R.I.P. IX is here!

5 September, 2014

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The only thing that makes the end of summer OK, is Carl’s wonderful R(eaders). I(imbibing). P(eril) Challenge which is celebrating it’s 9th year. It’s one of the first reading challenges in which I participated and I look forward to it every year. And although I may not post a wrap-up post each year, I love every minute of choosing and reading my list of books which are mainly from my shelves as well as seeing what others are dipping into. And how gorgeous is the artwork for this year’s challenge?

As usual, I’m hoping to read at least four books in the following categories: mystery, suspense, thriller, dark fantasy, gothic, horror and supernatural which, to be honest, are my favourite genres. So bring it on!

My pool of books from which I plan to read four (or more!) are:

The Fire by Katherine Neville – I loved The Eight which I read years ago.
The Abomination by Jonathan Holt – murder in Venice.
Servant of the Underworld by Aliette de Bodard – completely blown away by her short stories so I need more – an Aztec mystery!
The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith – just because it’s JKR!
Sugar Hall by Tiffany Murray – the nights are drawing in and I’m in need of something spookay.
Faithful Place by Tana French – I really need to get back into French’s writing.
The Axeman’s Jazz by Ray Celestin – it’s just been shortlisted for the CWA John Creasey (New Blood) Dagger!
She Lover of Death by Boris Akunin – Erast Fandorin in the house!
A Vengeful Longing by R.N. Morris – the third mystery in a series featuring Porfiry Petrovich from Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment.
The Doomsday Book by Connie Willis – time travel and the Black Death!

Of course I’ll be adding and subtracting from this list, but who’s counting, right?

So will you be joining us? And, more importantly, what will YOU be reading?

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The second issue of Shiny New Books! is now online where you will find my review of Lauren Owen’s sensational debut, The Quick. Do go and have a gander to see what’s on offer, what other bloggers have been reading and what they recommend. Hope you are all enjoying your summer and trying out new books!

The Quick

Republic of Thieves

Oh Locke, how I have missed you.

Scott Lynch’s The Republic of Thieves, the third volume in his majestic Gentleman Bastards series, is one of two books I have been waiting eagerly for years. Starting with The Lies of Locke Lamora which shook my reading mojo when I was feeling the fantasy genre was a little lacklustre and tired, Lynch’s beautifully realised, faux-quattrocento world introduced a new sophistication into world-building. Not only was it visually stunning but the prose was beautiful, the pace supersonic and page after page brought twists and turns that the reader couldn’t possible envisage for Locke and his crew. Lynch’s ambitious novel stunned the sff world and readers couldn’t get enough. This was followed by Red Seas Under Red Skies as Locke and his friend Jean Tannen take to the high seas for even wilder adventures as they con their way across their world. For Locke and Jean are part of the Gentleman Bastards, thieves with finesse. As this is the third in Lynch’s projected series of seven books, there will be some spoilers. If you haven’t read any of the books, I suggest you go and get yourself a copy of The Lies of Locke Lamora immediately.

In The Republic of Thieves, we finally meet Sabetha Belacora, Locke and Jean’s childhood friend and fellow Gentleman Bastard who stole Locke’s heart and vanished leaving him heartbroken almost five years ago. We’ve heard of Sabetha in the previous books but only through Locke’s lovelorn memories and I couldn’t wait to find out more about this mysterious woman. Interspersed with Locke’s childhood memories, where we learn of their meeting as orphans in an underground children’s gang in Camorr, is the precarious present in which we find Locke fighting for his life against a deadly poison without an antidote. Jean is desperate to find a cure and won’t countenance Locke’s pleas to let him go when they are granted salvation in the form of Archedama Patience, a powerful five-ringed bondsmagi who offers them an employment contract in exchange for Locke’s life.

And so they sail to Karthain where a political game is beginning and in which Locke and Jean are tasked to ensure the political victory of the Deep Roots party. But theirs is game of many layers and the other party of bondsmagi who control Karthain have hired a formidable opponent to advise the Black Iris party; one who knows everything about Locke and Jean and how their minds work. As Locke is given the chance he has been craving and meets Sabetha, he realises that not only must he win her back but he must win the game and save all their lives. For Patience is as dangerous as she is helpful and is playing a completely different game.

