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Looking back at 2012

There is both good news and bad news about my reading accomplishments of 2012. The good part is that I made it past my goal of reading 100 books. Hooray, go me! The bad news is that I utterly failed at writing a review for each and every one of those 100. This makes me sad. When I look back at my diligent reviews from the earlier months of last year I find them very comforting. I like having that written record of what I was feeling in the moments or days right after I finished a book, especially if it was one I really love. Time makes these things blurry and I’m left with more of an overall impression, rather than the specifics of what a story meant to me.

The moment for writing detailed reviews for everything I read in 2012 has passed, but I do want to make note of some of my favorites that I never got around to reviewing here. Because they deserve that. There were so many lovely surprises and thrills and books that still make me sigh or smile even months after having finished them. Does that sound cheesy? I guess that’s just how I am about books I love.

1. 9302583The Piper’s Son by Melina Marchetta

Reading a Marchetta book is kind of like stepping into a maelstorm of emotion. For me anyway. That makes it really hard to come up with intelligent things to say about it, especially seven months after reading. I never expected to feel so fond of Tom Mackee after reading Saving Francesca, but boy did I ever care. I ended up caring about his whole family as though they were people I knew or people I was or might have been. It’s very hard to explain so I generally don’t. I just tell people that this book should be read. I read all of Melina Marchetta’s books last year, and this one stands out as possibly my favorite. And that is saying a lot.

4620332. Maisie Dobbs by Jacqueline Winspear

I love immersing myself in a nice, long series of books. The Maisie Dobbs books were recommended by a friend at just the right time. I read the first one early in the summer… and didn’t stop until I finished the series sometime in the fall. They accompanied me on vacation, lunch breaks, car rides… Maisie was my companian pretty much everywhere for those months.

Maisie is an interesting character to read about. The books are as much about her personal progression as they are about the mysteries she solves. She was a nurse in the first world war and, though the books start years after the war is over, Maisie is still struggling to recover from her experiances and the loss of the man she loved. Her personal issues mirror much of what England itself was struggling with, and many of her cases directly relate to what happened during the war or its many lingering consequences.

Maisie is strong without being perfect. Her powers of perception may be what help her put together the pieces of a case, but they frequently cause her trouble in her personal life. It’s easy to get frustrated with her at times, but Maisie is constantly progressing and that’s what makes her wonderful to read about. Seeing her heal and grow and try to change is what’s at the heart of these books, interwoven into each and every mystery that she solves.

97117143. Everybody Sees the Ants by A.S. King

This is a hard book to write about because it deals with so many of life’s small intricacies. It’s about bullying and how even small cruelties can impact lives, but it’s about more than that too. I want to say it’s about how we can rise above all of that but that’s not quite right and it sounds corny. This book is imaginative and funny and depressing all at once. I’m definitely glad to put it on this list, despite not being quite sure what to say about it. I forget why I put it on my to-read list, all I know is I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this book.

135747104. The Curiosities by Maggie Stiefvater, Tessa Gratton and Brenna Yovanoff

Sometimes I forget that I like short stories because of how much I love long ones. I get caught up in series and continuation and waiting and EPIC EVERYTHING. And then a book like this comes along and manages to smack me in the face with its awesomeness even though the stories are all only a few pages long.

As someone who writes (Occasionally. With much struggle.) this book was inspirational. I loved the handwritten notes in the margins and I appreciated the distinct style and humor of each author. The stories they tell are often dark but also playful and always interesting. It’s a bit like stepping onto a private writing playground and getting a tour.

60685515. The Wolves of Mercy Falls series by Maggie Stiefvater

This was the year of Maggie Stiefvater for me. Remember at the end of 2011 when I read The Scorpio Races and said I was adding all of her books to my to-read list?Well I did. And then I read them. And they were amazing. Seriously, I can’t get over how much I wish I could just crawl inside her books and live there. The way she puts together words makes me want to cry and shout with happiness all at the same time. I can’t get over how poetic her books are without EVER slipping into purple prose. How can they be so sentimental without being sappy? I don’t know! These are things that make me scratch my head. So, yeah. I love all her books. I could probably count them all as notable reads of this year, but this trilogy is most notable because I loved it best despite being extremely reluctant to read it. Why? Because of the werewolves, of course.

