Archive for Graphic novels

Pact Away

Here’s another one I found at the library recently. I didn’t have a lot of expectations for it one way or the other — I’d never even heard of it before, and the flavor text on the back cover was pretty vague. So here’s what I thought of This Was Our Pact by Ryan Andrews.

It starts pretty simply. It’s the annual Autumn Equinox Festival, and the whole town always sets paper lanterns loose to float down the river. No one’s ever tried to see where all those lanterns end up — floating into the sea, broken up on rocks, soaring into the sky to become stars?

But this year, a group of friends are going to take off on their bikes and follow the lanterns all the way to their final destination. And they make a solemn pact: No one turns for home, and no one looks back.

But pacts by a bunch of junior high kids aren’t the most reliable things. And it’s not long before there are only two kids left: Ben and Nathaniel — ugh, Nathaniel, the nerd no one wants to be around. Does Ben really want to go through with this? Nathaniel’s nerd unpopularity might rub off on him. But a pact is a pact, and so on they ride.

So far, so predictable for a coming-of-age story? But it’s not really a coming-of-age story. Because there are things in the woods. There’s a huge friendly bear in a warm coat and scarf who’s going to catch fish for his family. There’s an immense cliff in the middle of nowhere. There’s an old woman (with a giant dog and giant crows) who sells potions. There’s a giant cellar filled with curiosities and a cave filled with stars. And there’s more than anyone could possibly believe…

Verdict: Thumbs up. I worry I’ve already spoiled too much of this story, but I wanna make a point: this is not a normal, humdrum story about kids riding their bikes at night. This is wonderfully imaginative and magical.

I kept seeing parallels to other stories, too, while I was reading. If you’ve played computer games like “Night in the Woods” and “Kentucky Route Zero,” this has a lot of the same feel, like exploring the liminal spaces in the middle of a forest at night. Almost mundane tales, until something inexplicable shows up — and even then, it’s treated as no big deal. Tempered awe, wonder out of the corner of your eye. There are times the story almost approaches some of the wilder of the Studio Ghibli films.

Even then, the weirdness wouldn’t work without Ryan Andrews’ gorgeous, simple, evocative artwork, and the skill that goes into making Ben and Nathaniel just great characters.

Do you need some wonder and magic in your life? Pick this one up for a nighttime ride in the woods you’ll never forget.

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The Unnamed Land

This is the first book in a series that’s been out for a while, but I only had a chance to get it recently when I found out the local library had it. So let’s take a look at The Nameless City by Faith Erin Hicks.

The setting is extremely important in this book. The City is a center for trade and commerce, a gateway to the rest of the world, one of the most important locations on this world. And there are frequent wars fought over it. Different nations take control over it every few years, and they always change the City’s name to something completely different. But the people who live in the City — not the visitors, not the conquerors — they never accept the new names. To the people who live there, it’s just the Nameless City, the greatest city in the world.

So we start out meeting Kai, a boy from the Dao nation, which currently rules the City. The Dao are warriors, but Kai really doesn’t care for fighting, just for books, which leaves him alienated from the other Dao boys. Kai is here to visit his father, General Andren, who serves the ruler, the General of All Blades. Andren loves the City and encourages Kai to explore his new home.

And then there’s Rat, a girl who lives on the street. She doesn’t like the Dao — or any of the other outsiders. She challenges Kai to a race over the City’s rooftops, and when he later begs her to teach him to run, in exchange for food from the palace, there’s the beginning of a friendship between the two kids.

But there are political intrigues going on behind the scenes that hold dangers for Kai, Rat, the people they love, and the entire City. Can they save the Nameless City and help bring its people stop hating each other?

Verdict: Thumbs up. Listen, Faith Erin Hicks is just the best. Do I need to say anything more in a review? She’s just the best.

Okay, I guess I do need to say a little more. I love the heck out of all these characters. Kai and Rat are brilliant and lovable and complex and precisely the kinds of heroes you need to anchor a book and series like this.

But there’s also Kai’s father, the drill sergeant Erzi, the unstoppably badass bodyguard Mura, and the General of All Blades — not a tyrant, like we expect, but a book-loving man willing to listen to strange ideas to improve the city he runs.

