Fantasy, Fiction

The Magicians trilogy by Lev Grossman

Happy Halloween! Since I don’t read a lot of horror, I figured a fantasy series was the next best pick for Halloween.

The Magicians Synopsis

Intellectually precocious high school senior Quentin Coldwater escapes the boredom of his daily life by reading and rereading a series of beloved fantasy novels set in an enchanted land called Fillory. Like everybody else, he assumes that magic isn’t real – until he finds himself unexpectedly admitted to a very secret, very exclusive college of magic in upstate New York.

After stumbling through a Brooklyn alley in winter, Quentin finds himself on the grounds of the idyllic Brakebills College for Magical Pedagogy in late summer. There, after passing a gruesomely difficult entrance examination, he begins a thorough and rigorous education in the craft of modern sorcery, while also discovering the joys of college: friendship, love, sex, and alcohol. But something is missing. Even though Quentin learns to cast spells and transform into animals, and gains power he never dreamed of, magic doesn’t bring him the happiness and adventure he thought it would. After graduation, he and his friends embark on an aimless, hedonistic life in Manhattan, struggling with the existential crises that plague pampered and idle young sorcerers. Until they make a stunning discovery that propels them on a remarkable journey, one that promises to finally fulfill Quentin’s yearning. But their journey turns out to be darker and more dangerous than Quentin could have imagined. His childhood dream is a nightmare with a shocking truth at its heart.

Series Review

Oh Quentin. My bloody brilliant Quentin. I both adore and despise you. This might be less of a review and more of a Quentin Coldwater character analysis…

Never have I had such a love-hate relationship with a primary character in a book. I abandoned The Magicians halfway through the first time I started reading it back when I was a 20-year-old junior in college because I hated Quentin. I couldn’t stand him. He embodied everything that I hated about the stereotypical college boys but at the same time, like my dear, beloved, favorite character Alice (she rivals my Hermione love like no other), I was inexplicably drawn to him. I just didn’t want to read about him.

Fast forward five years and I found myself one day just staring at the cover of The Magician’s Land and, surprising longing for Quentin’s world of Brakebills College of Magic. So, continuing on my quest of “reading” the books already on my shelves by listening to the audiobook, I rented The Magicians from the library as I find it best to return to the beginning and not to trust my loathsome memory to remember all the details (and especially why I found Alice so awesome) required to start in the middle of The Magicians half a decade after my initial foray into reading about Quentin and his motley crew.

Is Q still terribly annoying more than 75% of the time? Yes. Does it matter anymore? No. Because I realized that Quentin is simply the mouthpiece for the larger story and by the time The Magician King rolls around, he is not the only point of view character (yay!). Quentin isn’t even the hero of his own story half the time (which leads to his melancholy and delight for me!) and he really messes up – like royally screws things up and skewers his own happiness by trying to be happy. Crazy, I know, but true. But this happens to nearly every twenty-something – invariably we wind up making something we care about worse by trying to make it better, but trying to fix something that isn’t broken to begin with.

The trilogy covers roughly 13 years of Quentin’s life and over that time he grows from a scrawny, gangly asshole at 17 to a semi-distinguished (albeit fired) professor at 30. But what I really love about The Magicians trilogy is that isn’t not just the Quentin show 24/7, but all the other supporting characters, particularly classmate and eventual love interest Alice, are whole. They are complete, and they are independent, and they are certainly not defined by their relationship to Quentin, hero though he insists on being. And if Quentin pisses them off, so be it. They move on with their lives and things aren’t magically righted or fixed just because he eventually finds it in himself to say sorry (even when it’s 7 years later).

Point being, Quentin can suck, a lot. But, and it’s a big but, you don’t have to care about Quentin to enjoy the story, you just must tolerate him and his role that he plays in the big scheme of things. And eventually, he grows on you. You might have to give him 600 pages and hours and hours of your life, but eventually, you’ll be routing for him (and Alice) too.

