I understood. I had cried my eyes out. I had a runny nose and puffy eyes, but I was so happy that I read this book and it gave me so much to think about.

    And the other favorite beginning of mine you ask? Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. They were the last people you’d expect to be involved in anything strange or mysterious, because they just didn’t hold with such nonsense. :-) <3

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  5. Sarah (Escaping Through Books)August 30, 2013 at 5:24 PM

    I generally hate prologues because I find them confusing. I noticed (and was annoyed by) the trend in books of having prologues that take an excerpt from a scene at the end of the story, put it in italics, and have it serve as the prologue. This was the style that the Twilight books used, and I feel like this is a lazy tactic and does not intrigue me at all like it is meant to do.


    But I love great, memorable first lines of books. Divergent's beginning definitely hooked me right away. So did Tahereh Mafi's Shatter Me: "I've been locked up for 264 days." Sometimes I like to browse books by reading the first paragraphs. One book that had an awesome opening line, but that I haven't had the chance to read yet, is SYLO by D.J. MacHale: "It was the perfect night for a football game. And for death."

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  6. Ahh. *hides in a corner* *whispers* I haven't read the Book Thief yet. That does sound like a great beginning, an especially hooking first line o.O.

    Literally I wrote notes in the margins of my Scorpio Races copy because I love that beginning so much and wish that I could write like that.

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  7. Impatience is our enemy, but good book beginnings are always key, and I hope those books at least improve later. Personally I've bought books based on the first page. My teacher once said she read the first paragraph of HP and knew that she would love the book, so she bought it. So yeah... Willow. Willow is kind of controversial - if you do check it out, look at the GR reviews first, I'd say. Heh, I need to read the Book Thief. And there you are again!! Referring to Of Beast and Beauty and its awesomeness and more and more reasons for me to get it o.O. (Alas, I was able to resist the Amazon page when I was commenting on your review awhile back - keeping mentioning the book and I don't know if I will be able to again ;)).

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  8. Really? I definitely DNF a book if the opening (maybe not always just the first 8 pages but still) doesn't work for me. Heh, I believe you already know about my experience with Stormdancer o.O. Of course, there's always the disappointment of a really great start and then having the story not turn out to be what you wanted, which it sounds like Mara Dyer was for you, and what my current read is for me.

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  9. Heh, another commenter below you said that she liked the beginning for Mara Dyer but not the rest of the book, so I don't know if the opening is a universally good test :D. Evolution was stunning, very stunning. I still liked Mara more though (I think I just have a thing for the first in series; everything is still fresh, new, mysterious, exciting).


    Fascinating. You wouldn't happen to know where you read that interview? I love reading or listening to her writing advice. Like with Maggie Stiefvater, Roth is very good with that - always rings true. And I agree with you. It's a very inventive and fresh way of including a mirror scene.

    YES YES YES - Siiri, read The Scorpio Races! I still like The Raven Boys better, but The Scorpio Races is SO great, and if you like her writing, well, it's definitely a must! :)

    Hehehe. I will get around to reading the Sea of Tranquility. Nastya sounds like a great protagonist, and you're already making me very curious about her and her closed off personality. I'm keeping my fingers crossed too :).

    Very interesting quote. It flows really well and as you already said, brings up a lot of questions. Man, sometimes I wish that I were as emotional a reader as you are. I wish that I could feel the story as much as you did. Hee, Harry Potter's the best :).

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  10. There was definitely a trend towards the excerpt prologues because of Twilight, but admittedly I haven't seen as many of those lately. I'm still not always the biggest fan of prologues, but I am very, very glad that they're not like those italics ones anymore.


    Yes. Shatter Me is another great, very haunting opening that starts off quietly, and not with a lot of action. Me too. I once DNFed a review book after the first page, actually, because I just couldn't get into the writing and knew that I would not like the rest of the book. That sounds harsh but I tried five different times and all with the same result *shrug*. Nice line for SYLO - I hope you get the chance to read the book soon :).

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  11. Ah, I love awesome book openings. I generally give a book a chapter to prove it's a good book for me, but if it I'm sucked in right away, that's just more points in that book's favor. I think the opening page of The Book Thief is by far my all-time favorite opening, but I also love the opening for Harry Potter and Divergent as well.

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  12. I have read all of the books in this list, and realized that I didn't remember the beginnings for all of them. But, after reading their prologues again and your comments, all of the feelings I had for the books came right back.


    I really love the prologue of Mara Dyer, especially because it lets us know right away that our narrator is an unreliable one.


    Maggie Stiefvater writes with a style that I cannot get enough of. The Scorpio Races has beautiful language and one of the best book beginnings ever.


    I discussed a similar topic on my blog a few days ago, but I only focused on which kind of first sentence is the most intriguing. From the feedback I got, most people liked a blunt-style approach better than an action-packed scene specifically written to grab readers' attention.


