Holly reviews Alchemiya by Katey Hawthorne

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This story takes place in Chrysopoeia, a land where the art of alchemy is a celebrated craft that is known and practiced only by the higher class clans.  Each clan has a particular form of alchemy that they have honed through generations to produce vibrant dyes, textiles, fragrances, gems, and metals.  Our protagonist is Eugenia, a young woman born into a life of privilege as a member of the Ratna clan.  Although Eugenia is very talented in her family’s particular branch of alchemy, the secrets of their alchemical history are forbidden to her because of her gender.  In this patriarchal society, wealth and knowledge are passed down through the men of the family.  A woman’s station in life is determined by the station of the man she is born to, and later, the man she marries.

This society strictly adheres to patriarchal power dynamics, a strict gender binary, and heterosexuality.  As a woman who is driven to practice her family’s craft, Eugenia is a black sheep, but is tolerated as an oddity.  However, she is ostracized by polite society when her tryst with another woman becomes a public scandal.

The standing of the Ratna clan is powerful enough that, despite Eugenia’s disgrace, they are still held in high regard.  Eugenia is forced to participate in social activities at the behest of her father and brother, despite her unofficial status as a pariah.  At one social gathering, Eugenia is approached by the incredibly eligible bachelor Oliver Plumtree.  Oliver is the head of the one of the oldest and best-regarded families in Chrysopoeia.  His interest in a person who has faced the disgrace of such a scandal shocks the community.  Eugenia is flattered by the attention, and is drawn to Oliver in a way that she has never found herself drawn towards a man.  We soon learn that the reason for this inexplicable attraction is…

 [SPOILER]

… Oliver is actually Olivia!  Oliva and Oliver were a set of twins.  When the male twin (and sole heir) died as a small child, the family made the decision to raise Olivia as Oliver, ensuring that the Plumtree family’s wealth and alchemical secrets wouldn’t fall into the hands of jealous and greedy relatives.  Jane Austen once said, “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”  Olivia is no exception.  And who better to keep Olivia’s secret than Eugenia, a woman who is vocal in her resistance to the heteronormative, patriarchal status quo?

Eugenia is thrilled by this revelation.  This marriage would provide her with freedom from her domineering male relatives, the opportunity to hone her alchemical craft in earnest, and a chance to find love in a world that aims to deprive her of that possibility.  Of course, it wouldn’t be much of story if there weren’t a few bumps in the road for Eugenia and Olivia to overcome.  Eugenia, despite her best efforts, ends up creating trouble for herself and for Olivia, and we get to enjoy watching her try to claw her way out again.

This is a fun, fast read that, despite being easy breezy, still touches on important topics such as gender identity and intersexuality.  The author knows how to spin a good yarn, and gives us a protagonist that is sometimes delightful, sometimes petulant, and sometimes both of these things at once.  This is the first Katey Hawthorne book that I’ve read, but it sure as heck won’t be the last.

Marthese reviews Climbing the Date Palm by Shira Glassman

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“Bravery isn’t all swordfighting and  riding dragons”

Climbing the Date Palm is the second book in the Mangoverse series by Shira Glassman. This series is a fantasy series with Jewish traditions and has a diverse cast with the main characters being Queen Shulamit and her girlfriend Aviva and Rivka, Shula’s head guard and Isaac, her companion.

The book picks up a little while after the first book ends and starts with Aviva encountering a near-to-death horse rider who turns out to been Prince Kaveh from the city of red clay who came to Riv- who is mistaken by most as a man, who has a male companion- to ask for help as his sweetheart Farzin was imprisoned by his father.

Our group of intrepid heroes, or well Shula’s group of close friends work to save Kaveh’s life. Rivka’s mother also joins the palace while Shulamit, who more than ever has her whole country on her shoulder comes up with a plan to sire and heir with the bisexual prince.

The plot follows the casts’ trials as they try to save Farzin’s life. Farzin, an engineer and old friend of Kaveh’s was imprisoned for siding with his  workers when they were not paid as they should; as well as for ‘corrupting’ Kaveh.