Series Rating: 7 out of 10 stars

The Magicians Edition: Paperback • $16.00 • 9780452296299 • 402 pages • originally published August 2009, this edition published May 2010 by Plume Books • average Goodreads rating 3.47 • read in June 2015

Lev Grossman’s Website

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Magicians

Graphic Novel, Memoir/Autobiography, Non-Fiction

Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi

Persepolis had been on my TBR list for a very long time, probably since I first saw the trailer for the film adaptation (which I still haven’t seen) at an art theater in the town I grew up in. When Emma Watson, one of my personal heroes, decided to make it a selection for her Goodreads’ Book Club, Our Shared Shelf, I decided to make it a pick for my book club, The Modern Readers, as well.

2 - January 2016 - Persepolis

Synopsis

Persepolis is the story of Satrapi’s unforgettable childhood and coming of age within a large and loving family in Tehran during the Islamic Revolution; of the contradictions between private and public life in a country plagued by political upheaval; of her high school years in Vienna facing the trials of adolescence far from her family; of her homecoming – both sweet and terrible; and, finally, of her self-imposed exile from her beloved homeland. It is the chronicle of  girlhood and adolescence at once outrageous and familiar, a young life entwined with the history of her county yet filled with the universal trials and joys of growing up.

Review

Persepolis sheds a great deal of light on a time and place with which most Americans are terribly unfamiliar. Satrapi’s memoir makes the situation more relatable for international audiences through her use of comic strips and content material relating to her childhood and the challenges facing every young girl trying to grow up. Her journey into adulthood is one is equal parts familiar – the desire to listen to music, hang posters in one’s room and have space of their own – and unfamiliar – family members are taken by the revolutionaries, having to live a completely different life with family and in public, and fearing for one’s life on a daily basis.

Overall, the content material was very eye-opening, not just in regards to what life was like in the 1980s in Iran, but also in regards to the role that Iran has played in recent world history both before and after the revolution. We had a very lively discussion at our book club meeting about the difference between a true revolution and a devolution masquerading as a revolution and came to the conclusion that the latter was a more apt description of the situation in Iran described by Satrapi. It is not difficult to understand why both the book and film has become staples of modern world history classes in high school and college alike.

Rating: 8 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $24.95 • 9780375714832 • 341 pages • published October 2007 by Pantheon Books • average Goodreads rating 4.36 out of 5 • read in January 2016

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Persepolis

 

Fantasy, Fiction, Historical, Young Adult

Gemma Doyle trilogy by Libba Bray

I first read A Great and Terrible Beauty shortly after it was first released many moons ago… in 2003 when I was a freshman in high school. I loved it from the very beginning – it was one of the first young adult fantasy books that was widely available after the release of Harry Potter. 

Synopsis of A Great and Terrible Beauty

Gemma Doyle isn’t like other girls. Girls with impeccable manners, who speak when spoken to, who remember their station, who dance with grace, and who will lie back and think of England when it’s required of them.

No, sixteen-year-old Gemma is an island unto herself, sent to the Spence Academy in London after tragedy strikes her family in India. Lonely, guilt-ridden, and prone to visions of the future that have an uncomfortable habit of coming true, Gemma finds her reception a chilly one. She’s not completely alone, though… she’s been followed by a mysterious young man, sent to warn her to close her mind against the visions.

For it’s at Spence that Gemma’s power to attract the supernatural unfolds; there she becomes entangled with the school’s most powerful girls and discovers her mother’s connection to a shadowy, timeless group called the Order. It’s there that her destiny waits… if only Gemma can believe in it.

Review

A Great and Terrible Beauty

I have loved A Great and Terrible Beauty for over a decade now, which seems crazy and makes me feel so old. But as one of the first young adult fantasy books to hit the market and stick as a popular favorite, I’m so happy that I’ve been recommending this book series to all of my friends for half my life.

Gemma Doyle, protagonist of the trilogy by the same name, set the bar for all young adult, and adult fantasy books, I’ve read since the fateful day back in 2003 that I first picked up Gemma’s story. She’s full of spunk and self-determination and she’s completely normal. I absolutely love to read about characters who doubt themselves in all things and Gemma has plenty to question about herself, her actions, and her motivations. Gemma’s story begins with the death of her mother and Gemma’s introduction into the shadowy world of the mysterious Order and her discovery of the Realms, a magical, but troubled land, that was once the playing ground of not only the Order, but other magical creatures and beings as well.

