Category Archives: High Fantasy

High Fantasy is traditional not-of-our-time fantasy, featuring magic. It is never set in present time on present earth.

Witch Week

Jones, Diana Wynne. Witch Week (2001 ed). 269 Pages. Greenwillow Books. $6.99

The Chronicles of Chrestomanci

Well, I’m not sure how I feel about Witch Week. I will say that it’s why I knew about Guy Fawkes before V for Vendetta came out, but to be honest, Guy Fawkes Day isn’t even a blip on the U.S. calendar. Nor had I heard of Witch Week, which is (apparently) the week between Halloween and November 5th. Though, even if I do have a very mild grasp of the premise, I do really enjoy the narrative. I enjoy Diana Wynne Jones’ prose as a rule, and this is no exception.

In a world related to Chrestomanci’s, magic is illegal, so of course the world is full of it. Witches are burned at the stake, and their orphans are sent to places like Larwood House. It’s a boarding school and orphanage, all in one. There are several points of view in this book, though Nan Pilgrim and Charles Morgan are the central characters. Charles has had several encounters with witches in the past, and Nan is descended from a famous witch. Both of them come into their powers during the story, which is what starts the plot along. They alternately explore their powers, and try to hide them, because discovery means death, even for children.

Unfortunately for Nan and Charles, they are not the only ones discovering their magic, and things are not entirely as they seem. When Brian Wentworth disappears and “the Witch” is blamed, they must run for their lives before the inquisitors get them.

In Conclusion:

This book does require at least a basic understanding of Guy Fawkes, which I think many Americans lack. There’s an editor’s note at the beginning which explains in brief, and that is enough to grasp the basics. Additionally, I know some people have trouble with books that have multiple P.O.V. transitions– this is one of them. Nan and Charles are central, and while the book is mostly told from their viewpoints, they are not the only narrators. I did enjoy it, but I’m not sufficiently satisfied by the ending, which feels like a bit of a cop-out. It scores a 4.5/5.

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The Magicians of Caprona

Jones, Diana Wynne. The Magicians of Caprona (2001 ed.) 273 Pages. Greenwillow Books. $6.99

The Chronicles of Chrestomanci

As I’ve said (repeatedly, I think) I owned quite a few incarnations of the Chrestomanci series. I’ve misplaced them all, and replaced them all at least once. I did, however, get this one from the library, because it is at the “lost, not yet replaced” point in the cycle of Diana Wynne Jones books. So, when Diana Wynne Jones Week rolled around, I grabbed this from the library, hoping I could squeeze it in, but obviously that did not happen. Regardless, I’ve kept going.

War is looming over the Italian city-state of Caprona, and an unknown enchanter threatens everything that Paolo and Tonino Montana have ever known. Casa Montana may be one of the most powerful spell-houses in Caprona*, but without the help of their rivals (the Petrocchis) they may not be able to do a thing.

With invasion imminent, and both spell houses afraid to use magic, it may be up to some of the smallest family members to save the city.

Some books do not stand up to re-reading, because they rely upon the surprise factor, or because the plot holes become more evident with familiarity. This is not one of those books. Despite the fact that I knew the twists, and the surprises, and the villain, I still enjoyed the mystery, and watching the characters discover things I already knew.

In Conclusion:

If you’ve read any Chrestomanci books, you’ll likely at least enjoy this one. There is more of a cameo than a real involvement, as Italy is very far outside of England (and thus Chrestomanci’s official office). It is not crucial to the understanding of the series (though it does relate to a short story in Mixed Magics, where Tonino and Cat bond. Reading the book before the short-story will keep spoilers at bay.) This particular story gets a 5/5, because it was a very, very fun read.

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* It took serious effort not to type “Verona,” “Montague” and “Capulet.”

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I got the omnibus edition from the library, because while I own it, I cannot find my copy anywhere. This copy is pretty well “loved,” and since I’m participating in the Dogeared Reading Challenge, I’ll share a few photos of just how well “loved” it is. This one is worth 6 points.