Lynch is back on form and as soon as I dipped into The Republic of Thieves, I was sucked into his opulent, Dickension world full of tricks and counter-moves. Like the previous two novels, it’s clever, rich in detail and what really makes the novel is the wonderfully realised characters which he draws with such depth; they’re funny, conflicted, clever and feel things. Friendship, loyalty, love and sorrow mean something to them just as much as pride in their work. The only weak part, which I presume is also one of the highlights, was the bits about the play, The Republic of Thieves, which the Gentleman Bastards had to perform one summer when they were younger. In Locke’s recollections, we are re-acquainted with the Sanza twins, Callo and Gallo, who once formed part of their family and this was both bittersweet and funny. Although the play was relevant in that it formed the backdrop to their summer job as a traveling group of Camorri actors, I don’t think it would have harmed the novel if most of it was edited out.

The ending of The Republic of Thieves hints at more darkness in store for Locke and his friends. Will he ever get it together with Sabetha or is she lost to him forever? And what is the secret behind Locke’s orphan past? With so many twists in the tale, I can’t wait to find out more. Although The Republic of Thieves may not be as strong or substantial as the previous two books, it’s a welcome return to Lynch’s fabulous world. The next in the series is The Thorn of Emberlain – it’ll be another long wait but totally worth it.

Together with Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen, Lynch’s Gentleman Bastards series is, in my opinion, one of the best and original series in the fantasy genre in the last ten years. I kid you not. Seriously, go and read them.

Wild Seed

‘I am here,’ she said in the same quiet voice. ‘You have me.’
‘Do I?’
‘As much as any man could.’

Black, feminist and the first science fiction writer to be a recipient of the MacArthur Fellowship, Octavia E. Butler is a writer I have long been meaning to read but of whom I was a little too much in awe. Such a deceptively small book, and yet Butler’s Wild Seed tackles some very troubling subjects in a surprisingly accessible manner. It’s not an easy thing for any writer to do. And yet she does it with such ease.

Wild Seed is the story of Anyanwu, chameleon-like, long-lived and with the power to manipulate and change her body, absorbing pain and healing herself and others. When she meets Doro, an equally enigmatic character who is drawn to her special powers, she is afraid but curious. But Doro is different from her; ancient, sly, dangerous, a parasitic spirit who kills to survive. He succeeds in persuading Anyanwu to leave her village in Africa and travel back to his settlement in the New World as his wife and she agrees in exchange for his promise that he won’t touch her family. But soon she realises that Doro has an agenda and will do anything to succeed. He is trying to breed a new people with special powers and has been traveling the world collecting specimen. And as a wild seed, one that he cannot fully understand and therefore control, Anyanwu must use her inherent survival skills in order to protect her descendants and remain free in every sense.

Wild Seed
is more than just a tale of migration and different cultures. Butler tackles the issues of possession, slavery and gender in a startlingly honest way. It’s savage and ugly and you wonder at the brutality of people so brilliantly magnified and realised by the spirit that is Doro – he would do anything to get what he wants and he knows just how to go about it.

Doro followed, thinking that he had better get her with a new child as quickly as he could. Her independence would vanish without a struggle. She would do whatever he asked then to keep her child safe. She was too valuable to kill, and if he abducted any of her descendents, she would no doubt goad him into killing her. But once she was isolated in America with an infant to care for, she would learn submissiveness.

And that is exactly the chilling lesson Anyanwu learns. Doro knows her weakness and that is her children.

Living for so long, death, morality and love mean something entirely different to him if at all. Anywanwu is the human, ethical side as Doro is the animal, biological. But this dichotomy is too simplistic for what Butler is trying to achieve. For life is all about the fight, the will to assert power, to pursue what you think is right and most of all, the search for companionship. And eventually, after many centuries, both Anyanwu and Doro find an uneasy truce, but not before her heart has been broken many times and Doro learns an unexpected lesson: compromise.

Wild Seed is storytelling at its richest. It’s harsh, chilling and brutal but not much more than what is recorded in history. Butler tackles the issues of slavery, possession and freedom but does this in a multi-layered, sensitive manner. A complex history deserves a complex treatment and that is exactly what she has achieved.

