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Round Two: Noggin vs. Gabi, a Girl in Pieces

For Round 2 of the Book Tournament, I had to evaluate two very different books. Gabi, A Girl in Pieces and Noggin come from almost the opposite ends of the genre spectrum: the first was a realistic tale of teenage life while the second was more in the vein of Science Fiction.

Gabi, A Girl in Pieces by Isabel Quintero is a look into the microcosm of one girl’s senior year in high school. Told in diary format, Gabi Gabi, a Girl in Piecesgoes through a rollicking year, and Quintero does an amazing job highlighting the difficulties of teen life: from attempting to create meaningful relationships with friends and potential romantic partners to the difficult realities of teenage pregnancy, addicted parents, and coming out as gay to your parents, all together with the poetry that she is beginning both to study and to write. Gabi is also an interesting look into the culture of Mexican Americans, and interweaves Spanish and English into the text with great success to create an intercultural bilingual experience.

Gabi the character is also someone whom I came to admire and root for very early on in the book. She is thoughtful and bold (she takes initiative when it comes to her romantic relationships, which is something I would like to see more of in literature!) and she will do anything to protect her friends from harm. Her discovery and subsequent love of poetry was a perfect complement to her character. Through her, Quintero created a believable teenage world that was easy to get lost in.

in Noggin by John Corey Whaley, Travis Coates has been reanimated, Frankenstein-style. Five years ago, he had been dying of cancer and had elected to have his head chopped off and put into cryogenic storage in the hopes that one day science would progress far enough to reanimate him. Science moved a bit faster than anticipated, and after five years his head was attached to another dead boy’s body. While he’s sixteen and feels like it’s been only a few days since he went to his cold sleep, everyone else has had five years of experiences happen to them. The readjustment both of Travis and everyone around him to his reanimation and second chance at life form the basis of the plot.

Travis is very funny and sarcastic, which is a state of being I greatly appreciate. I appreciated his relationship with his parents as well as his attempts to make new friends in high school – despite the circumstances being wildly different than any other teen’s experience, everyone can relate to trying to make new friends in a strange environment. In fact, the added wrinkle of him knowing the teachers and being recognized by some of the older kids was a nice touch, and is something that younger siblings experience all the time. It was almost as though Travis’s past self was the older brother and this new Travis finds that nogginhe has to somehow live up to the ghost of his own past.

However, there were some points in time when I couldn’t help but roll my eyes at him, especially when it came to his old girlfriend, Cate. While I understand the dichotomy of his experience versus the world’s experience (he feels like it’s only been a few weeks; the rest of the world knows it’s been five years), at some point in time I just wanted him to get over it and move on. That made it slightly more difficult for me to connect to him as a main character.

The Verdict: Both books were interesting looks into teenage experience. Gabi dealt with the difficulties of an average teenage life while Noggin framed pretty typical teenage experiences (making new friends, getting good grades, dealing with the end of a relationship) in an interesting and unique setting (it’s not like anyone else has ever been reanimated). Both are books that I would recommend to teens and that I think they would enjoy and get a lot out of.

That being said, Gabi, A Girl in Pieces quickly earned a place in my heart that Noggin failed to. While Noggin’s premise was very intriguing to me, the actual execution left something to be desired. It was still a fun book, but for me it fell short of the spectacularness that was Gabi, A Girl in Pieces. Gabi gripped me from the very beginning in a way that Noggin failed to, and I found it much easier to read and root for Gabi in all her endeavors. So while Noggin is still an amazing read, it’s just not quite on the same level as Gabi, A Girl in Pieces.