Here’s the thing. As a general rule, I am not a huge fan of books that live in the paramormal teen romance section at the bookstore. It boggles my mind a little bit that this section even exists because when I used to browse through the YA section it was just books all together, living in harmony. But now YA is all chopped up into these little subgroups which is nice if you’re looking for something in particular but also confusing and sometimes a little misleading. The how and why of this sort of branding is something I could go on and on about, but the point is, I thought I was tired of werewolves. I just didn’t want to hear about them anymore. I also didn’t want to hear about falling in love with one and Shiver is quite clearly about a girl who falls in love with a werewolf. But then I read The Scorpio Races and then I read The Raven Boys and Lament and I had Shiver just sitting on my shelf. Waiting. So I read it. And I really liked it.

Did that feel anticlamactic? Okay, so I liked it and I was definitely on board with Stiefvater’s version of werewolves and I was pretty much on board with why you might fall in love with one, but I also just liked it. I didn’t love it. Do you hear the “yet” that is hovering in the air? Because then I read Linger and suddenly everything clicked into place for me. That happens sometimes for me with a series. I need the whole thing. In this case I needed Cole and I needed to read about Sam on his own and I needed to read about Isabel and see Grace through someone else’s eyes. And once all that happened I was hooked. I read Linger in one day. And then I read Forever the next.

It’s impossible to talk about everything I like about Maggie Stiefvater’s writing style. Though they are very different in most ways, both she and Melina Marchetta are authors who tend to capture my attention and devotion with the details of their writing. They way they put together words. It leaves me breathless and hopeful and amazed that words in the right hands can have so much meaning. That’s all I can say about that. But there are also some very specific things that make me like these books.

Backstory. There’s a lot of backstory involved in this trilogy. Mostly Sam’s, but also Cole’s and a little bit of Grace. Some of it is important to the plot, but most of it is important because of how it helps the characterization. So much of what makes Sam who he is, is because of things that have happened in his past, and these scenes unfold slowly. They are tucked into unrelated moments and brought on by things that trigger memories for him. It’s not seamless exactly, because it’s done with intention. But these memories and flashbacks are never misplaced. They are always important and vivid and worthy.

Disappearing parents. This is kind of a thing in a lot of YA books and it has always bothered me, but Grace’s parents are the exception. Their disapearing act is actually a focus in the story. It’s a source of sadness and frustration and they are never forgotten about. It’s an issue, not just a convenient way to get them out of the picture.

Romance and love. Romance is many different things for many different people. I loved reading about Grace and Sam. I loved reading about how they felt for each other. I didn’t care that they essentially fell in love right away. And I know love at first sight is normally a pet peeve of mine but it worked in this case because there were reasons, okay? And it made sense to me and it felt real and it felt like something other than lust. There are a lot of complexities involved in each and every relationship in these books and that was something I really appreciated.

And now this has practially turned into it’s own stand alone review so I’ll stop. All I can say is that these are going on my all time favorites list. I’ve already started re-reading Shiver and I’m noticing all sorts of things that slipped past me the first time around. Books that are worth revisiting are the very best kind.

 

I’m trying to read 100 books again this year. I’m already a little bit behind in my reading, so I can’t really promise that my reviewing habits are going to improve, but I would like to try. I can’t wait to see what my favorites of 2013 are going to be.

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The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

The legend begins…

Greece in the age of heroes. Patroclus, an awkward young prince, has been exiled to the kingdom of Phthia to be raised in the shadow of King Peleus and his golden son, Achilles. “The best of all the Greeks”—strong, beautiful, and the child of a goddess—Achilles is everything the shamed Patroclus is not. Yet despite their differences, the boys become steadfast companions. Their bond deepens as they grow into young men and become skilled in the arts of war and medicine—much to the displeasure and the fury of Achilles’ mother, Thetis, a cruel sea goddess with a hatred of mortals.

When word comes that Helen of Sparta has been kidnapped, the men of Greece, bound by blood and oath, must lay siege to Troy in her name. Seduced by the promise of a glorious destiny, Achilles joins their cause, and torn between love and fear for his friend, Patroclus follows. Little do they know that the Fates will test them both as never before and demand a terrible sacrifice.

Built on the groundwork of the Iliad, Madeline Miller’s page-turning, profoundly moving, and blisteringly paced retelling of the epic Trojan War marks the launch of a dazzling career.

