Tripping Back Blue: A Great Expectations Review..

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GREAT (1)

I should probably start by saying that this is more of a “Hopeful Expectations” review because I didn’t have great expectations upon discovering today’s book, but rather hopes that it would be an unusual piece of writing in the YA genre.  Happily, I can say that my expectations were mostly met – hooray!

So what is today’s book?   Tripping Back Blue by Kara Storti, which we gratefully received from Walker Books Australia for review.  Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Finn is a 17-year-old full of paradoxes. He’s a drug dealer, but he’s scoring money to send his twin sister to Harvard. He’s desperate to shoot up even though he’s the most popular kid in Dammertown. He’s a philosopher and orator who’s failing all his classes. The only time he finds peace is when he’s bird-watching. Finn’s life begins to spiral out of control, until he discovers a miracle drug called indigo. Finn is convinced that the drug is the way out of everything broken in his life. But is it really as magical as it seems?

tripping back blue

What I Expected:

Initially, before reading some reviews of this one, I expected a typical “teenager-struggling-with-drugs-story” that happened to have an extremely pretty cover.  On reading a few reviews and finding out that the drug causes users to relive their happiest memories, AND that one of the major characters is an old lady who eventually befriends Finn, I began to get interested.  With these two tidbits of information in hand, I began to hope that this book would blend a bit of fantasy or magical realism with the drudgery of drug use and lift an average story to something unusual and enticing.

What I Got:

Overall, I’m happy to say, I got exactly what I expected.  Perhaps not to the extent that I would have liked, but certainly the base elements of my expectations were all present.  There is an interesting and somewhat volatile relationship between Finn and the old lady, Orah, that drives the indigo plotline.  There is plenty of soul-searching (under-the-influence soul-searching, but still…) from Finn as to whether what he is doing is right, wrong or outside the bounds of morality all together.  The ending is unexpectedly action packed and violent and carries a real atmosphere of danger and confusion.  There were also some interesting twists on the “reliving your happiest memory” device, as the drug doesn’t always work as it is expected to, for Finn at least, as well as an in-depth exploration of human nature, as every character here is flawed in some way and no one is purely evil or pristine.

For the most part, then, I enjoyed this read.  I am not a fan of drug use, talk about drug use, deep explorations of the user’s mind etc (either in real life or fiction) and there was a lot more of this in the story than I initially expected.  Admittedly, all the reviews I read mentioned this and it’s hinted at in the blurb, so I shouldn’t complain.  I was hoping for a little more of the magical realism element around the creation and distribution of indigo, but the story doesn’t suffer particularly for the lack of it.  The segues into talk about birds and random animal facts were a diverting inclusion and fleshed Finn’s character out a bit.

Would I read this book again? Probably not.  Am I glad I ran across it? Definitely.  Is it a standout of the genre? Not really, but it certainly has some original touches that make it worth a look if you enjoy contemporary YA that doesn’t shy away from difficult social issues such as drug use, poverty and family violence.  Plus, you might learn something interesting about birds.

Until next time,

Bruce

Bruce’s Reading Round-Up: The “All the Single Ladies (and one Man)” Edition…

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Welcome to another Reading Round-Up!  Today’s books all feature single ladies (or single men) and we received all of them from their respective publishers via Netgalley.  Let’s hop to it!

The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper (Phaedra Patrick)

Ten Second Synopsis: the curious charms of arthur pepper

Elderly Arthur finds out after his wife’s death that there is much he did not know about her life before she met him. He sets off on a quest to unravel the secrets of her charm bracelet.

Muster up the motivation because…

…if you enjoy quirky, feel-good stories featuring intrepid old folk then you should enjoy this.  Having said that, I do enjoy such stories, but elected not to finish this one.  There wasn’t anything wrong with the book per se, but the characters were a bit two-dimensional for my tastes and some quite unbelievable events had me not particularly connecting with the story.  I must have had the US edition as well, because Arthur uses the word “bangs” for fringe, and “trunk” for boot.  This completely threw out my engagement with the story, because it is inconceivable that an Englishman of Arthur’s vintage would ever have used the word “bangs” in that context, ever, for any reason.  **Honestly, can’t we give Americans more credit? I’m sure they could figure out what “fringe” meant given the context of the scene.  **  This would be a great choice for those moments when you’d like a light uplifting read that certainly won’t ask you to work too hard.

