Snow Day in Northern California?

Posted: March 6, 2017 in Uncategorized
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Hey all, we just had an unusual amount of snow in our Northern Ca town. Schools have been known to close for “snow days” in our county at such DRASTIC LEVELS as 1-2 inches, so, you know, BIG DEAL! ;D Anyway, I thought it might be unusual to see grape vines covered in snow…

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To the left we have “Mt. Konocti,” our very own volcano. Above right is Clearlake, a shallow lake that has never been nor will ever be clear. And below…snowy vineyard!

So I thought I’d share. Hope you’re having a great weekend and getting in lots of great reading time! 🙂

thevaliant

“I punched my fists skyward in victory before sweeping my arms out to either side, stretched wide as wings. I felt for that fleeting instant as if I really were the goddess Morrigan in flight, swooping low over a battlefield to collect the souls of the glorious dead.”

About :

Fallon is a Celtic Princess with an ax to grind: Julius Caesar killed her warrior-sister in his battle to conquer Britain (or Prydain, as the Celts call it) and Fallon trains to one day get revenge on the Roman conqueror. But when her father betroths her to her boyfriend’s brother, instead of asking her to join his royal war band, she’s sure she’ll never get the chance after all.

While tracking down her betrothed to confront him, Fallon’s life takes another sharp left turn: slavers capture her and bring her to Rome, where her greatest enemy, Caesar, buys her for his gladiatrix training academy. While Fallon’s Cantii spirit still cries for freedom, she trusts the will of her goddess and trains hard to become the best gladiatrix in Rome. The Valiant is YA Alternate History authored by Lesley Livingston and published February 14th 2017 by Razorbill.

Thoughts :

The Valiant opens with Fallon successfully completing the fabled chariot stunt known as the Morrigan’s Flight, wherein a warrior steps from the chariot’s carriage to the shaft between the running horses and hurls a spear at her target. This lushly detailed and action-filled opening sets the tone for the rest of the book. The first third sucks readers into Fallon’s journey from Roman Britain to Rome itself with the thrum of chariot wheels, the stench of corpse-fouled wells and the chill of the metal torcs that mark you as royalty—or slave.

Then we reach the promise of the premise: Caesar buys Fallon for his gladiatrix training school. The “school” trope is one of my favorites in YA, and this very trope is the “twist” that makes The Valiant an alternate history: though rare, individual female gladiators did exist; but Livingston imagines elite training schools to prepare the female warriors for the Colosseum battles. As in the first third of The Valiant, Livingston brings this premise alive with great details.

One of my favorite examples: when Fallon is training for the Colosseum, she analyzes the different styles and strategies of gladiatorial combat, such as what classes of gladiator the women belong to, depending on their weapons—and what Hunger-Games-like strategies they use to please the crowd of spectators:

Gratia fought in the style of the murmillo gladiators, with sword and heavy shield. It suited her physique—and her penchant for thoughtless brutality—and made her something of a force to be reckoned with in the arena. It also compensated for her utter lack of personality.

And that was something that the masters of the ludi, the gladiatorial games, coveted above all else.

Flair.”

The rest of the plot feels a little stringy and predictable to me, but Fallon’s journey to the school and her struggles there draw the real focus anyway.

And although the character psychology doesn’t always ring true, the politics of identity, race and culture give strong flavor to character interactions and agendas. For example, Fallon chafes against her bondage, disgusted by the idea of battling to satisfy this foreign Roman bloodlust; she can’t understand how the Romans can stomach forcing their slaves to fight like animals. But she also realizes that her tribe and family kept, worked and sold slaves just like the Romans:

We bought them and sold them the same way as we did out cattle. Slaves had meant swept floors and lit fires and clean water carried in heavy clay pots. I was ashamed to admit I had never given them much thought. They just…were. I had been so very blind. And stupid. And now I was learning what it was like to have someone else decide my fate.”

While I expected some action and hoped for some good historical detail, I didn’t at all expect this kind of historical depth. It was such a great surprise!

Overall :

This is exactly what I’m looking for, when I pick up a YA with a historical bent. I want the entertainment and the detail. Balanced pacing, slam-bang action and an engaging level of historical awareness raises this YA Alternate History above the market average. It’s very well edited with invisible prose, active description and almost none of the “telling” that can drone on and on and kill the forward motion in historical fiction.

