Book Club

Daughter of Smoke and Bone

Laini Taylor, Fantasy, Genre, Book ReviewI know, I know – it’s been ages since I’ve posted anything. Unfortunately, the only exciting things happening in my life right now are days at the office and a back injury. I’ll tell you what – you don’t really realize how much you use your back until you can’t use it at all. Nonetheless, I feel like I need to pour more love into my blog space and the best way to get back on my feet (figuratively) is by sharing a great book I just finished.

Daughter of Smoke and Bone, by Laini Taylor, is an exciting, mystical, and just downright fantastic first instalment to a trilogy that is sure to be a best-seller. After my foray into the world of non-fiction, I took a break to drift back to my favorite genre, fantasy, and boy did this novel do the trick. It was filled with suspense and mystery, something I think fantasy authors struggle to maintain as the genre becomes more and more popular. Though I love fantasy, I find that novels in this genre tend to be predictable and lack a bit of suspense. Daughter of Smoke and Bone was a fresh reprieve from this with a strong female main character that puts the Bellas, and even Katnisses, of the popular novels to shame.

From the official website:

AROUND THE WORLD, black handprints are appearing on doorways, scorched there by winged strangers who have crept through a slit in the sky.

In a dark and dusty shop, a devil’s supply of human teeth has grown dangerously low.

And in the tangled lanes of Prague, a young art student is about to be caught up in a brutal otherwordly war.

MEET KAROU. She fills her sketchbooks with monsters that may or may not be real; she’s prone to disappearing on mysterious “errands;” she speaks many languages — not all of them human; and her bright blue hair actually grows out of her head that color. Who is she? That is the question that haunts her, and she’s about to find out.

All I can say is that Taylor embeds an exciting tale with such beautiful imagination and imagery that does not muddle the action, but instead enhances the experience; the otherworldly settings of both Prague and the exotic destinations to which the characters travel are painted so vividly. With each page the mystery grows, and even as Taylor unravels the truth about Karou, you are left guessing until the very last second. I started reading this novel with the expectation that it would be just another love story where the heroine relies heavily on her male counterpart, but no; Karou stands on her own as an independent and strong protagonist.

With just a couple of weeks until the sequel comes out, I picked a great time to start this trilogy. I cannot wait for the next instalment in this splendidly crafted tale of adventure. In the meantime, the sequel to The Passage is on pre-order and will be on my doorstep next week. You remember The Passage – my very first book review on this blog? If you do, you can probably guess just how excited I am for this highly anticipated sequel. If you don’t, you should read my review, then immediately pick up the book, because it still stands as one of the best books I’ve ever read…yes, it’s that good.

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Nothing to Envy

Barbara Demick, North Korea, South Korea, Communism, Propaganda, Famine, Death, Labor Camps

I have officially entered the realm of non-fiction reading and I’m not sure I want to leave it. I never thought I’d hear myself say that, but after finishing my recent book, I can honestly say that non-fiction is a great genre. First, I must give credit to my friend, Lauren, for recommending it to me. She never misses the mark when it comes to good books. In fact, our friendship was formed from a fated gathering of gals at a book club. So when she says I should pick up a book that she couldn’t put down, I pick it up right away.

Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, by Barbara Demick (who worked as a reporter in South Korea), is the story of North Korea as told through the eyes of those who defected to South Korea. The title itself, Nothing to Envy, is taken from a propaganda song that the children learn at a young age. The stories of the defectors were essential to the creation of this novel, because it is virtually impossible to get into the “real” North Korea.

As she explains it, tourist visas are extremely difficult to come by, and when granted, you can only get to Pyongyang, the country’s capital. In Pyongyang, the government has produced a setting that gives the appearance of industry and unity. However, this is a front, given that the rest of the country lives in darkness and famine. Demick focused on six lives of defectors that came from Chongjin, a city in the northern area of North Korea: a young girl and her secret teenage love, a homeless boy with no family, a female doctor, a mother who lives strictly by the regime and loves her government/country, and her daughter.

As I devoured these stories, page by page, I realized I know little about North Korea. I wouldn’t call it lack of education or cultural sheltering – North Korea has purposefully made it impossible for the outside world to gain access. Demick grabs you almost immediately by providing a satellite image of North and South Korea at night on the very first page of the first chapter. South Korea is lit up like a Christmas tree, evidence of its vibrant economy; North Korea is completely black.