Doro had reshaped her. She had submitted and submitted and submitted to keep him from killing her even though she had long ago ceased to believe what Isaac had told her – that her longevity made her the right mate for Doro. That she could somehow prevent him from becoming an animal. He was already an animal. But she had formed the habit of submission. In her love for Isaac and for her children, and in her fear of death – especially of the kind of death Doro would inflict – she had given in to him again and again. Habits were difficult to break. The habit of living, the habit of fear … even the habit of love.

I’m not sure whether I can forgive Doro as Anyanwu does, although she doesn’t do it easily. But then imagining how one can sustain hatred and anger for hundreds of years isn’t easy and the idea of forgiveness in order to move on becomes something that one needs to think about. But for Anyanwu and Doro who only have each other, their love/hate relationship is stripped bare with time as they watch their loved ones and acquaintances die one after another.

I don’t think I’ve read anything like Wild Seed before. It’s not easy reading but it’s bold and imaginative and with echoes of Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale with a dash of X-Men. It’s a tale of strength borne of suffering and I strongly urge you all to read it. I am now keen to read more by Butler including Kindred and Parable of the Sower, two of her most famous novels.

I read this as part of Aarti’s A More Diverse Universe 2013 Challenge.

Bellman & Black

It’s been 6 long years since Diane Setterfield’s novel The Thirteenth Tale touched me with its gothic structure encasing a twisted tale of siblings with red tresses. I squealed with excitement on learning her new novel, Bellman & Black, was to be published this year and almost fainted when I won a copy of a signed ARC from Orion Books which I collected from Goldsboro Books situated in a tiny lane filled with antiquarian bookshops connecting Leicester Square to Covent Garden. Wonderful!

Bellman & Black
is the tale of William Bellman, son to the heir of Bellman Mills so unceremoniously kicked out after making a hasty marriage and who subsequently disappears leaving his baby son and heartbroken wife in the small town of Whittingford. But William grows up hearty and loved and carries the potential of hope and happiness around him. But a childhood incident binds him to his playmates and will change his life forever although he doesn’t know it as he grows older and is hired by his uncle Paul to help run his family mill. Everything William touches flourishes and soon Bellman Mills’ success means they cannot do without William. But when he loses his mother, slowly his life begins to unravel. Even a happy marriage and children cannot stem the slow encroachment of the darkness which began that fateful day when William and his friends killed a rook when they were ten. While William struggles with his memories and suppresses his horror of death, his business empire expands until he comes up with the idea of creating a business which has never been seen before. He will call it Bellman & Black – but who is this mysterious Mr. Black who has haunted William since his mother’s death? And is William’s slow transformation into a workaholic man determined not to be bound by time really ok?

There is so much to love about this book. The writing style, the structure, the way in which Setterfield subtly interweaves all her incredible ideas into not only a coherent but a touchingly beautiful story devoid of over-sentimentalisation is wonderful. Bellman & Black is difficult to categorise. On one hand it is a gothic tale but split into two. The first half charting the rise of William Bellman and filled with laughter and happy memories. The second is a totally different side showing all the different shades of black so beloved of Bellman & Black’s emporium. The novel was somewhat different from what I anticipated, a straightforward contract regarding death, but it became something else entirely. I felt I had gone on a long journey with William and come out feeling so much for him. Setterfield masterfully makes the reader forget the past as well as she did William. For this novel is about thought and memory and rooks. There’s layer upon layer of dark and sorrow and yet it’s not empty of hope and love.

You can spot lots of Dickensian characters in Bellman & Black which sets the scene for the tale dusted with a touch of Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus. And you will learn a lot about mills and cloth and retail and especially about how to be a cracking businessman. And you will also learn about how to be a part of a community and how to be alone. And you will learn not to harm any rooks. Bellman & Black is a beautifully written tale. Just perfect.

I read this as part of R.I.P. VIII.

Rivers of London

Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch follows the adventures of Constable Peter Grant, fresh from completing his probationary period at the Met, who is called in to help with a murder in Covent Garden. There he encounters a ghost and is duly seconded to the ESC9 or Economic and Specialist Crime Unit 9 mostly known as The Folly. Headed by the enigmatic and suspiciously young Detective Inspector Thomas Nightingale, Grant soon becomes a part of an intimate group including a suspiciously pale Gothic Lolita with very sharp teeth named Molly who is really into recreating incredibly heavy Victorian dishes and a little yappy dog named Toby, who investigates supernatural and magical incidents ignored by the rest of the police.

