{book birthday} How We Fall Apart (2021)

THE WAIT IS FINALLY OVER!

Katie Zhao’s dark academia novel How We Fall Apart is out today!

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HowWeFallApart_cover-rs

by Katie Zhao
ASIN/ISBN: 9781547603978
Publication: August 17, 2021
Series: How We Fall Apart #1

Nancy Luo is shocked when her former best friend, Jamie Ruan, top ranked junior at Sinclair Prep, goes missing, and then is found dead. Nancy is even more shocked when word starts to spread that she and her friends–Krystal, Akil, and Alexander–are the prime suspects, thanks to “The Proctor,” someone anonymously incriminating them via the school’s social media app.

They all used to be Jamie’s closest friends, and she knew each of their deepest, darkest secrets. Now, somehow The Proctor knows them, too. The four must uncover the true killer before The Proctor exposes more than they can bear and costs them more than they can afford, like Nancy’s full scholarship. Soon, Nancy suspects that her friends may be keeping secrets from her, too.

Students at an elite prep school are forced to confront their secrets when their ex-best friend turns up dead. (from Goodreads)

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Katie Zhao is a 2017 graduate of the University of Michigan with a B.A. in English and Political Science, and a 2018 Masters of Accounting at the same university. She is the author of THE DRAGON WARRIOR series (Bloomsbury Kids), HOW WE FALL APART (Bloomsbury Kids), forthcoming LAST GAMER STANDING (Scholastic), and forthcoming WINNIE ZENG series (Random House Children’s Books). She is represented by Penny Moore of Aevitas Creative Management. She’s a passionate advocate for representation in literature and media.

Me (Moth) (2021)

by Amber McBride
ASIN/ISBN: 9781250780362
Publication: August 17, 2021

After losing her family in an accident, Moth switches schools to live with her Aunt Jack. It isn’t until she meets Sani that she finally feels seen and heard because he’s going through similar issues of his own, feeling alone and as though no one understands him. They decide to go on a road trip to better understand their heritage.

Written in verse, I was wrapped in the emotions and the images the book evoked. Not a single word is wasted or used to merely fill empty space. It forced me to feel every word. The words reached out and calmed my restlessness but also wound themselves deeper into the crevices of my thoughts as they pushed me to examine my present by embracing my own ancestral heritage alongside Moth and Sani.

My heart hurt. It hurt for Moth, for her survivor’s guilt, for believing her will to live was so great and she was too greedy to leave enough for the rest of her family to also survive. It hurt for Sani, for all he endured and was still currently enduring, for feeling like it was his fault, as though he was able to control the actions of those around him.

Me (Moth) is about self-acceptance, learning from the past and where we come from to understand who we are today. It’s about trying to find where home is and learning what it means to live again when it feels like those we love are all gone. But, even in death, those who love us never truly abandon us. As ancestors, they continue to guide us.

Me (Moth) is so many things, including one of my best reads this year.

The Other Side of Perfect (2021)

by Mariko Turk
ASIN/ISBN: 9780316703406
Publication: May 11, 2021

Alina’s dreams of one day joining the American Ballet Theatre are dashed when an accident leads to a shattered leg. She is forced to put away her pointe shoes and reassess her future. When she is finally able to venture outside her room, she auditions for musical theatre.

I was fully immersed in the book because Alina’s story was compelling. She tries to come to terms with her new reality while transitioning into a “normal” teenager, but it’s difficult. Her devastation was more than enough to tug at my heart, and I couldn’t help but sympathize with her even though it leads some decisions I didn’t like. I don’t think I’ve ever loved something the way Alina loves ballet, but Turk’s prose captures Alina’s grief and allowed me to experience Alina’s struggle alongside her.

Being permanently sidelined from what she thought was her future forces her to confront the racism within ballet and its traditions. It’s both difficult and satisfying to see Alina come to these realizations because it adds another layer to her current situation. Would she have eventually come to the same conclusion, taken similar actions had she not been forced to give up ballet? Maybe, but probably not nearly as soon as she should have. It’s not necessarily that Alina is completely unaware of the racism but she does have blinders on. She equates tradition with being “right” and those in authoritative roles as knowing best when it is not always the case. I found this to be an important reflection on life, especially because Alina’s sister has a different experience at her dance school. Authority figures play pivotal roles in our lives. They help shape our beliefs and values, and it can be difficult not to view ourselves through their eyes. In this case, Alina’s dance teacher was pivotal to her perception of ballet and her abilities, which helps explain some of Alina’s convictions about ballet. The trauma of forcibly giving up her dreams leads to transformative growth, allowing her to challenge her beliefs and accomplish what she couldn’t do before, speak up for herself and her friends. Although Alina hates the saying, there is some truth that “when life shatters your leg, it opens a window.”

