Mini-Reviews: Crime and Intrigue

I’m feeling that end-of-year compulsion to tie up loose ends and catch up on my book reviews for this year. This post gathers up all the private eyes, cops, and amateur sleuths I encountered in 2016.

The Body in the Library (Miss Marple #3) – Agatha Christie

I listened to this one while driving from Maine to Virginia back in January of this year. My sister and brother-in-law were along for the ride too and I remember discussing our whodunit theories over fast food dinner somewhere in Pennsylvania. We didn’t figure it out – Christie kept us guessing. This one stands out for having quite the cold-blooded murder plan.

Devil in a Blue Dress (Easy Rawlins #1) – Walter Mosley

Recommendation from: Beth Fish Reads

This mystery set in 1940’s Los Angeles features a black man named Ezekiel “Easy” Rawlins who is hired by white men to look for a missing blonde who was known to frequent black establishments. Rawlins takes the gig as he needs the money to keep his house. It is not a fancy house, but home-ownership means independence and freedom for him and he does not want to give that up. The symbolism of Rawlins’ house is what I remember most from this book. The investigation and mystery in the rest of the book were fine. I’m not sure if I’ll read more in the series. I’m generally terrible at continuing on with mystery series even if I’ve enjoyed the first entry.

Still Life (Chief Inspector Armand Gamache #1) – Louise Penny

I read a good chunk of this book one morning in Seattle. I had flown to Seattle for a conference and the time difference meant I woke up super early. While waiting to meet a friend for breakfast, I found a seat in Pike Place Market overlooking Elliott Bay and read and read. Still Life was an engaging mystery. A couple of the characters were a bit hard to believe in their terribleness. However, like other readers, I found the character Chief Inspector Gamache a refreshingly stable presence in a genre that seems to favor troubled,  lonely souls as the leads. (Not that those are bad books, but it’s nice to have a change.)

Lush Life – Richard Price

A young white man is shot and killed while resisting an attempted mugging in the Lower East Side, his memorable last words being, “Not tonight, my man.” Price’s novel follows a wide cast of characters who are all connected to the fatal shooting: the shooter, the detectives on the case, the main witness, the family, and the people of the neighborhood.

Although the book dragged on too long in the end, Price is terrific at characterization, dialogue and scene-setting. The young man’s memorial service is one of the high points in this regard. Most memorable however are the early scenes where detectives psychologically break-down a witness who they believe is the murderer. When I read Adam Benforado’s Unfair earlier this month where it talked about American police interrogations, my mind immediately recalled these scenes from the novel.

The Deep End (The Country Club Murders #1) – Julie Mulhern

Recommendation from: Lakeside Musing

On the more frothy end of the mystery spectrum, we have Mulhern’s series which is set in mid-1970’s Kansas City, Missouri. I say frothy in terms of tone – it does have a fairly high body count. Ellison Russell is our amateur sleuth who discovers the body of her husband’s mistress in the country club pool. Her husband is missing, she’s a suspect, her teenage daughter is upset and there are a lot of dirty secrets she’s about to uncover. Ellison has a reputation among her set as a bit of an ice queen, but manages to collect a couple of potential love interests over the course of the novel all the same. (The philandering husband having left that field open.) I was a little disappointed that Mulhern didn’t lean more into the setting. It’s not every time you read a book set in Kansas City, much less in the 1970s, so I was hoping for more historic and local specificity than was delivered. Perhaps later books in the series do better on that score. Overall, it was a quick, page-turning read that hit the spot at the time I read it.

No One Lives Twice (Lexi Carmichael Mystery #1) – Julie Moffett

Another light mystery: Lexi Carmichael is a low-level tech for the National Security Agency who is suddenly thrown into high-intrigue mystery when her best friend mails her a puzzling document and then disappears. Suddenly, Lexi is being threatened on the street of her parents’ house, her apartment is being burgled, and several sexy men of undetermined trustworthiness have swooped in with offers to help. Lexi’s obliviousness strains credulity at times, but I liked the attention to detail when it came to the plot. In particular, the villains’ plans – when all is revealed – were satisfyingly interesting and complex. (The title does acquire some additional meaning by the end. It’s not just there for Bond connotation.) I know the author, so that’s why I wanted to check out the book. Overall, I found the book to be a fun bit of escapist reading.

