Review of The Golden Enclaves, by Naomi Novik

The Golden Enclaves

Lesson Three of the Scholomance

by Naomi Novik

Del Rey (Penguin Random House), 2022. 407 pages.
Review written October 2, 2022, from my own copy, preordered from Amazon.com
Starred review

Okay, this book is SO GOOD!!!!

All right, enough gushing, now for a serious review. First, I’m so happy that my preordered copy arrived just before Cybils season started, so I could read it before I need to start madly reading Young Adult Speculative Fiction books, which is the category I’m judging this year. Although this book is speculative fiction and features a young woman freshly out of school, it’s published for adults and isn’t eligible for the Cybils Awards.

First, let me say that this is a trilogy where you absolutely must read the books in order to understand what’s going on. So I’m going to speak about the trilogy in general terms in this review so as to not give anything away. If you haven’t read the earlier books yet, you are in luck! You won’t have to wait a year in between books to find out what happens after huge dramatic reversals at the ends of books one and two. But be prepared — once you start, you’re going to want to finish. I stayed up awfully late last night because of this book. (And I suspect I’ll want to reread the entire trilogy after my Cybils reading is done.)

The story is amazing how it pulls you in. I couldn’t stop thinking about it this morning. My shorthand way of talking about it is that it’s a story about a Wizard School that wants to kill you.

But I love the way Naomi Novik does the world-building, gradually telling us more and more about the world and the magic they use. This is why you really need to start at the beginning.

The trilogy follows El (short for Galadriel) whom the universe – and the Scholomance – seems to want to make a frightfully powerful death sorceress. This is in balance with her mother, who only works healing magic with sweetness and light. The first book starts with her junior year in the Scholomance.

We learn about the magic in that universe – parallel to ours – which always has a price. Wizards can get mana by doing work and helping others, which gives them power to do magic. But they can also use malia, which gets power from taking from the life force of others. The things that want to kill you in the Scholomance are malificaria, and they are drawn to magic, and especially to young and powerful wizards, so they flock to the Scholomance like a magnet. In the earlier books, we learn that El has a grudge against the kids from enclaves, where wizards band together to share magic. But it’s hard to get into enclaves, and there’s a prophecy about El destroying enclaves. And then there’s Orion, that annoying hero from the New York enclave who won El’s heart. He wound up in a bad place in the last book. Has she seen the end of him?

So in this book, El is out of the Scholomance and figuring out what she’s going to do with her life and what she’s going to do about Orion. She came out of the school with the Golden Sutras — powerful spell books about building Golden Enclaves without using malia.

And then a mawmouth is attacking the London enclave. A mawmouth is the most horrible kind of malificaria of all. It devours all in its path — and they don’t die, but remain suffering inside it forever after. Before El, there was only one living wizard who’d ever defeated a mawmouth. El, however, fought and destroyed more than one in the Scholomance. Her classmates know this, and call her to London. And that has consequences….

Another thing I love about this book is the way El, who started out friendless, now has a whole community who care about her and help her.

Okay, I’d love to say more, but I should stop. If you enjoy reading fantasy at all, tackle this brilliant trilogy. It’s outstanding.

TheScholomance.com
naominovik.com
randomhousebooks.com

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Review of How to Raise an Elephant, by Alexander McCall Smith, narrated by Adjoa Andoh

How to Raise an Elephant

by Alexander McCall Smith
narrated by Adjoa Andoh

Recorded Books, 2020. 8.5 hours on 8 compact discs.
Review written October 7, 2021, from a library audiobook

Here’s the latest installment of the adventures of Mma Ramotswe and her associates with the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency in Botswana. This audiobook has a new narrator, and I wasn’t crazy about some of her character voices, but I did love the way she rolls all her Rs and of course her delightful accent.

If you haven’t read any other books in this series, I do recommend beginning with the first book, The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. That one is better written as a detective story, but the main point of these stories are not the cases the agency must deal with, but the relationships between the delightful characters and their observations on life and human nature.

In this one, there are three main cases to be considered: a distant cousin of Mma Ramotswe’s asking for money, new neighbors moving in next door who seem to be having marital troubles, and Charlie borrowing Mma Ramotswe’s tiny white van for a mysterious purpose.

The cases aren’t solved by figuring out puzzles, but as we see the ins and outs revealed, we gain insights on relationships and approaching life with compassion. Though Charlie’s story – which is not too surprising because of the title – ends up involving an orphaned baby elephant.

I’ve taken to listening to these books on my commute because I don’t quite have patience for the rambling and meditative observations on human nature when reading an actual book. But stuck in traffic, they never fail to make me smile. The books are anchored in Botswana, and I’m starting to feel like the country itself is a beloved friend.