Brand it with:

Positively charming, oldies’ road trip, secrets from beyond the grave

The Woman Next Door (Yewande Omotoso)

Ten Second Synopsis:  the woman next door

Hortensia and Marion don’t like each other. Both have a hidden history. Both are alone. Slowly, and with great mistrust, they might grow to like each other. Or at least not loathe each other.

Muster up the motivation because:

This has all the features of your typical grumpy-old-ladies story, but with the added interest of being set in South Africa and delving unapologetically into the social and racial divides that plague that nation.  I did enjoy parts of this story but found it to be quite heavy going in certain sections.  Add to that the fact that Hortensia is thorny and often acerbic while Marion is the absolute reflection of late-to-the-party, trying-to-atone-for-years-of-racial-disinterest white privilege and the book might inspire some very uncomfortable moments of self-reflection for certain readers.  There’s a lot going on in this book, not least of which is the women’s fears about aging, regrets and surprises from their deceased spouses and whether the ship bearing the chance to atone for past transgressions has sailed.  I will admit to an expectation that this book would be more humorous than it is – the humour here being so dry as to be crumbling to dust.  Certainly though, this is an unexpected and unusual examination of many aspects of womanhood, motherhood, wifehood and sisterhood.

Brand it with:

Sisters doin’ it for themselves, grey areas, mean (old) girls

Sister Eve and the Blue Nun: Divine Private Detective Agency #3 (Lynne Hinton)

Ten Second Synopsis: sister eve

Sister Eve returns to the monastery after a brief leave of absence to attend a conference. All goes to pot however, when one of the key note speakers is found dead the night before an important speech.

Muster up the motivation because…

If you enjoy murder mysteries that are more about the enjoyment of a good murder romp than actually being believable, you should get a kick out of this.  It didn’t particularly float my boat, only because the events of the second chapter were so unbelievable that I couldn’t take the rest of the story seriously in any way.  I speak of the immediate aftermath of the murder in which, upon hearing of the death of the victim, Sister Eve doesn’t immediately rush to the scene to render first aid or at least see what the situation is, and instead has a prolonged chat with the victim’s brother.  Then there’s the fact that on arriving at the murder scene, Sister Eve interferes with a crime scene and actually BREAKS a major piece of evidence.  Finally, there’s the fact that nobody who hears of the fact that there may be someone dead or dying on the premises bothers to call the police.  These three things in quick succession diminished my engagement with the story tenfold.  The rest of the book follows the usual murder-mystery path with red-herrings and set-ups and the rest before an action-packed reveal.  A fun addition to the genre, but not my cup of tea, sadly.

Brand it with:

(Religious) sisters doin’ it for themselves, brotherly love, murder in the monastery

I hope you find something to lasso and take home in this lot!

Until next time,

Bruce

 

 

Moth Girls and Crystal Cadets: A Double-Dip Review…

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imageGrab your snack of choice and slather it in a conglomeration of sauces because it’s time for the first double-dip review of 2016!  Today I have a YA, not-your-average-murder-mystery and a manga-style graphic novel for the younger middle grade set.  I received both of today’s titles from their respective publishers via Netgalley.  Let’s get dipping!

First up, we have Moth Girls by Annie Cassidy.  Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Helplessly drawn like moths to the light, two girls go missing in an evocative and gripping tale . . .

They called them the Moth Girls because they were attracted to the house. They were drawn to it. Or at least that is what is written in the newspapers that Mandy reads on the anniversary of when her two best friends went missing. Five years have passed since Petra and Tina were determined to explore the dilapidated house on Princess Street. But what started off as a dare ended with the two girls vanishing. As Mandy’s memories of the disappearance of her two friends are ignited once again, disturbing details will resurface in her mind.

Dip into it for…moth girls

…an in-depth examination of teen friendships, loyalty and the impact of disappearances on those left behind.  Needless to say, there are some twists in this book and I’m not going to say much about them lest I spoil the reading experience for others.  The story is told in a number of parts, some focused on the present and some on the time of the girls’ disappearance.  As more details are revealed, it is clear that the friendship between Mandy, Petra and Tina was rocky at times and there are other factors at play that contributed to the mystery surrounding the big house.  This is certainly one pitched at the upper end of the YA market for its complex interweaving of different storylines.