Hicks’ art has always been wonderful, but I feel like she really leveled up with this book. She creates a whole, massive city, intricately detailed — and as much time as Kai and Rat spend running over the rooftops, that means she had to draw so many of the City’s tiny roof tiles!

Her characters are always charismatic and fun, and with the City as a character just as important as the humans here, she makes almost every image of the City and its people just as appealing.

It’s a downright fantastic book, and you should absolutely go pick it up.

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House of Magic

Okay, kids, let’s review another semi-recent graphic novel. This time, it’s the middle-grade comic Zatanna and the House of Secrets, written by Matthew Cody and illustrated by Yoshi Yoshitani.

So here’s Zatanna Zatara, a middle-school kid who lives in a big, grand house with her dad, a struggling but enthusiastic and eerily talented stage magician. Zatanna has the usual school troubles, mainly focusing on trying to decide whether she should stay friends with the geeky kid or abandon him for more popular kids.

And then one night, everything goes weird. Zatanna finds a letter to her father from her supposedly dead mother. Then she sneaks out to go to a dance with the popular kids, toting along her dad’s pet rabbit Pocus. And a creepy blue-skinned kid steals Pocus’ collar.

And when she makes it back home, her dad has vanished, her home has turned into an Escher house, and it’s been taken over by the evil Witch Queen, who plans to take control of all the secret magic her father has hidden inside.

And it gets weirder, too. Pocus is able to talk. The house is full of strange supernatural hazards, as well as the Witch Queen’s goblins. The blue-faced kid is the Witch Queen’s son — Klarion the Witch Boy! And Zatanna is able to cast spells by speaking backwards! But it’s hard to think of the right words to say, and how to pronounce them in reverse, especially during a crisis.

Can Zatanna figure out a way to save her father, save Pocus, save her home, and defeat the Witch Queen?

Verdict: Thumbs up. This is a fun and funny comic with some enjoyably sharp artwork and fantastic atmosphere. There’s not a lot more to say about it — which isn’t really a bad thing, right? Sometimes all you need is an excellent comic with great artwork.

We tend to assume that middle-grade graphic novels are for kids in junior high — it seems to me this one is aimed slightly younger. I think it’d be best for older elementary school kids.

So go pick it up — it’s a fun comic with a good story and seriously fantastic-looking art.

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Oracle’s Return

It feels like it’s been ages since I’ve been able to buy a brand-new graphic novel, but with the way the pandemic is affecting comics shops all over the country, it seemed like a good time to get some via mail order. The first one I got was this new young adult comic, so let’s take a closer look at The Oracle Code by Marieke Nijkamp and Manuel Preitano.

Let’s meet Barbara Gordon, a normal teenage girl in Gotham City. She’s got a passion for computer coding and puzzles, and she loves taking on hacking challenges with her friend Benjamin. But one night, she gets a little too close to a robbery, and she gets shot and paralyzed.

A few weeks later, she’s learning how to get around in a wheelchair, and she’s been enrolled at the Arkham Center for Independence, a school and rehab facility for handicapped children. And she’s not at all happy about it. She doesn’t like the headmaster or the teachers or the therapists. She doesn’t like feeling like she’s been dumped here by her father. She doesn’t like the way her friend Benjamin won’t text her anymore.

She doesn’t like the weird noises she hears about the building either.

But she makes some new friends like Yeong and Issy, who want to help Babs adjust to the facility, and Jena, who tells her weird, creepy stories, and who has a brother at Arkham named Michael.

But the faculty say Michael doesn’t exist.

And then Jena disappears, too.

Can Barbara unravel the mysteries in Arkham? Can she learn to adjust to her new situation? Can she let go of her anger? Or is she going to end up as another mysterious disappearance?

Verdict: Thumbs up. What’s kinda amazing about this is this is a DC Comics graphic novel with minimal DC Comics content. Yeah, it’s got Babs Gordon and her dad, Commissioner Jim Gordon. It’s set in Gotham City, and in an old, creepy mansion called Arkham. But Batman doesn’t show up. Neither does Robin, Nightwing, Alfred, Batwoman, the Joker, or anyone else. And it’s really fantastic. You’ve got a detective tracking down a mystery — who says you need people in spandex, too?

