Once Upon a Rose by Laura Florand

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Once Upon a RoseConfession time.  While none of my family or friends would ever describe me as a kikay girl, I do in fact have one almost hobby (almost, because the majority of my excess funds goes towards books) that would qualify me for the description. And the subject of that almost hobby features prominently in Laura Florand’s latest book (and the start of a new series, yay!), Once Upon a Rose.

What’s this almost hobby, you say? Here are some clues.  Matthieu Rosier, the sweetest, dream-boatiest (does that even qualify as an adjective?) Laura Florand hero I’ve had the pleasure of meeting so far, is the hereditary heir to an honest-to-goodness valley of flowers. Said valley of flowers is located in Provence, in the South of France, where Matthieu’s family has been growing and harvesting roses for the past 400 years. Still lost? Let’s get back to some real-world examples. Luxury brand Chanel has a partnership with a family very similar to Matthieu’s, to produce the raw materials for one of Chanel’s most iconic products.

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Black Dog by Rachel Neumeier

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Black Dog by Rachel Neumier has been in my TBR mountain for quite a while already.  I tend to be picky about my urban fantasies and paranormal romances, because the trend towards vampires and shapeshifters in YA that was spawned by those Twilight books has produced a lot of sub-par and derivative writing. And honestly, there are only so many variations on a theme that can be done before everything literally starts to bleed together in most readers’ collective consciousnesses.

So what differentiates an excellent urban fantasy/paranormal from a derivative one? Two words. WORLD BUILDING. And I’m happy to say that Black Dog has it in spades. The titular black dogs in the book aren’t your run-of-the-mill moon-bound werewolves, something that Rachel Neumeier reveals bit by intriguing bit without resorting to the dreaded infodumping tactic.

And so we are presented with a world where ordinary folks like you and me have been living our lives blissfully unaware of the escalating supernatural war being waged around us. When the magic that has been clouding people’s perceptions breaks (and yes, the pun on the ever wonderful Ilona Andrews’ Magic Breaks is intentional because I can’t wait to get started on that book next), humanity is caught in the crossfire between warring factions who are unable to control the increasing numbers of rogue black dogs. Dimilioc in Vermont is the last bastion of power and hope to stem the rising tide of hysteria, murder and insanity that has gripped the population. Here, the Black Wolves (as they prefer to be called) of Dimilioc exercise iron control over their shadowy other halves and maintain an uneasy symbiotic relationship with the people of the nearby towns.

It is to Dimilioc that Natividad Toland, her twin brother Miguel, and her older brother Alejandro flee after both parents are murdered by their enemies. Natividad is a Pure, one who is able to wield magic for protection and call upon the Aplacando, which enables Black Dogs to better control their shadow selves. Dimilioc is sworn to protect the Pure, but elsewhere, they are hunted down because of the power they hold over Black Dogs.

This brings me to the next point that differentiates Black Dog from the rest. CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT. It’s tempting in urban fantasies/paranormals to simply let the fantastic elements overpower the characters themselves. Rachel Neumeier uses dialog to great effect here, by giving each character a very distinct voice. For example, Ezekiel Korte, Dimilioc’s young executioner is described this way:

He had drawn danger and disdain around himself as closely as that leather jacket, but what she thought was that she had never in her life seen anyone who seemed more alone.

Ezekiel’s dialog is peppered with lines like this one:

“I could tear out your throat right now,” Ezekiel said softly. “Could you stop me?”

So Ezekiel, as the resident cool guy/potential love interest (he did stake his “claim” on Natividad rather early in the story, whether Natividad agrees to this or not is still up for debate) manages to establish mastery over lesser/weaker characters with just a few well placed words and a confidence that belies his relative youth. Ezekiel is powerful, and his attitude shows that he knows it. But his dialog also shows that he is a lone wolf by nature, and that he doesn’t have the political savvy or air of command that Greyson Lanning, Master of Dimilioc, possesses.