Don’t dip if…

you find mopey teens annoying.  Mandy is, admittedly, a bit of a pill and despite being the main character is the least interesting of the three girls.  Thankfully, the other voices and shifting timeframes generally compensate for this.  Also, if you don’t like a circuitous story, this is definitely not for you.  There are plenty of loose ends that are gradually tied up (although some are left hanging!), and the jumping between points of view requires some good memory on the part of the reader.

Overall Dip Factor

This turned out to be a solid, well-realised mystery story that ended with a twist that was simultaneously unexpected and completely logical.  I would definitely recommend this to those looking for a read focusing on younger characters, but featuring some pretty heavy issues, without any sense of “This is YA fiction” about it. 

Next up we have Crystal Cadets by Anne Toole, Katie O’Neill and Paulina Ganucheau.  Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Tantalizing and lively – Booklist Cadets Go! Join this team of darkness-fighting, world-saving, power-packed teen girls from all over the world on their first adventure! Zoe has always felt out of place; her foster parents are great and all, but she’s long felt like something was missing. That is, of course, until she discovers a mysterious gem left to her by her birth mother and her whole universe gets flipped around! When the crystal grants Zoe mysterious powers of light she becomes the Diamond Cadet, and she’s not the only one; suddenly she’s meeting new friends who shoot flames and glowing green arrows. It’s all fun at first, but when The Darkness possesses Zoe’s foster parents her only choice is to join this wild group of action-hero girls, traveling the globe to defeat The Darkness and find a cure!”

Dip into it for…crystal cadets

…an action-packed tale of girl power that will remind you of lazy hours spent watching Saturday morning cartoons.  The art is manga-style and will appeal, I suspect, to those who do like a cartoonish style and the characters are a diverse bunch of young ladies from various countries, all of whom have been chosen to be guardians of the earth.  The style and simple plot will appeal to the younger end of the middle grade market and the concept of all-powerful, butt-kicking young girls with the ability to summon cute flying mythical mounts in order to save the world is designed to draw in the female demographic.

Don’t Dip if…

…you’re after a graphic novel featuring an in-depth plot, or indeed, any real explanation of the workings behind the girls’ powers.  The storyline is devoid of much information regarding how these girls got their powers (apart from the fact that they have been “passed down” from their mothers) and each girl seems to accept her new powers without question.  There is also a bit of a corny tone to the plot with the “Darkness” feeding off bad behaviour – cheating, lying and bad manners, for example – and at times it felt a little bit too preachy for me.

Overall Dip Factor

I’m really unsure how current readers of graphic novels in the middle-grade age bracket will take this one.  While the action is non-stop from start to finish, the themes of female friendship, teamwork and “being good” feel a bit overdone and didactic.  This might be better engaged as a “gateway” read for non-readers of graphic novels at the lower end of the middle grade age bracket to bolster a positive perception of graphic novels amongst reluctant readers.

There we are then – two very different tomes, but hopefully something that might take you back for a second dip.

Until next time,

Bruce

 

 

An Aussie Picture Book “Five Things I’ve Learned Review”: Australia To Z…

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imageIf you’re getting bored with the ordinary old alphabet picture book format and you yearn for an alphabet book that really says something about its subject, allow me to direct you right to today’s offering – Armin Greder’s Australia to Z.  This is one of those books that, on the surface, looks like a perfectly ordinary picture book, but on closer inspection, has the potential to blow the discussion about Australian identity right out of the water.  I was lucky enough to receive a copy from Allen & Unwin for review – thanks!