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Review of The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo, by Taylor Jenkins Reid

The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo

by Taylor Jenkins Reid
read by Alma Cuervo, Julia Whelan, and Robin Miles

Simon & Schuster Audio, 2017. 12 hours, 10 minutes.
Review written August 19, 2022, from a library eaudiobook

I heard about this book on Book Tok and thought I’d give it a try. I’m not completely sure why, because I’ve never been a fan of celebrity tell-alls, and this is essentially a fictional celebrity tell-all, telling the life of a glamorous Hollywood icon, the most beautiful woman in the world.

But once I started, the book pulled me in quickly. Instead of starting with the glamorous Evelyn Hugo, the book begins with Monique, a struggling biracial writer who works for an upscale magazine. Her new husband recently decided to move to the west coast, and she didn’t go with him, because this magazine is her chance and she needs to be in New York. So she’s thinking about her empty apartment and short failed marriage.

But then her magazine tells her to go interview the now-reclusive Evelyn Hugo for a feature article. When she tries to figure out why, it turns out that Evelyn Hugo requested her specifically. And when she begins the interviews, she learns that Evelyn doesn’t actually want to do a feature article. She wants to give her story to Monique to publish in a book after Evelyn’s death — but she won’t give Monique any idea if she has a reason to anticipate that will happen soon. The book will be worth millions, but meanwhile, what does Monique tell her employers?

And as we hear Evelyn’s life story, we get more and more pulled in. Despite the seven husbands, she’s no King Henry VIII. It’s not too much of a spoiler to say that Evelyn is bisexual and the love of her life was a woman. But in Hollywood beginning in the 40s and 50s, that wasn’t something she could let people know and still have a career.

The book does have some raunchy moments. But mostly, you’re pulled into the life of the “most beautiful woman in the world” and come to understand her choices, even the questionable ones. In the middle of the book, I wondered why I’d been pulled into a fake celebrity tell-all, but by the end, I felt like something deeper and more important was going on. Monique gains perspective from hearing Evelyn’s story, and the reader will, too.

Oh, and if you start out by liking celebrity tell-alls, you should enjoy this book all the more!

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Review of Black Cake, by Charmaine Wilkerson

Black Cake

by Charmaine Wilkerson
read by Lynnette R. Freeman and Simone McIntyre

Random House Audio, 2022. 12 hours, 2 minutes.
Review written August 2, 2022, from a library eaudiobook.
Starred Review

This audiobook had me fully drawn in right from the start. It’s a richly textured story, rooted in the present with a brother and his estranged sister shortly after their mother’s death. Byron and Benny think they knew their parents. They think they lived boring lives, both of them orphans from a Caribbean island who met in London and then built a family in California, where they prospered.

But their mother’s lawyer has a recording for them. And a Black Cake sitting in the freezer which they are to eat when the time is right. In the recording, their mother tells her actual story – how she changed identities three times in her decidedly not boring youth. And they have a sister they knew nothing about.

They also learn where their mother learned to make Black Cake — a traditional cake from the island using dried fruit soaked in rum and port and served at weddings and special events. Black Cake has long been an important part of their lives, and now they learn there was Black Cake at a huge turning point in their mother’s life.

The stories of the past and the present are layered together beautifully. When Byron and Benny need a break from the revelations, the reader gets a break, too. The story is dramatic and heart-wrenching and had me transfixed. The narrators use beautiful accents for characters from the many different parts of the world represented.

This book appeared on Barack Obama’s summer reading list. I felt like a winner because my hold on the eaudiobook had just come in — I’m sure then the list got longer.

As a debut novel, this book is amazingly rich and layered, kind of like cake. I highly recommend it, and especially the audio version enhanced by the beautiful accents.

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Review of State of Terror, by Hillary Rodham Clinton and Louise Penny, read by Joan Allen

State of Terror

by Hillary Rodham Clinton
and Louise Penny
read by Joan Allen

Simon & Schuster Audio, 2021. 15 hours, 41 minutes on 13 CDs.
Review written May 27, 2022, from a library audiobook

Normally I would never check out a novel written by a celebrity, but the pairing with Louise Penny, a distinguished mystery writer, was enough to intrigue me. Surely a former Secretary of State can write very convincingly about plausible terrorist threats.

Actually, it’s a little too convincing. The story begins with a female secretary of state recently appointed by her political rival. The new president appointed Ellen Adams essentially to ruin her political power, and they don’t like each other very well. The narrator sounded a lot like Hillary Clinton, and the set-up got me wondering if Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama had disliked each other as much as the two characters do.

But the characters are in a very different situation. The previous president was “Eric Dunn,” and they go on about what an incompetent buffoon he was. There’s another scene that includes the president of Russia, I guy named Ivanov, who is portrayed as pure evil. Mind you, the secretary of state gets the better of both of them! How much is that wish fulfillment fantasy and how much is it just rational commentary on what the world could be like after our last president?

I didn’t think the writing was stellar, and the plot had things about it that I can nitpick and also that I did see coming, but it certainly held my interest and kept me awake on my commute.