More than the plot, the story offers interesting conversations between the characters that allow the readers to think about life and its lessons in a very simplified way. The way that Glassman put things into perspective may sometimes be too simplistic but still very thoughtful. Things like bisexuality- and not being interesting in everyone, stereotypes on women and gay and bisexual people, parenting, being responsibility and insecurity and discussed in a mature but not complex way. Isaac provides very good pointers on how to strike up a conversation, if you ever need to gather intel!

I felt that this book, as mentioned, deals with heavy and exhausting topics – most of which many of us have to repeat over and over- in an interesting, sometimes metaphorical and simple way that almost everyone would be able to get. I felt it was more complex than the first book and the characters are growing into themselves. As it’s the second book, I cannot give much spoilers but the answer to problems in this world is answered with geekery from everyone, charm, persistence, team-work and effort.

The relationships in this book are very mature for the most part. Although there was a lesbian couple, and Shula is the protagonist; the story was more than that and included a lot of flashbacks from Farzin and Kaveh’s time together. The diverse characters work well together and are like a puzzle that fits with the story.

Climbing the Date Palm was a highly enjoyable read and as it’s part of a fantasy series, we get to immerse ourselves in the world for the duration of other books as well! I’ll definitely continue with this series.

Holly reviews Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters

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When I was just 30 pages in, this is the review I was considering writing for Tipping the VelvetThis book is so sweet I can barely stand it.  The end.  At this point I had hoped that the entire book would be a drawn out tale of Nancy and Kitty falling in love, staying in love, and laying in bed eating pie without a care in the world.  Of course, Sarah Waters tells a much more interesting story.

Spoilers ahead.

Nancy, the protagonist, narrates the story.  Born and raised in a small town by the sea called Whitstable, working in the family’s oyster restaurant, she lives a fairly unremarkable life until the day that she sees a male impersonator named Kitty Buttler perform at the local music hall.  Nancy finds herself compelled to return to the music hall over and over, night after night, in order to watch Kitty perform.  Eventually Nancy and Kitty meet and strike up a close friendship, while Nancy begins the bewildering process of falling in love.

Sarah Waters describes this process with such innocence and tenderness, and so skillfully plays on the reader’s sense of expectation, that I felt myself reacting physically to the words on the page.  I clearly felt the pang in my chest, the pull at my stomach, my heart in my throat when Nancy and Kitty finally–finally!–kiss for the first time.  From this giddy moment of joy to the eventual wretched heartache, we, along with Nancy, are mired in the whirlpool of doubt and certainty that accompanies the terrible and wonderful descent into the heart of another.

When reading about that heartache, I felt it, too.  So, at 134 pages, my review would have been more along the lines of This book is so sad I can barely stand it.  Again, Waters artfully details the nuances of emotion that accompany the anguish of heartbreak.  That personal hell we’ve each experienced, in which you’re so steeped in despair that it’s all you can do to provide yourself with the necessities of life from one day to the next.  I see that torment mirrored in Waters’ words.  I can’t do them justice here.  You have to read them for yourself.

Although the plot takes wildly unexpected turns, I feel that the characters always stay true to themselves.  Nancy is vain, sometimes conniving, and seems to piece together her identity from the expectations of those around her.  We do, however, see some flashes of self-actualization.  For instance, when looking for new lodgings, Nancy is drawn to an advertisement for a room which reads Respectable Lady Seeks Fe-Male Lodger.  She explains, “…there was something very appealing about that Fe-Male.  I saw myself in it — in the hyphen.”

Waters’ descriptive ability provides specific information that allows for the reader’s senses to respond to the words on the page.  The book opens with Nancy describing Whitstable oysters, and my mouth felt saturated by their description.  Waters specializes in the details, creating three dimensional scenes for us to walk around in while we read her words.  I didn’t realize that I had finished the book until I read the last sentence.  The story was so compelling right to the end that its conclusion, although satisfying, snuck up on me.