Here’s the (sparse) blurb from Goodreads:

Juxtaposing words and images, the multi-award-winning author of The Island shines an uncompromising light on what it is to be Australian.

australia to z

And here are Five Things I’ve Learned From…

Australia To Z by Armin Greder

  1. While “Footballs, Meat pies and Kangaroos” still seem to go together underneath the southern stars, Holden cars are clearly on their way out (of the country and this book)

     2. No matter where we go or what opinion we ascribe to, we cannot escape the looming visage of Rupert.

     3. The meaning of the word stubby is always dependent on context.

     4.  Australia only has two culinary achievements worth mentioning and they begin with L and V respectively.

     5. Those of us who fear for the future of this once-great nation are not alone.

While many of the letter choices in this picture book for readers at upper Primary level and older are designed to initiate debate on current social trends, there are also plenty of images that are just plain hilarious.  My particular favourite is the “I” page, which every DIYer will find familiar, while the “X” page is just plain bizarre – what is that man doing to that Turkey??

The line art is evocative and this, combined with colour-blocked backgrounds and pops of colour on key objects, makes for a sparse and focused examination of each page.  The final double page spread, in which the words of the national anthem are combined with images of “the Australian way”, both mundane and adversarial, sums up the utter sense of discomfiture that many Australians experience regarding various social injustices that continue to plague us.  Greder has run a very fine balancing act here, providing just the right depth of genuflection at the altar of the jovial, jocular, larrikin sense of Australian identity to compensate for the stark and confronting presentation of issues of racism, misplaced national pride and social injustice that, like it or not, also make up the character of modern Australia.

In the interests of the nation, I would suggest passing this book around at your next backyard barbeque and watch the conversations heat up.

Subversion, thy name is Greder! (And the shelf-denizens salute you!)

Until next time,

Bruce

 

 

 

An Aussie “Top Book of 2015” Read-it-if Review: The Beauty is in the Walking…

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Welcome to another Read-it-if Review, this time with an Aussie book by a veteran Aussie author that deals with disability, diversity and big decisions. I gratefully received a copy of The Beauty is in the Walking by James Moloney from Harper Collins Australia for review. Understated and thoroughly likeable, I have placed this story on the pedestal labelled “Top Books of 2015”. Said pedestal is starting to fill up nicely; this is the fifth book upon which I have bestowed this illustrious title.

Anyway, great books don’t review themselves (or I’m out of a job!) so let’s get on. Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Everyone thinks they know what Jacob O’Leary can and can’t do – and they’re not shy about telling him either. But no one – not even Jacob – knows what he’s truly capable of. And he’s desperate for the chance to work it out for himself. When a shocking and mystifying crime sends his small country town reeling, and fingers start pointing at the newcomer, Jacob grabs the chance to get out in front of the pack and keep mob rule at bay. He’s convinced that the police have accused the wrong guy; that the real villain is still out there. And he’s determined to prove it – and himself – to everyone.

beauty in the walking

Read it if:

*you’ve ever been outshone by a better looking/more talented/ (insert superlative here) sibling, friend, school mate or passer-by

*you have ever had a teacher that you simultaneously admire and want to punch in the face

*you’re looking for some YA that has thought-provoking content, promotes diversity and steers away from the overused storylines that populate bookstore shelves for this age group

*you secretly want to be thought of as a righter of wrongs, a champion of justice and generally someone who can speak publicly without fear of dribbling.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: there is something about books by Australian writers, set in Australia that ooze familiarity and comfort. From the moment I took in the exquisite cover of The Beauty is in the Walking, to the first few laid-back chapters, I knew I would be in for an immersive and understated tale of growth and change.

The best thing about this book is that it is unexpected in many ways.

*Please note that I am about to ruin some of that unexpectedness so if you would like to discover the unexpectedness for yourself, you should probably skip the next two paragraphs*

After reading the blurb, I thought I knew generally what this book would be like, but I was unprepared for a main character with Cerebral Palsy (CP), and a resultant mobility impairment. It’s obvious from the beginning that there is something different about Jacob, but the actual naming of his disability doesn’t come straight away, allowing the reader to meet him as he is, rather than having a preconception of what he might be like, based on a label. I feel that Moloney has done an excellent and realistic job of creating a character with a medical condition that imposes certain limitations on how that character moves through the world.

Being that I sit on the shelf of a fleshling with a similar mobility impairment (although not CP) I was surprised at how Moloney has so authentically incorporated this aspect of Jacob’s life into the story. Sometimes the impairment is right at the forefront – embarrassing, painful and inconvenient – and sometimes it’s part of the scenery, unworthy of notice or mention. Similarly, the different reactions of various people to Jacob’s disability run the gamut from overcompensation to celebration. This was part of what made the book feel realistic and it’s no wonder I was drawn in so deeply to Jacob’s quest to break out of the bonds of expectation.