It is just downhill from there as far as the quality of life for North Koreans. I can’t even begin to describe the communist regime in any way close to how Nothing to Envy portrays it – they are truly living a modern age 1984. Famine, labor camps, execution, desperation – all in the name of Kim Il-sung and then Kim Jong-Il. Imagine that you work hard every day, earn no pay check, report to food distribution centers to fill your pantry, go to classes that work to educate you on the wonders of your country and its leaders, use little to no technology, wear clothing provided to you by the government, and the list goes on and on. Then one day, the food stops coming, the electricity is turned off for most, if not all of the day, and eventually the only way to survive is to pick through fields that have little to no vegetation.

The saddest part is that for years, thanks to propaganda, most of the North Koreans believed they were part of the greatest country on Earth – that their leaders were taking care of them, that there was nothing better in the world, that there was “nothing to envy.” They praised the name of their leaders, looked at them as if they were Gods, and struck down those that didn’t believe the same. Your neighbor could be a spy, living to find out who feels negatively toward their country, and then providing the information to the government so that those citizens can be properly punished. You cannot speak against your situation, lest you be found out and sent to a labor camp, or worse, executed. This is all just a tiny glimpse of the grim reality that Demick covers.

One of the most interesting things I learned from this book is the policy of the South Koreans. If a North Korean citizen can escape on their own accord – to China, Mongolia, etc. – and get to South Korea, they are immediately given citizenship. The South Korean government still sees the entire nation of Korea as theirs. However, a defector cannot simply walk into the South Korean embassy in China to get help; in those cases, they are most likely sent back to North Korea. They must make it to South Korea in their own.

Once safely in South Korea, the government sets up the defectors at an institute for three months where they learn to acclimate – they learn how to use cell phones, order food at a food court, shop for clothes, etc. Once they pass the course, they are given a huge chunk of money to get started on their own. The way people live in the two countries is so vastly different, that it would be like transporting yourself from a life lived centuries ago to the present day.

All of this being said, I can only recommend that you pick up this novel. Nothing to Envy is a history lesson, but reads like a fast-paced thriller; I couldn’t put it down. I could never do justice to the amount of information you learn nor the unique and moving stories of the individuals brave enough to share their hardships. Venture into the world of non-fiction like I did…you won’t be disappointed.

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Shadow of Night

*Disclaimer – If you have not read A Discovery of Witches, then a few spoilers are contained in this post.*

A Discovery of Witches, Deborah Harkness, Vampires, Witches, History, AlchemyDeborah Harkness has done it again – but this time, it was even better! Shadow of Night, the sequel to A Discovery of Witches, was worth all of the anticipation and excitement. Though I never reviewed A Discovery of Witches on my blog, I can tell you now that I read it as a recommendation from my Mom, who doesn’t typically dive into the fantasy realm. Sure, she read the Twilight series after all of the hype, but the thing I love about sharing book recommendations with my Mom is that we have different reading styles. I became hooked on the Stephanie Plum series by Janet Evanovich years ago thanks to my Mom. So when she recommended A Discovery of Witches, the title itself falling within my love of fantasy, I took it seriously – and I loved it.

There is something special about the way Deborah Harkness tells a story. These aren’t your typical romance/fantasy novels – they are intelligent, historical, and written with such attention to detail. I wish that all of the hype surrounding the silly and underwhelming Fifty Shades of Grey hysteria would redirect its attention to series like A Discovery of Witches. Where Shades fails, Witches succeeds. Based around history and alchemy, you learn so much while reading this series, yet the language remains interesting and fun. The characters are charming even in their flaws, and the romance is realistic and fresh. I can count a book as successful when my emotions stir thanks to a connection I’ve built with the characters, and this book does just that.