And also, this definitely isn’t an all-ages book. It’s probably going to be too intense for a lot of younger readers. There’s a lot of tension and suspense and a number of downright scary moments to go along with the constant undercurrent of weirdness inside Arkham.

And Barbara’s rage at being in her wheelchair is intense, too. It’s not cartoonish anger — it’s subtle, but clear. She’s a very controlled person, but you can see her fury on almost every page. You can even see it on the cover. Look at that fist. That’s a fist that wants to punch the hell out of someone. And that tension, that quivering, teeth-gritting, white-hot, infuriated tension blazes through most of the book. It’s genuinely awe-inspiring to feel that blistering anger in the words and artwork of this comic.

Absolute kudos to Nijkamp for crafting this excellent story and the remarkable characters and to Preitano for the great art, sometimes realistic, and sometimes nightmarish and jagged and cartoony. This is a powerful and frightening and glorious book. Go pick it up.

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Summer Camp Is Terrible

I think it’s about time I reviewed an actual comic book, don’t you? Let’s take a look at Be Prepared.

This middle-grade graphic novel by Vera Brosgol was published a couple years ago, but I only discovered it after finding it in our local library a couple months back. I remembered reading and enjoying another Brosgol comic — the thoroughly creepy “Anya’s Ghost” — so I was definitely interested in this one.

Our story opens with a young Vera Brosgol, almost ten years old, and a bit of an outcast with her classmates. She’s a Russian immigrant, fairly poor, she doesn’t have the cool toys everyone else has, and she never gets to go to summer camp. But that changes when Vera learns of a camp just for Russian Orthodox kids. Her mother agrees to send Vera and her little brother Phil to the camp, and the grand adventures get underway!

But nope, turns out camp is absolutely awful in every possible way. Vera’s tentmates are a couple of older girls who treat her like crap. There are no proper toilets, just bug-filled latrines. There’s no candy allowed — but her mean-girl roommates have some and won’t share. Vera doesn’t know Russian as fluently as the other campers, which is a problem in a camp where everyone is required to speak Russian.

She even manages to bribe a few people into being her friends with gifts of her art and some candy she gets from her mother’s visit — but even that falls to pieces and makes her more unpopular than ever. And because kids can be cruel, she even helps humiliate other campers, and feels worse about it than anyone else.

She does have some triumphs. She makes a friend or two. She has a few great encounters with nature. She ends up enjoying at least some of her camping trip.

But for the most part — ugh, camping is terrible.

Verdict: Thumbs up, believe it or not! Sure, Vera spends most of the story miserable, but it’s still a wonderfully told story.

Brosgol’s artwork, cartooning skills, and storytelling are first-rate, and the way she blends comedy with drama really helps pull the narrative along. Yes, you occasionally have to go put the book down and think about flowers because OH GOD, VERA STEPPED IN IT AGAIN, SHE’S GONNA BE MISERABLE but you also come back over and over, partly because she does get great moments where she’s having fun, and partly because Brosgol manages to make it funny even when Vera is hating life.

And somewhat off-topic, but in both of the graphic novels I’ve read of Brosgol’s, the lead character is a Russian-born preteen or teenager who is lonely and kinda sad, and she makes friends, but the friends are actually awful people who cause her more suffering. So Ms. Brosgol, I really do hope your life is happier now, ’cause I love reading your books.

Anyway — “Be Prepared” by Vera Brosgol. Go pick it up. Because summer camp is legitimately terrible, but this comic is legitimately great.

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History Under the Mask


Truth: Red, White & Black

I’ve had a mind to review this one for ages, and African American History Month seems like a great time to do it. This was a seven-issue series published by Marvel back in 2003. It was written by the late Robert Morales and illustrated by Kyle Baker. It made a lot of racist douchegoblins really mad back in the day, so I figure it’s certainly worth reading.

Our setup here is that, after Steve Rogers becomes Captain America and Professor Erskine, the secretive creator of the Super-Soldier formula, is killed, the military is desperate to recreate the formula. And since they have almost no idea what was in the formula, they have to experiment with a lot of different concoctions, and they have to experiment on people they don’t give a damn about. So a bunch of black soldiers get recruited into the program, injected with variations of the formula, and die by the score.