Speaking of Greyson Lanning… My perspective must have changed as I’ve grown older. I used to be all for (still am, to an extent) cool, aloof loner types a la Ezekiel. Must be a direct result of the number of anime I watched in high school and college. But now I find myself scratching my head as to whether I should be Team Ezekiel or Team Greyson. And yes, it’s kind of squicky to think about Natividad X Greyson (him being just old enough to be her father and all), but these are Black Dogs we’re talking about, and human mores don’t apply to them. Greyson is strong, and often depicted as larger than life, but we clearly see that he is trying to do his best for Dimilioc. His decisions often lead him into direct collision courses with Natividad, who feels that her duty as a Pure is to help protect the townspeople, and with Alejandro, who feels that his first duty is to protect Natividad and Miguel.

And Miguel…  As the lone non-magical, purely human character in our main cast, it would be so easy for him to blend into the woodwork. But he doesn’t, because his dialog reveals him to be a strong personality in his own right, often using logic and reason to win over his siblings and the Dimilioc lobos to his side of an argument. Besides, anyone who delivers snarky dialog like this immediately gets my vote:

“It’s not my fault I got the pizza gene and you got the tamale gene. Can we order pizza if we put jalapenos on it?”

Tamales and jalapenos. So very Mexican. Which makes sense since our three siblings are part Mexican after all. The number of Spanish phrases interspersed throughout the book made me wish that Spanish was still used here in the Philippines so I wouldn’t need to hope that there would be a translation in the following sentence. I should also say that I dislike cultural appropriation in fiction, and that I dislike plugging in diverse characters/settings into a book just for the sake of making the book “different” even worse. Luckily, neither is present in Black Dog. The Toland siblings are very much Mexican in their upbringing, as evidenced by their strong sense of family ties; it’s quite plainly a part of who they are instead of appearing to be a cultural stereotype adopted by an author too lazy to do proper characterization in his/her work. Once it was established that their mother was Mexican, none of the Dimilioc wolves ever remarked on it again, or even attempted to exoticize (is that even a word?) the siblings in any manner.

Most summaries for this book depict Natividad as the main character, and she is to a degree, as all the major events in the book happen with her as the focus. The way Black Dog is set up though, it is as much Alejandro’s story as it is hers. Bearing in mind that although the seeds of possible romances are there (Natividad X Ezekiel, Natividad X Greyson, Alejandro X Kezia), this first book seems to be more about having these two characters growing into their powers and discovering themselves in the process. Which is a positive for me, as it strikes a good balance between being interesting enough to attract a male readership and having enough swoon factor to keep the female audiences happy. *coughmoreEzekielpleasecough* This book DESERVES a wider readership than the one it would get had it been mistakenly marketed as “yet another YA werewolf paranormal romance”.

Overall, Black Dog is a strong foray into urban fantasy for Rachel Neumeier, whose previous works are more in the epic fantasy scale. While the book concludes nicely enough, there are enough loose threads/questions left hanging in the air (Exactly how did the villain of this piece, Von Hausel, acquire his powers? What will happen when Natividad turns sixteen and has to choose a mate from among the surviving Dimilioc wolves? Will we ever get an origin story for how Black Dogs came to be? And hold on, did she just mention Chinese DRAGONS?) to keep me interested in a second installment. Plus, I want to see more action coming from the Miguel front, so hopefully the next book will deliver this.

Five Things I love About Laura Florand’s Books

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So, welcome to my blog relaunch. Guess I was finally inspired to revive this blog after I heard that my friend Chachic  of Chachic’s Book Nook was doing a blog event for Laura Florand’s books called Amour Et Florand.

1. The many moods of Paris, the perfect playground for

Given that the entire Amour et Chocolat series is primarily set in Paris, it would be tempting for an author like Laura Florand to resort to generic travel guide descriptions to set up the location. I’ve never been to Paris myself, so I have no basis for comparison, but I love the way Laura Florand uses simile and metaphor to literally change my perception of Paris to match how the hero/heroine sees it (Summer’s and Magalie’s views of Paris stand out in particular for their contrast). Hopeful, proud, secretive, looming, menacing, calm and restful, elegant and ageless, bursting with joie de vivre – her descriptions of Paris definitely inspired me to plan that trip to Paris SOON. I’d even go during winter (coming from a tropical country, winter is definitely not my favorite season), just to be able to experience all those scenic and contemplative walks while I’m all bundled up against the cold. Way to channel my inner Laura Florand heroine? Except, I’d need the next item on the list to complete the experience:

 

2. Men with laser focus and secret marshmallow hearts

Pretty much defines ALL of Laura Florand’s heroes. In fact, at one point in The Chocolate Rose Jolie actually does call Gabriel a marshmallow. Another thing most of them (with the exception of Philippe I think?) have in common is their drive to rise above their not-so-ideal childhoods en le banlieue.  Such similar backgrounds, yet the way each man handled his insecurities provided enough variety that they didn’t turn out like cardboard copies of one another. I honestly can’t choose a favorite among them!