CCTV cameras have caught images of a man beheaded by another whose face had suddenly transformed into something with a hooked nose and a long chin. Soon, other unprovoked attacks are reported including one where the perpetrator’s face has stretched and collapsed killing him too. Grant and Nightingale are drawn towards the theatrical legacy and feuds that litter Covent Garden and are soon on the trail of a malevolent spirit out for revenge.

Grant is also drawn into a territorial dispute between Mother and Father Thames and their separate offspring tributaries and needs to quickly learn how to navigate amongst the god-like folk who seem really easy to anger. Together with his by-the-book colleague Lesley May, on whom Peter has a little crush, and the wonderfully spontaneous Beverley Brooke, one of Mother Thames’ younger, bouncier daughters, Peter is in a race against time to bring the mad spirit under control and to stop all out war on the Thames.

Combining a supernatural mystery with an original take on London folklore, Aaronovitch has successfully managed to create something utterly original with traces of Gaiman, Mieville and Rowling, Rivers of London is a highly entertaining, informative and, dare I say, utterly enjoyable read.

I’m a huge fan of Christopher Fowler’s Bryant & May series that brings out the best of London’s varied and rich history and Aaronovitch does the same but with a twist of the supernatural.

Although the folklore and cultural history is a big draw, I particularly liked the characters Aaronovitch has created. Peter is a self-deprecating geek who loves his family and friends and Nightingale is an enigmatic sleuth and wizard moulded in the form of an ex-Oxbridge/Hogwarts junior prof. With a sympathetic and engaging protagonist who is symbolic of multicultural, multi-racial London, Aaronovitch has managed to do something new. Here’s to London’s newest apprentice wizard.

Although there has been a somewhat mixed reception amongst my friends regarding this series, the main one being that it’s a little too light and could use a little more depth, all of them have said they enjoyed reading Rivers of London and were impressed with the London Aaronovitch conjures.

I can’t wait to read the rest of the series!

R.I.P. VIII has started!

9 September, 2013

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Hurray! It’s shiver me timbers time as Carl’s R.I.P. VIII has started. This is one reading challenge I look forward to every year as my thoughts turn to darker tales. I will once again be doing the Peril the First Challenge and this year have lined up the following books of which I hope to read four or more.

Bellman and Black by Diane Setterfield – it’s coming out in October but I was lucky enough to win a copy!
The Twyning by Terence Blacker – all about rats
Doomsday Book by Connie Willis – time-traveling into the Black Death
Evil and the Mask by Fuminori Nakamura – can you be groomed to be a cancer?
Observatory Mansions by Edward Carey – a touch of gothic

And I’m still on the search for a book that will really scare the pants off me. Any suggestions? The Woman in Black didn’t work and nor did The Greatcoat. But I’m hopeful. Something spooky rather than gory. So suggestions please!

A Wrinkle in Time 2

It was a dark and stormy night.

And so begins Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, one of the best-loved book for children that I missed reading when I was little. I thought I had most of my bases covered as we had an extremely well-stocked library in my British School in Bangkok and even in my tiny International School in Nagoya, Japan. Actually there was a wider range of books there than in my boarding school in England, believe it or not. But somehow, I missed both this and The Dark is Rising series by Susan Cooper.

One of the things about being a book-loving Aunt is that I want my nephews and niece to be exposed to all the books I loved as a child. I was so thrilled to become an Aunt that I bought the whole set of Narnia books for my one year old nephew not realising that it would be years before he would be able to read and that most probably the books would get lost in the interim. But I love that they know I love to read and would talk excitedly about their books to me. And although it’s hard, I try to restrain myself and not push books that I think they ought to read to them because you need to find the books you love yourself. That’s what I did. My parents never directed my reading. There were books in my house and I found them myself. And I went to the library and bookshop myself. They never censored my reading. They were very liberal and I now have very eclectic reading tastes which even they don’t fully understand. And that’s what I hope will happen to the kids.