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Enchanted Glass

Jones, Diana Wynne. Enchanted Glass (2010). 292 Pages. Greenwillow Books. $16.99

Because I feel like I should open with a synopsis, and because I am not sure I can come up with one on my own, we shall use the cover synopsis;

Aidan Cain has had the worst week of his life. His gran died, he was sent to a foster home, and now malicious beings are stalking him. There is one person Gran told Aidan to go to if he ever got into trouble– a powerful sorcerer who lives at Melstone House.

But when Aiden arrives on the doorstep, he finds that the sorcerer’s grandson, Andrew, has inherited the house. The good news is that Aiden can tell immediately that Andrew’s brimming with magic, too– and so is everyone else at Melstone. The bad news is that Andrew doesn’t remember anything his grandfather taught him. Chaos is swiftly rising, and he has no idea how to control it. A sinister neighbor is stealing power from the land, magic is leaking between realms… and it’s only a matter of time before the Stalkers find Aidan.

If Aidan and Andrew can harness their own magics, they may be able to help each other. But can they do it before the entire countryside comes apart at the seams?

I finished this book on the 16th, but I’ve been trying to figure out what, exactly to say about Enchanted Glass. As a whole, I really loved it. I hadn’t read any reviews, and I didn’t even read the synopsis before I cracked it open and began to read. I really felt absorbed into the story, and I was really attached to the characters. Andrew and Aiden were amazing, their relationship fascinated me.

Less fascinating, and more irritating was Mrs. Stock. I hated her, and saw absolutely no reason to keep her around. All she did was vengefully hide things, move furniture, and make cauliflower cheese. She did not do a single good thing in the entire novel except bring Shaun into the story. I felt like she was a superfluous character who could easily have been combined with a different character and the story would have been just fine. Only a shade less annoying and superfluous was Mr. Stock, because he brought in the vegetables, which connected to an actual plot, and he periodically did something, like get Stashe and Tarquin into the story.

That aside, I really felt like I was reading a good fantasy novel with a large dash of mystery, until I hit the last two pages, and my good fantasy novel was ruined. Really, what the hell was with that letter, and why didn’t the characters react properly to the revelation within? “Oh, wonder if we’ll mention it…” is not appropriate. Shock, awe, disgust, something along those lines I could have handled, but an “oh, it was so obvious” made me gnash my teeth and left me feeling completely unsatisfied. It was like when I got to the end of Harry Potter, and there was that convenient bit of deus ex machina that resolved everything almost-happily-ever-after*.

In Conclusion:

While I loved the story, I felt like this had some weaknesses that really distracted me from the main plot. My annoyance at Mrs. Stock is one thing– every time she came into the scene, I had to consciously mellow out. Mrs Stock aside, I really did enjoy the story, and I was enthralled, until the letter at the end. That just ruined it for me. I’d say “I don’t know why I’m having such an extreme reaction,” but that would be a lie. Spoiler Warning: I’m having such an extreme reaction because I’m picturing an old dude having sex with a teen. He was an old dude of “a great old age,” and she was at most in her early 20s, from the way the narrative was going. All I can see in my head is a nasty old man knocking up a teenage girl. Then sending her home to her mother. What. The. Fuck. DWJ? End Spoiler Warning! Highlight between points A and B to read. I apologize to anyone who can inadvertently see the white text. If we disregard the bit that angered me so very much at the end, it gets a 5/5, but I think that page must be counted towards its score, so it gets a 4/5.

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* Poor Fred. That made me so very sad. The whole list of dead wizards made me cry (no, not kidding) but Fred most especially.

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Goose Chase

Kindl, Patrice. Goose Chase (2010 ed). 214 Pages. Sandpiper. $5.99

Not exactly the cover I read...

Alexandria Aurora Fortunato is a sassy narrator who tells her story with panache. It opens strong, and keeps up the pace and wit throughout. She starts in the middle, works her way back to the beginning, and then finally gets to the end.

The King killed my canary today.