The Winner: Gabi: A Girl in Pieces by Isabel Quintero

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Posted by on February 26, 2015 in Book Review, Tournament of Books

 

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Round Two: I’ll Give You the Sun vs. Grasshopper Jungle

So here’s the thing: Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith got kind of a bum deal this round. I’m glad I read this book. There are a lot of things I liked about it – the gross-out humor, the crazy science, Robby and Ingrid and the underground compound with all its weird pieces sprinkled throughout Ealing, this dying Iowa town that felt so real in its insular detail. I loved the Unstoppable Corn and the Unstoppable Soldiers and the surreal quality of the science fiction laid over this absolutely normal town in the middle of nowhere.Grasshopper Jungle

Little things like how Smith uses food metaphors to describe the skin tones of all the white Iowans in the book – subtly pointing out how ridiculous a thing this is to do when describing a person of any color. Big things like how authentic Austin’s confusion regarding sexuality feels. Austin knows he’s in love with both his girlfriend Shann and his best friend Robby, but what does that mean? What should he do? And why does everything on Earth make him horny all the time?

Austin’s voice – and the question of how much of this history he’s sharing is actually, reliably true – and the question that rises from that – how much of any history is actually, reliably true? This is the heart of the book.

But (and you knew that but was coming from about a mile away – or the beginning of this post, anyway) – I am not the reader for this book. I know there are people out there who love this book. I know there are teens out there to whom I will recommend Grasshopper Jungle and who will adore it. It’s not you Grasshopper Jungle, it’s me. Austin kept going around and around in circles with his history and the voice kept me at arm’s distance, and honestly, I don’t like to have to think so hard about what the author is trying to do while I read (see, bum deal, right?).  I knew going in that there were going to be giant, unstoppable bugs who would only want two things – to paraphrase a bit: to eat and to copulate, but it felt like it took forever to get to the, er, copulating bugs!!

And then I read Jandy Nelson’s I’ll Give You the Sun. And I fell in love. This book – oh man this book. It kept me up ‘til 2 in the morning when I finally had to put it down and go to sleep only to wake up and immediately start reading it again. The twin voices of Noah and Jude separated by time and all the secrets and lies between them captured me in a way Austin’s voice just didn’t. Just like in Grasshopper Jungle there are complex explorations of identity and sexuality going on here both for Jude and for Noah, who are both attracted to boys.

The way Nelson structures the two narratives is masterful – revealing clues to what happened in the years between through both sides of the timeline without the plot or the timing ever seeming forced. Because it’s broken up like this, it’s almost a puzzle structure (literary i'll give you the suncatnip to me – more of GJ’s bum deal) where you can see the pieces falling into place faster and faster towards the end.

Grief is a theme of intense interest to me – my brother died in a car accident over 8 years ago and a close friend followed several years after from the flu – and this book is chock full of grief. Grief not only for those who have left us through death, but grief for how we hide ourselves from the world and grief for how often we seem to harm the ones we love.

But Nelson also shows how humor is still there – even when our worlds are falling apart. I kept stopping to read funny parts out loud to my husband. “I’m so glad I’m not a horse.” “Did you just say you’re glad you’re not a horse?” The way Nelson captures these things makes me wonder what kind of loss and grief she has lived through that she can depict them so well. I can only hope that any teens I know who are dealing with grief in their lives find their way to books like this one.

And to top it all off – I’ll Give You the Sun is also about the power of art to change lives, to remake the world, to break your heart open wide so it can be whole again. (I was a music major in college and my best friend was an art major – seriously the deck just could not BE more stacked against GJ.)

With all these themes (I didn’t even talk about forgiveness or ghosts or magic), I never felt bogged down in my reading. There were so many avenues of thought to explore, but I didn’t feel like I was admiring Nelson’s technique from afar – I was right there in the middle of it.. And on a slightly shallower note, the make-out scenes in I’ll Give You the Sun were really, really hot. Plus, I’m a sucker for a happy ending.

So, Grasshopper Jungle I like you a lot, I hope we can be friends. But my heart belongs to I’ll Give You the Sun. I just hope the next judge treats you kindly.

Winner: I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson

 
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Posted by on February 26, 2015 in Book Review, Tournament of Books

 

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Round one: For Art’s Sake! I’ll Give You the Sun vs. The Vigilante Poets of Selwyn Academy

I’ll Give You the Sun details the alternating perspectives of artistic fraternal twins, Noah and Jude, and their individual exploration of identity, loss and love. Each twin struggles with their anguished responses to the same horrific event that altered the trajectory of their lives. This accident complicates their relationship with art, with each other and leaves a smear of guilt across the canvases of their lives. Additionally, both Noah and Jude struggle with their sexuality; Noah’s unfolding love sti'll give you the sunory and his thoughts and anxieties about being gay stand in contrast to Jude’s attempts to not be that girl.