In A Wrinkle in Time, the first in a quintet, twelve year old Meg is having a hard time. Misunderstood at school and missing her father who has disappeared, she is struggling to keep herself together. Until one night, they receive a mysterious visitor who utters the strange word ‘tesseract’ which throws her family’s life into turmoil. Together with her younger brother Charles Wallace and their new friend Calvin, Meg finds herself hurled into another time and place in order to rescue her father. For a darkness is coming to their world and they will need to use all their strengths and weaknesses to save their loved ones.

I was curious to know about A Wrinkle in Time but a little hesitant to read it as an adult. Sometimes, it’s disappointing as the pace and language is no longer what you are used to. But I was more than surprised to find that I enjoyed the tension and pace of the first volume in L’Engle’s series. And what was even more interesting is that A Wrinkle in Time dealt with quite a few complex issues and ideas that even some adults may struggle with. One of the most impressive things about this book is the explanation of the so-called wrinkles in time which are condensed and simplified versions of space-time and manifolds which were introduced by Einstein in his seminal work on General Relativity. As someone who has struggled to understand the theory as a student, L’Engle’s explanation has a beauty and simplicity which makes it easier to understand. And I loved that Charles Wallace is most probably an amalgamation of Charles Darwin and his rival/friend Alfred Russel Wallace. That’s just too cool.

Apart from the SF nature of the tale, parts of which were reminiscent of Jasper Fforde’s incredibly imaginative Shades of Grey, there is a rawness and immediacy to Meg’s emotions which strongly resonated. Her loneliness, misunderstanding and fierce love for her family, the difficulties of friendship, acceptance in her peer group, these are all things which each of us have to struggle with and learn to understand as part of growing up. I loved the way L’Engle doesn’t whitewash or diminish these difficult feelings.

The tension was palpable and I raced through the book. I can’t wait to give this to my nephew and I hope he likes it as much as I did.

The other titles in the series which I need to read:
A Wind in the Door
A Swiftly Tilting Planet
Many Waters
An Acceptable Time

A Wrinkle in Time

The Rook

I’m blessed with friends. One of my school friends and I share similar tastes in books and we are forever exchanging recommendations. Most of the time I tell her about new books which I haven’t read that are all the rage on blogs and she’ll get them and then lend them to me afterwards. She’s a star like that. And then she’ll tell me about books I haven’t heard of that aren’t making the rounds on blogs and I’ll eventually get to them and kick myself for taking so long.

The Rook by Daniel O’Malley is one of them. She told me about it many months ago when it was still only available on Kindle. I don’t have a Kindle so I dithered. I should have got my copy when I flew to New York in March. And then it came out here and I begged for a copy from publishing house Head of Zeus who were kind enough to send me one to review. And I dived in and was immediately immersed in this intricate and exciting creation of O’Malley’s that is a bit like a furious blend of the X-Men, Torchwood, Anne Rice’s legendary Talamasca, my favourite fictional secret society up to now, mixed in with a dash of Scarlett Thomas.

Myfanwy Thomas opens her eyes with her memory gone and surrounded by dead agents all wearing latex gloves. She is bruised and hurt and finds an envelope in her jacket giving instructions on who she is and where she has to go. And so begins her journey for survival in a world where the real collide with the supernatural and which is kept under tight rein by the Checquy, a super secret governmental organisation of superhumans with special abilities. Ranked as a Rook and in charge of domestic disturbances, Myfanwy discovers she is an extremely efficient organiser and in charge of strategy and accounts. But someone is out to kill her and it looks like that person is in the heart of the Checquy, an organisation tightly bound by secrecy and trust. As she begins to uncover who she was, she must also search for her enemy while pretending all is as it was. For the person who has awoken in Myfanwy’s body isn’t the same person whose memory was erased and her enemy within the Checquy, who has gone to great lengths to erase her memory, is most probably put out to see her coming back to work as though nothing had happened.

Intriguing or what? There is so much more to this novel but I don’t want to give anything away. I want you to read and discover it for yourself. One of the things I particularly liked about the narrative structure which O’Malley has chosen for his novel is that you find out in real time what the new Myfanwy finds out about her old self. You get me? It’s confusing but O’Malley drip feeds you tantalising morsels of detail, chapter by chapter, uncovering explosive information that rocks new Myfanwy’s world view every few hours. There’s a lot of action and humour and I spent a lot of time racing through the pages whilst stifling my laughter. It’s funny, very clever, doesn’t take itself too seriously and yet there’s a lot of thought that has gone into The Rook. I loved it. And I just found out that a sequel is pending which makes me a very happy fan.