Now, I know full well that the customary way to begin such a tale as mine is: “Once upon a time, when wishes still came true, there lives a poor orphan Goose Girl,” or some such fiddle-faddle. But what do I care for custom? ‘Tis my own story I am telling and I will tell it as I please. And as I find myself plunged into it right up to the neck, I see no reason why you should not be also. (1)

The book was re-released recently with a new cover (right), though I think I prefer the old cover a bit more. Anyway, our narrator and heroine is Alexandria Aurora Fortunato who is, when we first meet her, locked in a tower. A King and a Prince await her decision as to which of them she will marry. Unwilling to choose, and unable to accept the consequences of her decision either way, she stalls for time by insisting that she be allowed to make her own solid gold wedding dress. She will not marry either until it is complete.

Alexandria gains quite a bit of time when her geese manage to save her from the tower and fly her far away, but it is almost worse in the wilderness than the tower. Sure, she no longer has to deal with the issues surrounding her choice between the Prince or the King, but she’s been grabbed by a group of ogresses, and she’s not entirely sure how to escape. Her enchanted hair certainly isn’t helping her case.

Then, just when Alexandria begins to think that things simply cannot get any worse, the Prince is captured by the ogresses. Somehow, Alexandria has to save both their skins, because there is quite a bit more adventure ahead of them.

The climax is hardly surprising, and the ending is completely expected, if you’re familiar with “The Wild Swans,” though it is not the same story, exactly.

In Conclusion:

With surprisingly strong prose, and a vocabulary which feels a bit dense, even for the junior-high readers it targets, this novel can even be enjoyed by adults. Alexandria is a solid narrator, and a good character who draws you in, and keeps you interested in her story. There are a few things which don’t seem to sync up; The Prince starts out dumb, but without explanation seems to get smarter when it’s convenient, which is rather frustrating. As a whole though, it’s a solid story which I enjoyed reading. It gets a 4/5.

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Howl’s Moving Castle

Jones, Diana Wynne. Howl’s Moving Castle (2001 ed.) 329 Pages. Greenwillow Books. $6.99

They always say “save the best for last,” so I have opted to save my favorite Diana Wynne Jones book to conclude Diana Wynne Jones week. It’s been nothing but fun, reading long-time favorites and books I didn’t know existed. The book which has stuck with me the longest, and which I think I enjoyed the most out of all of DWJ’s novels is Howl’s Moving Castle, because it so seamlessly melds fairy-tale conventions and adventure and twists and turns to become such a solid and excellent fantasy novel. Let us begin with the beginning:

In the land of Ingary, where such things as seven-league boots and cloaks of invisibility really exist, it is quite a misfortune to be born the eldest of three. Everyone knows you are the one who will fail first, and worst, if the three of you set out to seek your fortunes.

Sophie Hatter was the eldest of three sisters. She was not even the child of a poor woodcutter, which might have given her some chance of success.

So begins one of the few books which I can safely list as a favorite novel of all time.

Sophie Hatter has resigned herself to a boring life, running her family’s hat shop. As the eldest, it’s a “fact” that she will never become anything, that her adventures will fail, and that she has nothing to look forward to but mediocrity. After Sophie’s sisters — Lettie and Martha– are apprenticed away from the shop, Sophie’s life is exactly what she expected; quiet and average. Everything changes when the Witch of the Waste appears at the hat shop, and curses Sophie, turning her into an old lady.

Something about being old makes Sophie fearless, so she heads out to Wizard Howl’s Moving Castle in the waste. There she meets Calcifer the fire demon, and enters into a deal– she’ll break his contract, and he’ll find a way to remove the Witch’s spell. It sounds like a fair enough bargain, so Sophie agrees, and so begins the first adventure of Sophie’s life. Life with Howl is nothing like what she expected, and the “freedom” of old age allows her to grow from the quiet, fearful girl she is at the beginning into the strong adult she is by the end.

There’s a lot more that I cannot say without spoiling the book (which would be a horrible thing to do), so I’ll leave it at that. Almost nothing is what it seems at first glance, and by the end of the novel everything has resolved itself in a thoroughly satisfying way. There are more books which form this “series,” though Sophie only makes cameos later, rather than being the central character.