I liked pretty much everything about this book. Actually, I would go so far as to say I loved this book. Everything about it, from the beautiful storytelling to the blue and gold on the cover of my copy caught and held my attention.

You don’t have to be all that familiar with Greek mythology to know who Achilles is, or how his story ended. Patroclus, on the other hand, is not quite as well remembered. As this book begins, he is an exiled prince, sent away from home after the accidental death of another boy. In the kingdom of Phthia he finds himself drawn to Achilles, a boy who is set part from others in pretty much every way imaginable. The two boys unexpectedly form a deep bond.

I’ve read a few retellings of the battle of Troy, but I’m not sure if it was in those stories or somewhere else that the idea of Achilles and Patroclus being involved romantically was first suggested to me, or hinted at really, since nothing was every spelled out clearly. The Song of Achilles takes those hints and turns them into a fully fledged relationship. Goodbye subtext. It’s hard to imagine how anyone could not fall for young Achilles, the way he’s described here. The writing was a nice blend of elaborate and stark, always flowing together in a way I found very lyrical. There’s a good amount of time spent building up the relationship between the two main characters, which I liked. It’s not always action packed, but it sets the stage for what comes later.

And then there’s what comes later. It’s hard reading a book you really like when you know the outcome to begin with, and that it’s not going to be a happy one. There was one moment when I suddenly realized just how invested I had become in the lives of Patroclus and Achilles because I suddenly looked up from the book and said, “Oh nooooo!” But I kept reading because I just couldn’t stop and I wanted to know how this version would treat the battle of Troy and what it would do to these characters that I’d grown so fond of in the first half of the book. It’s heartbreaking, but the story never loses its beauty, even when terrible things happen. I guess I kind of love a good literary tragedy every now and then.

The Song of Achilles on Goodreads & Amazon

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When The Sea Is Rising Red by Cat Hellisen

In Pelimburg-city of storm and sea and spray-magic is power. Both are controlled by an elite class, who inhale scriven dust to enhance their natural talents.

As the only daughter of the city’s founding family, Felicita has a luxurious but narrow life, one that is ruled by a list of traditionally acceptable and appropriate behaviors. When her dearest friend, Ilven, throws herself over the cliffs and into the sea to escape an arranged marriage, Felicita chooses freedom over privilege. She fakes her own suicide and escapes to the slums, leaving behind everything she’s ever known, including the means to practice magic. Soon she’s living in a squat, working as a scullery girl, and falling hard for charismatic renegade Dash while also becoming fascinated by the strange, thrilling magic of vampire Jannik.

Then translucent corpses begin to wash up onshore. As it becomes clear that Ilven’s death has called out of the sea a dangerous, wild magic that the upper class with their scriven are powerless against, Felicita must decide where her true loyalties lie-with the family she’s abandoned, or with those who would harness this dark power to destroy Pelimburg’s caste system, and the whole city along with it.

Good books sneak up on you, most of the time. There is no predicting which ones will really strike you in just the right way. Half of the time the books I’m really excited about reading don’t meet my expectations. When the Sea is Rising Red was an unexpected pleasure.

In Felicita’s world, there are certain inevitabilities to life. Men have the power. Girls marry who their told. Magic is powerful… and only the elite Houses have magic. Felicita is born into one of those houses and, despite her unhappiness at the way her older brother is able to rule her life, she doesn’t think to question that this is the natural order of things. Until her best friend dies. Ilven throws herself into the sea rather than be married off in a deal that benefits her family. When Felicita is soon after betrothed, she decides to take charge of her life by faking suicide and venturing into a world that’s completely different from her own.

It started off somewhat slowly for me. Up until a certain point I had trouble really being drawn into Felicita’s world. It was like watching events through a window. But once she enters the house on Whelk Street everything sprang to life. The characters are so wonderful! I wished the book was longer so that we could have learned even more about the people Felicita meets.

The world here seemed very well thought out without being spelled out for the reader. I loved that the slang flowed. Unnecessary slang is one of my pet peeves, but the made up words in this book really seemed to fit.

I liked how dark and gritty this world was. Not just the things that happened, but the people and emotions too. Motives and desires totally got twisted up at times in a way that made me shiver because it was just so well written! There’s a lot of drama and beautiful, haunting imagery, but it wasn’t over the top. Always tempered.

