Monthly Archives: February 2016

Game Review: We Know the Devil

Growing up is hard. Being a teenager at a Christian summer camp and feeling like you don’t fit in has to be Hell. I was never sent to a Christian summer camp, but I’ve heard enough stories about being different in a repressive religious environment. I suspect many of my fellow queer folks can relate.

We Know the Devil is a visual novel about queer kids at a Christian summer camp who are exiled to a isolated cabin where their mission is to defeat the devil. The game has an interesting way of handling player choice. Instead of choosing to follow individual characters, you choose pairs of characters, with one always being left out. Your choice of OTP can lead to one of three endings with a hidden “true” ending.

I found the characters to be surprisingly relatable. I instantly identified with “shy, shy” Venus, probably the nicest of the main cast, something of a doormat, and a reluctant drinker. I appreciated “mean girl” Neptune’s brutal honesty and frustration with her peers when they just didn’t get it, and although I didn’t connect with “tomboy” Jupiter personality-wise, I resonated with some of the things left unsaid on her route. I knew at least one Neptune in elementary school, I suspect most people will recognize the characters in this game. They definitely fit certain stereotypes, but they also feel real. They talk like I did back in the day. By the way, astute readers have probably noticed some obvious Sailor Moon references. This game definitely puts me in mind of Puella Magi Madoka Magica, itself a deconstruction of the magical girl genre.

In terms of music and graphics, well, the graphics probably aren’t going to win any awards (as the devs themselves note in a tongue in cheek manner). The character designs are simple drawings in black and white, and the backgrounds are washed out images that remind me of PowerPoint slideshows I used to make for school. In a way, the graphics emphasize how mundane most of the game is–a bunch of young people goofing off and drinking in a secluded cabin–up until the very end when it switches to a more hand drawn style. The soundtrack is described as “80s synth” a style that, to be honest, grated on me, but ultimately I felt suited the game.

Perhaps the most interesting–and frustrating–thing about this game is that so much is left unsaid, literally. There’s a notable absence of narrative text, and the player is expected to read between the lines and pick up on subtle cues. It’s an interesting stylistic choice, but I feel like the game will end up being too esoteric (both in the literal and figurative sense) for players who come in with the expectation that the game is going to be telling a story when the game is more interested in showing and letting the player draw their own conclusions. The game is ambiguous in a way that feels appropriate for magical realism–a genre that runs on ambiguity–but to some, including myself at first, it will feel more like a pretentious “artsy” film where you don’t really understand what is going on or feel like there’s a message that you just don’t get. I wish the creators would have taken more time to explain the world and how it worked, but I also think the vagueness makes the game unique, which is sort of a weird thing to say, kind of like saying any other game is so generic that it feels special. Speaking of films, the game is about as long as one, taking about two hours to get all the achievements (potentially shorter or longer depending on how fast you read) and the option to fast-forward through text you’ve already read makes replaying it less of a hassle. At just over $7 Canadian, it might seem like too steep a price for such a short experience, but I’ve seen some movies that didn’t have half the impact this game had for the same price.

It’s difficult to talk about how this game made me feel without spoiling everything. I will say that although there is a part of me that didn’t like the true end for reasons I can’t discuss due to spoilers, part of me absolutely reveled in it. It is, in a strange way, a really gratifying ending to the story. My favourite character was probably Venus, as, like Venus, I too was the “shy one” when I was younger. I think Venus’ route was my favourite route of the three “character” routes, and you’ll absolutely want to play them all for that true end, trust me.

In terms of diversity, while it’s somewhat difficult to tell due to the black and white colour scheme for the characters, Neptune is a bit darker than Venus and Jupiter. There is at least one explicit same-sex couple and one of the characters is trans (although they are presented in such a way that they seem unsure of their identity).

In terms of potential triggers, there is some body horror (particularly involving Neptune) and there is a scare chord at 4 AM that might startle those who aren’t prepared for it. Since one character does not yet realize they are trans until a certain point, the other characters use the pronouns that are in line with their current gender identity. There is no intentional misgendering but some might still be uncomfortable by it.

Make no mistake, this definitely isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. The lack of straightforward storytelling is perhaps this game’s greatest weakness. At the same time, it’s an intriguing title, and if you’re a fan of religious horror, coming out stories, stories about love and self-acceptance, stories that require you to read between the lines, or you yearn for stories about queer kids at summer camp, We Know the Devil is a short but sweet experience.