With its emphasis on friendship, Alina meets new people and forms multiple relationships throughout the book. While her connection to each is slightly different, the most interesting one is her connection with Diya. Although Diya’s role is smaller, there are parallels between the two that are immediately apparent. The connection provides Alina with some eye-opening breakthroughs and was probably one of my favorite parts of the book to read. As with many of the elements in the book, Diya’s life provides Alina another glimpse of what it’s like on the other side.

I cannot end this without mentioning the multiple supporting characters I adored. I’ve never enjoyed so many characters popping in and out of a book before! They all contribute to making the book well-rounded.

  • Mom and Dad
    They’re professionals in their jobs but they’re loving and supportive parents who encourage Alina to keep moving forward. They’re “hip” and use words like “bae” just to get reactions from their teenage daughters. Alina’s parents only make small appearances but I loved their interactions with their daughters.
  • Laney and Ada
    These two are hilarious. Not only do they remind me of high school me but also adult me. Yes, my friends and I still play a version of what Laney and Ada refer to as Love Realism, making up a story about how your life plays out with your crush.
  • Jude
    As a potential love interest, Jude is positively swoony. He’s patient and understanding. He defies gender norms with his love of knitting and he doesn’t care who knows about it. He’s wonderful. Can there be an adult him who exists in real life?

Overall, The Other Side of Perfect was a deeply satisfying read. I meant to pick it up and read just a few chapters before bed, but I couldn’t sleep until I finished the whole thing.

The Last Fallen Star (2021)

by Graci Kim
ASIN/ISBN: 9781368059633
Publication: May 4, 2021
Series: Gifted Clans #1

**I received a copy of the book through NetGalley. I voluntarily read and reviewed it. All opinions are my own.**

Witches and other magical beings coexist with humans (saram), although the latter are none the wiser about it. Riley/Rye, however, is an exception. She is a human girl adopted by a witch family.  While her family loves her, it’s difficult being the odd one out, so Rye and her sister Hattie devise a plan to allow Rye temporary access to Hattie’s powers. Unfortunately, their plan backfires and puts the family in harm’s way. Now, Rye must race against time to save them.

With the abundance of books containing the magical school trope and overlapping realms, I wasn’t entirely enthusiastic about reading The Last Fallen Star. It was the promise of POC representation and the infusion of Korean myths that drew me in. I enjoyed it so much! It’s magical, full of surprises, and filled with heart warming messages. It’s a middle grade adventure that highlights the strength of familial bonds and the sacrifices we make to save those we love.  Rye and Hattie demonstrate this through their efforts to support each other in the face of adversity including the witch clans’ unwillingness to allow Rye to prove herself as well as when Hattie endangers her life to protect the family. In trying to save Hattie, Rye learns that it’s not about the blood coursing through your veins but the values you hold that determine who you are.

Rye’s journey illustrates how isolation and belonging can be powerful motivators. Despite her family’s insistence that they love her, it’s difficult for Rye to overcome these feelings when she is the odd one out. She is often taunted for being different, so the extreme actions she and Hattie take are understandable. At one point or other, many of us have done something to try to fit in. It was easy to sympathize with both Hattie and Rye even as I wanted to yell at them not to do it. Kim successfully weaves multiple life lessons into Rye’s growth without feeling preachy. For younger readers, and adults alike, these lessons will resonate well, serving as reminders to value our families and friendships as well as to have faith in ourselves.

The Dating Dare (2021)

by Jayci Lee
ASIN/ISBN: 9781250621122
Publication: August 3, 2021
Series: A Sweet Mess #2

**I received a copy of the book through NetGalley. I voluntarily read and reviewed it. All opinions are my own.**

The Dating Dare is the second installment of Lee’s A Sweet Mess series, this time with Seth, Landon’s younger brother, and Tara, Aubrey’s best friend, in a variation of a dating contract. Seth and Tara are wary of relationships and, after a hefty amount of drinking, embark on a 4-date only dare with promises to not fall in love with each other. It makes a lot of sense because neither is particularly looking for anything long-term, and Seth is moving to Paris at the end of the month.