In Shadow of Night, our main characters, Diana and Matthew, successfully time-walk back to 1590 to hopefully retrieve the Ashmole 782 and for Diana to learn more about her craft. A scholar of Elizabethan history, Harkness’ portrayal of the 16th-century takes the reader from England to France to Prague. The rich tapestry of Elizabethan life is portrayed through her attention to detail (clothing and setting) and includes a list of new characters like Sir Walter Raleigh and Queen Elizabeth I. Though the narrative is slightly lacking from time to time, including a slow introduction to the story, I was intrigued early-on and swept back into the tumultuous relationship between Diana, her vampire lover, Matthew, and his life in the past through her eyes. Even more so, Harkness successfully shifts back to the present 21st century from time-to-time to update the reader on how their dalliance in the past is affecting the future. My only criticism with this element was that an inclusion of the “present-day” date at the beginning of the chapter would have made the shift a bit more seamless.

All in all, I was enamored with Shadow of Night. This adult fantasy series has everything – intriguing characters, action, history, intelligence, and passionate romance. True to form, this sequel finishes with unanswered questions and building suspense, leaving me begging for the third instalment. Harkness is truly a story-telling historian and she can count me as a huge fan. 

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Matched

Ally Condie, The Giver

If you read and loved The Hunger Games series, then I think I have the next thing for you. Matched, by Ally Condie, is the first novel in a three-part series that I picked up while in Dublin, and I wasn’t able to put it down again until I was finished.

Set in the dystopian future, Matched follows the story of a girl named Cassia, who lives in a society where everything is chosen for its people based on mathematical algorithms. The story begins at the Matching Ceremony, where Cassia, and others her age, will be matched with their perfect mate. However, following the ceremony (and due to a series of events), Cassia finds herself falling in love with another boy, thus causing her to question everything the Society taught her to understand.

I don’t want to go into too much detail regarding the plot, because the author unfolds the story beautifully using a mix of imagery and occasional poetry. I do, however, want to address criticism I’ve seen online regarding the book’s similarity to The Giver. While the theme of the story (a dystopian society), including specific elements like the matching and job selections, remain the same as The Giver, much of the story is original and based on the author’s own creative genius. In fact, I believe many of these critics lack the literary comprehension of theme to full appreciate this book’s uniqueness. If they are so angry that the large theme of Matched is so similar to The Giver, then they should be just as equally irritated that The Giver uses many of the same themes as Nineteen Eighty-Four, by George Orwell. I think powerful and popular themes like love, loss, tragedy, and this idea of “Big Brother” are paramount to keeping genres alive that make us question and feel. As a writer myself, I borrow stylistic ideas from other authors that I find fascinating to enhance my own creative ideas. Is that not what authors have done through the ages?

This being said, I love how Ally Condie “borrows” this idea of a dystopian society and makes it her own. Unlike The Giver, she provides us with a mature romantic triangle, deeply rooted in a coming-of-age story that keeps the audience guessing. Her characters are complex and new, and surprising details continuously arise, making us question the foundation of both the Society and Cassia’s understanding of its control. I can easily say that I recommend this story, as I am currently onto the second part of the trilogy, Crossed, and I am not slowing down any time soon.

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Lies That Chelsea Handler Told Me

These days I’ve been reading another advanced reader’s copy of a book set to release in 2012. It has already won awards and will certainly be talked about, if not a bestseller. I’ve been enjoying it tremendously and for a few days I couldn’t seem to put it down. However, it is a rather serious subject that can get pretty heavy. I tend to choose books that are a little more light-hearted; reminders of what’s wrong with the world can start to wear on me, especially if the book is long. Therefore, about three quarters of the way through, I decided to pick up a quick read that would make me laugh and refresh my soul before diving back into the tumultuous end of my advanced reader’s copy.

Chelsea Handler, Chelsea Lately, Book Review

Enter Lies That Chelsea Handler Told Me, by Chelsea’s Family, Friends, and Other Victims, and you’ve got easy and fun entertainment. You can also mark this as my very first E-book – I downloaded it onto the IPad. Lies just about cured my depressing outlook on the world with witty banter and a reminder that there are people out there who don’t take life so seriously. Thank goodness they are willing to share their ridiculous and over-the-top lifestyle, because I quite enjoyed this book.

Lies That Chelsea Handler Told Me is a compilation of stories by Chelsea’s inner circle that chronicle their day-to-day experiences with the boisterous and controversial comedian. Through their incredulous accounts of the practical jokes and pranks Chelsea regularly executes, the reader learns that she is not only hellbent on “destroying their lives,” but that this is her whacked-out way of showing love.