A Fatal Inversion by Barbara Vine

Recommendation from: Teresa of Shelf Love (in the comments of the linked review)

All the books above have had at least partial focus on the investigator. In A Fatal Inversion, the main characters are complicit in the murder, and they fear discovery now that the body has been found many years later. The novel follows them in their present-day panic. It also follows them into their flashbacks as they remember being young and irresponsible, living it up in a country house, heading toward a tragedy of their own making. I was telling Teresa while I was midway through the book that A Fatal Inversion was like Tartt’s The Secret History featuring the young hippies from Joan Didion’s essay “Slouching Toward Bethlehem”.

Despite knowing who is responsible for the murder, A Fatal Inversion has a lot of unexpected revelations in store for the reader. In addition to this fine plotting, Vine’s characterization is also terrific. (Or rather I should say Ruth Rendell as Barbara Vine was her pen name). This was my first foray into Rendell/Vine. I’m not sure what would be next among her prolific backlist. I think I’ve had Rottweiler on my to-read list for a while, but I’m open to suggestions.

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Unfair: The New Science of Criminal Injustice by Adam Benforado

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2015. Broadway Books. Paperback. 391 pages (290 pages of main content with 100 pages for bibliography, index and reader’s guide)

Review:

Adam Benforado is a law professor whose courses include a seminar called “Law and Mind Sciences”. Reading Unfair: The New Science of Criminal Injustice feels like taking a survey course on the topic. Each chapter focuses on a particular stage of the American justice system and examines that stage in light of psychological and cognitive science research. The chapters have titles such as “The Labels We Live By – The Victim” and “In the Eye of the Beholder – The Jury”.

Benforado’s main argument is that our justice system rests on incorrect assumptions, even dogmas, of how people think, respond, act and make decisions. These assumptions contribute to the miscarriage of justice, including the conviction of innocent people. We should rigorously review police and court practices to make sure these practices are in line with empirical evidence of what works to actually achieve justice for all.

I would like to highlight two of the chapters that really stood out to me. Chapter 2 “Dangerous Confessions – The Detective” focuses on the fallibility of police techniques for interrogating suspects, especially the commonly used Reid approach. This approach encourages aggressive, lengthy interrogations, and allow for police to lie about the evidence in their possession. Subject to hours of beration and isolation, people will sometimes falsely confess just to escape the abuse. In the moment, people may have cognitive myopia and find it hard to remember long-term consequences when there is an opportunity for short-term relief. Unfortunately, in the justice system, once a confession is extracted, the investigation becomes biased and may ignore details of the confession that don’t align with the evidence. At the end of the book, Benforado describes how the UK has changed its interviewing techniques where the goal is to get as much information as possible from suspect, rather than trying for a confession. “The reforms have not only reduced the likelihood of a suspect admitting to a crime he didn’t commit, they’ve actually increased the amount of useful information that guilty suspects reveal.”

Chapter 6 “The Corruption of Memory – The Eyewitness” argues that eyewitness testimony is frequently mishandled in our current justice system. Eyewitness memory is treated in the justice system like it can be played back exactly the way it happened. But over time, we lose specifics and additionally, all memory is filtered “through the lens of our motivations, expectations and experiences”. Benforado offers many research studies to support the fact that our memory is very malleable after the fact. Primary investigators who have a theory of how the crime happened may inadvertently direct the witness’ memory. Lawyers who mean well can alter an eyewitness testimony through witness prep. As Benforado writes, “A memory of a perpetrator’s face is just as susceptible to adulteration and misuse as a hair sample or partial fingerprint taken from a crime scene, but we don’t treat it that way.”

In the second-to-last chapter about the challenges of reform, Benforado points out that many procedural rules give the appearance of eliminating discrimination in the legal process but actually fail to do so. For example, the Supreme Court banned lawyers from removing people from jury selection on the basis of race alone, but discrimination still happens. Benforado included this astonishing anecdote about jury selection process: “Between 2005 and 2009, prosecutors in Houston County, Alabama, struck approximately four out of five blacks in capital-case jury panels. About half of the resulting juries were all white, and the other half had only a single black juror.”