Noah’s perspectives are told when he is 13 going on 14. He is on the cusp of adolescence and the world seems to be a gaping universe that he can fill with his artistic vision. Yet, he struggles intensely with the duality of his identity. Noah is bullied and doesn’t have many close friends outside of his sister, Jude, and his mom. His inner world is where the magic lies. Noah sees the world in brilliant colors and magical scenes that burst from his imaginative space. He is also beginning to realize that he is gay and does not know how to navigate this landscape. He and Jude are close, almost claustrophobic in their oneness with each other, but as things progress, we see parts of them start to separate and change.

Jude is the superstitious sculptor; she builds magnificent creations from sand, clay and stone. Her storyline takes place when she is 16. Much has changed since they were 13, including a horrible accident that essentially changed the twins forever. Jude hides her fear behind a belief in her dead Grandma Sweetwine’s “bible,” a collection of random passages detailing how to ward off bad vibes, spirits, or any other nefarious influences. Her post-accident journey has diverged dramatically from Noah’s, and she is on her own- the twins are scarred and bitter, alone and ridden with guilt. After the accident, both Noah and Jude’s ability to express themselves artistically has come to a complete halt. Noah seems to reject any artistic inclination and Jude, while studying at a local prestigious art school, cannot seem to push past the guilt and move into a space of artistic creation. However, it seems that the fates kept one link between them intact, and through a series of discoveries and coincidences, Noah and Jude begin to embrace their abandoned identities and break down barriers by coming clean with one another.

I’ll Give You the Sun is a stunning story about Noah and Jude’s struggle to find wholeness, to be something more than one half of a set of twins. It is a true coming-of-age story since their experiences have brought them through seeing the world as something to be broken up and divided between them to realizing the boundless possibilities and often uncomfortable revelations about humanity and our own evolving identities. I feel like I could write so many more paragraphs about the beauty and magnificence of this novel, but I will move forward!

The Vigilante Poets of Selwyn Academy is a quick-witted, perfectly subversive novel about four friends, Ethan, Luke, Jackson, and Elizabeth (and the gerbil, of course), who band together to rid their school of a reality TV show that has infiltrated their institution. The four friends attend Selwyn Academy, a prestigious art school that has been chosen by Hollywood hotshots as the setting for a reality television show, For Art’s Sake. The students chosen to compete on the show must compete in a series of challenges for the chancevigilante poets of selwyn academy to win a $100,000 scholarship to any art school of their choice, and title of “America’s Best Teen Artist.” For this reason, many of the competitors (and faculty) will do anything to maintain their status quo within the show. However, Ethan and his friends begin to realize that the show’s presence has changed the entire atmosphere of Selwyn. Before, students would discuss Prokofiev and opera in the hallways of Selwyn. Now, all subject of conversation revolves around the fabricated drama coming from reality television.

Naturally, a revolution must take place. The teens use the styling of poet Ezra Pound to create their own Cantos, a self-published poem ridiculing the show and admonishing the student body to regain their artistic pride and prestige. The plan encounters some hitches, friendships are betrayed, and Ethan must step out of Luke’s shadow and find his voice in the “uprising.”

At first, it took me a few pages to get used to the rapid-fire inner monologue of Ethan’s introductions. I soon found the rhythm and became quickly enamored with each character. Author Kate Hattemer did a fantastic job of maintaining their individual voices and personalities, and I seriously fell in love with little Baconnaise, the gerbil. While reading Vigilante Poets, I felt as though I was a co-conspirator in writing the Contracantos– that the reader is a part of the subversive movement against the reality TV show. Overall, choosing one winner was genuinely difficult!