Deck Review: The Earthbound Oracle

I have a bunch of oracle decks to review and have received a few requests to review this one first, so here’s the review of the Earthbound Oracle by Andy Swartz (creator of the Wooden Tarot).

The Earthbound Oracle is a 50 card oracle deck which is a “practical, down-to-earth” deck. The imagery is simple, earthly, and a little surreal. Each card has a single keyword and the image. The cards are 2.5″ x 3.5″ and borderless and the backs are a black background with two crescent moons. There is no LWB. The cards are the perfect size for my small hands to shuffle. They come packaged in a tuck box and my purchase included a sticker and a wooden Yes/No coin.

I love the imagery of this oracle. The “labour” card shows bees busily working at a honeycomb, while “growth” shows a couple mushrooms in a terrarium, “toxic”, predictably, shows a bunch of poisonous plants, “guide” is a compass, while “abundance” is a pomegranate. The imagery is simple and easily recognizable but clever, although, as the artist says, a couple of the images use very Western symbolism (such as “deceit” being a two-headed serpent). It’s a very earthy deck, and reminds me of playing in the park, digging through the dirt looking for bugs. Even the colour scheme (a pale pinkish-tan) reminds me of pale clay I used to dig up and shape with my hands. Some of the images are a bit surreal, but nothing I would characterize as grotesque.

I have found the deck is best with single-card draws, although I’ve seen people use spreads on tumblr, because there is no accompanying booklet, you’re left to interpret the cards however you want. This deck would be an obvious companion to the Wooden Tarot, but handles well on its own. If you’re looking for a deck with simple, surreal, earthy energy and you don’t mind a lack of instruction, this oracle deck could be just up your alley. The lack of instructions was a turn-off for me at first, but this isn’t a deck that relies on highly detailed imagery or any specialized knowledge.

To view the art, go here. You can purchase the deck via etsy here.

Review: Here Comes a Chopper to Chop Off Your Head

As someone who enjoys both fairy tales and horror stories, uncovering the darker side of popular folk and fairy tales fills me with a perverse sort of glee, almost a guilty pleasure. Here Comes a Chopper to Chop Off Your Head: The Dark Side of Childhood Rhymes and Stories is one of the more recent books on the market that tackles the “dark side” of traditional stories.

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The book is divided into five main sections: “Sowing Superstition”, “Sex Education”, “History Lessons”, “Crime and Punishment”, and “Model Families”, each dealing with a particular theme in these stories and rhymes. The section on sex education covers stories which involve incest, chastity, and child marriage, while “History Lessons” is about corrupt monarchs and class issues. The chapter on model families, predictably, talks about the ubiquitous evil stepmother and child abandonment.

I would classify this book as more of a “coffee table” book, that is, a book you put on your coffee table for guests to look at and strike up a conversation (although unlike true coffee table books, it’s not large and isn’t full of pictures). Although the author does cite several old fairy tale treasuries and some notable writers on the subject, this is not an academic text by any means, and should be seen as more of a curiosity than an authority on the subject. Some of the origins the author posits for certain tales seem a little dubious to me, although, she does try to mention when theories regarding particular tales are dubious or have been debunked by scholars.

Otherwise, there’s not much new material here if you’re familiar with the subject matter already, although there are a couple of interesting variations of “Donkeyskin” that I’ve never heard of, as well as a bizarre version of “This Little Piggy Goes to Market”, you’ll still find “Bluebeard” and that one variant of “Little Red Riding Hood” that involves a striptease and cannibalism (seriously).

In terms of triggers, the book might as well be slapped with an “all the trigger warnings” tag: rape, murder, cannibalism, incest, particularly creative methods of execution, child abandonment, poverty and child labour, religious persecution, domestic abuse, I think you get the picture, and that’s just the major stuff I can remember. Tread carefully.

Honestly, I don’t know if I’d recommend this book. As I said, it’s a curiosity. If you can’t access the originals, it does quote from several 19th century fairy tale books, but it’s definitely not a scholarly book and should be taken with a grain of salt. If you’re interested in the topic, I would recommend Maria Tatar’s The Hard Facts of the Grimms’ Fairy Tales, which was published by Princeton University Press.