The final chapter of the book “What We Can Do – The Future” is an exciting conclusion to the book as Benforado describes multiple paradigm-shifting possibilities for reform. One of the most intriguing reforms that he mentioned was the idea of the virtual courtroom. This would mean that victims wouldn’t have to be in the same room as their attackers. This would mean less reliance jury’s overconfident conclusions drawn from the appearance and demeanor of witnesses and defendants. (We are not as good at detecting innocence and guilt as we think we are.)

Benforado also questions whether our current adversarial approach really serves justice. He frames the common practice of plea bargaining in a way that I had never considered before:

…the adversarial system has played an important role in the shift from quick and relatively straightforward proceedings to trials that are long and extremely complicated. And with lawyers constantly wrangling over procedural rules, it’s no longer possible to provide regular trials to everyone charged with a crime. We just don’t have the resources, which has led us to rely heavily on the plea bargain. In nine out of ten cases today, as we’ve seen, the accused waives his right to trial in exchange for a lighter punishment . . . Constitutional protections do not apply in plea negotiations. And this is particularly consequential because, in plea bargaining, the prosecutor enjoys a tremendous amount of discretion, taking on all the key roles: accuser, investigator, adjudicator, and sentencer. This concentration of authority inevitably leads to unequal treatment and unfairness.

I’m not 100% sure I’m on board with all of the reform ideas in the last chapter – I’m still mulling over the ideas about prison reform – but I appreciate the challenge to my assumptions of what justice looks like. In fact, I can say that about the entire book. I wasn’t unaware of judicial problems before reading this book, thanks to books like Krakauer’s Missoula and the life-saving work of The Innocence Project. However, Benforado’s thorough, systemic approach attacks foundational assumptions that I hadn’t previously examined.

I received a copy of this book for review via Blogging for Books.

Excerpts from others’ reviews:

Advice Unasked – “The final chapter of suggestions for reform is a scant 29 pages, and very thin. Problems without solutions make many readers uncomfortable, and any courtroom case wraps up with an argument for action, but I wish, nonetheless, for a different conclusion. That chapter could easily be another book, and perhaps it should be.”

Shaina Reads – “I highly recommend it to anyone who wants a deeper understanding of how the brain functions and why humans as a whole are ill-suited to passing objective social judgments.”

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Social Justice Book Club: Men We Reaped – Wrap-up Discussion

The readalong for Jesmyn Ward’s Men We Reaped is hosted by Entomology of a Bookworm, who provided these discussion questions.

1) Men We Reaped is described as a memoir. While it draws on Ward’s personal experiences, it also explores themes much larger than one woman’s life. Do you agree with this genre classification?

Absolutely, I feel like memoir is a fairly flexible category. (In contrast, I would say that the word autobiography brings more narrow expectations.) Half of the book is about Ward’s life and her family. The stories about the five men profiled in Men We Reaped are still framed around Ward’s personal interactions with them.

2) In what ways do you think Ward’s personal approach to this subject makes Men We Reaped stand out from other books that address similar issues? Did this make the book appeal to you more or less, or were you indifferent?

Ward’s book does well in evoking the struggle and depression that hounds communities that are poor and Black. Her personal stories illustrate ideas such as double-consciousness (Ward’s childhood memory of talking academics with her mother’s employer while her mother cleans the house).

Ward made the narrative choice to connect the twists and turns of each man’s life and death to the larger forces of systemic racism and injustice. I felt this narrative choice worked best in Demond Cook’s story (the man who was murdered outside his house, possibly for his agreement to testify in court). At other points, however, it felt strained and perhaps too speculative and abstract.

I was having a hard time figuring out why I was slightly disappointed in Ward’s book. Then I read author Roxane Gay’s Goodreads review of Men We Reaped which explained it well and which I’ll quote in part below:

The prose is bursting with pain and beauty and truth. This is a book everyone should read. Where it falls short is that it doesn’t do enough to rise above the grief. Ward only briefly addresses the issues of race and poverty and how they indelibly shape too many lives, particularly in the rural South. Instead, that the culprits of these men’s demise is inextricably bound to race is treated as assumption when it needs to be far more fully realized and plainly articulated.