 

3. And the women who break through that iron focus and melt them

Most contemporary romances these days rely on instant sexual attraction to set up the plot. Laura Florand’s books are no exception. But I like how she writes heroines whose emotional hang-ups (every romance needs that to set up the conflicts, right?) are the perfect foil for the heroes, resulting in this delicious emotional push-and-pull tug-of-war that builds and builds to that moment when either our hero, or our heroine, or both at the same time, snap. Misunderstandings that drive wedges between our two protagonists abound in a Laura Florand book, sometimes to the point where I want to go inside the book and whack some sense into them.  Considering that some of her heroines are women most of us plebeians would love to hate (I mean, come on, not one but THREE billionaire heiresses. And with hearts of gold to boot?), it’s a testament to good character development that I still find myself rooting for them.

 

4. Via a delicious seduction through dessert/chocolate

Well, maybe the seduction through chocolate aspect was toned down a bit in The Chocolate Temptation compared to the earlier books (but it was still there in that utterly breathtaking final scene). I love how our heroes literally put their hearts into the desserts/chocolates they create for the heroines, as the only way they know to express their feelings for the heroine. I love how our heroines are always so clueless that that’s what the hero is doing, until close to the end of the book when everything finally CLICKS and the big misunderstanding our hero and heroine were both laboring under is finally resolved.

So, emotional hang-ups, the resulting conflicts, that place where our protagonists hit that rock bottom emotional low, and then the eventual resolution of conflict leading to the HEA. Pretty standard romance novel tropes, right? But in a Laura Florand book, all this happens within this luscious bubble of chocolate ganache-filled passionate hero/heroine encounters. It’s the journey with the hero and heroine that makes these books stand out, in much the same way that the textures and flavors of different fillings  burst out of that dark chocolate square or macaron that you’ve just bitten into.

 

5. And last but not the least…

Burping cellphones. Seriously the BEST description of an incoming text message I have ever read. I live for those moments when I see that description come up on a page in a Laura Florand book. She should use it more often to satisfy my craving. But I guess the novelty would wear off too soon if not used sparingly. So I’ll just console myself with boxes and boxes of chocolate and macarons while reading instead.

 

The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh

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Common thistle represents misantrophy.

And with that same word, we also sum up Victoria Jones, our book’s heroine. Victoria is a product of the foster care system. The book opens at a crucial point in her young life, as she prepares to move out of her last group home, having reached the age of emancipation at eighteen. Meredith, the social worker who has been in charge of her case throughout countless failed foster family placements, drives her to San Francisco and leaves her at the Gathering House, a transitional home for girls like herself. She has three months rent-free in which to find herself a job, after which it’s either she pay up or pack up.

But Victoria doesn’t even have a high school diploma, nor does she possess the motivation to go out in search of gainful employment. In fact, she comes across as singularly apathetic to the precariousness of her situation. When the inevitable happens at the end of three months, Victoria becomes a homeless vagrant, living in a nearby park and scrounging scraps off cafe tables for food. It is only through sheer luck that she eventually finds a job working for Renata, the owner of Bloom, the neighborhood flower shop. For while Victoria’s lack of a high school education should have consigned her to a life of waiting tables or bagging groceries, she does, in fact, know her flowers. How she came about this knowledge is revealed soon enough when Victoria meets Grant, one of Renata’s suppliers at the flower market who also inexplicably turns out to be a ghost from Victoria’s past.

Victoria’s story unfolds via short alternating chapters that switch between a young ten year old Victoria and her present-day self. I think that this was a good strategy on the author’s part, as the back story is revealed slowly in conjunction with what Victoria is currently experiencing in the present. It helps justify Victoria’s actions, especially those that would seem otherwise strange of unfathomable to someone who has not undergone her experiences as a foster child. Because the sad fact is that Victoria is not a loveable character. Throughout the book she showed flashes of self-centeredness and a strong defeatist streak that made it very difficult for me to connect with her as a person, were it not for those alternating chapters from her past that acted on me in almost the same way that an antihistamine would counteract an allergy.