Now, if anyone watches Handler’s show, Chelsea Lately, you get a small glimpse into this psychotic world. Pick up this book, and you will thank your lucky stars that you do not have friends like this. Every embarrassing, idiotic, and insane situation that these poor victims fall prey to are cringe-worthy. And, ironically, at the end of nearly every chapter, these poor saps defend her and claim that being one of Chelsea’s targets only means that you are truly and deeply loved. Being left out would mean you “aren’t worthy.” Thankfully, at least one brave soul fails to mention any of Chelsea’s redeemable qualities and declares her mentally unstable.Chelsea Handler, Chelsea Lately, Book Review

I can only bestow a couple criticisms of this book. 1.) With each chapter, the stories start to get a tad old. Handler’s pranks become a bit predictable and I can only wonder why her idiot friends and family haven’t caught on to her antics. 2.) The stories are written straight from the mouth Handler’s cohorts, and a few of them aren’t the best story-tellers. Either they were afraid of the backlash they’d receive by Chelsea herself once the book was published, or they just aren’t the best at recanting their experiences. Either way, there were a couple “skippable” chapters.

All in all, Lies That Chelsea Handler Told Me was the perfect mindless read to break up the melancholy I was starting to feel with my other book. Entertaining and hilarious, Lies almost feels like a work of fiction – people like this actually exist? I highly recommend it to anyone who is a fan of the Chelsea Handler franchise and even to others who are blissfully unaware of her existence. It’s laugh-out-loud funny and I’m certainly glad I carved out a couple days to experience it.

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It Came in the Night

I’ve recently been lucky enough to get my hands on an advanced reader’s copy of the next great tale; a story of illusion, magic, and intrigue, set in a dreamlike circus at the turn of the nineteenth century. In Erin Morgenstern’s debut, The Night Circus spellbinds its readers and leaves a magical footprint in the world of fantasy.

Erin Morgenstern, The Night Circus Book ReviewMorgenstern’s story starts with a small glimpse of the circus, a black and white nighttime spectacle that arrives as suddenly as it disappears at the end of each run. Throughout the tale, the circus plays more than the role of the setting; it is it’s own character by which all other parts of our story revolves. At particular points in the story, one page descriptions of the circus, told from a first-person perspective, give the reader a vivid and detailed picture of the elusive circus, making us a patron and providing an opportunity to feel the same excitement. Interwoven throughout the story, Morgenstern continues to paint us an appealing world, crafted to the tiniest detail with intense sensory images.

The plot is slow-moving, not glaringly so, but for some, this may seem plodding. However, for readers with an imagination, it is the perfect compliment to a story riddled with magic and slow-rising suspense. Our main characters are Celia and Marco. Celia is the daughter of a famous illusionist, Prospero the Enchanter. We quickly learn that Celia exhibits the same talents as her brilliant, but emotionally abusive, father. Marco is plucked from an orphanage by a man of the same trade. The two children are bound together in a challenge they know little about, but they spend their lives preparing for this game. The hidden twist? There can only be one victor, and for the loser, death is the prize. It isn’t until their paths cross at the elusive Night Circus that they begin to partake in the challenge. From tent to tent inside the circus, they create attractions, enhanced by their magic. Yet, through these wondrous enchantments, they find beauty in the other competitor, eventually discover each other and fall in love.

The most impressive aspect to The Night Circus is it’s format and depth. While it is a tale about illusionists, the structure of the story is an illusion in itself. Morgenstern craftily reveals components of the mystery at just the right moments, like peeling back the layers of an onion. The reader is able to come to their own conclusions with each turn of the page, but the characters do not show their cards immediately. Each entertainer, proprietor, and guest of the circus becomes an integral part of Marco and Celia’s journey, as well as to the success and continuation of the circus. Morgenstern beautifully unfolds every individual story with perfect timing.Erin Morgenstern, The Night Circus Book Review

Set to release in September 2011, The Night Circus is the next great fantasy novel for readers of all ages. Erin Morgenstern’s riveting debut reveals a magical world in a delicate balance, piquing the reader’s curiosity through illusion and masterful storytelling.

