The evils of man

I’ve never actually read anything by H.P. Lovecraft. I’m definitely planning to, being a horror fan and all. But everything I know about Lovecraft’s works, I know from the authors he inspired – and there are plenty. If the horror genre was a crime scene, you’d probably see about as much of Lovecraft’s fingerprints on it as you would Bram Stoker’s. Here’s one Lovecraft-inspired book that makes me want to read H.P.’s notoriously weird tales.

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Set in the 1950s, during the twilight years of the Jim Crow era, Lovecraft Country follows 22 year old Atticus Turner as he investigates the case of his missing father. Accompanied by his uncle and his childhood friend Letitia, Atticus sets out to follow his dad’s trail, only to get tangled up in a cult ritual. As he witnesses some unearthly events unfold, he soon realizes that racists aren’t the only demons living in America.

Lovecraft Country is one of the most enjoyable horror books I’ve read. I always found stories about cults extra creepy for a number of reasons. We know these groups actually exist, and that in itself is quite unsettling. Then there’s the idea that they study the occult, and that they do rituals to communicate with or actually bring forth entities from beyond our realm. (Honestly I’d rather not know what they’re doing.) Cults represent a tangible sort of evil, and in horror, the closer you are to the threat, the scarier it becomes.

What I really like about the book is the way Matt Ruff tells the story. Each chapter is like an episode of the Twilight Zone wherein you get a creepy stand-alone tale. As the story progresses, you’ll see how each of these mini stories converge to form a delightful tapestry of horror. And then there’s the social aspect of the book. It’s quite clear that Ruff intended to shed as much light on racism as much as he wanted to write about the supernatural. There are several elements in the story that are based on how things were in 1950s America, and I feel like the author gave a good depiction of what a lot of people went through during that era. Apart from being an exceptional work of horror, this book is a brutal reminder that men are more than capable of being monsters, too.

For more about this book, and to know more about the author and his works, visit bymattruff.com.

When reality is overrated

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The year is 2044. Not much has changed, except maybe the world’s problems have gotten worse. There are no flying cars, no hoverboards, no self-tying shoes. None of the bright and shiny cities of sci-fi lore came to be, and unsurprisingly, we haven’t evolved much as a species either. Much of the population while their days away strapped on devices that allow them to live in a virtual world where their lives are exponentially more interesting. Known as the Ontologically Anthropocentric Sensory Immersive Simulation, or OASIS, this online utopia has become humanity’s only refuge from the harsh reality that is Planet Earth.

Behind this widely popular program is eccentric billionaire software developer James Halliday, a recluse who lived out his final years developing a game that would, as they say, break the internet. On the day of his death, it was announced that he had been busy designing the biggest Easter egg hunt in history. The reward: his assets, amounting to $240 billion, and control of the Gregarious Simulation Systems, the most lucrative company in the world and owner of the OASIS. But Halliday didn’t make it easy. All the clues were embedded in things he had liked as a child; things that were recreated and hidden across the vast universe that is the OASIS.

And just like that, the world had a new obsession.

Since Halliday grew up in the 1980s, everyone began binge-watching ‘80s films and TV shows, listening to old records, and of course, playing the most beloved 8-bit videogames. Everyone had a new hobby. But with that much on the line, you just can’t expect everyone to play fair, and some really vile elements prove that they are willing to do absolutely anything to get Halliday’s money and gain control of the OASIS.

The book follows protagonist Wade Watts, an exceedingly average boy whose barely livable circumstances make college dorm life seem luxurious, as he navigates his way through Halliday’s world on an epic egg hunt.

I almost wish I were born a decade earlier thanks to this book. Don’t get me wrong, I think the ‘90s was amazing, but the way the book talked about ‘80s pop culture sounded like so much fun. Every time the author referenced something I was not familiar with, I got the urge to Google it. I felt like I was part of the contest – like I wanted to know Halliday as much as the characters in the book did – and that’s part of what made this book so enjoyable for me.