There’s a reason why the adage “you never get a second chance to make a first impression” is a familiar one. This isn’t to say that an opinion can never change–just think about Darcy’s opinion of Elizabeth and vice versa–but that first meeting can surely set the tone and mood for what’s to come.  I never overcame my first impression of Tara and Seth and how forced their first interaction appeared. The confrontation happened then jumped to the dare so quickly that I didn’t find it believable. Eventually, lust and the sexual chemistry are established–Lee infuses it well into their dates and nondates–and spices up the pages, but I couldn’t get over that first impression that something was missing from their relationship. I was never fully convinced they could fall in love with each other.

It was difficult to fully grasp what kind of individuals Tara and Seth were because most of their interactions were with each other and them thinking of each other. At first, it seemed like Tara would be outspoken and stick up for herself but beyond what happens at the beginning when Tara confronts Seth, there isn’t much follow-through. The limited conversations with her brothers try to showcase what kind of person Tara is, but it would have been more meaningful if it was action and descriptions, not just dialogue. Pieces of Tara’s and Seth’s pasts are also divulged throughout the book, explaining why they are both averse to relationships, and used to create some mystery, but I think it would have worked better to be provided the information earlier. Trying to work through one another’s past relationships would have brought more depth to their relationship, helping to illustrate why they would work well together.

The book lacks a sense of place, jumping from one scene of them together to the next scene of them together without much detail into their surroundings. I’ve never been to Weldon and would like to “see” what it’s like there, but I couldn’t envision the town through the book. For instance, Tara’s family owns Weldon Brewery, and she’s in there from time to time but I don’t learn much about it. Similarly, I don’t know much about Tara’s family or the other people residing there. I wanted to meet the residents and be an audience to conversations and interactions outside of Tara and Seth together, but people only popped in and out occasionally to serve as backboards and props as if life did not exist outside of the leads. My suspicion is the town might have a better introduction in the first book, which I haven’t read. Even if that is the case, it doesn’t negate that there should be descriptions in this second installment as well, especially when it’s written very much as a standalone.

I expected a bit more from the book, but it wasn’t a letdown.  Although Lee doesn’t include much detail about the town, there are beautiful descriptions when Seth captures images on his camera. I felt Seth’s love for his art and how important photography was to him. These moments were likely some of my favorites because there was so much detail; I could see and feel what was happening. I wish more of the book included descriptions like this. While my initial impressions of their relationship set the tone for my first reading of the book, it’s certainly possible I might have the urge to pick it up again. A second reading could make a better impression, but I’m not exactly ready to give it another go just yet.

So We Meet Again (2021)

by Suzanne Park
ASIN/ISBN: 9780062990716
Publication: August 3, 2021

**I received a copy of the book through NetGalley. I voluntarily read and reviewed it. All opinions are my own.**

Repeatedly passed over for promotions despite her hard work and now finally terminated due to downsizing, Jessie/Jess Kim returns home to figure out her next steps. It doesn’t help that she bumps into boy wonder Daniel Choi, who she was always compared to while growing up. The only difference now is that he’s no longer the bowl cut wearing PK or pastor’s kid, but successful and very good-looking. Although long-time rivals in life and Daniel remains rather snobby, he ends up being a helpful presence as Jess and umma’s cooking show starts taking off.

The blurb of a book can often affect our expectations. In this case, I was expecting something a bit different from what I read. I was focused on the cooking show Jess eventually develops with her mom and also on her high school rival and frenemy Daniel because the description primed me to focus on these two aspects. When I didn’t get a lot of the cooking show as highlighted, I was disappointed. It takes about a quarter of the book for the cooking show to appear. When it does, there aren’t as many streams with umma and appa as I wish there had been, which would have helped support the fact that Jess’s success starts rolling in pretty quickly. She goes from live streaming to career-defining deals in what feels like a matter of pages.