3) In more than one instance throughout the text, Ward writes about feeling silenced and voiceless in the face of overwhelming systems of inequality. Do you think Men We Reaped changes that position by giving her a voice?

I hope she feels that way, but her book also points out that this feeling of voicelessness is endemic in her community. I hope that her book empowers the voices of others in her hometown, especially since it’s from one of their own.

4) Though Men We Reaped is about the loss of young black male life, it is also, in many ways, about the black women left to stand witness to the lives and deaths of those in their community. How does this gendered perspective change the story of the high mortality rate among young men of color?

Ward’s book certainly details the obstacles in her own life and that of her mother’s and sisters’ lives. Their roads are not easy. But the women in Ward’s life soldier on despite their wounds. It is the men who seem more fragile and endangered.

[Edited to add: I don’t have a good answer for this question.]

5) If you could ask Jesmyn Ward any one question about this book and/or the experiences she recounts within it, what would it be?

I’m curious about the reactions to her book from people in her region of Mississippi, so I would ask about that.


In my answer to the second question, I admitted that I had been a little disappointed in the book, as I would have liked to see the ideas more fully fleshed out. I still really liked reading it though. As a memoir, evoking a family, a community, a place, it is definitely worthwhile. Mississippi is the poorest state in the country. I live in the third-richest county in the country, and while poverty and racism definitely still have a presence, it is still a place of greater opportunity. So reading Men We Reaped helps inform my perspective, keeps it from being too cloistered.

 

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Visit to Green Valley Book Fair and Shenandoah National Park

A couple of weeks ago, I traveled south to the Green Valley Book Fair, which is near Harrisonburg, Virginia. I had heard about this place from Leslie of This is the Refrain and Teresa of Shelf Love. Basically, the Green Valley Book Fair is a discount book outlet store that is open roughly every other month (dates are posted on their site). The books I bought ranged from $3 to $6 each.

Here is a picture of my book finds, which as you can see were thoroughly inspected by my cat.

img_2042List of the books pictured:

The Devil’s Dream by Lee Smith

The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin

Kiffe Kiffe Tomorrow by Faiza Guene

Lucky Girl by Mei-Ling Hopgood

American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang

Buttered Side Down by Edna Ferber

Everything is Broken: A Tale of Catastrophe in Burma by Emma Larkin

Rin Tin Tin by Susan Orlean

Enrique’s Journey by Sonia Nazario

Fair and Tender Ladies by Lee Smith

To the End of June: The Intimate Life of American Foster Care by Cris Beam


After my visit to the book fair, I decided to take Skyline Drive back north. Skyline Drive is a scenic highway that is part of Shenandoah National Park. I accessed the highway at the Swift Run Gap Entrance Station near Elkton and took it all the way to Front Royal which is the north terminus of Skyline Drive. It was a gorgeous day and as I was driving the highway in the late afternoon, I hit the golden hour and the beginning of the sunset. Even better, I was visiting on a non-holiday weekday, so the road wasn’t crowded.

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Social Justice Book Club: Men We Reaped – Midway Discussion

This Social Justice Book Club readalong of Jesmyn Ward’s Men We Reaped is hosted by Kerri of Entomology of a Bookworm. She posted some midway discussion questions yesterday, so here are my responses:

1) In the very first pages of her book, Ward calls this her “rotten fucking story.” Did this change how you approached the chapters to come in any way?

That phrase is from the last sentence in the prologue: “Hopefully, I’ll understand why my brother died while I live, and why I’ve been saddled with this rotten fucking story.” To me, this characterization made sure readers knew she was not offering any hopeful narrative arc. I finished Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken the other day and it is full of the high human cost of war and the horrors that people inflict on each other, but the narrative arc is about the resilience and spirit of Louis Zamperini and others. I haven’t finished Ward’s book yet, but I do not expect her focus to be on the resilience of the dead young men’s surviving family and friends, though that may be true of them. Instead, her focus is on the immense loss that each of these young men represents.

2) When she lists the names and dates of the black men in her life who died in the four years between 2000 and 2004, Ward writes, “That’s a brutal list, in its immediacy and its relentlessness, and it’s a list that silences people. It silenced me for a long time.” She then goes on to wonder “why silence is the sound of our subsumed rage, our accumulated grief. I decide this is not right, that I must give voice to this story.” I’ve read a lot about voice and the importance of voice lately, so I’m curious what others think of the importance of voicing the horrors of this story, these losses.