Apart from being a fast-paced sci-fi adventure, this book also deals with some issues that are quite relevant in today’s tech-ridden virtual age. You’ll see the protagonist struggle to cope with real life problems while keeping up his rock star-esque persona online. You’ll see how it is so much easier for him to make virtual friends than to connect person-to-person. You’ll see his confidence falter at the idea of actually meeting his online amigos, even if he really wants to. The author explores the inner struggle that comes with living dualistic lives, and I think that is something that everyone can relate with on some level.

All in all, Ready Player One is both fun and serious, futuristic and nostalgic, real and virtual. You’ll stay up reading it the same way you stayed up playing Pac-Man.

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Magic and mayhem

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I recently finished A Darker Shade of Magic and A Gathering of Shadows, the first two books in V.E. Schwab’s Shades of Magic trilogy. The story follows a powerful magician named Kell, one of the last remaining Antari. He is one of only two people with the ability to travel between parallel worlds, making him the perfect liaison between the three Londons. Grey London has very little magic – so little that some of its inhabitants question its existence, while others dismiss it as mere legend. Red London is Kell’s home world, peaceful and brimming with power, ruled by the Maresh family. White London, while strewn with magic, is much more chaotic; its people are willing to kill for power, especially since controlling powerful magic means controlling the throne.

And then there’s Black London, which nobody talks about – partly because they don’t want to, partly because nobody really knows what’s left of it. Even the most powerful magicians wouldn’t risk a trip there. Not willingly, anyway.

I always believed that fantasy and adventure go hand in hand, and this series is a good example of how these two elements can come together to create a thrilling story. I find that tales of exploration and discovery are much more enjoyable with a touch of magic. Throw in a bunch of interesting (not to mention shady) characters and you have a real page-turner. And did I mention there are pirates? Yup, this series has all the right ingredients for an adventure that spans four worlds.

The first book is about 400 pages long while the second novel is just over 500 pages. But, really, as hefty as they seem, you can easily zip through both novels once you get into the story. You’ll always want to read what the characters do next, and each chapter is sure to whet your appetite for the succeeding ones.

For more about the author, check out her blog at https://veschwab.wordpress.com/.

The secret of Murder City

Over the past few years, many a comic book series has transitioned to the small screen with much success. From superhero-based shows like Arrow, The Flash and Daredevil to supernatural dramas such as Outcast and the record-breaking The Walking Dead, fans have been treated to a plethora of live action adaptations of their illustrated favorites. “There’s no better time to be a comic book fan,” as they say, and it seems the comics-to-TV trend isn’t dying away anytime soon.

Here’s another comic book series that many believe could be the next hit TV show.

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Nailbiter: The Murder Edition vol. 1

Written by Joshua Williamson and illustrated by Mike Henderson, Nailbiter is a crime/mystery comic that takes place in Buckaroo, Oregon, a (fictional) city which gave birth to 16 of the most notorious serial killers in the world. In this first volume, NSA Agent Nicholas Finch travels to the city to investigate the disappearance of his friend Charles Carrol, an FBI agent who went missing while investigating the cause of the town’s apparent penchant for producing psychotic murderers. It doesn’t take long for the hot-headed NSA agent to find trouble…

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…and for trouble to find him.

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Without any solid leads, Agent Finch reluctantly turns to the most notorious Buckaroo Butcher for help – Edward “Nailbiter” Warren – a serial killer whose M.O. involves kidnapping men and women who have a habit of chewing their fingernails, keeping them alive long enough until their fingernails grew back and chewing his victims’ fingers to the bone before killing them.

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I didn’t think something with such dark subject matter could be this much fun. A good gory comic is one that balances out its intense scenes with the other elements of the story, and the creators of Nailbiter play that game really well. There’s definitely a lot of action, as well as some heavy parts, but somehow the comic manages to throw in some humorous jabs from time to time.