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Artistic Bookshelves

If you know me, you know my love of reading, writing, and everything books. I am one of those nerdy people who gets excited when they receive a book for Christmas. Case in point: my sister bought me the first three books of a series two years ago for Christmas and I was over the moon. Last Christmas, Matt’s brother and his fiance bought me an old edition of Paradise Lost, by John Milton, copyright 1940. I have several copies of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, by Lewis Carroll, thanks in part to my obsession with the story itself and the cartoon movie rendition. In fact, one of my good friends knows me so well, that she bought me a special edition as a going away present before I shipped off to Ireland. What can I say? Books, stories, imaginary worlds…they are my steadfast friend; ever there, ever evolving, a constant in my life.

So, you can imagine when I stumbled across this truly amazing photo blog, I about died with visual bliss. I want a room in one of my future homes to look like one of these photos. Bookshelf Porn is a writer’s heaven. And I certainly have enough books in my current apartment and in storage back home to fill a good-sized bookshelf. I simply cannot part with a good read, because “I might want to reread it again sometime, when the mood strikes.” Or, the beautiful spine is enough to hold onto, because it would be a waste to give it away. I think rows of books is actual art, and this blog captures the book lover’s mind.

My old copy of Paradise Lost, by John Milton. The smell alone is enough to make a reader or writer drool in awe.

Image via {bookshelfporn.com}

I am absolutely loving this room.

Image via {bookshelfporn.com}

 Why do I love this photo so much? It reminds me of Alice in Wonderland, with the clock and the books all askew.

Image via {bookshelfporn.com}

I love the shot of this room. I’m dying to know what’s on the other side looking in. It also sort of makes me think of that scene in Runaway Bride, when Julia Roberts hands over her running shoes to Richard Gere and finally admits she loves him.

Image via {bookshelfporn.com}

Especially captivating in black and white.

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Deliciously Entertaining

In the spirit of Lauren Conrad and her new online venture with thebeautydepartment.com, I decided to read her L.A. Candy series. I’ve seen it on bookshelves for ages and concluded that it was time to give the books a chance. Today, I have the mother of all book reviews, because I decided to read the entire series and do one whole review once I was finished. Yesterday, I turned the last page of the third book, Sugar and Spice, so here goes!

When you decide to read the L.A. Candy series, know that you are not sitting down for an intensely emotional or thought-provoking experience. The books are a bit cheesy and campy, but a lot of fun. They are a mindless read, but in the best way. Loosely based off of Lauren Conrad’s personal life, the first of the series, L.A. Candy, follows main character Jane to Los Angeles. She and her best friend/roommate, Scarlett, are noticed by PopTV producer, Trevor Lord, and are enticed into starring in their own reality show. Trevor chooses two other girls, Madison and Gaby, to join the show, but sees Jane as the star, as she is more relatable to audiences with her down-to-earth personality and style. Cat-fights, romance/boy drama, conflict, and the problems with fame catch up with Jane and Scarlett, making for a deliciously entertaining story.

The following two books, Sweet Little Lies and Sugar and Spiceare much of the same, but as the character’s fame grows, so do the story lines. From the reader’s perspective, you start to feel like you are getting a good behind-the-scenes look at how reality shows are done. You start to hate the paparazzi with Jane, you loath Madison as she does anything and everything to claim the star position, and you feel like you get a clear picture of how “reality” is just a production. The writing isn’t overly intelligent, but there is true character development, the intertwining stories are easy to follow, and the changing point of view is an insightful and well-used element. I was actually quite surprised by the constant entertainment value of these books.

Conrad’s own history in the “reality” limelight made for clever entertainment in the L.A. Candy series. If you’ve just come out of an intense reading experience and need something light and fun, I definitely recommend these books. Call me biased because I think Lauren is fabulous, but I truly enjoyed each and every moment of these books. And watch out, because she’s not done yet – apparently she’s signed on to write a spin-off series following her Madison Parker character.