I was also disappointed by the blurb’s spoilery information about Daniel, which I won’t mention because it’s a spoiler and also because I believe the description has since changed in some outlets but not in others. The setup sounded like it would be a pivotal part of the book, and it sort of is in some aspects, but it makes up only a small portion of the book. The emphasis should have been on Jess trying to find her place after losing a job that finally solidified her as being a success. Her outlook on her career became framed by the perspective of a company that didn’t know how to value someone like her–apparently, being hardworking and committed to the job is frowned upon. She spends much of the time figuring out how to start over. This would have better prepared me for the book. For those who have yet to read the book, the current description on retail sites leaves out this information, so I think you’ll have a slightly better experience than I did.

Although I had a different set of expectations for the book, there’s still a lot to like in So We Meet Again. Park’s signature humor is present. I loved the family dynamics, the emphasis on career aspirations, and the experiences highlighted because I can identify with many of them. A 50-lb or 100-lb bag of rice on sale is a big thing! I rush over when I know it’s on sale. Additionally, it’s a story that is easily relatable if you’ve ever been compared to other kids growing up. Unfortunately, similar to Sunny Song Will Never Be FamousSo We Meet Again is a good story that ends just as it’s only about to get better.

The View Was Exhausting (2021)

by Mikaella Clement and Onjuli Datta
ASIN/ISBN: 97815301010
Publication: July 6, 2021

**A positive review of the book from a fellow blogger prompted me to read an excerpt of it through NetGalley, which then lead me to purchase a copy because I needed to find out what happened.**

The View Was Exhausting is a book about a relationship of convenience used to quell negative media attention. Win’s and Leo’s on and off again “relationship” is complicated by, what appear to be, very real feelings. Win is reluctant to follow those feelings and pursue what she and Leo could be. While Leo has a seemingly laid-back attitude, Win is overly conscious of media scrutiny, which is why they are constantly reconnecting. Although her life appears glitzy and glamourous, melancholic overtones are scattered throughout as their past and present relationship unfold on the pages. At times, the interweaving of the past and present leads to some confusion about what is happening at the moment, making some things a little hazy. Their friendship and even their potential for more are at risk when something in Leo’s past comes to light.

The first few chapters lulled me into believing I would not get hurt by this book. Wasn’t it obvious these two individuals who couldn’t be themselves around many people were often only genuine toward one another? Wasn’t it obvious they had such sizzling chemistry? However, the book did a number on me. I wanted to slam it (but carefully and gently because it’s still a precious book) on the table because it left me vulnerable to a trigger I didn’t recognize I had until some books ago. At one point, I wanted to stop reading but the need to know what would happen next was ultimately greater–a testament to how much I liked the writing and even the storyline itself despite the pain I incurred. Would the dilemma get resolved? Are they in love with each other? What will Win choose?

Win and Leo won me over with their fabricated romance. Like the public they are trying to convince, I had beautiful illusions of two people on the road to figuring out that love, above all, is a worthy risk. Win and Leo are more vulnerable than they seem. Win has learned to reinforce herself with armor–she’s isn’t always likeable–but Leo often seems lost, without drive or purpose. Together, they’ve created a kind of haven. They’re friends who put their lives on hold for each other, who show each other their true selves even if they have to put on a show for the rest of the world. Underlining their trust in each other and how readily they rely on one another is their scorching chemistry, even if they both (mostly Win) try to hide from it. 

The social commentary also kept me glued to the novel. The undue pressure on members of marginalized groups when they succeed is captured well in the novel. There is an expectation that the successful individual is now representative of an entire group of people, and there requires a delicate balancing act the individual must endure. Every action is scrutinized and there are those just waiting for the person to fall. People want to place you neatly into a box, and if you break out of the box, they wait for any mistake, big or small, to put you “where you belong.” Win’s success places her in such a position. She loves acting and she’s great at it, but it all gets overlooked as soon as rumors begin to circulate about anything. She can be described as cold and calculating, but she’s learned to be this way to survive in an industry that is ready to strike her, to replace her on any whim. She succumbs to the pressure, and even when she wants to speak up, she self-censors because there is a price for her every action. 

Ultimately, this isn’t a feel-good type of novel. That was one of the more difficult parts of reading the book. I tend to read less angsty novels, those that are more toned down and focus on the good as opposed to the bad, but the writing coupled with leads I couldn’t help but want together propelled me to keep moving forward. 