As Gemma starts to learn about her (and her mother’s) connection to the Order and the Realms, she must also deal with life at a prestigious Victorian finishing school, and the bullies and privileged girls she meets there. It doesn’t take long, however, for Gemma to make some decent friends and she quickly discovers that appearances are oftentimes deceiving and it is worth getting to know people better before passing judgment on them. There are so many incredible lessons to learn from Gemma and her journey and Libba Bray’s story telling is absolutely exquisite. I can’t wait to reread Rebel Angels so I can finally finish the series with The Sweet Far Thing!

Gemma Doyle trilogy

Finally I have finished the Gemma Doyle trilogy! After reading the first book nearly thirteen years ago and seeing all three books starting at me from my bookshelf for the better part of seven years, I figured it was about time I finished Gemma’s story and learned how it all turned out.

A Great and Terrible Beauty, to this day, remains one of my favorite books that I read during high school. Gemma is a strong and formidable heroine and her adventures into the magical realms she discovers prove that she is worthy of being added to the ranks of great female protagonists of literature. Her friends and fellow characters are fully developed and have personalities of their own that are not defined by their relationship with Gemma.

In Rebel Angels, Gemma and her friends are on holiday from Spence Academy, where they met and first entered the realms, to spend the Christmas seasons with their families. It is in Rebel Angels that were learn more about each character and their motivations in life. And like any good middle book, it ends with a battle, twist and cliff-hanger.

Sweet Far Thing, however, drops the ball that has been rolling on beautifully in the first two books. It tops 800 pages when only about 300 were truly necessary to conclude Gemma’s story satisfactorily. The pacing is slow going and I wanted to give up hope of ever finishing it multiple times during the last month and a half that it took me to read it. Sweet Far Thing felt like Libba Bray didn’t want the story to end, but wasn’t sure what the best way was to draw it out without going overboard. But in the end, Gemma’s story comes to a close with a fairly realistic (for a fantasy book) ending and her story feels complete.

Rating: 7 out of 10 stars for series

Edition: Paperback • $9.99 • 9780385732314 • 403 pages • first published in December 2003, this edition published March 2005 by Delacorte Press • average Goodreads rating 3.79 out of 5 • read between December 2003 and January 2016

Libba Bray’s Website

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Gemma Doyle - Great and Terrible Beauty

Fantasy, Fiction, Horror

The Vorrh by Brian Catling

Today my husband and I are celebrating the 7th anniversary of our first date so I figured I would review one of his favorite books, that I also read for our book club, The Modern Readers. 

3 - February 2016 - Vorrh

Synopsis

Outside the colonial town of Essenwald lies the Vorrh, a vast – perhaps endless – forest. Sentient and magical, a place of demons and angels, of warriors and priests, the Vorrh bends time and wipes memory. Legend holds that the Garden of Eden still exists at its heart. Now a renegade foreign soldier intends to be the first human to traverse its expanse. Armed with only a bow, he begins his journey. But some fear the consequences of his mission, so a native marksman is chosen to stop him. Around these adversaries swirls a remarkable cast of characters, including a tragically curious young girl and a Cyclops raised by robots, as well as such historical figures as protosurrealist Raymond Roussel and pioneering photographer Edward Muybridge. Fact and fiction blend, the hunter will become the hunted, and everyone’s fate will hang in the balance – in the Vorrh.

Review

Uhhhh, I’m still trying to figure this one out. Since finishing it and discussing it, I’ve sold more copies of this book by saying I hated it than I have sold books I loved to people by telling them how much I loved it. But I didn’t hate it… I think?

There are many stories working in tandem in this book and they are all confusing and befuddling and written in different styles based on the character’s perspective that we are currently viewing the world through. Told in at least four alternating perspectives, The Vorrh is the story first and foremost of the forest from which it gets its name and the people in the town right next to it. It bears similarities in equal parts to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Shelley’s Frankenstein. But it goes beyond that to discuss mental illness and paint pictures in the reader’s minds of things that are just downright unpleasant and, for some, upsetting. You have to have a strong stomach to undertake a serious reading of The Vorrh.