Korri reviews Sister Mischief by Laura Goode

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Sister Mischief is a coming of age young adult novel about a group of friends who form the titular hip hop group in the predominantly white suburb of Holyhill, Minnesota. It’s narrated by wordsmith Esme, whose footnotes scattered throughout the book reveal the contents of text messages, lyrics scribbled in her notebook, and drop backstory in the form of memories the group shares on each other’s Facebook walls. The narrative is punctuated by earnest conversations during car drives where the girls weigh in on misogyny and racism in lyrics, if it is cultural appropriation for white girls in the affluent suburbs of the Twin Cities to love hip hop music, and if it is possible to reclaim the word bitch in rap music.

Each of the friends grapple with their identities and relationships over the course of the book: Esme is Jewish but without her mother around she doesn’t know what that means. She is out to her friends and when she finds herself falling for Rowie she is uncomfortable keeping their relationship under wraps. Tessa tries to balance her religious faith against the hypocritical and mean “Christians” she knows from church while Rowie, who usually likes boys, struggles with her feelings for Esme and the pressure from her Bengali family. Marce, who doesn’t understand why her best friend Esme never spends time with her any more, lets the slurs she receives because of the androgynous/masculine-of-center way she presents roll off her back. The four girls are bound together by their love of listening to, writing, and performing hip hop music.

The new Holyhill High School code of conduct bans rap music and “any apparel associated with this violence-producing culture,” which spurs the girls to form a queer-friendly group to discuss hip hop in an academic setting: 4H (Hip Hop for Heteros and Homos). The administration is not pleased with the idea. Shortly thereafter Esme and Rowie kiss while high in kiss in Rowie’s tree house. Before long the nights get darker earlier and Esme is sneaking over every night to make love to Rowie in the tree house. Rowie wants to keep their relationship quiet because the hetero/homo hip hop alliance has people questioning. When Esme says that that is exactly what the group is meant to do, Rowie points out that their classmates are less interested in lyrics and social attitudes than speculating about members’ sexual identities. Esme and Rowie’s relationship is revealed around the same time a 4H meeting is firebombed, leaving the future of each uncertain.

The author Laura Goode introduces readers to an engaging voice in Esme. She reminds me of Lin Manuel-Miranda’s witty and ambitious Alexander Hamilton: Esme writes like she’s running out of time. In her own words, she is “becoming the author of my own chaos” and she feels “like there’s so much work to do, so much time and so little all the same…. Time to create and re-create myself and everything I create.” I raced through this book and thoroughly enjoyed my time with the close-knit cast of characters.

 

Holly reviews Canary by Nancy Jo Cullen

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In her first collection of short stories, Nancy Jo Cullen displays her talent for creating distinct characters and blessing them with the same insecurities that haunt the rest of us.  Although each has their own unique personality, one commonality among all of the characters in this collection is their acquiescence to despair.  From the despondent waitress/dancer to the widower whose dead wife’s ashes ride shotgun wherever he goes, it seems that each of these characters has surrendered to the oppressive hopelessness that smothers their existence.  Sure, there are some glimmers of optimism here and there: The sullen teenage girl who feels invisible gets an ego boost when her older cousin rubs his hard-on against her during a consensual albeit ill-advised make-out session; A recently divorced woman achieves a sense of vindication through having all of her pubic hair waxed off and then hurling a rock through her ex-wife’s window.  

However these characters identify, whoever they love (or don’t love), this book is filled with tension, desolation, and dreams that, upon being realized, don’t turn out to be so dreamy.  Each of these characters aches to escape, to transcend.  In “Happy Birthday”, a woman who describes her marriage to her wife as a carcass they are dragging behind them takes a night’s reprieve from motherhood and wifehood by walking out on her demented mother’s 83rd birthday party and hitchhiking to Banff.  In “The 14th Week in Ordinary Time”, another tale of making-do, a closeted gay husband and a wife who would prefer to not sleep with him anyways break their celibacy in an attempt to conceive.  

Situated primarily in British Columbia, many of these stories are set in the late 80’s and early 90’s, and the music of that time is often utilized to set the tone.  The era’s song lyrics are woven into the narrative like musical pathetic fallacy.  The stories are all sort in length, averaging about 16 pages each.  They move at a good pace that keeps you anticipating what fresh socially-awkward hell these poor people will find themselves in next.  The stories in this collection expose something that we can all relate to: The myriad ways in which other people disappoint us, and the futility with which we attempt to reconcile this disappointment with our innate optimism.  These characters pull their terrible circumstances around their shoulders like an itchy wool blanket, and try to garner warmth despite the excruciating discomfort.