Game Review: Stella Glow

Before Fire Emblem for the Game Boy Advance, I’d never played a grid-based strategy RPG, or really anything that wasn’t a regular JRPG. Since then, I’ve played a bunch of games in the same vein, but nothing quite measures up to the first time I started Fire Emblem and THAT OPENING MUSIC, although, Devil Survivor is a strong contender.

Stella Glow is, in a word, bittersweet, not because the game itself is awful, but that it was the last release from Imageepoch (known in the West for the Luminous Arc games) before they went out of business. It is fitting that a game with music as a central mechanic and theme should be the company’s swan song.

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Stop me if you’ve heard this one:

A boy with amnesia (our hero, Alto) grows up in a small village with his childhood friend (Lisette). When the village is attacked by monsters, the boy discovers he has a mysterious power that can defeat them, and, with his childhood friend in tow, he sets out on a quest to save the world from destruction.

That is the basic setup for Stella Glow and at first glance it’s nothing you haven’t seen before with a few tweaks, namely that Lisette awakens as the Water Witch and takes a much more active role in combat, and the destruction I alluded to is personified in the form of Hilda, the Witch of Destruction, whose Song of Ruin turns everything into crystal. Alto, it turns out, is a Conductor, a man with the unique ability to “tune” witches, making them stronger. When their village falls victim to the Song of Ruin, Lisette and Alto join the members of the 9th Regiment of the Regnant Knights on a quest to recruit the remaining witches and stop Hilda, once and for all. It’s not the most original story, but it is a comforting story, and the game does throw in a couple major twists that most people won’t see coming (even if they’re familiar with Imageepoch’s previous games).

For the most part, the gameplay is fairly typical for an SRPG: move characters in a grid, attack enemies in range, adjust your position, your turn ends when all your characters have moved, and so on and so forth. The big addition to this formula is Song Magic. Alto possesses a Song Stone that is filled whenever your characters successfully attack an enemy, filling it to a certain point allows him to use the “Conduct” command when he’s next to a witch, causing them to unleash powerful magic that can paralyze all enemies on the field, heal your allies, or unleash devastating magical attacks. A well executed Conduct command can turn the tide of battle, plus you get to listen to some very nice music using the original Japanese vocals. Most missions include bonus objectives that add a little more challenge to each fight  (check the “Mission” tab on the bottom screen) and include things like opening each chest in a level to defeating a boss with a certain character. Completing bonus objectives will net you powerful weapons, armor, and orbs (which you can slot into weapons and provide various effects). I was grateful for these bonus objectives because even without song magic, the battles are a little on the easy side. Also, if you lose a character in battle, don’t worry, there’s no permadeath and they’ll be available in the next fight. I only lost a character during one of the endgame fights due to carelessness, but it’s definitely possible to get through the entire game never having lost a character outside of plot-mandatory losses. There are a bunch of optional fights you can use to grind but the game doesn’t require very much grinding and I was usually well over the recommended level for most fights, but you’ll want to make sure to give attention to both witch and non-witch characters, as a couple fights mid-game will be much easier if you have one or two characters leveled up.

Speaking of characters, outside of battle you’ll have an opportunity to chat with the members of the 9th Regiment. During Free Time (marked with a green circle on your in-game clock) you can choose to speak with whoever is available during that time slot and raise your affinity with them, which unlocks new abilities. You’ll especially want to talk to the witches you’ve recruited, as raising their affinity unlocks new songs and maxing affinity gives you the option to see a short ending scenario specific to that character. Unfortunately, you won’t have time to max your affinity with every character, so it’s important to choose wisely. You can also use your free time to explore (and find random items) and take part time jobs to earn extra money. However, since you get plenty of money and great items from battles, there really isn’t any point to doing either of those things, instead, you’ll want to spend your time chatting up your teammates or tuning the witches.