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What I like most about this comic book series is that it has a lot of personality. Not only will you enjoy its dynamic characters but you’ll also get the feeling that the city has a life of its own. You’ll want to get to know the place as much as its people, except you can’t really do that. Not this early in the story anyway. So you just find yourself hooked on the mystery surrounding Buckaroo, Oregon.

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Overall, Nailbiter is a thrilling read that is sure to suck you in from the very first page. Great characters, great storytelling, and playfully sinister art all come together in this exciting murder mystery series. If I had to guess why people want to see this on television, only one thing comes to mind: they probably can’t get enough of it.

A tale among stars

As a kid I never really found sci-fi appealing. I was raised on fairytales so fantasy was my natural first choice as far as genres go. When I was about eight years old I discovered I liked horror as well and to this day, those two genres are what I constantly look for regardless of medium. What they have in common is that there are elements of the fantastic in them – supernatural beings, magic, and everything that humans can’t create or become.

Sci-fi (or at least the common notion of it) is about technology, steel, everything artificial and fabricated. Even when it deals with distant worlds, it is nothing unreachable. No matter how out-of-this-world the stories are, they are still grounded on science. And science is what humans do so I never saw it as anything special. It wasn’t until a few years ago when I got to read this comic book series called Saga that I became more interested in the genre.

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Written by Brian K. Vaughan and illustrated by Fiona Staples, Saga is about as sci-fi as you can get. It is a true space adventure spanning an entire galaxy. It has all manner of life forms from people with horns and wings to biomechanical robots with TVs for heads to large cats that can tell when you’re lying. It is a reality where space bounty hunting is a lucrative career path and spaceships are a common form of transportation; so common that they literally grow on trees. There’s even an entire planet that deals in interplanetary sex trade and a giant flaming gorilla (because why not?).

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So what makes Saga any different from other sci-fi stories? Well, BKV wrote it, that’s what. Like Vaughan’s other works, his character development for Saga is top-notch. First he lets you fall in love with protagonists Alana and Marko, who got into a forbidden relationship in spite of being from rival races that are locked in an endless war with each other. Despite their biological differences, they actually end up having a baby and get chased throughout the galaxy for it (hence the space adventure).

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Then, Vaughan introduces you to their would-be captors: a bounty hunter named The Will and his trusty sidekick Lying Cat. You’ll end up liking them, too, just because they’re a cool pair. There will be parts where you want the protagonists to get away, but at the same time you also end up worrying about what happens to the bounty hunters. It feels like the good guys are good guys and the “bad” guys don’t seem so bad so part of you roots for them, too. And that’s one of the things I enjoy about this story – even the bad guys are likeable.

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Oh, and then there’s Prince Robot IV. He’s a bit of a douche but he does make the story that much more interesting. I guess you can say he’s the main bad guy of the story.

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Beyond all the weird elements of sci-fi, Saga is packed with humor, action, serious and heart-felt moments, great characters and so much more. This series made me realize that genres aren’t always what make stories enjoyable, and that the best stories are the ones that are able to transcend those delineations anyway. It’s no surprise that Saga is what many believe to be the best comic book on the shelves today. And if you know comic book fans, you know that that compliment isn’t something that gets thrown around lightly. This series really does live up to its hype.

Fatal attraction

This week, I’m rereading the first volume of the crime/mystery/horror series Fatale from the ultra-talented duo of writer Ed Brubaker and artist Sean Phillips. It’s been over a year since I read it and I just recently got a hold of the second volume so a little refresher is in order.

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Fatale Deluxe Edition Volume One. Collects the first two story arcs Death Follows Me and The Devil’s Business.

The story revolves around Josephine, a woman with an obscure past riddled with very deadly secrets. She doesn’t age, and she has the apparent ability to charm men into doing whatever she wants – just some of the side effects of a curse placed on her decades ago. And of course, that kind of power comes with a lot of trouble. Dirty cops, occult worshipers, demons and pretty much every manner of shady individuals want a piece of her.