Recommended To :

Readers who wish Rosemary Sutcliff had written more YA. Or, you know, anyone who likes the idea of reading about female gladiators 😀

****4/5 STARS

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midnightcurse

“Whoever had forced Molly to kill her friends wanted her to get caught, go on trial and be executed before she had a chance to prove her innocence.”

About :

Scarlett Bernard is a “null,” a human who cancels out any magic around her. Her abilities come in handy on the job—she works to keep the magical world a secret from normal humans in the city of LA. She’s actually starting to enjoy her job, although she’s also enjoying the good life with her werewolf boyfriend, Eli, outside of work.

But duty calls when someone magically forces a vampire friend of hers into murdering 12 USC roommates. Scarlett’s job becomes twofold: hide the magical involvement from the humans and find out who wants to hurt her friend.

Nobody believes in the vampire’s innocence, but Scarlett is determined to find the real murderer with a little help from an old LAPD buddy. Midnight Curse is adult UF authored by Melissa F. Olson and published February 7th 2017 by 47North.

I was browsing Netgalley for a promising new series when I ran across Midnight Curse, first in the new “Disrupted Magic” trilogy. It wasn’t until after I requested the book that I learned about a previous trilogy starring Scarlett Bernard, but I jumped in anyway.

And Olson had me from the first line.

Thoughts :

Scarlett is at an art show with her boyfriend when she gets a creepy, blood-spattered SOS note delivered from her old vampire friend, Molly. The note asks Scarlett to come meet her secretly, so Scarlett blows off her boyfriend, hoping he’ll understand and let her handle it. After all, if she tells him, he has to tell his werewolf pack leader, and then the secret’s not so secret anymore.

But things careen out of control and soon, Scarlett finds herself running damage control on all fronts while still trying to uncover the real mass murderer—and their veiled purpose. The story unfolds in the perspectives of both Scarlett and her LAPD friend Jesse, and a fantastic first 50% ensues. Scarlett and Jesse keep the twisty mystery plot moving, interspersing their investigation with humorous one-liners, psychologically layered character dynamics and precise, interesting backstory and worldbuilding.

Because I jumped in without reading the earlier books, I worried that missing information would muddy the experience for me. But Olson integrates explanations smoothly without info-dumping. The worldbuilding becomes clearer with every page. A lot of the mystery developments do rely on past history and knowledge of Scarlett’s manifold abilities, but I still enjoyed the plot very much.

So with all this going for Midnight Curse, why did I rate the book at 4 stars instead of 5?

It’s largely due to a subjective reaction to one relationship arc that left me feeling bitter during the second half. Throughout the novel, we see the themes of relational control and abuse taken to different extremes, and I didn’t enjoy how it played out in Scarlett’s case. I’m not a huge fan of these dysfunctional relationships from hell, haha. [Highlight to view SPOILER: I struggled with Scarlett’s breakup because she kept running away from communication and playing petty games with Eli. Maybe if she had invited him along on one of her jaunts, instead of taking off with Jesse (whom she’s already developing feelings for), Eli could have understood her strengths or been part of her team or something like that. I don’t buy the irreconcilable differences crap because my husband and I are about as different as two personalities can get and we somehow manage to talk things out like adults. Going on six years of blissfully wedded life, I value faithfulness very highly in relationships, so Scarlett’s behavior irked me beyond what another reader might have felt.]

But I get the feeling that Olson wanted/needed to shake things up for the new trilogy, and my impression of Scarlett suffered without an understanding of the love triangle and character histories of the original series. She came across as very immature to me in this one isolated relationship. She’s a great protagonist in every other way, and in fact, a lot of readers enjoyed everything about the book (the overall Goodreads rating is super high—currently 4.27, wow!), including this arc. Your experience of this relationship arc seems to really depend on your emotional connection to the characters.

Overall :

So while Midnight Curse is a great UF, it left me severely cranky, haha. I probably won’t read any more about Scarlett because I try to avoid getting my heart ripped out; but I’d be down to read more by this author—I loved everything else about the book. I could see a lot of readers giving it five stars.

Recommended To :

I recommend this to readers looking for adult UF with a strong mystery, a fast pace and characters that don’t leave room for ambivalence. I think teens would love it, too, although there’s some language that parents might want to be aware of.