“Why, that’s ridiculous! Black people would never be experimented on like that! All lives matter!”

To which, all you really have to say is Tuskegee. Which went on for 40 years, primarily for the sake of plain ol’ meanness.

Anyway, of the 300 men inducted into the new Super-Soldier program, only six survive, and are gifted with increased strength, stamina — and often, significant disfiguring mutations. They’re sent on dangerous missions against the Nazis, and over time, a combination of battlefield casualties and deaths from the unstable Super-Soldier formulas whittles their number down to just one — Isaiah Bradley. Frustrated by the military’s racist treatment and the inconsequential and foolish missions he’s been sent on, Bradley steals a spare Captain America uniform and takes the fight to the Nazis by himself — and he gets captured.

The story doesn’t take place entirely in the past — in the present day, Steve Rogers learns about the alternate Super-Soldier program for the first time and begins his own investigation of what happened to Isaiah Bradley. While he shuts down a number of racists who’d profited from exploiting black soldiers decades ago, he also discovers that Bradley’s ultimate legacy was perhaps even more amazing than his wartime career.

Verdict: Thumbs up. It’s a great story, with outstanding action, characterization, empathy, and unpredictability. There are several points where you think the story is going to go one way, but it completely surprises you and goes the other.

It’s an intensely emotional book, too — not merely because the lead characters have strong emotions, but because the emotions are so realistic and raw. Early in the Super-Soldier testing process, the families of all the inductees are told that they’ve been killed — and many other black soldiers are actually murdered to cover up the crimes — and the toll on the families is covered extensively. The anguish that comes from these unexpected deaths is rendered amazingly well, and their pain is felt by the reader, too. It’s not just the writing here — Kyle Baker’s art really brings it home. Sometimes the sorrow is visible and unmistakable, and sometimes it’s hidden below the surface, but it all feels real.

Baker’s art is often very cartoony, which is initially a shock when you start reading. It’s very far from the Marvel standard, but for the most part, it’s something you get used to quickly. Baker is a cartoonist’s cartoonist, and it’s a thrill to see him work. His vision here is intensely important, too — you can tell the characters mean a lot to him, and he works hard to make everyone unique and interesting. His work is, like I said before, emotionally resonant, from the faces to the eyes to the body language.

The comic is obviously fiction, but Morales’ appendix at the end of the book is definitely worth reading. He details some of his research and outlines how some of the scenes in the story were inspired. For history buffs, it’s a good read and includes suggestions for other books worth checking out.

It’s a sad comic in a lot of ways. But it’s got its unique glories, too, in moments both crashing and quiet. It’s also not at all easy to find — you can’t get it from Amazon without paying $50 or more. But I found my copy a couple years ago in one of the local comic shops for a normal price, so do some digging around. You should also be able to find it digitally. If you can find it, you’ll be very glad you got the opportunity to read it, so go pick it up.

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Good Golly, Miss Molly!


Molly Danger, Book One

I genuinely thought I’d reviewed this ages ago, and was completely surprised to discover I’d let it fall by the wayside. Time to remedy that problem before it’s too late.

This comic was a labor of love for writer/artist Jamal Igle, and he only got to do it originally because of a very successful Kickstarter campaign. Our main character is, of course, Molly Danger, a super-strong, super-tough alien superhero in Coopersville, New York. She’s also immortal — she looks like she’s a ten-year-old human girl, but she’s actually at least 30 years old.

She’s also painfully lonely. The military organization in charge of Molly refuses to let her have contact with children her own age, and she get to meet very few civilians. They’re apparently terrified that she’ll accidentally harm a civilian — which seems a bit nuts for a superhero who’s been active for about 20-30 years without killing scads of people…

Anyway, Molly gets to fight a couple supervillains — the super-smart brain-in-a-jar Medulla and his giant robot and the superspeedster Slipscott. She also gets help from Austin Briggs, a pilot for the cops and later for her own organization — he’s a thrill-seeker who’s willing to take on risks to help Molly get the bad guys — and ultimately, to help her connect with real people.

Verdict: Thumbs up. The art is fantastic, the action and dialogue are a thrill, and the humor is top-notch.