Cinderella Is Dead (2020)

by Kaylynn Bayron
ASIN/ISBN: 9781547603879
Publication: July 7, 2020

I’ve been meaning to read Cinderella Is Dead since it was first published nearly a year ago, but being a mood reader means wanting and doing are two different things. I finally finished it yesterday. The premise behind the book is rather interesting, providing readers with a retelling of the fairy tale and what happens after Cinderella and her prince supposedly lived happily ever after.  While I did enjoy the book, it didn’t quite live up to the expectations I built around it. 

Sophia is in love with her best friend Erin, and while Erin seems to return those feelings, she is unwilling to rebel. The laws are explicit that young women are to attend balls where suitors will choose them as brides. And just like the fairy tale, they are meant to then live happily ever after with some caveats. The happily is optional, women only have three tries at finding a suitor, and men can terminate the ever after if they choose to. The ball maintains the illusion of what Cinderella had to go through to find her prince including arriving in one’s best dress and finding a life partner at the end of it. For over 200 years, this has been the way of things, and women have been without rights. Forced to attend her first ball, Sophia makes a run for it, choosing an alternate path she carves for herself.

While Sophia is tenacious and daring, willing to risk her life not only for love but freedom for herself as well as those of other young women in her position, I found her character naively idealistic at times. I wanted to yell at her and tell her to consider the consequences including thinking through her actions more carefully before doing anything risky. Maybe it’s meant to be part of her character but I wanted more complexity from Sophia. With the plot moving so quickly, jumping from one thing to the next, Sophia hardly ever gets to think many things through. I was also bothered by how quickly Sophia moves on despite being adamant about her love for Erin and her willingness to risk everything to be with Erin. She jumps from one love interest to the next in a matter of what seems like days. This feeds into the too fast pace of the novel, which I was not particularly fond of. I didn’t get the depth I was expecting in a story with a premise that fascinated me. The lack of depth also extends to Constance, Erin, and a few other characters.

While it lacked depth, I did like the dominant themes in the novel. The recurring theme of empowerment was particularly done well. There are several lines from Sophia that highlighted this that I loved. One of my favorites is Sophia saying, “I don’t want to be saved by some knight in shining armor. I’d like to be the one in the armor, and I’d like to be the one doing the saving.” I also thought one of the most poignant lines in the book asks who the tale of Cinderella is really for. It highlights how problematic fairy tales can become and the book confronts this through the retelling.

Cinderella Is Dead offers a retelling of the classic fairy tale that turns it on its head. Rather than waiting for a prince or princess, the book emphasizes seizing the opportunity to be your own hero. While not all my expectations were met, those who look forward to alternatives to the stories they’ve heard or watched growing up may enjoy the book.


The Unbroken (2021)

by C.L. Clark
ASIN/ISBN: 9780316542753
Publication: March 23, 2021
Series: Magic of the Lost #1

**I received a copy of the book through NetGalley. I voluntarily read and reviewed it. All opinions are my own.**

I started reading The Unbroken in early March but struggled to finish it. The book is long-winded, and I had to take multiple breaks in-between to read it. After nearly four months, I finally finished it a few days ago. It is character-driven with an overall plot that is interesting and provides a critical perspective of colonialism. The biggest drawback of the book is the painstakingly slow pace, which makes the already nearly 500 pages–over 500 pages depending on which edition is read–feel a lot longer than it is.

Stolen as a child and raised to be a soldier by the Balladairan empire, Touraine returns to Qazāl more a stranger than someone coming home. As a lieutenant in command of the Sands, soldiers stolen as children just like her, Touraine’s loyalty is to those in her unit first, but she also has a longing to be accepted by Balladaire. Her behavior throughout the book is reflective of this desire. From experience, she knows the Sands will always be the first to be called to the front lines and will also likely be the first punished in any situation they take part in. Touraine’s story is the most compelling as she straddles the middle, looking for where she belongs. As a Balladairan soldier, she’s called a traitor by Qazāl, but she will never be fully accepted by Balladaire either. She is forced to tread a path where she will always be a scapegoat because she is a victim of imperialism. It’s difficult to watch her struggle and try to make the best choices when there isn’t a right choice to make if she remains in the middle. The longer she remains there, the longer she falters.