Thank you so much to Melissa F. Olson, 47North and Netgally for this great ARC. I really enjoyed it!

4/5 STARS

portalofathousandworlds

“I helped him advance on the staircase of worlds.”

A pretty euphemism for assassination, no?

About :

The Good Land lives for centuries at a time without serious threat to its traditions. Each dynastic emperor rules from The Heart of the World, unseen by the masses and advised by his eunuchs. Periodically, rebellions protest the power of the emperor’s “usurper” mother, who appears to rule the throne; fortunately for the ruling class, the only real competing power lies with “The Grey Helpers” of “The Houses of Joyful Departure”—you guessed it, an assassin’s guild 😉

But the emperor takes fearful notice when the Man of a Thousand Lives reappears, a man who is reincarnated cyclically through the ages to share the wisdom of the prophets about the Portal of a Thousand Worlds. This time, the Man of a Thousand Lives prophesies the opening of the Portal. As the auguries pile up, the powerful grow nervous, for the Portal always brings great changes to the Good Land. Dynasties end and natural disasters rock the land.

The changes rarely favor the powerful. The Portal of a Thousand Worlds is adult epic fantasy/alternate history authored by Dave Duncan and published February 14th 2017 by Open Road Media Science & Fantasy. Duncan also authored The King’s Blades and The Seventh Sword series.

Thoughts :

Portal of a Thousand Worlds feels like the sort of book that might take a lifetime to write—tightly plotted and cast, fully-developed in setting and characterized by the sort of raucous, racy and word-perfect humor that enlivens what might otherwise be considered a grim Chinese political fantasy.

The conflict between Emperor’s family and the rebels is the main focus of the book. Every so often, the focus slides back to the Man of a Thousand Lives (also known as the “Firstborn” or the “Urfather”) and his mysterious agenda; but basically every other narrator (and there are many) focuses on the palace intrigue. Most of the narrators are either nobility or Grey Helpers, and from them we learn delicious details of both palace life and the inner workings of the assassin’s guild. It’s like a very (very! Wonderfully! Atmospherically!!) Chinese Game of Thrones.

The story builds to address the climactic mystery of The Portal. Only rumors survive about its opening in centuries past, and nobody knows why. But everyone wants to know, of course—so they ask the Firstborn, who currently resides in the body of a fourteen year old peasant boy named “Sunlight.” But even he doesn’t know much—he always gets assassinated before the Portal itself opens.

So everybody watches and waits, anxious about the opening of the great portal.

My favorite part of Portal is the delightfully wicked and ever-present humor. Clever verbal gymnastics, situations that lurch sideways and riotous personality humor kept me giggling throughout the book. The Firstborn himself trademarks his own running joke, sharing hilarious anecdotes or reprimands about the confusion surrounding past philosophical teachings.

On top of the humor, surprises show up on every page. Tensions run high with conflicting character agendas, sudden tips in power, deaths, magics and all kinds of other ingenious plot twists. I was never bored. Certain portions could have probably been trimmed to shorten the book—I didn’t expect to take two weeks to read this ARC; but every page was honestly a pleasure to read.

The ending may disappoint readers who enjoy the concrete answers often found in a hard-fantasy like Brandon Sanderson’s stories; nevertheless, I found it to be profoundly touching and everything I didn’t know I wanted. I love the theme about how the passage of time can affect religion and public perception of religion. The religion also serves justice in a rather unique way…

The limitations of the female sex may also bother some readers. Life is unapologetically rough for all but noblemen (emphasis on the “men”), in this early 1800s-like Chinese fantasy. Women can gain only a little power, and only by birthing sons; as such, every female with a modicum of power spends or has spent time as a prostitute or concubine. If feminism is a touchy issue for you, you might consider the female situation anything from boring to grating; I took off half a star for the disturbingly obvious lack of strong, unique female heroines. But thankfully despite the limits on female power, I enjoyed the female characters as much as the heroes in this one. The range of personalities is both vast and entertaining. (My favorite character, Horse, grew up in a House of Joyful Departure where females get just as much opportunity and have just as much success as males. He is one of the few men who respects women outside the bedroom…and you might like where his arc leads, and what it promises for the future of the Good Land.)

