The Monster on the Road is Me: A “Five Things I’ve Learned” Review…

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I have PanMacmillan Australia to thank for today’s awesome read of awesomosity.  The Monster on the Road is Me by J. P. Romney is by turns a funny, strange and creepy exploration of Japanese folklore in a YA contemporary setting and we absolutely loved it from start to finish. In fact, we enjoyed it so much we have branded it a “Top Book of 2016” pick!

Bruce's Pick

But more of that in a minute.

Let’s start with the blurb from Goodreads:

 It starts with the crows. When you see them, you know he s found you.

Koda Okita is a high school student in modern-day Japan who isn’t very popular. He suffers from narcolepsy and has to wear a watermelon-sized helmet to protect his head in case he falls. But Koda couldn’t care less about his low social standing. He is content with taking long bike rides and hanging out in the convenience store parking lot with his school-dropout friend, Haru.

But when a rash of puzzling deaths sweeps his school, Koda discovers that his narcoleptic naps allow him to steal the thoughts of nearby supernatural beings. He learns that his small town is under threat from a ruthless mountain demon that is hell-bent on vengeance. With the help of a mysterious – and not to mention very cute classmate – Koda must find a way to take down this demon. But his unstable and overwhelming new abilities seem to have a mind of their own.

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And here are Five Things I’ve Learned From The Monster on the Road is Me by J. P. Romney:

1. It is highly unlikely that attacks of narcolepsy could ever be considered a superpower.  But then again…

2. When chatting with a mysterious new girl in order to size up whether she would be good girlfriend material, always be sure to check whether or not said mysterious girl is in fact human.

3.  Shiitake farming is a perfectly honorable occupation.

4. When the weight of the world gets too much, there is always cosplay.

5. If you ever lay eyes on a three-legged crow, it’s already too late.

Given that this is a Japanese story written by an American author, it would be reasonable to think that there may be some cultural aspects to the characterisation or plot that don’t quite sit right.  Happily, Romney has managed to avoid any major pitfalls of blending a Western brain with an Eastern narrative and has combined the best of both worlds.  While the story is narrated by Koda, a Japanese boy, it’s clear that Romney has slipped in some of his own curiosities about Japanese life and culture into Koda’s narration.  The brand tag line of a popular form of lolly, for example, or the events included in the school’s athletics day are two things that are highlighted as being more than a little …unexpected, perhaps…and I think this is a nod from the author to his not-Japanese readers and an affectionate tip of the hat to the idiosyncrasies of contemporary Japanese culture. I found them suitably amusing, I must say.

In fact, the humour throughout the story is one of the book’s most appealing features. Koda, as a narrator is hilariously self-deprecating and he is supported by a cast of similarly amusing, and bizarre, characters.  My two favourites of this supporting cast were Yori, the cosplaying ex-school-bus-driver-turned-accountant who fights crime by night on Youtube and Ikeda-sensei, the ex-sumo wrestling high school gym teacher with an ill-concealed dislike of high schools, gym and teaching.  I will admit to getting the giggles (yes, giggles, not guffaws, chuckles or belly laughs) during a scene in which a kappa (a Japanese river spirit) possesses some of Koda’s friends.  All in all, Romney’s style of comedy matched mine perfectly, which no doubt contributed to my enjoyment of the story.  If you aren’t a fan of dry banter mixed with ridiculous antics, you may not find it as funny, but at least now you’ve been warned.

Amidst the humour are some decidedly creepy elements.  The swarm of crows and the multiple suicides certainly bring the mood down a little and it’s obvious that there is some higher power that has set its will against the good folk of Kusaka town.  I can’t say much more here because it relates to the major mystery elements of the story, but I loved the way things moved between ordinary, teen problems and major supernatural sh*tstorm problems without missing a beat.

I’m not sure if this book is going to be part of a series or not – the ending here is a definite ending, yet there is scope, given what has been revealed about the characters, to expand on the story – but either way, I would highly recommend getting lost in the world that Romney has created here.  As some of the characters in the book can no doubt attest (Shimizu-sensei, I’m looking at you here), The Monster on the Road is Me is the very essence of escapist storytelling.