 

Korri reviews Pembroke Park by Michelle Martin

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As an avid reader of historical romance novels and lesbian fiction, I have long known of Michelle Martin’s Pembroke Park; it has a legendary status among readers, which is only heightened by the fact that it is currently out of print. When I got my hands on a copy via AbeBooks, I eagerly delved in.

Published in 1986, Martin’s delightful book (billed as the first lesbian Regency novel) is more in the vein of Jane Austen than contemporary romance novels. The social intricacies of the era are observed: the heroines know each other for months before addressing each other by first name; gossip spread at public balls in the Herefordshire countryside can ruin reputations; and the villains of the story are an arrogant, overbearing brother and propriety rather than some dastardly foe with a complicated scheme.

Amid this simplicity, it was wonderful to read about the growing attachment between new neighbors Lady Joanna Sinclair and Lady Diana March. Though Lady Diana’s habit of riding astride shocks the locals, including widowed Lady Joanna, the two women become close. Who could help but love the unconventional Diana, a woman who is free in her speech, exotic in her attire, and who was once hauled before a court in Alexandria ‘on charges of drunk and disorderly conduct, assaulting an officer of the law, liberating a trader’s camel, and soliciting the English Ambassador for prostitution’? Joanna’s playfulness with her daughter and repressed talent for painting endears her to readers and to Diana.

The slow-building attraction between Joanna & Diana is charming. The secondary characters offer other portrayals of same-sex love and ground Joanna & Diana within a community. I only wish the happily ever after had given us more time with the heroines, showing readers what their life was like as a family with Joanna’s daughter Molly. This novel has earned a place on my keeper shelf next to other Regency romances.

Marthese reviews Band vs Band by Kathleen Jacques

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Ever wanted a regularly updated webcomic to cater for your fluffy and drama needs in the long term because short things are not the best when you get attached to the characters? You’re in luck!

Band vs Band is a cute and bright webcomic by Kathleen Jacques. For those that prefer physical copies, there is a volume of 150 pages out as well.

Band vs Band follows…you guessed it, two bands that are ‘rivals’. The first band is the Candy Hearts, fronted by Honey Hart. In Candy Hearts there are also Honey’s best friend Cherry Cola (her real surname is Kirsch! For those that know German this is a fun fact(, Coco who always hides her face and Zero who doesn’t appear so often and reminds me of Fred from Scoobie Doo with that scarf.

The second band is the Sourballs fronted by Turpentine who like Honey also plays the guitar and sings. In the band there are also Foxy, who reminds me of Luna Lovegood with her character, Atomic Domme who is the level headed, intellectual feminist in the group and Arsenic, Turpentine’s best friend since childhood who’s always hooking up with people. The Sourballs’ motto is ‘’Hedonism, Nihilism, Petty vandalism’’!

The names are fitting to their bands. The Candy Hearts are all very bubbly, idealistic and sweet and always try to teach lessons to children, take part in charity and so on. The Sourballs are trouble makers who mess with the Candy Hearts. This is especially true for Turpentine to Honey; Honey sometimes retaliates especially when it comes to drawings and letters.

Turpentine and Honey have different personalities. Honey is very sweet, bubbly and caring while Turpentine seems not to have a care in the world (though she’s secretly also caring especially towards Nick aka Arsenic and Honey). They are also rivals but there is romantic and sexual tension between the two. I mean, they share a dessert right after the first confrontation. It doesn’t take a long time for them to start looking out for each other apart from being rivals. This includes late night phone calls, trips to hell and facing impostors. The plot basically revolves around this rivalry, sweetness and simple life moments where they drive each other crazy but stick out for each other.

The two bands and the two singers often have band offs and duets. Indeed, there is a whole lot of songs in this webcomic. It’s like a musical, someone is doing something irrelevant, then someone calls for a song and bam, you have a song that’s quite catchy.