It’s a great measure of the author’s skill in character development that I was still rooting for Victoria despite this. However, so much attention was paid to making her a more well-rounded character that some of the secondary characters suffered as a result. I feel that Grant in particular was short-changed, since at times he comes across almost as a cardboard cutout love interest inserted there to give Victoria someone to angst over, rather than a person whose own past actually intersected Victoria’s at crucial moments, and whose present is becoming increasingly tangled with hers. Since Grant and his family are integral players in Victoria’s past, it would have been nice to have been given more glimpses inside his head. Grant loves Victoria with an unwavering love, but given how selfish and immature Victoria is, particularly at the beginning, it’s very hard for me to understand why.

As if the title isn’t clue enough, the Victorian “Language of Flowers”  figures prominently into the story. Victoria uses flowers to convey her feelings and sentiments the way others would use words or facial expressions. It’s safer for her this way, because by our time the language of flowers has fallen into disuse, so nobody will understand what she’s saying unless she chooses to tell them what she means. Elizabeth, who had been Victoria’s last foster mother when she reached the age of ten, and also one of the biggest influences of her young life, had told her that the language of flowers was non-negotiable. As Victoria’s relationship with Grant develops, they both discover that this statement is not true, and set about to creating their own flower dictionary so they’ll never disagree over the meanings again. Prior to this, Victoria had already been using her knowledge of flowers to change the lives of customers from Renata’s shop.

Given the strong correlation that the author had placed so far between matching the correct flowers with the outcome desired, it became surprisingly tedious for me to keep waiting for the time when Victoria’s own life would experience the same dramatic changes in world view that her customers did. I wanted Victoria to have her happily ever after, but her own feelings of inadequacy and a BIG SECRET with regard to her past kept holding her back, and that trope became old really fast. By the time Victoria became reconciled with her past, I was ready to breathe a sigh of relief and shout “FINALLY!”

I can understand why this book received so much hype from mainstream reviews (it was a book-of-the-week pick in Oprah’s blog as well). I appreciate the fact that it’s brought a largely forgotten but intensely romantic art back into the spotlight, especially since I actually own a facsimile edition of Kate Greenaway’s 1884 picture book, Language of Flowers (and yes, I’ve owned my copy of the Greenaway book for quite a while before I heard about Ms. Diffenbaugh’s novel). It’s a unique first novel with beautifully sensual descriptions of flowers and food and locations (Grant’s flower farm and Elizabeth’s vineyard are definitely places that I would want to visit in real life).  It’s a powerful story about love and relationships, forgiveness and second chances. But its impact was lessened (at least for me) by a dragging plot which was aggravated by a heroine who took far too long to come to terms with herself and grow up. She’s like a hothouse flower who literally has to be forced to unfurl her petals by encountering a series of uncontrollable physically and emotionally painful events. I know that there’s a saying about life being about the journey and not the destination, but in Victoria’s case the emotional journey seemed to rely a bit too much on plot contrivances to keep the interest going.

P.S. The cover I posted on top is from the U.K. edition. I’m rather particular about book covers (more on that in a future post), and the image of the girl holding up a photo of a rose to cover her lips definitely brings to mind the title of the book much better than the rather bland American edition cover —————————–>

Although, according to Victoria’s flower dictionary (which is included at the end of the book), pink roses mean grace, which I saw very little of in Victoria. Misguided strength and a tenacity to rise up against all odds alone, yes. But grace?

Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor

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Around the world, black handprints are appearing on doorways, scorched there by winged strangers who have crept through a slit in the sky.

In a dark and dusty shop, a devil’s supply of human teeth grows dangerously low.

And in the tangled lanes of Prague, a young art student is about to be caught up in a brutal otherworldly war.

Meet Karou. She fills her sketchbooks with monsters that may or may not be real; she’s prone to disappearing on mysterious “errands”; she speaks many languages – not all of them human; and her bright blue hair actually grows out of her head that color. Who is she? That is the question that haunts her, and she’s about to find out.