Overall :

I thoroughly enjoyed Portal. The humor and inventiveness far outweigh any negative considerations. It’s billed as a Chinese Game of Thrones, which seems like a fair description. (You might take this with a grain of salt, as I’m only familiar with book 1 + season 1 of GoT.) Occasional short action scenes pop up, but mostly as humorous or dramatic beats. The book is much more about politics and power than about the magic or even the Portal, really.

Recommended To :

Anyone looking for a hilarious and political epic fantasy with a Chinese twist. Not recommended to feminists. Slight content warning for younger readers, there’s some violence and a loooooot of sex, haha. I don’t recall anything too dramatic, but sex is probably mentioned on every other page, in some form or another (often as a device of humor).

4.5/5 STARS

Thank you so much to Dave Duncan,  Open Road Media Science & Fantasy and Netgalley for this amazing ARC of Portal of a Thousand Worlds!

illumniae

About :

What could be worse for a teenager than breaking up with her year-long boyfriend?

Well, lots of things, as Kady Grant soon discovers. When a major mining corporation attacks her sort-of-illegal mining settlement on the tiny planet of Kerenza, her breakup with Ezra is demoted to the second-worst thing that’s ever happened to her.

And they happen on the same day. Of course they do.

But even the Kerenza refugees who escape the attack remain in grave danger—a warship pursues the refugees through space, and as their ship breaks down, everything that can go wrong absolutely does. Worse yet, Kady, Ezra and the rest of the refugees must pry information out of those in charge, who would prefer to avoid panic by avoiding disclosure.

How can anyone onboard help if they’re left in the dark? Illuminae is YA sci-fi written by Jay Kristoff and Amie Kaufman and published October 20th 2015 by Knopf Books for Young Readers. Audie Award for Multi-Voiced Performance (2016), Aurealis Award Nominee for Best Science Fiction Novel (2015), The Inky Awards Nominee for Gold Inky (2016), Australian Book Industry Award (ABIA) (2015), Goodreads Choice Award Nominee for Young Adult Fantasy & Science Fiction (2015)

Thoughts :

In a cool sci-fi twist on the epistolary novel, the authors wrote Illuminae in a series of IM logs, medical reports and other “hacked documents.” It looks brilliant in hard copy. Still, I hesitated to pick it up—I don’t get the chance to read much YA in hard copy, these days.

But when I heard good things about the audiobook, I decided to give it a shot.

“Audiobook?” you may wonder. “How could they convert this clever and unusual epistolary format into an audiobook?”

With lots and looooots of talented voice actors and sound effects. The “translation” from text to audio is well-planned and executed. This is one impressive audiobook, folks.

As far as the actual story, readers will find a lot to like there, also. The “voices” of our two main protagonists—the rebellious teens Kady and Ezra—are completely unique. I don’t know if Kaufman and Kristoff wrote the two perspectives separately or what, but Kady comes off as an extremely brainy, competent and ambitious hacker while Ezra embodies a soulful, handsome and foul-mouthed jock who flies starship missions after being drafted into the onboard military. Two such different and convincing voices rarely appear in the same book.

That’s particularly important in this book, where the voices basically carry the long setup of the book’s first half. The main focus revolves around Kady and Ezra’s love life as several different potential plot problems mount around them. The setup of the first half feels a little like the authors are throwing in tons of tropes to hold our attention, such as [Highlight to view SPOILER: a mutating disease and a warship “timebomb”]; but when the real story starts about halfway through, it grabbed me immediately.

I lovelovelove the twist [Highlight to view SPOILER: when Aiden releases the infected from Bay 4, OH MAN! That got my attention, haha]. Older readers of sci-fi will have read the trope before, but it will be new to a lot of young adults and anyone new to sci-fi and I can honestly say I didn’t see it coming. I wish I could talk about it more because it’s probably my favorite thing about the book!

But before I close this review, I’ll leave you with my favorite quote, an offering from the romantic Ezra:

You deserve every star in the galaxy laid out at your feet and a thousand diamonds in your hair. You deserve someone who’ll run with you as far and as fast as you want to. Holding your hand, not holding you back.”

Overall :

Ultimately, the sci-fi epistolary format is the most unique thing about Illuminae. Other than that, I think it’s a fun sci-fi, if a little overlong. A good contribution to the YA genre. I’m hoping for more history and cool techy inventions in book II, Gemina.