Verdict: Both of these novels discuss the struggle to discover your identity in an often chaotic, unpredictable world. Sometimes it is tragedy and loss that forces us to search ourselves, other times it is the need for truth in the midst of change. Both of these books have the potential to serve as a mirror for the lives of teens, and each author creates characters that are wildly memorable and unique. I have to go with my initial reaction on this one and choose I’ll Give You the Sun as the winner. My only complaint was that its near-perfect ending was anything short of miraculous. However, the journey was so beautiful and intense that I feel compelled to choose this novel. Jandy Nelson weaves art- its creation, its power, and its impact on our identity- as the central theme and uses it to create, break and restore her characters. Their journey from adolescence into young adults shows the importance of discovering yourself and confronting your demons, so to speak. Finally, I’ll Give You the Sun reminds us that real life is full of magic.

Winner: I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson

 
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Posted by on February 13, 2015 in Book Review, Tournament of Books

 

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Round one: Noggin vs. Egg & Spoon

Noggin by John Corey Whaley is a contemporary science fiction novel about Travis Ray Coates, who WAS dying of cancer. At age 16, Travis knows that his cancer is terminal. He doesn’t have much time, but when he is approached by Dr. Lloyd Saranson of the Saranson Center for Life Preservation, he is given an option. He can have his head cryogenically frozen until a time that it can be attached to a donor body. No one is sure it will work, until 5 years later, when Travis is “reanimated”. Travis is now a healthy 16 year old, but his friends and family have progressed through their 5 years. Nothing has changed for Travis, so he now has to figure out how to blend his 16 year old person into a world where everyone else has changed.Egg and Spoon

Noggin is a quirky take on life and relationships. It was a very readable book, but had a few issues. Although teens may be able to relate to the relationship woes in the novel, the main character Travis is a bit overly obsessive when it comes to Cate. The characters evolve in most ways and there are both funny and touching moments

When paths cross, strange things can happen. In Egg & Spoon by Gregory Maguire, the lives of Elena Rudina a peasant girl and Ekaterina Ivanovna de Robichaux a wealthy girl intermix when Ekaterina’s (Cat) train is delayed on the way to meet the Tsar’s godson. Cat is bringing a Faberge Egg to the Tsar as a gift, but when she shows it to Elena, she drops it off the train. As she goes after the egg, the train moves on with Elena in it. The two then have to figure out how to get back to their own lives and stories with mistaken identities. Their journeys involve the Russian folk tales of Baba Yaga, The Firebird and the Ice dragon come to life. Unbeknownst to them, this journey helps them save all of Russia.

Egg & Spoon is part historical fiction, part fairy tale, part fantasy and part confusing. The story and imagery is amazing, but the author has a tendency to assume that the reader is already knowledgeable about the Russian folktales as well as writing at a very high comprehension level.

Winner: Noggin by John Corey Whaley

noggin

 

 
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Posted by on February 12, 2015 in Book Review, Tournament of Books

 

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Round one: The Winner’s Curse vs. This One Summer

In The Winner’s Curse by Marie Rutkowski, readers are introduced to a world wherein the nation of Herrani had not very long ago been conquered and then enslaved by the Valorian army. Kestrel, our seventeen year old main character, is the daughter of a Valorian army general, and is on the cusp of having to make a huge life choice because at the tender age of twenty, Valorian citizens are forced to either enlist in the military – or get married.winner's curse

Kestrel, of course, wants nothing to do with either of these options, preferring to devote her life to the piano rather than follow in her father’s footsteps or raise a litter of children. Music, however, was highly esteemed in Herrani society, and while it is acceptable for Valorians to enjoy, it is not permitted for a Valorian to play an instrument, sing, or otherwise make music in any way or form.

When the book began – and, honestly, based off of its summary – it reminded me of a strange combination between Wuthering Heights and Footloose, a correlation which was only strengthened by one of the characters, Arin Smith, and his resemblance to a younger, more verbose Heathcliff. But I digress – the book picks up remarkably once it delves into Smith’s revolutionary plans, and, even better, Kestrel grows a spine (apparently political intrigue suits her).