Jesmyn Ward is not just voicing the stories of these five men, I feel like she is voicing a story about Delisle and Pass Christian, Mississippi. After Hurricane Katrina, people remarked on how the news coverage gave scant attention to the Gulf Coast communities of Mississippi and Alabama. The events of Men We Reaped predate Katrina and show how neglected these communities were before then, in other ways. Empathy is often encouraged by hearing stories. Dismissiveness is often the result of ignoring stories.

3) What do you make of the two timelines in Men We Reaped? To what effect do you anticipate–or perhaps hope?–Ward will use these inverse chronologies?

The death of Ward’s brother is clearly the biggest wound and where both timelines are headed in the end. The story moving forward is basically a memoir of Ward’s own life, and as she and her siblings grow older in that narrative, we will find out more and more what her brother meant to her. In the story moving backward in time, we start out with a community already beaten down by these successive deaths, and are peeling back each layer of grief until we get to the one closest to Ward’s heart.

4) The idea of gender is woven throughout Ward’s memoir, but particularly in reflecting the unique freedoms–and risk of lack of freedoms–of the black men in her life (as compared to the black women in her life, herself included). How do the men and women in Ward’s stories subscribe to (or not) these gender expectations, and how do you think that influences their experiences?

There are many voices out there rightfully challenging the mythos of the “strong Black woman” and the harm that this stereotype can cause to Black women. In Ward’s stories, the reality remains that the women are almost always the ones left alone to raise and support the children. I appreciate that Ward doesn’t demonize the men who left, and points out some of external factors that contribute to this dynamic. At the same time, she doesn’t gloss over the way the women have been holding the families together.

A really great thing that Ward is doing is showing how caring these young Black men were to their family and friends. There are so many negative stereotypes associated with young Black masculinity that I don’t know where to start. But Ward addresses this explicitly and implicitly in Men We Reaped by talking about how these men did late-night runs to the store for diapers, nursed a female friend who was passed out drunk, among other details about their friendliness, welcome and kindnesses.

5) Ward frames her story with a hope: “I’ll understand a bit better why this epidemic happened, about how the history of racism and economic inequality and lapsed public and personal responsibility festered and turned sour and spread here.” Based on the first several chapters, do you think her exploration of these deaths will get her where she hopes to go? Or are these kinds of events impossible to ever truly understand?

I think she will get there. She’s been establishing some building blocks along the way, and it often comes back to the scarcity of opportunity in her community. She points out the outsized punishments for childhood infractions of Black boys, the failure of public education, the dangers of testifying in court, and other things that narrowed the life choices of these men. Their lives are exposed to risk just by living where they live, while being Black.

So let’s chat: What are ya’ll thinking of this book so far? What do you make of Ward’s style and approach to her topic? What are you anticipating in the second half of the book?

I am really liking the book, for all that it is sad and almost made me cry while I was in the Midas’ waiting room. Ward is good at incorporating the kinds of details that bring her family, friends and community to life for the reader. I am curious about how she felt when she decided to leave her community to go to college. You can tell the distance is hard on her as she describes her visits home.

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Nimona by Noelle Stevenson

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2015. HarperTeen. Hardcover. 266 pages.

Review:

In this graphic novel, a shapeshifter girl named Nimona offers herself as a sidekick to Lord Blackheart, supervillain, as he opposes the Institution and its chief champion, Sir Goldenloin.

The world of Nimona is a mash-up of Renaissance Faire fantasy, sci-fi, and modern humor. My mind also kept connecting it tonally to the film Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog.

The three central characters of Nimona and their interactions are all wonderful. From the banter of Nimona and Lord Blackheart to the whole frenemy dynamic going on between Lord Blackheart and Sir Goldenloin, the story had me invested in these three.

On a more particular note, I realized I’m a fan of when shapeshifters are disguised as animals, especially as animal companions to humans. That particular fondness extends to a whole family of story elements such as people temporarily trapped in animal bodies (Eustace in Voyage of the Dawn Treader, various people in Bedknobs & Broomsticks); animals with human intelligence (e.g. Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH), and even just super-loyal smart animals who come to their human’s rescue (White Fang). I mean this is not guaranteed to make me like a story (that Kevin Spacey-as-cat movie looks horrific), but when it’s done well, it’s a delight.