The colours in this comic are all reds, blues, whites and blacks and the typographs is very varied. Apart from short episodes, there are also side-stories of side characters, magazine pages, activity sheets that includes colouring pages, album art covers and so many other creative additions. I really liked the pages that are basically song lyrics and interpretations especially when Honey and Turpentine sing together or against each other. The ‘up next’ after each episodes are funny, so take notice of them.

Sometimes, the plot seems a bit detached as it’s not one continuous timeline but episodes after each other and sometimes there is too much extra content that you forget the main plot. If you binge read though, this shouldn’t be a problem.

Although the main plot is about Turpentine and Honey, the other characters also have their things on the side. I found all characters engaging and liked the side characters side-comics since I tend to want to know more about each character shown.

The webcomic, although not finished is updated every Monday at this URL: http://bvbcomix.com/ and I suggest if you like the premise to read it and not the afraid of the fact that it’s not finished because it’s regularly updated and there is content from years ago that you need to catch up with! I suggest starting from the about section first.

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Marthese reviews Aces by Kathryn Burns

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‘I did not adult well’

Aces is a short book on the relationship between Astrid and Hollis, two very creative women living in Seattle. They both work in retail but have a shared passion for writing. The story is told from Astrid’s perspective.

This story feels real, is not that cliché and is very diverse with its characters. Most times, the diversity is built up and not introduced at once and it does not feel like the characters are diverse simply to be so, they just are.

Astrid works at a shoe shop, has had a variety of hobbies and has a lack of self-confidence. She does not, at first, get on with her girlfriend’s flatmate Lloyd. This is however, explained in what I thought was a good reason. Astrid loves Hollis a lot, though she feels that Hollis is always right and keeps her emotions in check too much.

Hollis works in cosmetics but her other passion is blogging and writing. She writes fanfiction as well and has some geeking moments in the book. She also loves her flatmate’s cat Schrodinger. As she likes writing and expresses herself in that method, she writes letters about Astrid which Astrid finds in unexpected places. One of these letters brings about the confession that Hollis is asexual. After that, their relationship has better communication but does not change much.

This book has a lot of cool stuff in it and whether they are mentioned in detail or only in passing, I think that it is a good depiction of queer reality. Currently pop culture and recent history are mentioned but there is a 90s vibe at times. As the characters attend Poetry Slam Mondays, we are introduced to some poetry slam! Video making and blogging are mentioned and are done by at least four characters. Minimalism is also brought about by necessity. Stuff like transitioning, non-binary, dysphoria, period pains, drag, on coming out as a continuous process and bi-erasure are topics of discussion or thought in the story.

There are many characters, whether they appear often or simply once, with various gender identities. The families mentioned are also of different forms. Their group of friends is very varied but like Clementine said, Astrid brings them together.

What I also liked in the story, was that there was the depiction on genuine love, not too perfect and that information processing was done in a healthy way. Although at first Astrid bothered me a bit, she grew on me while I liked Hollis from the beginning because I could relate to her.  I think the best thing was however, when there was a discussion on shipping in fanfiction and how that is still part of asexuality.

I do not have a particular thing that I particularly did not like although Astrid was slightly bothersome in the beginning as I had the perception that she was too self-centred. This was not so much the case and it just takes a while to get used to the character. There was also an instance that the term ‘transgendered’ was used instead of ‘transgender’ however, I think that was due to language use.

I think that there are so few books that speak about asexuality in their plot, much less when they are combined with various other diverse characters and speaking so planning on reality, with deep thoughts as everyday occurrences. Perfect for over-thinkers like me! It truly is a love story that gives you hope. Where the characters do not follow a formula but make the love their own.

I recommend this book for people that want to read a book with an asexual character, for people that want to read more books with trans inclusiveness (including non-binary), for geeky people that like to see fanfiction, slam poetry and internet culture incorporated into the life of the characters and for people that want to read a short but realistic love story.

Amanda Clay reviews What We Left Behind by Robin Talley

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“Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O no; it is an ever-fixed mark, 
That looks on tempests, and is never shaken…”

If only.