Characters: 4/5 Stars
Plot: 3/5 Stars
Writing: 4/5 Stars
Worldbuilding: 4/5 Stars
Audio: 5/5 Stars

****4/5 STARS

Recommended To :

Anyone new to sci-fi and any fans of YA in general. If you enjoy Star Wars, you might enjoy this. Oh, and if you like audios, the novelty of such a well-orchestrated audio might make it worth trying!

‘The woman is a danger…What she does is an abomination.’”

About :

Shai is a MaiPon Forger in a country that despises Forgers as abominations. When she gets captured during a routine palace art theft, she scrambles for an escape plan; but before she gets the chance to spring herself from prison, her captors change the game.

‘She is a valuable tool. This woman can save us. We must use her.’”

They visit her prison cell and demand that she complete a job for them, a job so secret that Shai knows she will be murdered at its close: reforge the emperor’s soul. The Emperor’s Soul is a Fantasy Novella written by Brandon Sanderson and published October 11th 2012 by Tachyon Publications. Hugo Award for Best Novella (2013), Goodreads Choice Award Nominee for Best Fantasy (2012).

Thoughts :

This novella opens with the emperor’s staff debating the fate of their captive Forger, and this first layer of cultural tension immediately intrigued me: What is Forging? Why do they hate it? And why must they use it to save the country?

Nearby in prison, Shai desperately seeks a way out of her cell before the next day’s scheduled execution, and her technique introduces readers to the unique Asian stamp magic of the novella:

To Forge something, you had to know its past, its nature.”

At this point (on like page four), the cultural tension and the magic already have me intrigued. Then the emperor’s councilors arrive and explain the situation to Shai and to readers: the emperor has been attacked and needs a new soul to survive.

Whoa. What?

They grant Shai a stay of execution for the next hundred days, during which she must create the soulstamp—a task that will involve a huge amount of complex, untested magic.

Her ambitious artist’s soul longs to create the perfect soulstamp, but she knows she must prioritize one thing over this primal urge toward faultless creation: she must escape before those 100 days are up or she will never leave the prison alive. The 100 day countdown heads each new section, and I totally felt the squeeze by the end of the novella.

Over the course of the story, Shai uses her magic in a variety of ways: transforming her room, making various stamps to reforge the emperor’s personality and history, etc. But a constant war rages inside her between the need to create a perfect soulstamp and the need to escape with her life. Her escape plan is just one more layer of mystery that kept me reading.

The final layer that got me fully invested in the story relates to the characters. In order to escape, Shai knows she’ll need to do something that makes her cringe: she’ll have to manipulate the elderly Arbiter Gaotana who visits her cell to test the soulstamps.

Gaotana seems to have the most integrity of all those palace staff, as he alone regrets the need to forever silence the young Forger after she completes the stamp. So when he criticizes Shai’s choice of profession—thief, Forger, abomination—Shai feels his disappointment keenly.

Why? Gaotana thought again. Why would someone capable of this artistry, turn to forgery?…Why not be a true artist?”

Aarcanum-unboundednd now she has to trick him—just to escape with her life? It made my heart hurt just thinking about it!

Overall:

I love the human psychology and the theme of cultural misunderstanding in The Emperor’s Soul. And, of course, I love the Asian-inspired stamp magic. It ties in with the “form” type magic present in Stormlight Archives, I think, too—or it sounds like it does, anyway. In fact, I love the format and pacing and characters and everything about this story! I’m so happy it was included in Arcanum Unbounded: The Cosmere Collection, even though it was published previously. I kinda wish we could hear more about Shai because her potential as a heroine is limitless; but I understand that Sanderson wants to finish a few series before starting an entirely new one, haha.

Recommended To:

Although the novella is set in the same universe as Elantris, the reading order doesn’t matter. In fact, this might be a great introduction to Sanderson’s work, if you’re not ready to jump into The Way of Kings. There’s no fat to trim.

*****5/5 STARS

shattered-blue

About :

After her older sister is killed in a terrible accident, Noa struggles through her classes in a prestigious California prep school. She relies on her friends to survive; her parents grieve too hard for their lost daughter to give their living daughter the kind of companionship she so suddenly and violently lacks.