Until next time,

Bruce

 

 

A YA Haiku Review: The Potion Diaries…

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It’s Mad Martha with you today for a rare and mystical haiku review. Bruce unexpectedly received a copy of  YA new release The Potion Diaries by Amy Alward, from Simon & Schuster Australia and immediately passed it on to me as he suspected it might be altogether too girly for his tastes. He was probably right to do so, given that this is definitely a book aimed at a teenaged female audience. While I am not the greatest fan of romance in books either, there was plenty of fun and adventure in The Potion Diaries and it turned out to be a perfect antidote to the quagmire of illness that is plaguing the fleshlings in the household. In fact, I was quite happy to be able to wedge a heavy tome  against the shelfdom door, block out the sounds of hacking, coughing and nose-blowing, and curl up for a bit of good old-fashioned, magical girl power.  This book has a delightful charm about it such that I couldn’t help but feel fondly toward it, and so I allowed myself to move past its literary shortcomings and just be entertained by the spectacle.

Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

When the Princess of Nova accidentally poisons herself with a love potion meant for her crush, she falls crown-over-heels in love with her own reflection. Oops. A nationwide hunt is called to find the cure, with competitors travelling the world for the rarest ingredients, deep in magical forests and frozen tundras, facing death at every turn.

Enter Samantha Kemi – an ordinary girl with an extraordinary talent. Sam’s family were once the most respected alchemists in the kingdom, but they’ve fallen on hard times, and winning the hunt would save their reputation. But can Sam really compete with the dazzling powers of the ZoroAster megapharma company? Just how close is Sam willing to get to Zain Aster, her dashing former classmate and enemy, in the meantime?

And just to add to the pressure, this quest is ALL OVER social media. And the world news.

No big deal, then.

potion diaries

Royal mercy dash

Complete with murd’rous aunt, reads

Like wacky races

Despite the fact that The Potion Diaries has plot holes the size of the Nullarbor, a stereotyped, teen-angsty romance and underdeveloped characters swanning all over the place, I actually really enjoyed it. If the preceding sentence sounds a little harsh, I mean those criticisms in the fondest possible way.

Is this book going to win any awards for originality or writing? No.

Have we seen this all before in a myriad other fantasy type books for younger teens? Yes.

Does that mean this book has no value?

Absolutely not!

Because sometimes you just need something light and fluffy, where you know nothing too shocking or unpredictable is going to happen, that you can just pick up and put down and delve into when you need a bit of indulgent escapism.  For that reason, The Potion Diaries is practically the quintessential holiday/beach/summer read; the book you turn to when you want to switch off from anything stressful or troubling and just tumble into adventure with a thoroughly likeable main character.

Samantha Kemi is a sort of everygirl character: overtly skilled in what seems to be a dying profession, ordinary in a world of Talenteds and for all intents and purposes, thwarted from following her dream of researching new potions by money and position. As the story progresses, we find out more about Sam’s family history and the strong traditions of alchemy that are keeping her from striking out on her own. I suspect that young teen girls will really relate to Sam and revel in the excitement of danger and adventure as they race along with her in the Wilde Hunt.

While the world-building is relatively sparse in this tome, Alward has done a good job of creating a setting in which magic and technology sit side by side, without the need for long and distracting explanations.  Similarly, the lack of any deep development in the majority of the characters provides a quick entry to the story and allows the reader to just dive right on in as the action ramps up. As I said before, the story is riddled with plot holes and events that seem to occur a bit too conveniently to be plausible, but unless you’re approaching this as a serious and deeply thought out fantasy offering, the tone is light enough and the pace quick enough for these issues to be overlooked in favour of just enjoying the fun.

Overall, this is not the kind of book that we shelf-dwellers normally go for (and admittedly, the romance narrative was so clichéd and annoyingly contrived that I wanted to just skip those pages entirely) but I honestly enjoyed the story and would happily pick up the sequel the next time I’m in desperate need of a story that won’t make me work too hard and will reward with unadulterated frivolous adventure.

Cheerio my dears,

Mad Martha

 

 

 

A YA, Sick-Lit Haiku Review: Extraordinary Means…

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It’s been a little while, but it is I, Mad Martha, back with another haiku review for a new release YA title, Extraordinary Means by Robyn Schneider.  I was lucky enough to snag a copy of this one for review from the publisher via Netgalley.  Asthma inhalers at the ready? Then let us embark on a gentle stroll through the word of Totally Drug Resistant Tuberculosis. BYO paper mask.

Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

At seventeen, overachieving Lane finds himself at Latham House, a sanatorium for teens suffering from an incurable strain of tuberculosis. Part hospital and part boarding school, Latham is a place of endless rules and confusing rituals, where it’s easier to fail breakfast than it is to flunk French.

There, Lane encounters a girl he knew years ago. Instead of the shy loner he remembers, Sadie has transformed. At Latham, she is sarcastic, fearless, and utterly compelling. Her friends, a group of eccentric troublemakers, fascinate Lane, who has never stepped out of bounds his whole life. And as he gradually becomes one of them, Sadie shows him their secrets: how to steal internet, how to sneak into town, and how to disable the med sensors they must wear at all times.

But there are consequences to having secrets, particularly at Latham House. And as Lane and Sadie begin to fall in love and their group begins to fall sicker, their insular world threatens to come crashing down. Told in alternating points of view, Extraordinary Means is a darkly funny story about doomed friendships, first love, and the rare miracle of second chances.

extraordinary means

Oh the feels! True love’s

first kiss interrupted by

coughing fit. Awkies…

Astute observers may notice that I’ve been a bit cheeky with my haiku today, but we’ll get to that in a moment.

Suffice to say, I’ve got mixed feelings about this book. On one hand, I really enjoyed parts of it and I appreciated the original concept of placing the characters in a tuberculosis sanatorium. This made a nice change from the groups of teens hospitalised at psychiatric facilities that I usually read about. And that cover is just beautiful, isn’t it?! On the other hand, I should point out I haven’t read that book by John Green that is a massive bestseller (and I don’t intend to), or indeed any other of the recently released “sick-lit” YA titles, so you won’t find any comparisons with those in this review. This is, I think, probably a good thing because I have a shrewd suspicion that this book may easily be slotted into the “just another sick-lit YA title” shelf and quickly forgotten.

So let’s start with the positives. First, originality. It’s not immediately apparent from the first few chapters, but the characters in this novel are quarantined at a tuberculosis sanatorium and boarding school. Essentially, they have all contracted Totally Drug Resistant TB (which is a total bummer) and have been sent to Latham House to take a rest cure. Unfortunately for some, not all will make it out alive; such is the aggressive nature of TDR-TB. I really enjoyed the weird atmosphere that was created here by having a group of naturally exuberant, passionate and generally active teens hobbled by rest, good nutrition and gentle exercise. Obviously enough, a good part of the story revolves around the main characters attempting to inject some fun into their lives in spite of their illness.

I was drawn into the story quickly through the use of alternating points of view between Lane and Sadie and the relatively short chapters. I’ve always been a fan of multiple-point-of-view novels and this one had an engaging style. In fact, I think this is what kept me happy for about half of the book.

By about halfway through, it was pretty obvious to me where the ending was going and that is the main thing that limited my enjoyment of the book. While the first half of the book felt fresh and interesting, by the halfway point I had a pretty good inkling that for at least some of the main characters, the ride to the finish would contain some exciting highs, followed by tragic lows and then a short, philosophical musing on the meaning of life and death.

And I was right.

I know others have really loved this book and lauded its characters and plot and narrative arc and all the rest, but for me it started well and then ended in a rather pedestrian fashion. The medical twist towards the end did liven things up a little, but it also confirmed my suspicions about what was going to happen in the end. The characters seemed too two-dimensional for me to garner any deep connection and I generally tire of faux-existential musings forced into books just to increase “the feels!”

I have come to the conclusion that this is one book that really is aimed at the YA set and as a jaded adult, I couldn’t come on board with the hopeful yearnings of young love in the way that the author wanted me to. Particularly when the characters manage a romp into a neighbouring town, to frolic and spread their deadly contagion amongst the unsuspecting townsfolk. Not cool, peeps.

So you can see now why my haiku is a bit cheeky.  I’m not the ideal reader for this book, which is a shame, but I think it will be enjoyed by its target audience. If you are a young person, or you know one who can’t go past a good romance/friendship/coming-of-age/deadly illness dalliance then this would definitely be worth a look.