If anyone else has this book figured out, not just enjoyed it, but actually figured out the symbolism and intent, please do enlighten me.

Rating: 6 out 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $16.95 • 9781101873786 • 512 pages published April 2015 by Vintage • average Goodreads rating 3.51 out of 5 • read in February 2016

Brian Catling’s Website

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Vorrh

Fantasy, Fiction, Novella

Beauty by Sarah Pinborough

I completely fell for the cover of this book and I’m a sucker for dark fantasy adaptations. This book (and series) fit the bill quite well.

Synopsis

Once upon a time… in a kingdom far, far away, a handsome prince sets out to find a lost castle, only to discover a city slumbering under a terrible curse, and a beautiful princess who can only be woken by true love’s kiss.

Review

Beauty is a reimagining of a couple of different classic tales, notably Beauty and the Beast, Little Red Riding Hood, Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, and Rumpelstiltskin. It reminds me a great deal of the ABC series, Once Upon a Time in the way that it marries many different tales together into one story. Most of the time, I enjoy such a premise, but as Beauty is more of a novella than a full novel, I found myself thinking there were more characters and stories than Sarah Pinborough really had time to effectively explore.

And that is really the crux of why I didn’t love Beauty as much as I really wanted to, and why it took me far longer than I would have liked to read. Like every good fairy tale, a prince is set off on a quest, in this case to investigate a kingdom that appears to have been swallowed up into a forest. A huntsman is enlisted to help him and along the way they meet Petra (Little Red Riding Hood) and she joins them on the adventure as she senses her destiny lies somewhere on the other side of the densely forested wall. The three make their way into the kingdom and awaken Beauty, a la Sleeping Beauty.

And that’s when things turn decidedly more Grimm. This is not Disney. Beauty is written in the same vein as the original dark and terrible German tales by the brothers Grimm. I liked that things were flipped on their head, but it was far too sudden. I wish there had been fewer characters, fewer fairy tales and more about those that really intrigued me, or that the story had been fleshed out into a full novel and not written as a novella. I finished the book wanted so much more out of it.

Rating: 7 out of 10 stars

Edition: Hardcover • $14.95 • 9781783291144 • 208 pages • published May 2015 by Titan Books • average Goodreads rating 3.6 out of 5 • read in August 2015

Sarah Pinborough’s Website

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Beauty

Fiction, Science Fiction

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

I had wanted to read Station Eleven for quite a while, since I first saw it sitting on a table in a bookstore. I picked it up regularly in stores and contemplated purchasing it before finally doing so two years ago. And then it sat in my to-be-read pile for far too long. So when I decided to start my book club, The Modern Readers, I thought it would be the perfect first book! In starting a book club, I hoped that if I picked the books, I would really want to read them and it wouldn’t feel like required reading… but, confession time, alas, it sort of did feel like required reading – I was flying through most of the second half of the book while half-awake early in the morning a few hours before our first meeting.

1 - October 2015 - Station Eleven

Synopsis

Kirsten Raymonde will never forget the night Arthur Leander, the famous Hollywood actor, had a heart attack onstage during a production of King Lear. That was also the night when a devastating flu pandemic arrived in the city, and within weeks, civilization as we know it came to an end.

Twenty years later, Kirsten moves between the settlements of the altered world with a small troupe of actors and musicians. They call themselves the Traveling Symphony, and they have dedicated themselves to keeping the remnants of art and humanity alive. But when they arrive in St. Deborah by the Water, they encounter a violent prophet who will threaten the tiny band’s existence. And as they story takes off, moving back and forth in time, and vividly depicting life before and after the pandemic, the strange twist of fate that connects them all will be revealed.

Review

Station Eleven was a book I desperately wanted to love. As the first pick for the Modern Readers, I was hoping it would just knock my socks off. Unfortunately, I was disappointed to find that I was struggling just to finish it, let alone enjoy it.

I don’t know what exactly was so disappointing about Station Eleven, other than to say all of my fellow book club members seemed to feel similarly. Our overall consensus was that the idea was completely intriguing – a disease decimates most of the population and those who survived must figure out how to survive in this new and unfamiliar world. My problem, specifically, was in the characters. They really just existed in the world and their connections and relationships to each other all felt a bit forced and contrived and didn’t really add to the reader’s understanding of the characters.