The characters are pretty grand. Molly is just fantastic — mostly rambunctious 10-year-old, though her more advanced age pops up here and there when she demonstrates that she’s been trying to figure out what motivates the supervillains who plague her. She knows if she could figure out what they want, she’d have a chance to reform them. But for the most part, she’s all about the action and taking risks — even more so when she has a chance to get to meet and hang out with kids her own age.

If I’ve got a complaint, it’s that there haven’t been more of these books. Molly’s shown up in a small number of guest appearances in other Action Lab comics, and a new Kickstarter funded a new ongoing series — but dang, it’s been a long wait…

If you love superhero comics — and especially if you’ve got daughters who love superhero comics and never get to see anyone like them getting to kick some tail — then you’re probably going to enjoy this one. Go pick it up.

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Holiday Gift Bag: Cleopatra in Space

It’s Christmas Week, so back we go into the Holiday Gift Bag so you can find great gifts for the comics fan in your life. Today, let’s check out Cleopatra in Space!


Some of y’all may recognize Mike Maihack’s name and art style — he’s the artist behind the wonderful “Batgirl and Supergirl” mini-comics. Well, he also created this astoundingly cool series of graphic novels. So far, there are two — “Target Practice” and “The Thief and the Sword” — but there’s a third one coming up in 2016.

So we start out with Cleopatra, teenaged princess, soon-to-be ruler of all Egypt — and a deeply bored kid who feels stifled by demands that she be a proper princess. She likes to go playing and exploring with a commoner friend, and one day, they accidentally uncover an unknown tomb, which ends up teleporting Cleo into the distant future. There, she discovers a high-tech Egypt-inspired utopia, where talking cats hold many positions of authority — and where she is foretold in prophecy as the savior of their society!

So on one hand — awesome! The future! Talking cats! But on the other hand — not awesome! She still has to go to school! Ugh, school. But on the other, other hand (We can do that because the future probably has three-handed aliens), part of her schoolwork involves combat training — and amazingly, Cleo is really, really good at combat. Which is good, because there are some bad people in the universe, and a lot of them want to kill her.

Oh, and one more bad thing — there’s no way to send Cleo back to her home time. So how can she get back to her friends and family? How is she going to become Queen of Egypt like history says she’ll be?


Verdict: Thumbs up. It’s an incredibly fun story, with great art, characters, action, and more.

If you’re familiar with Haihack’s work, you’ll be pleased to hear that his art is just as charming and wonderful as ever. The main characters are wonderfully emotionally satisfying as art — and the background characters, scenery, and architecture are also really fun to look at. The design of the techno-Egyptian future is outstanding.

Character interaction and conflict are really great, too. Cleo is our main character, but as the Chosen One, a lot of mundane things often come really easy for her, and everyone’s expectations for her are really high — and her more normal, non-Chosen friends just kinda want her to hang out and have fun instead of being the uber-popular badass. This ends up being a lot more fun than you’d expect.

It’s also pretty cool seeing everyone take orders and learn lessons from cats — the cats are generally a lot more intelligent than humans and they hold most of the teaching positions. It’s pretty fun to watch Cleo sassing the cats who hold authority over her.

The action is entirely fantastic. We get just about every kind of action scene — shootouts, chases, melee, mass battles, you name it — and they’re all exciting and fun and amazingly kinetic.

These books will be really popular with anyone, young or old, who enjoys all-ages comics — they’ll probably be extra-fun for girls who crave their own comic book action heroes. Go pickem up!

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Holiday Gift Bag: Blacksad

It’s time for us to take another dive into our Holiday Gift Bag for great comics gift ideas for your family and friends. Today, let’s take a look at Blacksad.


So what do you get when you have two Spanish comics creators, Juan Diaz Canales and Juanjo Guarnido, creating a giant comic book for a French publisher about American detective stories — and anthropomorphic animals? You get something that’s way cooler than you were expecting.

Our main character is John Blacksad, a black cat and private investigator. He lives in a version of 1950s America where everyone is a semi-cartoonish anthropomorphic animal. He grew up poor, he’s pretty easy-going, but you don’t want to make him mad, because he knows a lot about dishing out violence.