The Winner’s Curse also falls within the romance genre, and there is of course an obligatory love-triangle, which was for once not that obnoxious – all three characters are pretty well-developed, amusing, and well-written. On top of this, the world building was excellently handled; there was no info-dump, everything (society, rules, the culture, etc.) made sense and was explained naturally through the course of the book, and the political plot is, in a word, amazing. There were portions in the story where the plot was transparent, but it is an overall enjoyable journey that even featured awesome background characters.

This One Summer by Mariko Tamaki is, first and foremost, a piece of breathtaking artwork. I mean, the art for this graphic novel is seriously A+, 10/10 would recommend. This One Summer is about a young girl named Rose Abigail Wallace. Rose has gone on a family vacation to the same each in the same town and played with the same friend (Windy) since she was five, but this summer – THIS summer – it’s different. This summer Rose’s parents are fighting.

There are other kids at the beach, locals and vacationers like Rose and Windy, and everybody seems to know everybody in a small-town kind of way – which would be great, but apparently RThis-One-Summer1ose’s parents’ fight has also caused Rose to feel the need to act out in cruel little vindictive ways girls do – especially when aimed at other girls.

This One Summer is, at its heart, a coming of age story. The story is tied with a meditation on divorce and its possible effects on the children caught between feuding parents, but it is mostly about that period in life where a child teeters on the edge between youth and their teenaged years – and you can literally feel the teetering here, it’s excellent. On one side, Rose is very ambivalent towards growing up; all Rose really wants to do is relax at the beach with friends she’s had for years. On the other hand, however, this summer Rose is obsessed with the lives of the older teens at the beach, and is also experimenting with the words they use (sluts! boobs!) and the things they try (bullying! sex! cigarettes!).

The characters in This One Summer are achingly familiar to anyone who has grown up. The artwork is beautiful and the characters are lovely and bittersweet in their awkward transition towards adulthood. The story was very real and did not pull punches with either content or language.

The Verdict: This was a challenging round to judge for me. Not only is judging between two mediums is always going to be difficult, but I equally adore graphic novels and the Fantasy genre, so attempting to choose between the two was a strain. As much as I love myself some High Fantasy and world building, The Winner’s Curse was at heart a Romance and did not have a strong enough female protagonist for my tastes, never mind the whole casually treated background issue of war and enslavement of the conquered society. This One Summer, however vivid and beautiful, was just so horribly negative – though essentially a bildungsroman, the entire story was filled with girls hating on other girls (spoiler: there’s slut-shaming).

I honestly thought I was going to like This One Summer best, but it turns out the winner is…

Winner: The Winner’s Curse by Marie Rutkowski

 
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Posted by on February 12, 2015 in Book Review, Tournament of Books

 

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Round one: Gabi, a Girl in Pieces Vs. The Impossible Knife of Memory

The Impossible Knife of Memory is the kind of book that hauntingly sucks you into its depths. I will be
the first to admit that this is not the type of book that I pick up on my own, so I was hesitant at first
about whether I would truly enjoy it.

The book follows 17 year old Hayley as she attempts to survive life with her war-injured veteran father.  impossible knife of memoryAs is slightly predictable, Hayley’s father is irrational, impulsive, bordering on alcoholism and very clearly suffering from PTSD. Andy Kincain is so torn apart by war that lacking the ability to re-adapt to life stateside, he consistently moves from place to place, never staying for long. He fears overpasses, crowds, IEDS and snipers around every corner.

Hayley attempts to raise herself and take care of her father while trying to figure out her own place in this world. Both Hayley and her father strike out against a cast of well-meaning characters and we, as the readers, know that the book will have to hit rock bottom before getting better.

This book was, I felt, a true representation of what it must be like for many families dealing with PTSD after military service. This kind of insight is deep and raw and your heart breaks for both Hayley and her father. Anderson does a good job at getting to the core of the emotion she is trying to convey and the book achieves the emotion well.

Gabi, a Girl in Pieces is the story of a 17-year-old Mexican-American girl living in California. She is a very average American girl living with the constant struggle of trying to be a “good” Mexican girl. Her family, her mother in particular, put a lot of pressure on her to help the family, not have sex and to lose weight. She is dealing with the very normal teen themes of friends, family, boys, high school, and college applications among other things when her real underlying stress is her drug-addicted father. He is a classic disappointment to his children, always making and breaking promises and disappearing for weeks on end to get high. She finds some release from this struggle in poetry, at which she discovers she is very good. It even leads to a new relationship with someone who seems to truly see her for who she is.