It’s quite hard to find a series where the level of art matches the level of storytelling – even more so when both are on an exceptional level. The story is multi-layered. You have so many things intersecting, so many plot threads coming together to weave a beautiful noir tapestry. That, in itself, is a treat. If this were prose, I’d still read it. But then you get art like THIS and everything feels perfect.

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Phillips’ illustrations fit the story extremely well. Most of the first story arc takes place in the 1950’s and you feel like you’re transported to that era when you read this book.

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The attention to detail is astounding; from the clothing, to the hairstyles to the cars and the scenery. It’s like reading one of those classic films where everyone looks so elegant – but with a dark, gritty twist.

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I don’t always reread previous volumes before getting into the next one, but this series deserves the attention. I’m actually enjoying it more the second time around and I’m seeing some details which I might have missed or forgotten. More than anything, I’m getting really pumped up for volume two, which should be another great read.

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Awesome cover art for the second volume. Collects the last three story arcs West of Hell, Pray for Rain and Curse the Demon.

Sci-filosophy

I’m a hundred pages into my fifth novel for the year and it’s been an interesting ride thus far. We are the Ants by Shaun David Hutchinson is a sci-fi novel about a teenage boy named Henry Denton whose seemingly average life is disrupted by a series of alien abductions. He has no idea why he was chosen. All he knows is that the aliens have given him 144 days to decide whether or not he wishes to save mankind from an unknown catastrophe that will destroy the planet. All he has to do is press a shiny red button and everything will be okay.

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To most people, the choice seems to be an obvious one. But for sixteen year old Henry, it’s not exactly black and white. His boyfriend just recently committed suicide. His grandmother is suffering from Alzheimer’s disease and is slipping further and further by the day. His relationship with his chain-smoking mom is going south. His dad left them a long time ago. His brother just got his girlfriend pregnant and dropped out of college. And the popular boy at school who makes fun of him when everyone’s looking and secretly makes out with him when they’re alone only complicates the equation. Beyond his personal life, world events haven’t been encouraging either, with rising tension between nations that are overly eager to jump-start a nuclear war.

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When everything’s falling apart, is the world really worth saving?

The book invites us to examine this question. And as you read along, you realize that the answer really isn’t as simple as you thought it would be – especially for Henry Denton.

I like how the book is both human and alien (literally and figuratively). One moment, Henry is struggling with every conceivable problem a high school kid can have. Next thing you know he’s immobilized on a slab inside a spacecraft for God knows what reason. The guy just can’t get a break.

What makes the book entertaining is its breadth. It gives you ample doses of genuine human struggle while having a compelling sci-fi spin. It challenges you to question the value of life and our existence as a species. It urges you to find meaning in our daily struggles. It makes you wonder what the point of living is, or if there is a point at all. It encourages you to ponder the infinite vastness of the universe and what role we’re supposed to play in it. The book gives you so many things to think about, and that’s always a good thing. I’m really looking forward to the remaining 350 pages.

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Unfinished business

I wrote a book report on The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe back in high school. I can’t say I remember much about the story, but what I do remember how much I liked reading it. I think it was the first book I finished willingly and without difficulty – or in other words, it was the first book I enjoyed. I never got around to reading the entire series, however. And since I started getting into novels, I’ve always had this on my want list.

I finally found a nice hardcover box set of The Chronicles of Narnia yesterday and my sister got it for me as an early birthday present. So yeah, I’m one happy bibliophile.

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Here’s the box set in all its glory. Narnia is quite common around here but the other box sets I’ve seen were all paperbacks. I also found a hardcover compilation with all seven volumes in it but it was too bulky. I like that this set has individual hardcovers for all seven books.

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The art on the dust jackets are by Caldecott Medal winner David Wiesner. The books also contain the original illustrations by Pauline Baynes. I’m definitely looking forward to seeing those.

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And here they are without the dust jackets. I really like the overall design and color of each book. The black spines with silver lettering add a nice touch, too.