*Alright skippers, you can start reading again now!*

When a number of animals around country Palmerston are killed in vicious attacks, the flimsiest of evidence points toward newcomer to the town, Mahmoud Rais, a Muslim student whose father has taken over the supervision of halal preparation at the local meatworks. Jacob doesn’t fully understand his motivation for doing so, but immediately leaps to Mahmoud’s defence as he is chased by an angry mob of kids. As the town grows more and more convinced that Mahmoud is the guilty party, and the local press and police seem to be encouraging that conviction, Jacob faces a choice about whether it’s worth protesting Mahmoud’s innocence.

Partway through the book I began to worry that this was going to become a clunky sort of declaration of the dangers of leaping to conclusions, with two-dimensional Islamic characters and a cursory diatribe against kneejerk prejudice. Of course, I should have known better and trusted in the talents of Moloney as an experienced writer, because the direction that the story takes could not be further from what I have described.

Instead of attempting to defy stereotyping of a minority by creating characters that would end up being a very small sample of the minority being stereotyped, Moloney has focused the story on Jacob and his thought processes as the events of the investigation are played out. The reactions of others – his parents, schoolmates and teacher – are presented for Jacob to navigate and the pr0s and cons of voicing one’s platform on social media are also explored.

The thing I enjoyed most about this story though, was the fact that the events are presented in the context of Jacob’s final year of school and the decisions that he has to make about his future, both in terms of what he wants to do and who he wants to be. Along the way the story touches on first love, bullying and discrimination, challenging authority and trust – in others and oneself.

If you are looking for an engrossing, surprising and authentically told story – whether you are a reader of YA or otherwise – allow me to suggest The Beauty is in the Walking as a worthy choice, featuring a young male protagonist with an original voice and content that is both topical and perennial.

Until next time,

Bruce

The Undertaker’s Daughter: A “Five Things I’ve Learned” Review…

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Welcome to another “Five Things I’ve Learned” Review, wherein I relay to you, the eager reader of this blog, the insights gained from one of my recent reads.  Today I have the memoir of a lady who literally grew up among the dead; residing, as she did, in a funeral home.  I requested The Undertaker’s Daughter by Kate Mayfield partly because I was drawn in by the cover and partly because of my interest in the funerary rituals of your kind, so I was smugly grateful to receive a copy from the publisher via Netgalley.  Here’s the skinny on the story:

As the child of an undertaker in Jubilee, Kentucky in the 1960s, life for Kate was relatively typical, provided you discounted the corpses temporarily populating the ground floor of her home. Sharing her house reasonably comfortably with Jubilee’s dead – although always avoiding the embalming room – Kate watches as her father renders vital services to the townsfolk during the aftermath of a resident’s passing.  From feuds between the two funeral homes in town to family bouts of fisticuffs over the wills of loved ones, Kate learns about the shadier sides of human nature through others’ reactions to the spectre of death in their midst.  As she grows up, her ideas about her father evolve and family secrets and struggles shed new light on the stresses of life in a small town.  As well as one girl’s personal experience of growing up around the undertaker’s trade is a reflection of the broader social climates of a small Southern town across some turbulant decades. 

undertakers daughter

So here are…

Five Things I’ve Learned From…

The Undertaker’s Daughter

1. Embalming is not a spectator sport.

2. Even funeral homes are not immune to underhanded tactics of sabotage from business rivals.

3.  In the 1960s in some small towns, the hearse also served as an ambulance.

4. Small towns in the Southern US seem to have higher proportions of colourful characters with quirky lifestyle choices than elsewhere.

5. Living in a funeral home is much like living in any other home, except for a slight awkwardness regarding filling in the “how many people are staying in your place of residence” question on census night.