In Conclusion:

If you like fantasy adventures, then this is not the book to miss. It’s got adventure, intrigue, magic, and romance. The narration is excellent, the characters intriguing, and the story enthralling. It’s one of my all-time favorites, so it gets an unquestionable 5/5.

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On an aside, there is a Studio Ghibli interpretation of Howl’s Moving Castle, which is a beautiful, enjoyable movie. However, it falls into the genre of “inspired by the book” rather than being true to it. Martha disappears, Michael becomes a child, Howl is a bird-monster, Sophie a brunette, the Witch a blob. Calcifer is still Calcifer, but that’s because the whole premise rides upon  his… flames. It is a very, very good movie if you’re interested in animated movies which were inspired by books.

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As part of the Dogeared Reading Challenge, I’ll be documenting the “loved” shape this volume is in with a couple pictures. It’s been pretty well beaten, with that beautiful curve that spines get when they’ve been read too many times. This particular book is worth 5 points on the beaten-scale. The cover is actually a separate entity from the book, it’s held on by tape and a bit of glue. I wish I had a book-repair setup, so I could fix this book before I return it to the library. That’s the thing I miss the most from my student-assistant job.

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Diana Wynne Jones Week

August 1 – 7, 2010: Diana Wynne Jones Week

This week, Jenny’s Books is hosting a Diana Wynne Jones week, in which we all choose to appreciate the works of a very prolific (and talented) author. Every day this week, I hope to read and review a different Diana Wynne Jones book. (And since I’m such a D.W.J. fangirl, I think it will be incredibly easy to bring myself to read her novels.)

There are a lot of good books to choose from, and I hope to get a chance to read them all eventually, but the goal for this week is to read seven of them. I’ll edit this post each time to include all new D.W.J. reviews.

Wish me luck. Continue reading

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Filed under Children's Fiction, Fantasy, High Fantasy, Not a Book Review, Young Adult Fiction

Mixed Magics (Anthology)

Jones, Diana Wynne. Mixed Magics (2000). 138 Pages. Greenwillow Books. $15.89

The Chronicles of Chrestomanci

This book satisfies two challenges, and fits into this week’s theme, which is a strange realization. Mixed Magics is a Chrestomanci-themed anthology which features four stories. Cat and Christopher show up in all of them, getting their fingers into the various tales and changing the way they play out.

In the first story, “Warlock at the Wheel,” we again meet the Willing Warlock from Charmed Life— this time, without his powers. Desperate for a new shot, he goes to a seedy wizard named Jean-Pierre, who sends him to another world. Things don’t go the way he expects, and he ends up with a new chance which revolves around a terrible job. Neither Christopher nor Cat actually show up in person, but their involvement reveals itself eventually.

“Stealer of Souls” has Cat and Tonino (from Magicians of Caprona), and a mystery that they have to get to the root of. Gabriel de Witt– Christopher Chant’s predecessor– makes an appearance as well, though he is a feeble old man at this point, and his lives are leaving him rapidly. In his moments upon his death-bed, Gabriel mentions something very important to Cat and Tonino– something which could help save them. There are cameos of quite a few characters from The Lives of Christopher Chant, which makes this a fun read if you’ve already read that story.

Next is “Carol Oneir’s Hundredth Dream” which was a very surreal story, actually. It didn’t quite feel like it fit within the Chrestomanci universe, though apparently Christopher gets involved in this story as well. I don’t really like Carol, I think she’s a very annoying character. However, the idea behind the story, and the plot itself is absolutely fascinating. I couldn’t stop mid-story to put this one down for anything. I don’t want to say much, because it is a very short story, but Carol Oneir is something like a star-director of dreams; she controls best-selling dreams which are recorded and released to the public for mass consumption. When she gets to her hundredth dream, however, she stalls, and ends up speaking with Chrestomanci. (Ok, so maybe I said much, but I don’t think I spoiled anything…)

The last story in the book is “The Sage of Theare,” which has a very mythological flavor to it. The gods of Theare are obsessed with order, and so have a major crisis when they realize that they have prophesied that Theare will fall upon the arrival of the Sage of Dissolution. One of the gods believes that the sage might be his son, and so he dumps his son in another world. (It just happens to be Chrestomanci’s world, conveniently.) This story is interesting, but a bit forgettable.