C.S. Lewis’ work was one of the reasons I got into novels and getting reacquainted with his writing is something I’ll surely enjoy. I can’t wait to tear through this series.

Welcome to the Rez

Last week I read the third volume of Scalped, the highly acclaimed series from writer Jason Aaron and artist R. M. Guéra. The story follows Dashiell “Dash” Badhorse who, after running away from the Prairie Rose Indian Reservation fourteen years ago, returns as an undercover agent for the FBI. His mission: to investigate suspected crime boss and tribal leader Lincoln Red Crow.

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The first three volumes of Scalped: The Deluxe Edition from Vertigo Comics.

This series was an unlikely favorite since crime isn’t really a genre I’d go crazy for, and the only reason I picked up the first volume was because there was so much praise behind it. But as soon as I started reading the novel, I was hooked.

What I really like about this series is that it feels very real. A lot of the story’s elements are grounded on Native American history, and the richness of their culture makes the novel that much more compelling. I also love that the art fits the story really well. The mixture of dark and vibrant colors adds so much to the comic’s gritty atmosphere.

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This is definitely one of the more serious graphic novels I read, but Aaron’s masterful writing is sure to have you turning pages with all the twists and turns. You’ll find yourself deeply invested in the characters, constantly worrying when they get into trouble and breathing a sigh of relief when they pull through.

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You know a story is good when it evokes real emotion, and that is precisely what this book does. Scalped capped off with issue number 60 back in 2012, and the hardcover compilations which I’m collecting will have two more volumes, set to be released later this year. With consistently solid and intense story arcs, I’m sure the conclusion to this sordid masterpiece can only be explosive. I can’t wait to read it.

A year in books

It’s hard to believe I only started reading novels as a hobby two years ago. I wasn’t much of a book lover when I was still studying and the only novels I read back then were those that were required for English class. I didn’t even finish most of the books that were assigned to us and I was happy enough to get all the details I needed from online summaries (yes, I have a shameful past). It’s not that I hated reading, but anything that was required for school simply lost its charm. Luckily, however, I picked up the habit a few years down the road, and here I am tearing through as much fiction as I can.

I finished 10 novels in 2014 – a big improvement considering I spent several years prior with an annual book count of zero. When the year ended, I was determined to read more. I felt that although  I had read so much, there are still so many stories to enjoy; so many treasures waiting to be discovered.

These days I often find myself standing in the middle of bookstores wondering if I’ll have enough time to read every book I want to read. There are just so many stories! And I want to read as many of them as I can. So for this year, I set out to finish one novel for each month, and I’m happy to say I was able to accomplish my goal. Here’s a look at the twelve books that made my 2015 amazing.

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Book #1 – The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain

I had a lot of fun with this one, and I imagine anyone who was ever a boy would, too. Tom Sawyer is a classic tale about a boy who did everything a juvenile male would; from escaping chores and corporal punishment, to roughhousing, to flirting with schoolgirls and getting into all sorts of trouble. Twain’s work is the embodiment of “boys being boys.”

Book #2 – Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

Do not let the bad film adaptations dissuade you from picking up this novel. Shelley’s masterpiece, hailed as one of the cornerstones of science fiction, makes for an entertaining read. This cleverly written novel cautions against the sin of hubris and the dangers of knowledge for knowledge’s sake.

Read: Beyond pitchforks and torches

Book #3 – The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick

This is why I don’t let classifications such as “children’s literature” deter me from picking up books. This illustrated novel is like a silent film on paper. Selznick’s illustrations give life to the story and make for a truly unique reading experience. The story is brilliantly conceptualized and will surely delight you from beginning ‘til end.

Interesting fact: The invention of Hugo Cabret is the first novel to win the Caldecott Medal, an award reserved only for picture books.