Cheerio my dears,

Mad Martha

The Gracekeepers: A Haiku Review…

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Welcome to another haiku review. It’s Mad Martha with you today with a book that was received from the publisher via Netgalley and features a beautifully described world (of the future? Possibly) in which water has changed the shape of the earth. It is The Gracekeepers by Kirsty Logan. Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

As a Gracekeeper, Callanish administers shoreside burials, sending the dead to their final resting place deep in the depths of the ocean. Alone on her island, she has exiled herself to a life of tending watery graves as penance for a long-ago mistake that still haunts her. Meanwhile, North works as a circus performer with the Excalibur, a floating troupe of acrobats, clowns, dancers, and trainers who sail from one archipelago to the next, entertaining in exchange for sustenance. In a world divided between those inhabiting the mainland (“landlockers”) and those who float on the sea (“damplings”), loneliness has become a way of life for North and Callanish, until a sudden storm offshore brings change to both their lives–offering them a new understanding of the world they live in and the consequences of the past, while restoring hope in an unexpected future.

gracekeepers

Buried in the depths

Like the wreckage of worlds past

Lies the way back home

Although this book is set in a speculative future world (maybe), I want to describe it as literary fiction. The Gracekeepers is character-driven and relationship-heavy and when you get to the end, you may be left wondering what on earth just happened – or rather, what didn’t. This is one of those books where action is secondary to the exploration of the characters, their back stories and hopes for the future. While some may find this to be not their cup of tea, I was quite engaged throughout the whole story, mostly, I think, due to the excellent world-building that Logan has done here.

The basic set-up of the world is pretty simple – water has subsumed most of the land and left humans with the choice of living as farmers and gatherers in settlements or spending their life on the high seas. There is a certain animosity, or at best, distrust between the landlockers and the damplings, with damplings facing mild discrimination when on or near the land. Damplings must wear bells on their shoes, for instance, when on the land to denote their dampling status. Similarly, with land at a premium, damplings are not allowed to bury their dead on the land, but must take their deceased to a graceyard to be tended to by a Gracekeeper.

The rituals around death described in the graceyards were fascinating and imaginative and one of my favourite parts of the story was our introduction to Callanish and her solitary life, surrounded by dead, dying, or soon-to-be dying birds. The story is told in alternating points of view between Callanish and North and I appreciated the regular change of pace between the quiet reverie of Callanish and the busier experience of North and the circus.

I don’t think this book is going to be for everyone, because I did have a very strong sense of “Well that was nice – now what’s next?” on finishing. I really did feel engaged while I was reading the story but afterwards I wasn’t sure what I could take from it. If you enjoy books that are character-driven and feature strong, original world-building then I would encourage you to pick up The Gracekeepers, but be aware that it’s not a book with a pat message or typical plot piece.

Until we meet again, may all your birds be free from mourning responsibilities,

Mad Martha

A KidLit Haiku Review: The Snowbirds…

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It’s Mad Martha with you today for another haiku review, so plump up your feathers (or feathered pillow) and join me in my wintry foray into a  fable-esque tale for youngsters, set in Japan and including elements of Russian legend: The Snowbirds by Jim Fitzsimmons.

Here is the blurb from Goodreads:

In a small Japanese mountain village, young Shoji enters an ice carving competition. He soon finds he has a rival in Orochi, another boy in the village, who tries to sabotage Shoji’s entry, but with the help of his family Shoji creates a most beautiful Snowbird.

When the other ice carvings are revealed they discover that Orochi has stolen Shoji’s idea and has also carved an equally beautiful Snowbird. The judges cannot decide the winner of the competition so they announce that the result will be declared the next morning.

During the night Jack Frost discovers the two Snowbirds and thinks one of them will make an ideal companion for his Grandfather Frost, the Snow King. At the same time Shoji, anxious for the safety of his Snowbird, sneaks out of his house and meets Jack Frost who explains his plan. Shoji agrees to let him have his Snowbird, but they are both interrupted by the arrival of Orochi who demands payment in return for his.