Nimona has a surprisingly high body count considering its general comic touch. Respect for human life is espoused but most of those who are killed are anonymous, so there’s not much impact to their deaths. I really enjoyed the novel, but I must admit it is a bit callous.

This is the first work that I’ve read by Noelle Stevenson. I haven’t really plunged into the world of comics, so I don’t know when I’ll get around to Lumberjanes, but it will be fun to see how her career develops.

Excerpts from other reviews:

The BiblioSanctum (Wendy) – “Stevenson crafts a dark but quirky and amusing tale of betrayal and corporate shenigans, forcing the questioning of good versus evil and what it really means to be a hero.”

ComicAlly – “Like shape-shifting Nimona, the book starts off as one thing, morphs into something else, and then something else again. It’s like we’re seeing Stevenson try to figure out what the comic is supposed to be.”

things mean a lot – “I’m more of a Ballister than a Nimona in my approach to supervillany (civilians out of the way first, then explosions), but I’m still thrilled to find a character who occupies the sort of gray area traditionally reserved for men and remains sympathetic.

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Haunting Emma trilogy by Lee Nichols

Deception (2010), Betrayal (2011), Surrender (2011)

Recommended by: bookshelves of doom

Review:

When 17-year-old Emma’s parents do not return from an international trip, a former friend of her brother’s arrives to act as her guardian. He takes Emma to his family’s home in Massachusetts and she begins to attend the private school nearby. Although Emma has never been there before, she can’t deny that the house and school seem strangely familiar. In addition, Emma learns that she can see ghosts, and has certain ghost-keeping abilities.

Lee Nichols’ Haunting Emma trilogy has a lot of the tropes of its genre: love triangle, mean girls, main character’s powers are the most special, etc. The outcome of the love triangle is a foregone conclusion – which suitor is the most forbidden and mysterious? Bingo. Cue much romantic angst in second and third books, that strangely glosses over a highly unethical action taken by the chosen love interest.

Despite the tropes, I did enjoy the first book. I generally like stories where people can interact with ghosts – there is a built-in poignancy about that scenario and it appeals to me. And Emma gets to do a lot of cool ghost-related things in the first book as she explores her newly-realized powers. There was one power in particular involving a ring that was my favorite. And I did like that in the second book, a character who dies in the first book comes back as a ghost and I appreciated the attention paid to the emotional fallout from that transition.

That said, the second and third books were overall disappointing. There was no satisfying build to the climactic confrontation with the main villain. It turns out that the villain’s motivations stem from past events involving Emma’s family but since we hardly get to know Emma’s family, this connection has no real heft to it. The story about Emma’s powerful ancestor and that ancestor’s lover had more sense of real peril than the trilogy’s various battles with the villain.

The storyline of the second and third books gets needlessly and repetitively mired in the friendship/romance entanglements of Emma and her friends. On the one hand, yay for Emma having female friends who are interesting in their own right. I know that’s not a given with YA fiction. But Emma’s constant wondering “is this guy interested in this girl or in this other girl” only seemed to distract from the real stakes of the story.

And though the trilogy was mostly free from making Emma an excepto-girl who is “not like all the other girls”, it still slipped in the third book: “he understood I just wanted to be alone. It was more of a guy reaction to a problem. I’d noticed girls often liked to cry and relive every moment of distress with a friend. I wasn’t that kind of girl.” I probably groaned aloud when I read that. Again, most of the trilogy was free of that kind of statement, but still that sentence represents how I felt like the trilogy became more generic as it went along.

I picked up these books for the R.I.P. Challenge because of the ghosts, and I did like the ghosts, but reading this trilogy also reminds me why I generally steer away from YA fantasy.

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Excerpts from others’ reviews:

bookshelves of doom – “In brief: YAY, FUN. Emma was likable and occasionally laugh-out-loud funny” (from review of the first book)

Lauren’s Crammed Bookshelf – “I’ve loved seeing her writing grow as the series progressed, and just like Surrender was the best of the series plot and character wise it was just the same with the writing.”

 

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