Enter Callum Forsythe, the new high school hottie. Noa feels the sparks between them almost immediately. But even as Callum seemingly-reluctantly reciprocates her attentions, he explains why their relationship will be difficult: he is Fae, banished to her world where he must feed off human Light to survive.

And that’s only the beginning of their troubles. Shattered Blue is YA Paranormal/Fantasy/Romance authored by Lauren Bird Horotwitz and published September 15th 2015 by Skyscape. Paperback, 336 pages. It won several awards and honors including 2016 Independent Publishers’ (IPPY) Silver Medal for Young Adult Fiction, as well as Finalist honors in the 2016 USA Book Awards for  Best New Fiction and Best New Fantasy, the 2016 Next Generation Indie Book Awards for Best Young Adult Fiction, and the 2016 International Book Award for Best Fantasy

I KNOW IT SOUNDS LIKE TWILIGHT, but hang on a sec!

If you think you know what happens in Shattered Blue when you read the summary, I guarantee you’ll be surprised. If you’ve ever enjoyed a YA paranormal love story, I recommend checking this one out—and for more reasons than just that GORGEOUS cover.

Thoughts :

After two DNFs, Shattered Blue was the perfect pick-me-up. I kept hearing about it on Socially Awkward Bookworm and The Worn Bookmark , but I hadn’t quite decided to order it for my library until I saw Renegade Red (book #2) pop up on Netgalley—I knew it was a sign! I ordered Shattered Blue immediately and it came in the mail on the very day I DNFed Crossroads of Canopy.

I devoured it.

Horowitz weaves a fully-formed Fae mythology into Shattered Blue. Several orders of Fae live in Faerie and their politics rumble through all the way through the “portal” to the human realm.

‘Use and Let Use,’ he proclaimed. ‘Fae Power without bias.’”

In a such fast-paced YA paranormal, this level of worldbuilding is completely entertaining. I was never bored.

The Fae magic system also personally affects Callum and Noa as they navigate their relationship: whenever Callum touches her, her Light flows into him. This roadblock adds even more tension and intrigue to the human-Fae relationships in the book!

And there’s more good news: Shattered Blue is full of emotional truths, especially regarding grief and love. When Noa’s older sister Isla dies, the whole family grieves in individual ways. Noa has strong, meaningful relationships with her family, especially her little sister, Sasha, but her grief over her Isla’s death sometimes stains even those precious Sasha-moments:

It suddenly struck Noah how awful it would be to lose a sister at Sasha’s age, like Callum had. A different kind of awful from losing someone like Isla, who was a person fully formed.”

The prose is also beautiful and poetic. Throughout the book, we get poems like this first stanza of Noa’s poem “Mermaid Hearts”:

We’re swift in currents.
Down spiny sprays of kelp we dive,
Run hands through leaves to hunt
for snails and sapphires.”

I admit, I have a soft-spot for atmospheric coastal stories (I loved Twilight as a young adult), especially set on the CA coast. Because spoiler alert I live there, haha. But isn’t that beautiful? Horowitz dazzled me with her poetic prose and free form poetry throughout the book.

Shattered Blue is also appealingly plot-driven, delivering regular twists to the romance and other plot arcs. Little mysteries or dramas pop up constantly throughout the story, set against the backdrop of Noa’s school or Noa’s home, and most of them have to do with discovering Faerie.

I slammed the request button for book II as soon as I finished Shattered Blue because *dances* I CAN’T TELL YOU WHY but I CAN’T WAIT to find out more about the Fae realms! And in book II, I have a very good feeling that we will!

Nay-sayers will find a few things to complain about, although I hardly feel like mentioning them after enjoying such an immersive experience!

However: (1) It does have that creepy Edward-watches-and-EVER-PROTECTS-Bella thing going on, and I don’t know if that’s just a ya trope or a paranormal trope or what, but it’s a little weird. (2) The focus never really lands on Noa’s female friendships. In fact, her best friend Olivia is mainly used as a plot device.

Overall:

A genre-perfect read. Gorgeous prose, emotional complexity, speedy plotting and absorbing twists on Fae mythology make this one of the best ya paranormal fantasies I’ve read in a long time.

Recommended To :

I think any fans of ya paranormal, especially of the Fae variety, will love Shattered Blue. If you need a beach read or a book to pull you out of your book slump, I recommend this one. If you liked Twilight, I think you’ll love this.

*****5/5 STARS