Jack Frost brings the Snowbirds to life and tells them they must travel to the North Pole where his Grandfather will choose one of them to be his companion. On their journey they meet different characters and encounter many difficulties until they both finally arrive, but which one will be chosen? Jack Frost has a cunning idea to help his Grandfather decide…

 

the snowbirds

Adversarial 

actions lead to hard choices

Noble heart thaws ice

Fitzsimmons has developed an original and interesting story here, but at the same time it feels incredibly familiar due to the style of writing that can only be described as a fable.  I think this style will appeal both to grown-ups, who will appreciate a new and different “fairy tale” to read to their youngsters, and to children, who will be assisted into independent reading by the familiarity of the format.  At only 78 pages (in the digital version), the story is also very attainable for younger readers who are venturing into reading on their own.  The tale is very atmospheric, with the wintry surrounds leaping off the page through the descriptive writing and I could almost feel the snowflakes as I read.  The descriptions of some of the scenes, and of the snowbirds themselves are quite beautiful and lend themselves to easy visualisation for the reader.  I can certainly imagine youngsters and their grown-ups wanting to hop onto Google to have a look at some real ice sculptures after reading these sections.

Kids will love to despise the odious Orochi and his devious and spiteful actions towards Shoji’s delicate creation.  I’m sure they will also relish the fact that Orochi’s snowbird bears an incredible resemblance in personality to its maker.  The story is illustrated with line drawings that give a sense of naivety and reflect the tone of the story.

I was quite surprised at how quickly and how easily I became engaged in the story.  Not being a massive fan of traditional fairy tale formats, I appreciated the way that Fitzsimmons has mixed old and new.  The interesting setting helped me engage in the story also, as did the fact that the story was devoid of princesses.  I think parents and carers will really like the strong family bonds represented in Shoji’s family and the emphasis on perseverance,  truthfulness and generosity underlying Shoji’s actions.

If you are a fan of fairy tales and fables, The Snowbirds is well worth seeking out to add to your collection.

Yours in wintry, icicle-laden magic,

Mad Martha

 

Adult Fiction Haiku Review: The Room…

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It’s Mad Martha with you today for another dip into oddity – specifically, the oddity of Jonas Karlsson’s translated, magical realism tale, The Room.  This one certainly qualifies under the “odd subject matter” category of the Oddity Odyssey reading challenge and also the “odd language element” category, as this one is a translation from the original Norwegian. For more info on the O.O. Reading challenge, just click on the image above.

Bjorn works in a government office as a public servant and discovers a room between the toilets and the lift on his  floor.  He finds that the room houses a perfectly ordinary office space, and as the space seems unclaimed, he begins to take his breaks in the calming quiet of the room.  When his colleagues refuse to acknowledge the existence of the room, Bjorn realises that an elaborate conspiracy must be afoot. Is it a strange, collective case of workplace bullying, designed to drive Bjorn (and his significant talent) out of the office? Or is it a more sinister plot to see Bjorn unhinged? Regardless, workdays in Bjorn’s office are about to get a lot more interesting.

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Anomaly in

Norwegian architecture

draws us into fray

Regular readers of this blog would know that Bruce does not have the greatest relationship with magical realism.  I can understand why. Is it meant to be an allegory? A metaphor for some greater meaning that’s going over his head? Or is it meant to be taken at face value? Just a bit of craziness in an otherwise ordinary setting, perhaps?

I experienced a bit of mild confusion after finishing this book, but decided that overall, I wouldn’t bother trying to assign deeper meaning to some of the odder parts of the story and just appreciate it as  a gem of weirdness in the midst of the mundane.  So Bjorn goes to work, finds a room in his office and hangs out there.  The other people in his workplace deny that there is a room at all.  Interoffice conflict ensues. And it’s eventually resolved in a satisfying (from my point of view, anyway) fashion.

The great things about this book include it’s brevity and the fact that the main character is just as puzzled about the turn of events as the reader.  Bjorn is a singularly unlikeable character – he’s arrogant, socially awkward and self-centred – which kind of added to the perversity of the situation for me. I certainly didn’t feel sorry for him or the predicament in which he finds himself, and I think that helped me just go with the magical elements of the story.  Bjorn is also so sure of himself throughout the majority of the crazy events that are happening around him that he just brings everyone else along with him and by the end everyone else is questioning their own sanity – including me, at some points.