What kinda stuff happens to Blacksad? Film noir stuff happens to Blacksad.

In our first story, his former lover is murdered by persons unknown, and he dedicates himself to digging through the muck of the underworld — and their big-money financiers — to learn the truth.

In the second story, he’s called upon to investigate a kidnapping involving a bunch of white supremacists — white fur supremacists, actually — and their leader is a gigantic polar bear who’s also the police chief.

In the third story, Blacksad meets an old friend, his favorite professor from college, and must help him and his associates when they’re accused of being Communists — but being a private eye isn’t going to help much when the FBI and powerful politicians get on his tail.

In amongst all this are shootings, beatings, sex, double-crosses, alcohol, cigarettes, jokes, terrors, sorrows, and a whole lot more.

Verdict: Thumbs up. These are wonderfully told stories, as hard-boiled as you can get, and lushly, astonishingly beautifully illustrated.

The art style is cartoony — Guarnido, the artist, used to work at Disney — but the content is a lot more adult. There’s sex and nudity, and people in these stories don’t bounce back from violence — there are a lot of deaths. In other words, even with the funny animal style, you won’t want to get this for your younger kids.

The stories are for adults — and even the animal characters help emphasize this. There’s nothing that quite shows how silly racism is when the white supremacist group is obsessed with the color of their own fur. Blacksad gets on the bad side of both the Arctic Pride group and an opposing gang of black-furred animals — because he’s got just a little white fur on his muzzle.

But even with characters who are cats and dogs and bears and foxes and rhinos and turtles and owls and gorillas and roosters and lizards and deer and giraffes — there are still plenty of times you forget you’re reading a comic full of animals and start thinking of all of them as just as human as you are. And that’s one of the signs of a hell of a great story.

Got someone on your shopping list who loves hard-boiled detective stories or beautifully-illustrated comics? They’re going to love this one. Go pick it up.

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Holiday Gift Bag: Relish

Time for us to get back into our pre-holiday gift recommendations, so let’s take a look at Relish: My Life in the Kitchen by Lucy Knisley.


I am, I should say, an amazingly bad cook. I have enormous trouble putting a meal together that doesn’t involve either pouring milk on cereal or sticking a package in a microwave. For that reason alone, I was hesitant to get this book — it’s got a reputation as being a comic made for foodies and chefs, so I was concerned there’d not be anything in it for me. Obviously, I was wrong.

What we’ve got here is a memoir comic — Knisley tells a number of stories from her life. She introduces us to her New York City childhood, growing up among food lovers, chefs, restaurant critics, and people who loved to eat, prepare, and share food.

We follow her as she and her mother move to the country, slowly getting used to rural life and rural cooking. We tag along as she takes trips to Mexico, Japan, and Italy, as she discovers the food cravings she shares with her mother, as we explore her secret love of junk food, her quest to create the perfect croissant, and the worst meal she ever ate.

And after almost every chapter, we get a recipe.

Marinated lamb, pesto, chocolate chip cookies, huevos rancheros, sushi rolls, sangria, shepherd’s pie, and much, much more. All of them wonderfully illustrated to help make the entire process easier and cooler.

Verdict: Thumbs up. The writing and art are both lots of fun. Knisley’s stories are grandly human and often hilarious. Her childhood trip to Mexico with an old friend is spotlighted with — aside from all the glorious details of the food they got to eat — her friend’s acquisition of a colossal stash of pornographic magazines, which he carted all over in his overstuffed backpack, convinced he’d purchased the greatest treasure of his life. Her attempts to make her own croissants are constant but hilarious failures, and her recipe at the end of the chapter recommends that readers just get the canned croissants at the grocery store. And during her teenaged trip to Italy with her foodie father, she rebels by… eating at McDonald’s.

And her skill at writing about all the glories of food — good food, gourmet food, junk food, comfort food, and every other kind of food — is where this comic is really just absolutely fantastic. I’m a terrible cook, and I have a terribly unsophisticated palate — but her writing, art, and recipes make me wish I were more of a foodie and that I was capable of navigating my way around a kitchen.

If you’re looking for a gift for someone who loves cooking and loves good food, you can bet they’re going to enjoy this. Go pick it up.

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