See, being a Conductor is not only about being a leader, it’s also about being a therapist. Occasionally, a witch will have issues she needs to work out, and when that happens, you need to “tune” her at the Tuning Hall, where you enter a spirit world with representations of her negative emotions. Most of the time you deal with these negative emotions by punching them in the face, but a few tunings have you chasing after a witch’s shadow or avoiding enemies that aren’t the witch’s shadow personified. The characters (not just the witches) deal with a variety of issues, from parental abandonment to exploitation (of labour) to PTSD to repressed romantic feelings and more, and although at first glance they all fit typical JRPG roles and archetypes, they all have their moments where they get some character development and become a little more fleshed out. Stella Glow is probably the first game I’ve ever played where the tsundere is one of my favourite characters.

The graphics are very bright and colourful. The more stylized character design for the battle scenes won’t be to everyone’s taste, but I thought they were adorable. The real star of the show in terms of presentation is the music. The music is phenomenal, from the fiery “Cherry Blossoms” to the more dreamlike “To the Sea”. The non-witch focused tracks are great too. My favourites are the title theme, the peaceful theme that plays at night, and one track that features some ominous chanting that plays on a couple maps which I can’t discuss due to spoilers. This game is a treat for the ears.

Besides the game being a bit on the easy side, there is some sexism in the dialogue and some of the outfits are pretty revealing (Hilda and Nonoka being some of the  worst offenders) which is pretty tasteless but tolerable, and although the game isn’t as harem-y as something like Agarest: Generations of War, there’s still an element of “everyone loves Alto” and of course the obligatory onsen scene that involves peeping. Some people might be a little weirded out by the sexual connotations of conducting, particularly the way the witches (especially Popo) squirm and gasp as Alto thrusts his dagger-like Song Stone into their Qualia (a round orb), in addition to handling subjects like the violent death of close family members (and the trauma survivors experience), poverty, poor self-worth. Something worth mentioning is that although I love Sakuya as a character, her treatment of Nonoka is abysmal and pretty abusive, especially given the latter’s issues with self-worth.  There are other free time events that I’ve only heard about, such as a character drugging the other characters with an aphrodisiac, but unless you want their specific ending, that character is easy to avoid. In fact, you only need to get one specific non-witch character’s affinity to reach a certain point in order to unlock the option to get the true ending. If you end up missing maxing a character’s affinity, New Game+ gives you nine free time slots instead of three, allowing you to max all characters.

If you’re an SRPG newbie, Stella Glow is the perfect entry point to the genre. Although it can be a bit on the easy side, is a little skeevy at times and it starts out as cliche as it comes, the story has some unexpected twists, the music is top notch, and at around 50 hours of playtime for a single run through the story (completing all bonus mission objectives but not the optional side missions), it’s a robust experience. It’s easily worth your time even though Fire Emblem Fates will be out soon.

ETA: I forgot to mention that the first printing contains a soundtrack CD with a few song magic tracks, a large Bubu cellphone charm, and a cloth poster of Hilda. It’s almost a crime the full OST wasn’t included, but the charm and poster are nice.

Review: The Coldest Girl in Coldtown

For some reason, the more I try to avoid vampire books, the more vampire books I end up reading. I don’t have anything against vampire books, in fact, I prefer vampire books to werewolf books any day of the week, but vampires have become such a staple of certain genres that they’re almost boring. What attracted me to The Coldest Girl in Coldtown was the striking cover and the fact that it was getting some rave reviews from some of the more critical review blogs I check on occasion.

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After a perfectly ordinary party, Tana wakes up surrounded by corpses. The only survivor of the massacre is her ex, Aidan, who has been infected by vampires, and a mysterious boy with a terrible secret. Determined to save them, Tana enters a race against the clock to bring them to Coldtown, an opulent prison where predator and prey mingle and no one ever leaves, with the odds stacked against her and an ex with an unquenchable thirst for human blood, can Tana find a way to save them both? Or will she find herself falling for a monster.

This book is one of the most melodramatic books I’ve ever read.

The best way to describe this book is take almost every popular trope in vampire fiction, and a heaping pile of melodramatic prose, and sprinkle with quotes from Romantic period poets. In the hands of any other writer it could have been disastrous, but somehow it ends up working. It’s clearly a love letter to books that have come before it, but it’s also a weird beast. It’s like it’s so dramatic that it would normally be awful but somehow, somehow it isn’t. or else I was willing to tolerate it.