This is a story about angels and devils. The very first page proclaims it as such, with a tantalizing opening that leaves the reader wondering (or thinking that they already know) about the story behind it:

Once upon a time
an angel and a devil
fell in love.
It did not end well.

Knowing that angels and devils are traditional foes in Christian theology, from the beginning the reader is already clued in to the fact that there’s going to be a forbidden love somewhere along the road. The joy of this many-faceted gem of a book is that it unravels its tale like a Russian Matryoshka doll, a story within a story within a story.

There is a mystery to be solved within the pages of this book, as we discover once presented with Karou, the blue-haired seventeen year old art lyceum student who is our heroine. At school, Karou is known for her talent for drawing pictures of fantastic creatures of mixed human and animal aspect, whom she lovingly calls by the names of Brimstone, Issa, Yasri, and Twiga. Her classmates flock to see her sketchbooks, and ask about the scenes depicted in each well-detailed drawing. What they don’t know is that the drawings are real–that these four chimaera are the only family Karou has ever known, and that Karou leads a double life running (sometimes dangerous) errands around the world for Brimstone via magic doorways that lead in the blink of an eye to locations as far away as Paris, Saigon, San Francisco, and Marrakesh.

Karou loves her adoptive family. But that love is not enough to fill the aching emptiness that she has felt all her life. She asks questions, but receives no answers. Until the day her adoptive family is lost to her, and an enigmatic stranger who should be her enemy but feels like he isn’t enters her life and changes it forever.

Karou’s story is told in two parts. The first part is mostly set in modern-day Prague, the heart of Bohemia. And Laini Taylor has a way with words that makes this magical city come alive and leap off the pages. You feel that you are actually standing on the medieval Charles Bridge, gazing out across the waters of the Vltava at the spires and columns of Prague Old Town. You can smell the hazy smoke and absorb the gothic atmosphere of Poison Goulash, Karou and her best friend Zuzana’s favorite hangout.

There is poetry in Taylor’s descriptive phrases that echo Patricia McKillip’s  writing, only more earthy and grounded than airy and etherial, which make them all the more immediate in their impact. This tone carries on to the second part of the story, which shifts to the chimaera homeworld, a land torn by war and hate and misunderstanding.

Laini Taylor does not shy away from depicting the horrors of war, and without giving anything away, I would say that if there’s one lesson to be learned from this book, it’s that in war there are no winners. Both sides fighting in a war think that they are the “good guys”, and more often than not both sides end up committing atrocities for what they deem to be the sake of “right”.

And yet, amidst the death and destruction wrought by an otherworldy war, an inexplicable love story blossoms between Karou and her enigmatic stranger, which Taylor paints as not so much as love at first sight as a true meeting of souls. Unless you’re an avid reader of romances, you might need a bit of suspension of disbelief to easily swallow this part, especially during the initial stages of its development. Myself, I’d just finished reading Nalini Singh’s Archangel’s Blade a few books back, so it was a tad easier for me to pick up the clues underpinning the romance.

Karou is a strong female character who can literally kick ass (she’s trained in karate and who knows what other martial arts, thanks to a sensei in Hong Kong accessed via magic doorway), but she’s also mature enough to admit her need for love, and to realize when the love being offerred is false or true. Readers will find themselves rooting for her and hoping that she finds a way to banish that emptiness upon meeting and getting to know the seraphim Akiva, who is himself a lost soul. Akiva’s story is told primarily through flashbacks that cut through the first part of the book and intertwine with the second, and he becomes slightly more humanized with each appearance, as he begins to realize exactly how important Karou is to him. 

Daughter of Smoke and Bone is a book about magic and mysteries, wishes and hope, choices and consequences, desires and destiny. Each of the characters in the book is revealed to the reader as a creature of conflicting emotions and motivations, and Taylor has woven a complex web around them to create her story. We are given to understand that our own choices and decisions will always affect others. But even as our destinies unfold based on these choices, even when events don’t transpire as we expect them to, there is always hope.