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The Paris Wife

I usually read for pleasure or curiosity, and rarely does a book fall into my hands that actually has an impact on me personally. Only one other book has affected me in a way that made me evaluate my life, and that book was Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert. Sure, it sounds corny that Gilbert’s novel (turned into a terrible movie adaptation – sorry) found a way into my heart and actually changed things for me, but it’s the truth. Well, I’ve finally found its counterpart in The Paris Wife. It is like these novels were meant to enter my life when they did, encouraging me in completely different ways. You’ll understand more here in a minute…

The Paris Wife, by Paula McLain, follows Hadley Hemingway, Ernest Hemingway’s first wife. Told from Hadley’s point of view, McLain did an enormous amount of study and research to correctly portray the actions, emotions, and intense life of Hemingway’s first wife.

Elizabeth Hadley Richardson hailed from St. Louis, grew up in a troubled family, and found herself at a crossroads in life during her mid to late 20s. It was then that she travelled to Chicago to visit friends, met Ernest Hemingway, and began an impassioned relationship with her soon-to-be husband. McLain’s novel follows their relationship from the beginning in Chicago, through their life in Paris, finishing with their demise five years later.

McLain’s novel is truly extraordinary. Following Hadley’s relationship with Ernest through her point-of-view evoked a bevy of emotions with every page. You feel her desire, her despair, her insecurities, her jealousy, her understanding, and most importantly, her love. There are times in novels that I want to scream at the characters for not being stronger or more courageous with their lovers, but in The Paris Wife you see everything through Hadley’s eyes, and her decisions makes sense, or are at the very least, understandable.

Hadley and Ernest have a unique relationship, thanks to his all-encompassing passion and obsession with writing. Hadley laments and copes with the hardships that come with supporting Ernest, yet there is an ever-present build-up of conflict that the reader knows is going to result in destruction.

The Paris Wife was exactly what I needed right now in my life. I feel like I’ve been given a chance to do something I love and never thought I’d have the opportunity to dedicate so much time to: writing. I loved to do it more clinically in college, desired to write more freely and creatively after college, and I feel like I’ve found a middle ground with my blog through this experience moving abroad. It was both the style of writing in The Paris Wife, as well as their real experience abroad, that inspired and encouraged me to continue along this amazing path. I feel so blessed and grateful to be doing what I love!

 

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One Day

It is finally book review time and there seems to be no reading slump anywhere in my horizon. It helps that I spent a week with two people who love to read – Nancy is part of a book club and Anna reads A LOT. So, both had fantastic book suggestions and we were trading by the end of the trip. I also work with a hard-core bookie who is always reading something new, recommending her favorites, and expecting the rest of us to share in our reading adventures. It was through this co-worker that I decided to pick-up the book I’ll be reviewing today.

One Day, by David Nicholls, follows the lives of Emma and Dexter after a fling brings them together on graduation evening. It is on this day, July 15, that their stories are followed for 20 years, sometimes separately, and at others intertwined. We see their friendship grow into an impossibly strong bond and come to understand that they are at their best when they are together. However, we also see how their different paths in life can lead to huge fall-outs.

The concept of One Day was absolutely genius and I LOVED this book. It was witty, funny, heartfelt, and, at times, intensely sad. The idea that you are only seeing one day each year keeps the story moving in a truly unique way. It is almost like each chapter ends on its own cliff-hanger, because you bypass a year moving into the next segment. And then the next installment clears up the happenings of the past year either through internal dialogue or interaction between characters. I also loved that you are in both of their minds, watching them fall in love (with whom, I won’t say!), strengthening and ruining their relationship, and working their way through a complicated life they weren’t quite prepared for when they met at graduation.

Both Emma and Dexter are complex in their own ways, and you slowly learn that they are better together. In most ways, they are brutally honest with one another, but also very secretive in other aspects. I do have one word of warning – I found the story a little difficult to get into. However, it is worth sticking through, because these two characters are worth every page. I laughed, I cried (sitting at a cafe on the beach with Matt – embarrassing), and I became a cheerleader for their relationship. In fact, this book affected me enough that I was thinking about it days after. Certainly worth a read, I highly recommend this book to absolutely everyone!

*I am delighted to learn that this story has been adapted into a film, set to release in July! Anne Hathaway plays Emma, though I do not think she is exactly the right casting for this part – if you’ve read One Day leave me your opinion on this.

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