This was a bit of a hot-and-cold read for me.  There were some bits during which I felt really interested and engaged, and there were some bits that I could take or leave.  On reflection, this is quite a broad memoir that not only takes in the specifics of living in a funeral home, but also encompasses the author’s learnings from watching her father’s interactions with various people in their town.  There are big chunks of the book dedicated to Kate and her father’s relationship with a reclusive, wealthy lady resident of the town and the resulting friction that occurs between her family and the townsfolk after the lady’s eventual death.  There’s quite a bit about the volatile social climate around race in the post-segregation era as told through Kate’s experiences with friendship and dating as a young teen.  There’s an awful lot about Kate’s family struggles as she learns more about her father’s less-than-stellar behaviour and deals with her elder sister’s untreated mental illness.

So if you have an interest in that time period and its impact on the relationships between different groups in a small town, there will be a lot of extra bang for your buck if you pick up this book.  For me though, while some of those bits were reasonably interesting, I really just wanted to find out more about living in a funeral home.  By the time Kate gets to be a young teen, the funeral home bit of the memoir is pretty much wrapped up and the rest of the book focuses on Kate’s emerging social awareness, before relating her family’s experiences in dealing with her father’s death.

Overall, I suspect this wasn’t really ever going to be the book for me.  It’s in no way a bad book – it’s very readable, and as I said, got plenty to draw in the person with an interest in memoirs that focus on social history – it just wasn’t quite what I was expecting.

Nevertheless, I – and now you, dear reader – will depart this reading experience with some valuable learnings, and for that also, I am smugly grateful.

Until next time,

Bruce

Bruce’s Reading Round-Up: Graphic Novel Edition…

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Welcome to my first reading round-up of the week! On Friday we’ll be lassooing some of the odder titles roaming the literary plains, but today we’ll be focusing on a herd of bright, flashy graphic novels.  Hi Ho Readers, Away!

Henni (Miss Lasko-Gross)

HenniTwo Sentence Synopsis:

Henni lives in a society ruled by religious zealots.  Her father taught her to question, and when her natural curiosity threatens to undermine her safety, Henni sets off to find answers to her big questions.

Muster up the motivation because:

Apart from the striking black and white artwork and humanimal characters, there’s plenty of depth to be uncovered in Henni’s wanderings.  There are lots of social issues touched upon here and the reader can ponder upon them as deeply as they please, or just enjoy Henni’s coming-of-age story in a strange, original context.  There’s even a dissenter that Henni comes across, performing his own, scultpural version of yarn-bombing who I particularly identified with.

Brand it with:

Spiritual philosophising, curious cat-people, coming-of-age, flight from death

Read my Goodreads review here!

* I received a copy of this title from the publisher via Netgalley*

 Soppy: A Love Story (Philippa Rice)
soppy

Two Sentence Synopsis:

This is a cute collection of cartoons featuring the author and her partner.  Perfect for a blue day pick-me-up, this title will best appeal to those who don’t have hearts made of stoney stone.

Muster up the motivation because:

The black, white and red colour scheme, coupled with the cutesy illustrations make this tome very easy on the eye.  There’s not a lot of text here either, so readers are not in any danger of having to think too hard.  I suspect that most fleshlings who have ever been in any kind of commited relationship will get a chuckle out of recognising themselves in Rice’s story.

Brand it with:

Heartwarming humour, whimsical to a fault, coupled sleeping positions of the Northern Hemisphere.

Read my Goodreads review here!

* I received a copy of this title from the publisher via Netgalley *

Bad Machinery (#3): The Case of the Simple Soul (John Allison)

bad machineryTwo Sentence Synopsis:

A group of six friends have to find something to do during their summer holiday break after solving most of the mysteries in their village.  Luckily there’s been a spate of barn fires recently, and two of the friends stumble upon a troll-creature living under a bridge.

Muster up the motivation because:

Everyone needs a pleasant diversion from the cares and woes of modern life and why not spend that diversion with a group of six, slightly strange British teens?  There’s a lot of sarky, dry humour here if that sort of thing pleases you and the story doesn’t require too much of the reader.  But if the prospect of a hairy troll-man living under a bridge with a pet fox doesn’t convince you, you’re probably reading the wrong blog.

Brand it with:

Understated teen drama, haters-gonna-hate (fire), unusual couplings

Read my Goodreads review here!

* I received a copy of this title from the publisher via Netgalley *

Stay tuned for the odd round up on Friday pardners!

Until next time,

Bruce