Book #4 – The Walled City by Ryan Graudin

Gangsters, drugs, prostitutes and three unlikely heroes crammed inside a walled city. This fast-paced dystopian fiction will have you turning pages as you follow the protagonists in their struggle to survive Hak Nam and escape the city of criminals before it’s too late.

Book #5 – The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker

Set against the backdrop of 19th century New York, Wecker’s historical fiction is an epic tale that spans a thousand years. This is fantasy done right. I really liked how the author created very human relationships between two magical beings and the people around them. What’s even more amazing is the fact that this is only her first novel. I’ll definitely be on the lookout for Wecker’s future works.

Read more about the book and its author here.

Book #6 – Dracula by Bram Stoker

The king of horror stories. Mystery, suspense, adventure and a diabolical villain combine for a thrilling read. As with Frankenstein, no movie adaptation can ever do justice to this classic. Don’t make the mistake of lumping this book together with all the other vampire stories. The amount of creativity and originality that went into this novel is simply mind-blowing, especially if you consider the fact that it was first published in 1897. This book started it all. Literally.

Book #7 – Jamrach’s Menagerie by Carol Birch

Probably the most grueling book I’ve read so far. This is another historical fiction novel that draws on the real-life account of Charles Jamrach, a famous 19th century wildlife dealer, saving a boy from the jaws of an escaped Bengal tiger. The novel crafts a story of survival that revolves around Jaffy Brown, the boy Jamrach saved, who unfortunately gets involved in a failed expedition to capture a dragon.

Book #8 – Baltimore, or the Steadfast Tin Soldier and the Vampire by Mike Mignola

This dark fantasy/horror novel from the creator of Hellboy is both thrilling and enchanting. Mignola’s illustrations add to the eerie atmosphere of the book, and you’re sure to find yourself highly engrossed with each chapter. If you like stories of the supernatural, this book is definitely for you.

Read: The Mignola novels

Book #9 – The Girl with All the Gifts by M.R. Carey

The book is about a dystopian world where much of the human population has been wiped out by a fungus that hijacks the brain and turns its victims to flesh eaters – but this isn’t your typical zombie apocalypse. Carey’s work is emotionally charged as it depicts the struggles of the five protagonists to keep, and in some cases, find their humanity amid all the hardships and tough choices they face along the way. I’m really looking forward to seeing the movie adaptation.

Book #10 – Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

This wasn’t the simple, happy family story I expected, and I’m glad for it. Alcott’s novel is more than the story of four daughters growing up. In its own way, it perfectly depicts life and all its twists and turns. This coming of age book is a reminder that not all things turn out the way you expect them to. That, in fact, very few things do. But while you may not get what you initially wanted, there could be other happy endings in store for you. This is one book that I’m excited to read again when I get older.

Read: Meet the Marches

Book #11 – The Number 7 by Jessica Lidh

This book caught me by surprise. The early chapters gave me what I would expect from young adult novels, but as the ending drew near, the story progressed to something much deeper. The closing chapters made me wish I could read more about the Magnusson family, but at the same time the length of the entire novel felt just right. Teenage problems and a mystery rooted in the protagonist’s family history make this an entertaining read.

Book #12 – Circus Mirandus by Cassie Beasley

Who wouldn’t want to read about a magical circus? Reading this novel was a complete joy from start to finish. It’s one of those books that, if you didn’t run out of pages, you’d just keep on reading. Finishing it almost felt like being in a real circus and not wanting to leave even when the show’s over.

And there you have it; 12 books in 12 months! As great as this year was, I’m hoping to read much, much more in 2016. There are so many classics that I have yet to get acquainted with and even more new authors who are putting out brilliant stories on the shelves. It’s definitely a good time to be a bibliophile.

 

Author’s note: Since this is a year-end post, I’d like to take the opportunity to send a big THANK YOU to everyone who took the time to check out my blog. I’m quite new at this and having people take interest in the things I share is such a treat. Always feel free to reach out – I enjoy and appreciate all the comments and exchanges. Have a happy new year, and may your 2016 be filled with adventure and wonder!