Details could get a bit murky at times. The ending felt rushed to me. I could see it coming and then BANG. There it was. I could have used a bit more buildup and explanation. Some of Felicita’s actions in the final scenes don’t entirely make sense to me. While this didn’t hinder my enjoyment of the book as a whole, it is worth noting. As far as main characters go, she could be quite passive. Normally this would bother me more, but for some reason it didn’t here. Maybe because she didn’t strike me as a weak character, even though her actions didn’t ultimately have much of an impact.

This book had vampires that I actually liked! It wasn’t about vampires, but they did play a role. And they weren’t annoying or overly romanticized, nor overly violent.

In Conclusion: Really good! Cat Hellisen’s writing style felt very fresh and unique to me. I hope to see more from her.

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In The Woods & The Likeness by Tana French

Whoa! Has it really been a month? I have definitely fallen behind on the review process, that much is clear. But that doesn’t mean I haven’t been reading! I’m right on track for my goal of reading 100 books, I just haven’t had enough time to write down my thoughts on all of them. But I want to get back on track with that. And I have a lot of thoughts about The Likeness.

It’s impossible for me to review The Likeness without first talking about In The Woods, so lets see what the summary for that book looks like first.

As dusk approaches a small Dublin suburb in the summer of 1984, mothers begin to call their children home. But on this warm evening, three children do not return from the dark and silent woods. When the police arrive, they find only one of the children gripping a tree trunk in terror, wearing blood-filled sneakers, and unable to recall a single detail of the previous hours.

Twenty years later, the found boy, Rob Ryan, is a detective on the Dublin Murder Squad and keeps his past a secret. But when a twelve-year-old girl is found murdered in the same woods, he and Detective Cassie Maddox—his partner and closest friend—find themselves investigating a case chillingly similar to the previous unsolved mystery. Now, with only snippets of long-buried memories to guide him, Ryan has the chance to uncover both the mystery of the case before him and that of his own shadowy past.

Richly atmospheric, stunning in its complexity, and utterly convincing and surprising to the end, In the Woods is sure to enthrall fans of Mystic River and The Lovely Bones.

Oooh, chilling right? I don’t read a lot of mysteries. Not because I don’t like them, but because I got freaked out reading Nancy Drew as a kid. Don’t even get me started on how freaked out I was by reading Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Basically I’m a big wimp. But at the same time I get hooked very easily. Once I start, I HAVE to know who did it. If I hear even the opening Law & Order noise, I have to watch the episode. So once I read the description to In The Woods, I HAD to read it. I needed to know what was up with the blood in his shoes, what had happened to the other kids, how these cases were connected. I was drawn in before I even opened the book.

Here’s the part where I warn you about SPOILERS! NASTY SPOILERS THAT WILL RUIN THE MYSTERY!

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Abandon by Meg Cabot

Pierce knows what it’s like to die, because she’s done it before.

Though she tries returning to the life she knew before the accident, Pierce can’t help but feel at once a part of this world, and apart from it. Yet she’s never alone . . . because someone is always watching her. Escape from the realm of the dead is impossible when someone there wants you back.

But now she’s moved to a new town. Maybe at her new school, she can start fresh. Maybe she can stop feeling so afraid.

Only she can’t. Because even here, he finds her. That’s how desperately he wants her back. She knows he’s no guardian angel, and his dark world isn’t exactly heaven, yet she can’t stay away . . . especially since he always appears when she least expects it, but exactly when she needs him most.But if she lets herself fall any further, she may just find herself back in the one place she most fears: the Underworld.

The myth of Persephone…darkly reimagined.

If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all. That’s kind of my general rule about the reviews I write here. I LOVE to nitpick (as you may have noticed), but in general I don’t bother to review books I flat-out don’t like. Why waste time and energy saying negative things? And yet, this book is an exception.

I didn’t like Abandon, but instead of forgetting about it like I do with most books that I don’t fancy, all the things that bothered me have just been circling around in my brain for DAYS! I need to get it off my chest. Also, it’s worth noting that I don’t have the same amount of guilt over giving a Meg Cabot book a negative review since she’s already such a well established (and wildly popular) author. I’ve actually read and enjoyed some of her other books, as I’ll explain later.