There was one big exception to this – Clark, the British friend of the man who started everything, Arthur, the great actor. While Clark is absent for the vast majority of the story, when he does come back into play, his presence is not meant to only draw other story lines together, but we really get some insight into who Clark is as a character – the first and only time we really get any character motivation injected into the story.

Other than a perceived lack of character development, we collectively agreed as a book club that we would have loved to see some of the drawings and pieces of the graphic novel mentioned throughout the story that lends the book it’s title, Station Eleven.

Rating: 7 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $16.00 • 9780804172448 • 352 pages • first published September 2014, this edition published June 2015 by Vintage • average Goodreads rating 4.02 out of 5 • read in November 2015

Emily St. John Mandel’s Website

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Station Eleven

Fantasy, Fiction, Young Adult

Red Queen by Victoria Aveyard

Clearly I’m on a YA fantasy role here with reviews… Sometimes I get so thoroughly immersed in a genre it can be hard to pull myself out to switch to something else, something new and different. As I get to the end of a genre jaunt, however, my reviews tend to become a bit skewed, so take them all with a grain of salt.

Synopsis

Mare Barrow’s world is divided by blood – those with common Red blood serve the Silver-blooded elite, who are gifted with superhuman abilities. Mare is a Red, scraping by as a thief in a poor, rural village, until a twist of fate throws her in front of the Silver court.

Before the king, princes, and all the nobles, she discovers she has an ability of her own. To cover up this impossibility, the king forces her to play the role of a lost Silver princess and betroths her to one of his sons. As Mare is drawn further into the Silver world, she risks everything and uses her new position to help the Scarlet Guard, a growing Red rebellion, even as her heart tugs her in an impossible direction. One wrong move can lead to her death, but in the dangerous game she plays, the only certainty is betrayal.

Review

Red Queen is part of a long line of YA fantasy books that have been written in the last five years or so to feature varying takes on power and poverty, haves and have-nots, and each primarily female author’s take on a strong, feminist, protagonist. The books that stand out are those that are spectacularly good or spectacularly bad. Red Queen is neither.

It is an enjoyable book with a serviceable plot and intriguing characters. Were it published at a different time, I would call it unique and original. However, it came out halfway through the present YA fantasy boom and the influence of previous works is evident in Aveyard’s storytelling. Similarities to GracelingThe Hunger GamesThrone of Glass and Shadow and Bone are easy to pick out if you are as well versed in the world of YA fantasy as most of Aveyard’s target readers.

The writing is decent, the twists and turns of the plot and the effort into world building that Aveyard puts forth are not missed, this review would be much more scathing if Red Queen lacked in any of these areas, but it doesn’t have the ineffable “stand-out quality” that makes me remember years down the road, makes me anxiously await the next book in the series. Red Queen is at it’s best, another decent YA fantasy debut, and at it’s worst, another YA fantasy.

Rating: 7 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $10.99 • 9780062310644 • 416 pages • first published in February 2015, this edition published June 2016 by Harper Teen • average Goodreads rating 4.08 out of 5 • read in May 2016

Victoria Aveyard’s Website

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Red Queen

 

Fantasy, Fiction, Historical, Young Adult

Flame in the Mist by Renee Ahdieh

Time for another beauty by Renee Ahdieh! She is quickly becoming one of my favorite authors and when the ARC  (advanced reader copy) of Flame in the Mist came into the store, my coworkers were nice enough to make sure it wound up in my hands!

Synopsis

There was only ever one expectation for Mariko, a prominent samurai’s daughter: that she would marry. Her twin brother was the one trained in the way of the warrior while Mariko was left to nurture her love of science and invention in secret. But on her way to the imperial city, where she was to meet her betrothed for the very first time, her convoy is attacked and everything changes. The assassins kill everyone – or so they think. Despite almost being burned alive, Mariko escapes.