In Conclusion:

Diana Wynne Jones is a fabulous author with a knack for strong prose and realistic characters. The fact that these stories are in Chrestomanci’s world without being about the reigning Chrestomanci is impressive, and makes them quite enjoyable. When all is said and done, I did not enjoy “Warlock at the Wheel” or “The Sage of Theare” all that much, and so this volume only gets a 4/5.

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The Lives of Christopher Chant

Jones, Diana Wynne. The Lives of Christopher Chant (2001 ed.) 329 Pages. Greenwillow Books. $6.95

The Chronicles of Chrestomanci

This is part 2 of the Omnibus edition of The Chronicles of Chrestomanci Volume 1, in which we learn about Christopher Chant– the Chrestomanci of Charmed Life. In truth, I enjoy this particular story more than Cat’s– Christopher is mildly less dumb, and his family is annoying in a way I can accept more easily. I hate horrible older sisters (in large part, I think, because I am an older sister.)

Christopher Chant is not a normal boy. His mother and father split up after his father loses the family fortune, dashing his mother’s hopes for a place in Society. Everything is complicated by the fact that both of Christopher’s parents are incredibly talented– his father is a strong Enchanter, his mother is a powerful Sorceress. After expelling Christopher’s father from her home, Christopher’s mother brings in her brother– Ralph Argent– to help set their family to rights. When Christopher meets his Uncle Ralph, he immediately adores his Uncle, and attempts to do anything to please him.

It is soon revealed that Christopher has an innate ability to travel between worlds. In his sleep, he can rise from his bed and leave his sleeping self safely at home as part of him travels. He slowly masters his ability to travel, by exploring and helping his Uncle with some experiments. Eventually, his travels bring him into the temple of Asheth, where he meets the Living Goddess, and acquires Throgmorten*. I could explain Throgmorten, but that might take away a bit of the fun.

If you’ve read the books in publishing order (rather than according to series chronology) then you’ve already had a go at Charmed Life, and you know what becomes of Christopher. I prefer this incarnation of him to the Chrestomanci who turns up in Charmed Life, but it’s always fun to watch characters grow and transform.

In Conclusion:

This story moves fast, and is definitely a page-turner. Things just keep getting more complicated, and I think in a lot of cases, the reader has gone “Ahah!” several pages before Christopher gets the chance. There are also many moments of hilarity, and several of them got me laughing loud enough that I had to explain them to nearby friends. I think this might be my favorite, but I reserve the right to make that judgment until I’ve had time to read them all. This, too, scores a 5/5.

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*Throgmorten is perhaps my favorite character in the volume.

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Charmed Life

Jones, Diana Wynne. Charmed Life (2001 ed.) 263 Pages. Greenwillow Books. $6.95

The Chronicles of Chrestomanci

Ok, so in reality this is part 1 of the Omnibus edition of The Chronicles of Chrestomanci Volume 1, but in an effort to keep my reviews of a manageable length, I’m breaking the volume up into individual stories. (There are only 2, and they’re each at least 200 pages, so I feel justified in this.) Besides, it took me two full days to read this (in part because I’m working so many hours) so if I were to wait until I’ve read the entire volume, I’d never get the review up.

Gwendolen is all the family Cat has left after a boating accident kills their parents. Because there is nobody else, Cat clings desperately to his older sister, to the point that he has no real identity of his own. He’s the prodigy’s younger brother, the boy who survives by clinging to Gwendolen.

Meanwhile, Gwendolen has aspirations. She’s outgrown their little street, and believes that it’s time that their distant relation, Chrestomanci, takes them in. She writes him a letter, and convinces him to bring them into his home.

Cat doesn’t really know what to make of life in Chrestomanci’s home; Millie immediately makes them welcome, but he doesn’t quite know what to expect from Julia and Roger. Chrestomanci refuses to allow Gwendolen to learn advanced magic, instead insisting that she must first get an elementary education before starting over at beginning magic. She is furious, and spends quite a bit of time getting attention, until she finally angers Chrestomanci to the point that he takes away her magic, which is when everything gets really crazy.