Ok.

The book starts off nearly two years after Pierce “dies”. At the age of fifteen she stumbled, hit her head and fell into the family pool. Fortunately it was winter, which means she kept cold enough to make a full recovery once revived. Now Pierce and her mom have moved to the small island of ——. Her mother hopes that this will be a fresh start and a way for Pierce to escape the trouble she had at her last school, but Pierce knows it wont be that easy.

See, Pierce didn’t just die. She woke up in the underworld. That’s where she met John. And since she’s come back to life  he’s been following her.

I like the premise, I really do. A modern take on this myth sounded really cool. But it just didn’t work for me. First of all, the pacing was really confusing. The book starts off with Pierce already living on the island, and then goes back and fills in all the blanks regarding her death, meeting John, and the mysterious trouble she got into at her old school. There is SO much flipping back and forth between timelines that I had trouble keeping up. I actually checked the front of the book a few times to make sure I hadn’t picked up the second book in the series by mistake. It was a very awkward storyline to follow.

Secondly, when you finally do find out what happened in the Underworld it’s a big letdown. Pierce spends a lot of time alluding to what happened there and how upset John is with her and how TERRIBLE it all was. And then you find out she spent all of thirty minutes in the Underworld before throwing hot tea in John’s face and escaping. OMG! NOT HOT TEA! Horrors.

Despite the fact that she barely knows this guy and he pretty much kidnapped her, Pierce finds that she can’t stop thinking about John. Surprise, surprise. She alternates between being terrified of him and what he can do (he has a habit of showing up when Pierce gets herself in trouble and laying the smack down on the people bothering her), and feeling as though she is the one who treated him badly by throwing that tea in his face.

Let’s talk about why all of this bothers me so much. Warning, there be spoilers ahead.

Since when is defending yourself when you’re alone with a guy and he’s making you feel uncomfortable something to feel badly about? Pierce spends a lot of time agonizing over John and being semi-attracted to him, but for most of  the book she’s also frightened of him.

Eventually she meets someone else who’s had a near death experience and can actually explain what happened to her and what John is. He also suggests that Pierce could be a little “sweeter” to him.

Really?

Let’s forget for a moment that Pierce has NO REASON WHATSOEVER to be sweet to this guy, and talk about John.

Pierce calls him a jerk at one point (not sweet), but I think she’s wrong. He’s not a jerk, he’s a robot. Seriously, I could not pick up any emotion from this character, even when it was clearly explained to me what he was feeling. I knew when he was angry, but only because he displayed it in a, “Hulk angry! Hulk Smash!” kind of way. He doesn’t listen to Pierce, he doesn’t care what she wants and he doesn’t even seem to understand when something upsets her. When he finally carries Pierce back to the Underworld (to keep her safe, of course), he barely seems to register that this is not something she’s pleased about. Instead he sits down and starts to read a book.

At this point I just shook my head.

After finishing this story, I thought back on some of Meg Cabot’s other books that I’d read. For instance, her Mediator series, which I read years ago and LOVED. It made me wonder if my tastes had just changed or Cabot’s style in this book was very different. I thought about this so much that I actually went and got one of the Mediator books out of the library, just to check. I’m halfway through, and I still really like it. It’s fluffy, but it’s also funny and I really like Susannah.

So, in conclusion: I did not like this book. It was not my cup of tea, as they say. But I do still enjoy Meg Cabot’s writing…. when she is not writing about these characters.

Abandon on Goodreads & Amazon

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Bloodhound by Tamora Pierce

Beka Cooper, the heroine of Terrier, is no longer a Puppy.

She’s a Dog now—a full-fledged member of the Provost’s Guard, dedicated to keeping peace in Tortall. But there’s unrest throughout land. Counterfeit coins are turning up in shops all over the capital city of Corus, and the nation’s economy is on the brink of collapse.

The Dogs discover that the counterfeit money seems to originate in Port Caynn. So Beka heads upriver to investigate, traveling with her mentor, Goodwin; Achoo, a hound whose nose is as sharp as her claws; and the pigeon Slapper, who carries the voices of the dead.