The book is told in diary format, which only serves to make you feel like you’re getting the entire truth from the character – good and bad. The truth is, there is no bad to Gabi. She is a good person, trying to look out for those she loves while searching for a way to be herself and love herself and be okay with that.

Seeing all this through Gabi’s eyes made me feel very connected to my own teenage years. Quintero has a way of writing that really makes it believable that these are Gabi’s words and not an imagining of a teen by an adult. You truly feel that this is a teen who isn’t sure where priorities should lie, but that nothing might ever be as important as what is happening right now. If that doesn’t describe most teens, than I don’t know what does!

The Verdict: As I have seen many other judges say that they weren’t sure who the winner would be until this point, I too am at a loss. While neither book was something I would have just grabbed off the shelf (dystopian, post-apocalyptic, zombies being my drugs of choice) both of these books were touching in memorable ways. The realism of both characters rang true. Both writers seem to grasp their stories, and neither of the endings seems far-fetched or drawn together too neatly to be real. Therefore, I have to go with my winner for two reasons. Firstly, the voices in each book felt real, but one book felt more true to really being the thoughts and words of a teen.  Secondly, hope. While both books had a hopeful ending, one of them left me feeling more hopeful that everything would be okay. I know, I know that’s a weird thing for a fan of dystopian books to choose as a deciding factor, but there you have it.

Winner: Gabi, a Girl in Pieces by Isabel Quintero

Gabi, a Girl in Pieces

 
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Posted by on February 10, 2015 in Book Review, Tournament of Books

 

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FINAL ROUND!: Battle of the Author Last Names that I Can’t Pronounce

The plots of both titles have been summed up in previous posts, so I’ll spare you a couple of paragraphs.
Charm & Strange.

 
Charm & Strange tackles a common theme in YA fiction with a new slant and I applaud Keuhn’s approach to the subject charm and strangematter.  The protagonist, Drew, is a compelling character that grows immensely by the end of the novel.  I found Charm & Strange dark and remarkably peculiar.  I did, however, have several issues with this book.

The writing was a bit weak and the story had some major holes. With the exception of Drew, most of the other characters were particularly special or relevant to the plot.  The female friend could have been a great character; however, if her character was nonexistent; it wouldn’t affect the plot.  The ex-roommate, once again, could have been great but he was extremely underdeveloped.  Kevin and the cousins were flat and I didn’t care about them.

Out of the Easy
Girl power in teen fiction is the romantic comedy of movies. There are so many and in order to make it stand out, the writing has to be impeccable, the characters have to compelling, and the story has to be slightly different from the norm.  In Out of the Easy, Sepetys takes a different approach by introducing us to a strong girl who grew up in a brothel with a prostitute for a mother in 1950’s New Orleans.
Many authors have tried to write this story and have failed. Sepetys, however, manages to write wonderful round characters that are essential to the plot and Josie’s struggle to get out of the Easy.  She writes a relatable heroine who wants the educated boy who symbolizes hope as opposed to the hustler with seemingly no opportunities.  She writes a flawed girl who has been strong her entire life and finds it difficult to accept help.  She writes a role model who has a clear goal and works hard to achieve it.

index.aspxThe winner of this final battle is Out of the Easy.
Charm & Strange takes on a serious and familiar subject with a new approach. Out of the Easy also takes on a familiar subject but in a familiar approach. Out of the Easy stands out because of the writing and the characters. From the nasty brothel floor that Josie has to scrub to the streets of the French Quarter; Sepetys takes the reader to Josie’s life in 1950’s New Orleans.  Sepetys’s characters are beautiful people that you want to be friends with, including Willie.  It’s an engaging story of a girl with an unconventional family and an unconventional life who fights for her dreams.

 
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Posted by on March 28, 2014 in Book Review, Tournament of Books

 

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