There are two editions of this book available locally in the Philippines, the hardcover American release and a slightly cheaper trade paperback international release. Since this book is definitely going into my keeper shelf, you can guess which one I got. ^^;; As this is the first book in a projected trilogy, readers have much to look forward to. It will be a year before the next book comes out (sigh), and I wish that there was a way for me to get my hands on an ARC when Hatchette starts distributing them, but either way I’m definitely pre-ordering book two once a firm release date is set.

Readercon 2011 report

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Well, here it is. My second attempt at establishing some form of presence in the blogosphere.  I used to have a livejournal (in the pre-friendster, pre-multiply, pre-facebook, pre-twitter, pre-tumblr days) which I filled with random book and film reviews in between the normal rants and raves about how my day went. Sometimes I still miss the simplicity of those days. But one does have to move with the times after all.

Anyway, I was nagged/bullied/pestered by Chachic of Chachic’s Book Nook to start my own book blog because I made (maybe) one long comment too many in her blog. LOL. It appears that I have a lot to say when it comes to books and genres that I love (mostly YA and speculative fiction, with the odd romance novel thrown in), though I do try to read new genres and authors as well. Thus the blog name.

So. Since I pretty much committed to start this blog after attending the 1st Filipino Reader Conference last September 14, I figured that doing a write up on my Readercon experience would be a fitting way to start.

The conference was divided into three parts – a keynote speech about the blurring lines between readers and writers, a panel discussion on book clubs, and a panel discussion on book blogging.

Carljoe Javier (whose work I haven’t read yet – something that I must rectify soon) made an interesting case in support of self-publishing and self-promoting one’s work. It’s true that these days an author isn’t just selling his work to the public, he’s selling himself as well. Good “customer relations” is definitely a plus when it comes to moving copies off the shelves, and that means reaching out to the public (who may be considered as potential fans/followers) via regularly updated author blogs, facebook/twitter/tumblr/google+ pages. With this in mind, it’s easy to see how a reader can cross the line into becoming an author by simply flexing a bit of social media muscle and doing some real-life legwork.

The panel discussion on book clubs was intriguing, although I must admit that I’m probably not the type of person who’d become active in one of those. While it’s true that book clubs (as Gege Sugue of Flips Flipping Pages said) mean that reading isn’t limited to being a solitary experience anymore, I’ve been lucky enough to have developed quite early on a small network of online and real life friends who share my reading tastes. I suppose that the regular monthly meet-ups that book clubs do might not be for me, or maybe I just don’t have the discipline to stick to an assigned monthly read.

Now, the panel on book blogging. That was what I was waiting for. Five panelists (including Chachic) with five very different approaches to blogging and capturing readers. Although I think that Charles of Bibliophile Stalker made one of the most interesting points of the day, since his approach to blogging was essentially a paraphrasing of the definitions of segmentation, targeting, and positioning from marketing parlance. The other four bloggers (Tarie, Chachic, Aldrin, and Sasha) seem to subscribe more to the – in Sasha’s words – “reading journal” school of thought.

So we essentially ended up with two different approaches to blogging – one where the blogger gave thought to what his target audience wants to read and delivered the content accordingly (hence the many author interviews Charles had in his blog), and another where the blogger wrote primarily about his personal response to the books he’d read and shared them with his readers. Both approaches have merit, but I guess it’s safe to say that this blog will follow the latter school.

The book blogging panel


Alliteration - Charles and Chachic


Look at what I won in the raffle!

At the end of the day, I joined the core group of Readercon people for some serious book hunting at the Manila International Bookfair. I have not been to an MIBF since it changed venues from Megatrade Hall to SMX! Strange that there’s no more Powerbooks or Fully Booked booths, but they probably don’t make enough at the fair to cover the booth costs. So the only big player there was National Bookstore, which did have a decent bargain books section. We must’ve looked really strange, hovering around like circling vultures while the National staff were unloading boxes of those 99 peso tartan books to display. My best buy was a copy of Neil Gaiman’s The Dangerous Alphabet from that pile, unless you count the two volumes of CLAMP’s RG Veda manga that I bought for about 35 pesos each.

We had dinner afterwards. It was nice to finally be able to put a face on people I used to know only as an online handle (waves to Celina and Chachic), meet old acquaintances (Charles and Ren) and make new ones (ummm, you guys know who you are – I’d rather not mention mention names for fear of missing some). ^_^