This is a reasonably quick read, with short chapters and very few wasted words or scenes, which I also appreciated greatly.  There’s nothing worse than having to puzzle over nonsensical content while the author revels in their own superior, prescient knowledge of the outcome. Overall, I have to say I definitely enjoyed this story and, while magical realism won’t be going on my favourite genres list, The Room is definitely worth a look when you’re in the mood for something a bit unexpected in a totally mundane context.

This book is the perfect reading choice after a long, hard day working in your non-existent office.

Progress towards Oddity Odyssey Challenge total: 2/16

Ta-ra, m’dears!

Mad Martha

Stella by Starlight: An MG Haiku Review…and Giveaway!

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Hello my little book-loving chooks! It’s time once again for one of my haiku reviews, and today I have one of those books that leaves a deep feeling of cuddly special-ness in your heart-cockles after you’ve finished reading.  I was lucky enough to receive a beautiful hardback copy of Stella By Starlight by Sharon M. Draper from Simon & Schuster Australia for review…and since I enjoyed the story so much, and the edition is so beautiful (with dust jacket and everything) I am also offering it in a GIVEAWAY at the end of this post.  But the giveaway is for Australians only. Sorry everyone else.

Stella is a young girl just trying to get along during the Great Depression in Bumblebee, South Carolina.  Her head is full of ideas but she has all sorts of trouble putting them down on the page, so Stella creeps out of her family’s shack each night to practise that troublesome writing.  On one of her night-time jaunts, Stella and her younger brother Jojo spot a burning cross across the river, surrounded by men on horses, dressed in white sheets.  The Ku Klux Klan has come to Bumblebee.

As the adults worry and keep watch over the neighbourhood children as they go to and from school, all Stella wants is to win the writing competition at school and have her words published in a real newspaper.  But when Stella’s daddy is among a few local men who decide to register to vote in the upcoming election, the danger posed by Klan members in the town comes to a terrifying head.  Will Stella be brave enough to do what needs to be done, or should she keep her head down to keep her family safe?

stella by starlight

This revolution

can be fought with pen, paper

Solidarity

Stella By Starlight is a thought-provoking piece of historical fiction that is all too relevant to contemporary young people.  Stella is an immediately relatable character – a cheeky but protective big sister, a keenly intelligent student who wants to be heard, and a sensitive member of a community that is brought low by persecution.  Draper has done a wonderful job of pitching these quite scary and disturbing historical events at a level that will best engage the intended age-group.  The scenes involving the Klan are (rightly, I think) frightening, but are tempered with the presence of steadying adult characters, so that the children (and young readers) aren’t left to process the implications of these events alone.

I also appreciated the depth that Draper has delivered in the various character groups – not all the white folk are horrible, violent racists, and not all the African-American folk are lion-hearted revolutionaries – so the story reflects the graduations of feeling and action found in any community, and particularly in a community in the grips of conflict.

Throughout the book there is a pervasive feeling of familial love and affection, driven by the closeness of Stella’s family.  It was in these parts that I really became most engaged, and enjoyed Stella’s attempts to put her thoughts down on paper.  The passages in which Stella gains access to a typewriter were quite funny, as both her thoughts and her commentary on the difficulty of wrangling the machine are collected in the one essay.

I think this is an important book for youngsters to read from a historical perspective, as it is vital for the building of peaceful communities that young people know what went before.  But just as important, this is a warm, winsome and witty story that will draw young readers in through the strength and diversity of its young characters.  I highly recommend Stella By Starlight and I wish there were more novels in this style, pitched at this age group, that deal with Australia’s difficult history from the perspective of our indigenous people.

So as this book is too good to keep to myself, on to the GIVEAWAY!  Many thanks to Simon & Schuster Australia for providing the giveaway prize.

If you live in Australia, you can enter using the Rafflecopter link below.  The winner will receive a hardback copy of Stella By Starlight.  Rafflecopter will choose a random winner and I will contact the winner at the end of the giveaway. Ready? Set? Enter!

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Good luck to all!

Until we meet again, may your days be filled with the simple warmth of a homespun haiku,

Mad Martha