Toni and Gretchen have been in love from the moment they met, dancing with each other’s dates at the Junior Homecoming Dance. They don’t differ, don’t disagree, don’t want to do anything but be together. Even after they graduate,   they’ve got it figured out: Toni to Harvard, Gretchen to BU and there will only be a few subway stops between them. Then Gretchen accepts a last-minute admission to NYU and suddenly everything changes. It’s not that she doesn’t love Toni, she just needs to find out who she is, who she can be on her own. And once Toni gets to Harvard and hooks up with the Trans* group, she starts to wonder who she is as well.   It’s a year of change, a year of discovery, love and loss. Who will they be when it’s all over? What will they be to each other?

What We Left Behind is a very good read. The story of Toni and Gretchen–  their actions and reactions, thoughts and feelings–  is not one we’ve read before. All the characters, main and supporting, are so well-imagined and well-presented the reader is at once drawn in to their world; the dialogue so realistically rendered it speaks in the ear.  You want to root for the girls, for their relationship, and for the people they are realizing themselves to be. The disconnect breaks your heart even as it breaks theirs. The only criticisms I have are small~ Toni’s quest for a gender identity label can sometimes seem a bit like a list of every gender expression tumblr has to offer, and in no part of Great Britain is Guinness ‘the ultimate British drink’, but these are minor quibbles and easily overlooked in a major work.  Beautifully done.

Marthese reviews Dare Seize the Fire by Cody L. Stanford

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“gifts sometimes come with sharp edges”

Dare Seize the Fire is a young adult adventure book with a hint of fantasy. The story is set in Philadelphia and follows Katie Zielinski which is also called Kasia, Katarzyna, Kat and my favourite: cutie-Kat. On her way home, Katie finds an escaped tiger and connects with him. His name, turns out to by Jyoti and he can talk and reason when he is around Katie. In turn, Katie realizes she has some sort of powers whenever she is near Jyoti. Which is good, because Jyoti’s previous owner, Zadornin, wants him back.

Zadornin is a warlock and calls Jyoti, Firebright. He has had him since he was a cub, mistreated him a lot and has very sinister plans for Jyoti which expand to even more sinister. Zadornin is a really, really evil person and probably you will become squeamish while he thinks or tells his past. Let’s just say that it’s not only poor animals that he has killed.

Katie, whose only troubles before were that she was in love with her best friend Laurinda (Lauri) and taking care of her autistic brother Cassie, finds herself dodging the warlock’s attempts at getting the tiger back. She does this with the help of the before-mentioned Laurie and Cassie, Agni and his son and a tiger lady. There isn’t just one confrontation between Katie and Zadornin, but several in escalation.

The story is told from multiple perspectives. I thought the writing was realistic in portraying the characters. Stanford, who by the way seems to know a lot about felines, managed to write an autistic mind, a tiger mind and an evil mind quite well, which was a bit scary. Especially at first perspectives changed in the same chapter without warning and it took some getting used to. I would have preferred to have different chapters per character which was done later on. As well, there were some time or place jumps in a chapter without warning. Lines would perhaps have helped the reader orientate themselves.

Katie’s and Laurie’s relationship is based on cuteness, sharp sarcasm and teasing. All in all, very cute. Reading about an autistic character was hard but much needed and hopefully, this will help other  readers know more about autism.

The writing is very funny at times, especially with the similes and metaphors used. One example which I thought was extremely hilarious was: “Like the mincing of an offended flamingo”. The insults thrown around in this book are also quite funny.

There were some irritating things in the plot.  The parents usually make a lot of mistakes. I also thought that leaving parents on their own when you have a powerful enemy was not safe at all! And of course, when someone is in grave danger of losing their lives, no one can agree on anything.

However, all in all, I highly enjoyed this book which also gave me a break from reading just in the Fantasy genre. The main message of the book, I think, is to let go of secrets to feel much lighter and also to unlock the potential already there. Throughout the book, Katie becomes more confidents to protect both herself and the creatures she loves. After having finished the Engelsfors trilogy, reading about a ‘witch’ and her bond with an animal made me go into ‘fond-mode’ and indeed the friendship between Kat and Jyoti was supportive and quite positive. I recommend this book to animal and felines lovers, people that want to read a cute romance that is part of a bigger plot, to people looking for autistic characters and to adventure lovers.