In Conclusion:

The Chronicles of Chrestomanci have a special spot in my heart, because I have read it several times. I’ve owned several copies and editions of most of these stories (at least 2 or 3 copies of the omnibus edition, for example). It’s an excellent descent into a well thought-out world, which is controlled by beautiful prose and strong characterization. It’s also a bit of a page-turner, even when you sort of remember what’s coming next. It gets a 5/5.

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On an aside, I really love the way the universe is introduced in the forward-thing:

There are thousands of worlds, all different from ours. Chrestomanci’s world is the one next door to us, and the difference here is that magic is as common as music is with us. It is full of people working magic– warlocks, witches, thaumaturges, sorcerers, fakirs, conjurors, hexers, magicians, mages, shamans, divinsers and many more– from the lowest Certified witch right up to the most powerful enchanters. Enchanters are strange as well as powerful. Their magic is different and stronger and many of them have more than one life.

Now, if someone did not control all these busy magic-users, ordinary people would have a horrible time and probably end up as slaves. So the government appoints the very strongest enchanter there is to make sure no one misuses magic. This enchanter has nine lives and is known as “the Chrestomanci.” You pronounce it KREST-OH-MAN-SEE. He has to have a strong personality as well as strong magic.

– Diana Wynne Jones (0)

The universes of the Magids does not seem so very different from the worlds of Chrestomanci, and I think it would be interesting if they ever overlapped.

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A Hidden Magic

Vande Velde, Vivian. A Hidden Magic (1997). 176 Pages. Magic Carpet Books. $6.95

We got a lot of new books at work, and this was one of many that I grabbed off the shelf. I expected a few laughs, and some silliness, and this book delivered. It’s certainly not deep, and it was a quick read.* It’s funny in the same way that The Enchanted Forest Chronicles is funny; an Improper Princess goes on an adventure and picks up a sidekick along the way.

Once upon a time– before kings and queens were replaced by an act of Congress and when kissing a frog still sometimes resulted in more than a case of warts– there lived a young princess named Jennifer.

Now Jennifer was not your average beautiful princess living in a magnificent palace. In fact, she was actually rather plain and shy, with the chubby, good-natured kind of face parents tend to call nice… (1)

Jennifer is your standard Improper Princess, who unfortunately falls for a very pretty Handsome Prince. Of course, he’s incredibly selfish and self-centered, and when he encounters Jennifer as she does the laundry, he doesn’t even help her carry it. (Though, because he is so handsome, Jennifer doesn’t seem to mind.)

Unfortunately, Jennifer is so besotted with the handsome prince that she doesn’t realize he’s an idiot, so when he suggests that they go into an enchanted forest, she agrees. It’s no surprise that they get lost, and is even less surprising that when they find a cottage, prince Alexander gets bespelled. (By a mirror, because he can’t help staring into it, and then tries to steal it.) Unlike Alexander, Jennifer has a bit of common sense, and goes to find some help.

The first person Jennifer comes across in her exploration of the wood is the Old Witch, who lives in a cave and talks to her magic pool. Things don’t go quite right, and everyone else Jennifer meets is just as odd as the Old Witch. Eventually, because this is fairy-tale based, prince Alexander is saved, and everyone lives happily ever after.

In Conclusion:

A Hidden Magic is a lighthearted fantasy adventure for kids. The story is well-written, and fun. The pacing is good, and it keeps going along without being too fast. If it were targeted at an older group (than elementary school), it would be a little sparse, but for beginning readers who want chapter books and fun stories, this book is ideal. (It also manages to stay interesting for adult readers) It gets a 4/5.

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* I’m a pretty fast reader, so I finished it in a little over an hour. I think most adult readers could tear through it in 3 or less hours.

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You only have until tomorrow to enter, if you’re interested in a free book! I’ll be deciding the winner tomorrow (July 30th) at about 9pm PST, so be sure you comment by then! (I’ll even waive the haiku/limerick requirement, if you find it intimidating, or are hesitating because of that.)

Click here to go to the give-away!

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