It helps that the main character Tana is a bit more realistic than a typical heroine in a vampire story. Although I found myself questioning her actions at the beginning, she quickly grew on me, and it’s hard not to hate a scared young woman trying desperately to help her friends when her entire world is going to hell in a handbasket. Gavriel is more of an enigma, straddling the line between romantic hero (with an appropriate tragic backstory) and monster, and Tana is all too aware of that even as she realizes she’s falling for him (tropes, remember?). The book doesn’t let her (or the reader) be complacent, and just as you’re starting to warm to the vampires, the fangs come out and remind you that while they might have pretty faces, they are still Other, and the Other is dangerous. One thing I also appreciated is that this book is a standalone title, so prospective readers don’t have to worry about committing to a series.

That said, although I liked the book, it’s definitely not one I’ll be reading year after year. I had to be in a particular mood to appreciate it, and I also feel that while the abundance of tropes adds to the book’s charm, I felt like there were ample opportunities to try something different, although the major twist at the end was interesting. I can easily see that it won’t be to everyone’s taste, and I completely understand anyone who says they’re turned off by the melodrama. This is a book that begins every chapter with a quote from Romantic poets about death, after all, which seems like something out of angsty fanfiction.

In terms of diversity, there are a few characters of colour, the most prominent being Jameson, who is Latino, and Valentina is a trans girl (who, interestingly, came to Coldtown wanting to be turned because she couldn’t afford gender confirmation surgery). Aidan, Tana’s ex, is bisexual, a flawed character who makes a number of questionable decisions but eventually comes through in the end.

Potential triggers include copious descriptions of blood-drinking as well as bloody imagery in general, the vampires in this book mostly drink with the aid of stints and needles. There’s also at least one explicit description of torture.

The Coldest Girl in Coldtown is a strange book that I would have absolutely hated if it had been written by anyone else. I won’t say I absolutely 200% loved it, and it was incredibly slow at times. but I ended up liking it despite my initial impression of it as too melodramatic for its own good. It’s definitely not for everyone but if you want a weird homage to modern vampire fiction, this just might be your ticket.

Deck Review: The Green Witch Tarot

I have a weakness for “Pagan” decks even though I recognize, as a non-Wiccan, that most of them don’t cater to people who aren’t some flavour of Wiccan. Usually I like to wait until decks come out to get a glimpse of as much of the art as possible, but in this case, I was captivated as soon as the first preview images were available.

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The author of the companion book is Ann Moura, and the artist is Kiri Østergaard Leonard. The deck is billed as one that will help you “align with the natural energies of the Old Religion.” The deck and companion book are packaged in the same flimsy Llewellyn box as decks like the Tarot of Vampyres. The cards are the typical size for decks published by Llewellyn, but are borderless, the card stock is thin and flimsy. Many of the majors have been renamed to reflect (Neo-) Wiccan principles. The Hierophant is the High Priest, Death is the Lord of Shadows, the Fool is the Greenman, the Devil is Nature, Strength is the Crone and so on and so forth. The suit names are chalices, wands, athames, and pentacles, and the courts are King, Queen, Knight, and Page.

The major draw of this deck for me is the art. The deck has a very romanticized rustic feel, from the Knight of Pentacles atop her sturdy workhorse to the dramatic Wild Hunt scene in the titular Wild Hunt card (the Tower in traditional tarot), to the beautiful fairy bathing in a pool in the Star. This deck is a feast for the eyes, and each has a plant and animal associated with it that is featured on that card. The images are just detailed enough to spark your intuition but not so detailed that the cards seem busy. It really is easy to get lost in these images. Many of the images in poster form could easily fit into a ritual room if you’re into a certain “witchy” aesthetic.

The book is a full companion book that is about 240 pages. Every card gets a large black and white image and about a page of information. The majors also have a section where you can write notes. The book also includes seven spreads: Witch’s Circle (Celtic Cross), Elemental Cross, Wheel of the Year, Mystic Pyramid, Nine-Card Square, a Yes/No spread, and a Tree of Life spread.

Although all four seasons are depicted in this deck, this deck has a very autumnal feel to me, or at least a harvest theme. As someone who loves autumn and farmer’s markets, I immediately took to this deck. It’s the sort of deck you can curl up with in front of a fire with a hot drink. In some ways it reminds me of the Victorian Fairy Tarot. As for how it reads, I’d say the deck did pretty good with test readings, and a single card can tell some interesting stories.