In Port Caynn, Beka delves deep into the gambling world, where she meets a charming banking clerk named Dale Rowan. Beka thinks she may be falling for Rowan, but she won’t let anything—or anyone—jeopardize her mission. From the Silversmith’s Guild to the Provost’s House to the city sewers, it won’t be enough for Beka to be her usual Terrier self. She’ll have to learn from Achoo how to sniff out the criminals—to be a Bloodhound. . . .

Tamora Pierce was such a huge part of my pre-teen years that I don’t even know how to describe what her books meant to me. She was my Judy Blume… my guide into the realm of kick ass fantasy girls… my introduction to complex relationships… sigh. It’s been a while since I read any of those books, and I think a part of me was afraid to revisit this author for fear that she wouldn’t measure up to my memory. Instead I found myself pleasantly surprised. Rather than feeling let down, our years apart gave me a whole new appreciation of her style.

While I did read the first book in the Beka Cooper series, it was a looong time ago. There was quite a break between the first book and this one coming out, and by the time it did I just wasn’t paying attention anymore. I only vaguely remembered the details of Terrier. Fortunately this story stood very well on its own and a few things came back to me as I read.

Beka Cooper is done with her Puppy days and is now a real Dog, but a Dog without a partner. She’s already been through two and now her third has just asked to be reassigned. But Beka has other things to worry about. Fake coins are surfacing everywhere, she finds herself the handler of a young scent hound and the rising cost of food has everyone on edge. Soon she is sent to Port Caynn, where the fake money seems to be coming from. Being in a new town places Beka firmly outside her comfort zone, as does Dale Rowan, a charming gambler who is not entirely outside the realm of suspects.

I like Beka, and I like her style of telling a story. The book is set up as her journal. It’s a way for her to remember the days events and write good reports, but it reads more like regular first person narration than a diary. At first I found the amount of street slang that’s used very distracting, but I got used to it fairly quickly and barely noticed it by the end of the book. Calling women and men “mots” and “coves” still seems overly complicated to me, but it wasn’t a deal breaker.

What really struck me about this book was the world that’s created. There are many strong female characters in YA fantasy, but SO many of them have to be. Strength in the face of adversity makes for a great story, but ever now and then it’s nice to read about a girl who is strong just because girls CAN be strong even as they go about their daily life. Sure, there’s sexism in this world, but in general girls aren’t beaten down in the same way. Beka’s struggles aren’t based around fighting to prove her worth even though she’s a girl, they’re based around the fact that she has a rough job and she’s often put in dangerous situations.

The romantic relationships are also a breath of fresh air. When I read her earlier books I don’t think I realized that Pierce’s way of handling relationships and sex was not necessarily the norm in YA. In her books, romance goes something like this:

Girl meets boy. Girl likes boy. Girl makes informed decision about how she wants to proceed. Girl uses birth control.

Throughout multiple books, main characters with differing personalities and unique romantic entanglements these core elements stay pretty much the same. None of these simple, no-brainer steps detract from the giddy excitement of Beka falling for Dale. It’s sweet and well-written and complex, just like when you find yourself crushing on someone in real life. Love interests are a part of Beka’s life, but it doesn’t define who she is as a character. I like a good epic romance every now and then, but it’s also nice to read a book in which it’s not the sole focus. Most people don’t just have OMG ONE TRUE LOVE FOR EVER AND EVER! Some people do, I know that, but other people have various loves throughout their life. Sometimes you find the right person, and sometimes you find a person who is right for you at that moment in time. It doesn’t make the romance less meaningful, just temporary. Reading a book in which all those elements of human interaction are represented made me want to hug this book. And now that I’m thinking about it, I’m deeply appreciative for having these examples presented to me way back when I first read the Song of the Lioness quartet.

Beka manages to distinguish herself nicely from all the other heroines of Tortall. She’s tough and grumpy at times, and she doesn’t back down from a fight. She’s also extremely shy when thrown out of her comfort zone, something I can relate to. I loved the ragtag group of animals she surrounds herself with, especially her dog. Achoo was one of my favorite parts of this book! The two of them seem to be a perfect match, though having a scent hound does little to help keep Beka out of trouble.

The secondary characters were interesting, the plot moved along quickly, the fight scenes were cool. In case you couldn’t tell, I really liked it. And the upside of waiting all this time to read the second book is that the third one is already out!

Bloodhound on Goodreads & Amazon

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