The story alternates between Touraine and Luca, the Balladairan princess without her throne. Luca arrives in Qazāl with hopes of quelling a rebellion so she may ascend her throne, taking it from her uncle who has cleverly placed himself there in her stead after her parents’ death. Luca is similar to Touraine in that she also hopes to find a balance somewhere in the middle. Of course, her somewhere in the middle also includes her being in power.  On the idealistic side, Luca wants peace between Qazāl and Balladaire, but it’s difficult to figure out who she can trust when there are those on both sides who would like to tip the status quo in their favor. Touraine and Luca are forced to work together when Luca comes up with a plan to try to establish peace with the rebels that may require treasonous actions. Luca is someone I wanted to root for because she appeared genuine in her desire for peace and had the qualities of what a good leader could be, with the understanding that good is relative. Is it possible to be a good leader if her desire for peace also requires she sits on the throne? Is it possible to be a good leader if those forced into becoming part of her empire desire to be free from her authority? When is enough going to be enough for Luca if sitting on her throne requires her to continue taking?

The book is well-written. The plot and Touraine’s journey to self-discovery were elements that I especially liked. Touraine’s story tugged at me and gave the book sad undertones that constantly had me questioning what it is like to lose one’s heritage. Although I recognize the necessity of many of the events that take place because they contribute to Touraine’s character development, the pace was a struggle for me. Another element I wanted more of was the magic Luca constantly talked about it. If you can overcome the pacing like I eventually was able to, this is a book filled with layers worth reading.

The Devil Comes Courting (2021)

by Courtney Milan
ASIN/ISBN: 9798741161982
Publication: April 20, 2021
Series: The Worth Saga #3

Amelia Smith is intentionally sought out by Captain Grayson Hunter to help with telegraphic transmissions, except he doesn’t realize the genius he’s looking for is a woman. When he does, it’s not enough to deter him from trying to employ her. The problem is whether he can convince her of her value, that there is more to her future than just marriage and children.

I like how historical romances are embracing racial/ethnic diversity. Milan is one author doing this, and I have enjoyed some of her novels thus far. The Devil Comes Courting is a slow-burn romance with POC representation, and one of the highlights of the novel is the two leads. (There’s plenty more I could talk about but I’d prefer not to spoil anything.) Amelia is Chinese and the adopted daughter of an English missionary. Although she is sure her adoptive mother loves her, Amelia can’t help but also want a place to belong where she is accepted for who she is. In his willingness to employ her and to point out her current situation, Grayson offers her some semblance of what she is looking for. He is providing her the opportunity to give her life purpose beyond the one her adoptive mother wants her to choose, marriage and children. Amelia is a refreshing lead for the way her mind works. Amelia is inquisitive and curious, her mindset on tinkering and problem solving until she’s worn out whatever is on her mind. I liked Amelia and related all too well with her inability to remember names. I’m nearly as awful as she is at it. The way she relates things made me realize I’m pretty sure that’s how my brain works when I bring up seemingly unrelated things–“they were both in my head at the same time.”

Grayson is biracial of African American and white heritage. He is arrogant, immediately wanting to seduce Amelia as soon as they meet as well as proclaiming he knows how attractive he is when Amelia blurts out what is on her mind. I strained my eyes from epic eye-rolling. There is a fair amount of arrogance needed, I guess, for someone who is determined to complete such an endeavor. Grayson was easily forgiven for his belief in Amelia. Initially, it seems his belief is just to ensure he gets what he wants–her working for him–but he also recognizes the situation she is in and cares about her feelings. One of my favorite scenes is the somewhat odd questions she asks before deciding whether she wants to work for him or not. Throughout the entire book, his faith in her abilities never falters, and I couldn’t help but have heart eyes. For me, he turned swoon-worthy rather quickly. Underneath his tough exterior though is a man who carries his grief with him and believes he is unworthy of happiness. This plays a role in Amelia and Grayson’s slow-burn romance. His fickleness was irritating at times but understandable due to his situation.

There’s more than meets the eye in When the Devil Comes Courting, especially as the layers are pulled back and subplots are revealed. Readers find out the devil has appeared many times over. Some patience is warranted because it is a slow burn as the leads try to figure out and in some cases try to verbalize what it is they want. While it can get a bit frustrating with how much time they spend apart as opposed to together, their belief and support of one another is one of the highlights of the novel. I finished the novel on a high note because of their regard for one another.