That said, I did have a few issues with this deck. The deck is a very white deck, and there isn’t a lot of variation in the faces of the characters (the same man with the dark goatee shows up in multiple cards), except for two cards, which depict men of size, and one that depicts a pregnant woman, there’s no variation in body type either. The book also focuses on the positive, acting as if the dire events in some cards (like the Three of Athames) have already happened. While it’s not as unfailingly positive as some of my other decks, some might be put off by it. My other issue with this deck is that the interpretations in the book are overwhelmingly focused on career-specific advice. This would be fine if the deck was called “Career Advice for the Green Witch” but my impression based on promotional materials was that it could be used for more general readings. It’s not unusable by any means, it just would have been nice to have more general interpretations that didn’t have anything to do with advancing your career. A couple of the images also appeared to be a bit stretched, which didn’t really bother me until someone else pointed it out. On a more personal level, I really don’t like the Fool/Greenman card, which depicts a giant floating Green Man head above what seems to be some sort of festival scene. It just felt really jarring to have that be the first image I saw of the deck.

In sum, this deck is a vibrant, comforting deck only slightly let down by the companion book’s focus on career and and it’s positive slant. I should also note that Anne Moura’s books are full of the same sort of misinformation that plagues other Llewellyn Wiccan 101 books, so I wouldn’t see this as an exhaustive resource on the tarot. Still, despite its shortcomings (especially its lack of diversity) it’s one of my favourite decks of 2015 and one I’ll be using quite frequently.

Review: Chapelwood

One of my favourite books of 2015 was Maplecroft, which was a wonderful melancholic Lovecraftian horror tale starring a queer Lizzie Borden with great atmosphere. I was very excited to read the sequel, hoping that it would be as good as its predecessor.

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Birmingham, Alabama is a hotbed of prejudice and hatred. A serial killer stalks the streets, hacking couples apart with an axe, while in the church known as Chapelwood, worshipers seek to summon beings from beyond the stars. The darkness calls to Lizzie Borden, who arrives in town searching for someone thought long lost, but she doesn’t have much time, for the parishioners of Chapelwood seek to sacrifice a woman to summon beings never meant to share space with humanity, unless her and her allies stop them in time.

This book takes place some time after Maplecroft, Lizzie Borden is now much older and Emma has passed on. Since her passing, Lizzie has lived a life of quiet isolation, whereas Inspector Wolf has returned to Boston. A third prominent character is Ruth Gussman, who finds herself in a precarious position when her father falls in with the Chapelwood crowd, who, as you might expect, are up to no good.

Given H.P. Lovecraft’s stance on racial issues, it’s ironic (and likely this is intentional) that the source of the unrest (Lovecraftian or otherwise) are racists in general and the KKK in particular, like Maplecroft, this book also drips with atmosphere, with Storage Room Six being particularly unnerving, especially if you find yourself constantly losing track of things or you work in an environment that uses large storage facilities.

While I enjoyed this book, I found it to be much slower than Maplecroft. There’s a little bit of action towards the end, but the bulk of the book is concerned with a trial and its aftermath. In that sense, it reminds me of To Kill a Mockingbird meets Cthulhu. I also found that the ending was a bit anticlimactic. I read somewhere that Cherie Priest didn’t intend to write a sequel to Maplecroft, and that’s definitely reflected in this book. It’s not an awful book by any means, it just could have used a bit more action. I feel like part of the reason for this underwhelming feeling is the lack of Lizzie in general in this story. She’s definitely present, but the focus has shifted largely to Inspector Wolf and Ruth, and while they aren’t bad characters, Lizzie’s absence in this story is definitely felt.

For a book with racism and prejudice as major themes, there’s a definite lack of characters of colour. The most prominent is Pedro, but as he is a day labourer, we don’t get to see much of him. Speaking of racism, the book also uses historically accurate but racist language to describe people of colour in general and black people in particular, and derogatory terms to describe Catholics.

I feel like I should say more about this book, but the fact of the matter is that it didn’t leave as strong as an impression on me as Maplecroft. Maplecroft was one of my favourite books that I read in 2015, but unfortunately this one kind of fell flat. That said, I am interested in future books from this author, and hopefully you’ll see more reviews of her works on this blog in the months to come.