One of the things I loved most about O’Malley’s creation, apart from the intricate plot and mystery, are the characters. I did mention X-Men, didn’t I? The Checquy is structured just like a game of chess. The Lord and Lady (the King and Queen), the Bishops, the Rooks and the Pawns who all have some sort of supernatural power making them more than human, with the first three titles being the most powerful and making up the Court. And then there are the Retainers who run around aiding them who are normal people devoid of any power. Myfanwy is a Rook and belongs to the Court but in that select group, the most intriguing characters are Bishop Alrich, androgynous, pale and with blood red hair, and the Gestalt siblings who all share one mind. It’s incredibly creepy but I want more! The Checquy also has a long and secretive presence within English history and as a result has accumulated a staggering amount of capital as well as power which makes it an extremely effective, highly competent and swanky organisation to work for and I loved all the bits of technological excess and luxury which Myfanwy (re)discovers and which comes with working for the Checquy.

Once in a while, a story will just burst out and capture your imagination like no other, and Daniel O’Malley’s The Rook is one of them. I couldn’t find any fault with it, the only one being I have to wait until the next book is released. Seriously, do yourselves a favour and get thee a copy.

Angelopolis

But in the spring of 1959, fifty-seven years after it was laid, the egg cracked apart. A child lay in the catastrophe of shells, a golden-skinned boy with eyes that burned red and wings that wrapped around his shoulders. …

He seemed to me to embody the ancient descriptions of the heavenly host, the passages that one finds in biblical literature, with skin like pounded gold, hair of silk, eyes of fire.

And so Danielle Trussoni’s Angelolopolis continues the dazzling tale she began in Angelology, binding together mythical folklore, history and philosophy to create a modern day twist to the ever-fascinating subject of angels. What she does here is something I hadn’t really come across before.

It’s been 10 years since the angelologist Verlaine last came in contact with Evangeline, the mysterious woman who has the blood of angelologists and the Nephil running through her veins. There is perpetual war between the the Nephilim, the human-angel hybrids, who have infiltrated the highest echelons of society through their breeding and wealth, and the angelologists who try and contain them. When Evangeline is captured by a vicious and mercenary angel named Eno who works for the ancient Grigori family, Verlaine sets out to rescue her and uncover the secret behind Evangeline’s lineage and stop the Grigori’s from accruing any more power. And what is the fascination behind Fabergé’s eggs so beloved of the Romanovs?

Whilst Angelopolis is filled with some delicious nuggets of twisted Baltic history, especially the Russian Imperial House, intertwined with biblical stories going back to the Flood and studded with philosophical asides from Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon, which Trussoni has remodeled into a prison for angels in Siberia, to Rasputin’s mystical teachings, there were a few flaws in Trussoni’s second book.

Although the historical titbits were fascinating, sometimes they felt like infodumps, miniscule lectures slotted in between the action, more tell rather than show. As a lover of history, I didn’t mind but I can see other readers getting a little cross-eyed with all the information. Saying that, I really enjoyed the book and raced through it, wanting to know the fate that awaited Evangeline and Verlaine. However, some of the action scenes seemed a little contrived, the ferocious angels ultimately a little too weak and the ending felt rushed. And I wasn’t thrilled about the brand name dropping which seemed to jar a little with the religio-mythicism of the angels.

These are small quibbles to what I think is a fascinating take on angel lore and I’m more than impressed by how Trussoni weaves all the different strands, historical, mythical and scientific, into something coherent and, dare I say, almost believable. Comparisons with Laini Taylor’s Daughter of Smoke and Bone trilogy may seem inevitable but they are two vastly different stories with Trussoni’s focus being more on the academic dissemination of angel lore and the scientific analysis and methodology in how to capture them. I loved it. And I can’t wait for the next installation!

I would like to thank Viking for kindly sending me a copy to review. Do click through to check out the Book Club Kit which includes a wonderful Q&A with Danielle Trussoni. Enjoy!