    Loved your discussion post!

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  13. This is a great discussion post Christina, openings are a really big deal to me too, as I usually want to be taken in by a book straight away and usually if I am, then this is the biggest indicator ever that I will enjoy a book. I thoroughly enjoyed Divergent too, I had totally forgot how the book opened, so thank you for refreshing my memory. I haven't had much luck with the Stiefvater books I have picked up but everyone I know has loved Scorpio Races and The Raven Boys and these are books which I still need to read. Also how great is the opening to Willow? Thank you for putting some interesting sounding books on my radar!

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  14. Agreed. A chapter is a good estimate. If I'm not into that chapter, then it's about ~50 pages to DNF. I really need to read the Book Thief - you're probably the third or fourth person who has now mentioned that book and its spectacular opening. :)

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  15. Haha, I definitely had to refer back to those books for the specifics of the openings but yesss, after doing just that and writing the post, all the feels came back.


    Maggie Stiefvater is one of my auto-buy authors too. Such beautiful writing. After writing that piece on Scorpio Races, I was seriously considering going back to reread TSR.


    What do you mean by blunt-style? As what happens here or? Looking forward to visiting your blog & checking out that discussion :).

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  16. Oh nooo! Yeah. I think Maggie Stiefvater's work has improved a lot, so if you didn't have success with her earlier work, you might have success with Scorpio Races or Raven Boys :). Thank you for stopping by, Jasprit. Hope you enjoy the books!

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  17. Oh sorry, realized that sounded confusing. The blunt-style approach was what I discussed on my post.
    I would love to hear your thoughts on that discussion. :D

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  18. God, Christina I love this post! I'm actually kicking myself that I wasn't clever enough to write a post on favorite opening's in books because now I'm pretty sure you have said everything I would have said (except you probably would have said it so much better:) that it's pointless to do anything about it now. :)

    Ok, I too, am a huge fan of a book's opening. I haven't read Willow or Bitterblue yet (and thanks for reminding me that I need to read the latter because it's at my library and I am a big fan of Graceling and Fire) but I love your examples of Divergent, Mara Dyer (even though I'm not a fan of that book, I still enjoyed reading your thoughts on it and it's opening) and ESPECIALLY The Scorpio Races.

    The opening line of The Scorpio Races is, hands down, my very favorite opening line, EVER. And I've given this some thought, mind you. It is PERFECTION. It is mysterious, and magical, and dark, and kind of horrible, and so perfectly sets up the tone and feel of that book. I read one of Maggie Stiefvater's blog posts about the importance of a book's opening line. Have you ever read that one? AMAZING. Here's the link, even if you have it's worth a second read: http://maggiestiefvater.com/blog/how-to-turn-a-novel-into-a-textbook/



    That woman is just a genius.


    Anyway, if a book's opening line intrigues me, puzzles me, or just strikes me as BEAUTIFUL in some way, it enhances my experience of reading the book tenfold. I really think it is THAT important.


    Such a great post! Love it. :)

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  19. Heather, you write BEAUTIFUL discussion posts. I would LOVE to read a post from you about openings if you chose to write one :).


    Yay!!! I hope you get to read Bitterblue soon. It's my least fave of the series, but it's Cashore, so you know she totally rocks anyway ;). It's funny - I handed my best friend Daughter of Smoke and Bone, Mara Dyer, Scorpio Races, and some others I can't remember now, and after reading the opening pages, she'd said that she thought Mara was the best written. It astonished me then and still now, thinking about it. I do love Mara's opening but don't know if I'd agree.


    I KNOW RIGHT? Such a great opening line. Though I do like the one for Raven Boys too. Yes!!! I read that blog post and have proof to show for it. My copy of Scorpio Races... Er... I wrote in it like I would with an academic novel, trying to study it like a textbook, like she'd advised. Her writing advice is awesome. Did you see the post on knowing vs. feeling a story?


    :) thank you, Heather!

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  20. The Scorpio Races! Gawd, I love that book. It was my favorite Stiefvater book up until The Dream Thieves. :) That opening was spectacular...even more so when you hear the audiobook narrator read it in his accent. :) It's stunning and you just get a sense of the atmosphere surrounding the race. Probably one of the best openings I've read in a YA novel. But all of hers are pretty great. (Can you tell I'm a huge Maggie fan?)

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  21. You mean the audiobook narrator of the Scorpio Races? I listened to that preview you'd linked to and the accents were so strong that I couldn't do it. I was thinking that I ought to give them another chance though. I love her opening and can imagine how awesome and atmospheric it'd sound being narrated. Ha, I'm a huge Maggie fan too so you won't get any judgment/complaint from me ;).

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