Driven by vengeance, she flees the forest and seeks out her would-be assassins, the Black Clan, joining their ranks disguised as a peasant boy. She’s determined to discover who ordered her death and why – and to make them pay. Little does she expect to fall in love. And never did she expect to have to choose between them and everything she’s ever known. But when the secrets of the imperial city, the Black Clan, and her family converge, choose is exactly what she must do.

Review

Firstly, YAY GIRL POWER! Reading a new book by Renee Ahdieh reminds me just how much I really do love her first duology, The Wrath and the Dawn and The Rose and the Dagger. I had been holding off on reading Flame in the Mist until I was going on vacation because I knew once I got to the really good and juicy parts about halfway in, I wouldn’t be able to put it down – and I certainly did not want anything to interfere with my ability to read it straight through!

As with my review of Wrath and Dawn last week, I marvel over Renee Ahdieh’s storytelling. She creates such compelling characters and intricate plot lines that I love to sink my teeth into. She also has been some of the wittiest protagonists I have ever read to date. Her female protagonists are feminists – proud and fierce but still have their weaknesses and flaws. Her love interests for said feminist protagonists remind me of a certain male in A Court of Thorns and Roses trilogy in the sense that they are loyal to their women and encouraging them be themselves 100%.

But back to Flame in the Mist specifically – I love the take on Japanese mythology (it is not at all based on Mulan, whatever rumors you may hear) and how Renee Ahdieh twists in a bit of Robin Hood lore as well (whether it is purposeful or coincidence I’m not sure, but I love it!). Mariko is a protagonist to be admired as well, and Ahdieh’s now trademark style of romance is still swoon-worthy, even for the most callused and cold-hearted of readers. I recommend it thoroughly and I cannot wait for the second book in the duology next May!

Rating: 9 out of 10 stars

Edition: Hardcover • $17.99 • 9780399171635 • 416 pages • published May 2017 by G. P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers • average Goodreads rating 4.03 out of 5 stars • read in August 2017

Renee Ahdieh’s Website

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Flame in the Mist

 

Memoir/Autobiography, Non-Fiction, Photography/Art, Travel

My Holiday in North Korea by Wendy E. Simmons

In January 2016, I went with my boss to an ABA (American Booksellers Association) event called “Winter Institute.” It is the biggest gathering of independent booksellers and my boss reminded me that in addition to learning lots about the book world and being starstruck by all the authors present, I should bring a book back for each of my coworkers. My coworker Su is the most difficult person to pick out books for, so this is the one I brought back for her. She thought I was nuts, until she started to read it. And then she couldn’t shut up about it! On her recommendation, my book decided to read it last September.

10 - September 2016 - My Holiday in North Korea

Synopsis

Most people want out of North Korea. Wendy Simmons wanted in.

In My Holiday in North Korea: The Funniest/Worst Place on Earth, Wendy shares a glimpse of North Korea as it’s never been seen before. Even though it’s the scariest place on earth, somehow Wendy forgot to check her sense of humor at the border.

But Wendy’s initial amusement and bewilderment soon turned to frustration and growing paranoia. Before long, she learned the essential conundrum of tourism in North Korea: travel is truly a love affair. But, just like love, it’s a two-way street. And North Korea deprives you of all this. They want you to fall in love with the singular vision of the country they’re willing to show you and nothing more.

Review

If you’ve ever wondered what life is really like in North Korea, this is not the book for you. If you’ve ever wondered why North Korea wants you to think life is really like there, then this is the book for you. Wendy Simmons is one of a very limited number of Americans granted access to a tour of the country, a fully planned, fully monitored, full devoid of any genuine moments, tour of the “empire.”

We’ve all heard stories about how the people are brainwashed into thinking that their country really is the greatest on Earth and far better than any other in the world, but few have witnessed the truth firsthand as Wendy has, the truth being, that they really do seem to believe it.

This review is so brief because words really cannot describe the incredulity I experienced while reading – simply to say that you should go read it. Read it now. Read it immediately.

Rating: 9 out of 10

Edition: Paperback • $19.95 • 9780795347047 • 312 pages • published May 2016 by Rosettabooks • average Goodreads rating 3.7 out of 5 • read in September 2016

Wendy E. Simmons’ Website

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My Holiday in North Korea
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