Shortly after the book starts, a large bomb goes off in Europe, followed by another. And then they get evidence there will be a third bomb, and it’s going to happen on the same bus in Frankfurt where Ellen Adams’ reporter son has been following a lead.

But that’s only the beginning. Who is responsible for the bombs? And what are their plans now?

It was probably a little self-indulgent of the author to make it the female secretary of state who figures out the answers and deals with tyrants and saves the day. I mean, why not write a book where the hero reminds everyone of you?

I don’t think I’m giving anything away when I reveal that some of the villains are right-wing idealists in the United States, even in positions of power. They’re willing to work with Al Qaida and bring terror to American soil if it will put a liberal president out of power and start things fresh, back to “real” America.

This was published in October 2021, and would have been written well before that. I thought it was interesting that even in this scenario, the authors didn’t think of having the right-wing talking about election fraud. And they talked about the danger that the Taliban would take over Afghanistan when they had to pull out troops based on the deal made by “Eric Dunn.”

So it was all rather disturbing. And probably a touch too realistic.

I don’t think there’s any danger that people who are politically conservative will want to read this book. If you pretty much agree with Hillary Clinton’s assessment of Donald Trump, I mean “Eric Dunn,” then this book emphasizes how many bad results could still come to pass from his presidency.

But try to listen to it as a realistic thriller of what could have happened, but is not happening in real life.

simonandschuster.com

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Review of The 100 Years of Lenni and Margot

The 100 Years of Lenni and Margot

by Marianne Cronin
read by Sheila Reid and Rebecca Benson

HarperAudio, 2021. 10 hours, 54 minutes.
Review written July 9, 2022, from a library eaudiobook
Starred Review
2022 Alex Award Winner (books published for adults of interest to teens)

Oh, this book touched my heart!

You’re warned right from the start. Lenni is a Swedish girl living in the terminal ward of the Princess Royal Hospital in Glasgow. She’s 17 years old, and she doesn’t want to die.

As the book begins, she can still go on adventures around the hospital. She goes to the chapel and meets Father Arthur. She asks him some uncomfortable questions about why she’s going to die, and ends up making friends with him. She helps a temp name the new room for hospital patients to do art. They call it the Rose Room — and that’s where Lenni meets Margot.

Margot is 83 years old and also dying — and Lenni notices that between the two of them, they’ve lived 100 years.

They begin a project together in the Rose Room — 100 paintings, one for each year of their lives. And along with the paintings, they started telling stories, stories from different years of their lives.

I love the two narrators for this audiobook. The narrator reading Lenni’s part sounds 17, and the narrator reading Margot’s stories sounds 83. And they both have wonderful accents, so the whole thing is a delight to read.

We know from the start that Lenni and Margot are dying. So you can simply expect some heartbreak at the end. But that’s going to come because this unlikely pair will have completely wound their way into your heart before you’re done with their stories and their enthusiasm for living.

Oh, and there’s a Swedish man in the book named Mr. Eklund, so that’s proof it’s a great book!

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Review of The Murder of Mr. Wickham, by Claudia Gray

The Murder of Mr. Wickham

by Claudia Gray

Vintage Books (Penguin Random House), 2022. 386 pages.
Review written June 30, 2022, from my own copy.
Starred Review

A huge thank you to my sister Becky, who sent me this book for my birthday — such a perfect gift!

The Murder of Mr. Wickham is about a house party that brings together characters from all of Jane Austen’s novels. Emma and George Knightley are hosting the party, and they’ve invited Fitzwilliam and Elizabeth Darcy, along with their oldest son Jonathan. From Sense and Sensibility, we’ve got newly married Marianne and Colonel Brandon, who it turns out is Emma’s cousin. Much to my delight, it turns out that Catherine Tilney has become a novelist, and her daughter Juliet has been invited to provide another young person. And Hartfield was being rented to tenants Captain Frederick and Anne Wentworth — but a staircase collapsed, so they’ve been invited to join the party. On top of everything, Knightley’s clerical relative Edward Bertram is coming with his wife Fanny.

So we see all these characters we know and love, a varying number of years after their marriages. But then on a dark and stormy night, Mr. Wickham turns up, and it turns out that all the characters gathered there have reasons to hate him, mostly because he’s been investing other people’s money, but for some other dark reasons as well.

So when young Juliet Tilney finds the dead body of Mr. Wickham, it turns out that one of the other guests is probably responsible. Jonathan Darcy and Juliet Tilney are the only ones without a strong motive, and they begin doing a little investigating together. The magistrate, Frank Churchill, seems to be overlooking some evidence, after all.

I found this book completely delightful, and the author even managed to pull off an ending that satisfied me. I loved the look at all these beloved characters as married couples. All of the marriages were having some strain when thrust into this difficult situation — and the specific tension in each marriage was consistent with the characters of the people involved. Claudia Gray really made me believe this is how the futures of these couples might turn out. And it was tremendous fun to read about their interactions.

This is a must-read for all Janeites.

claudiagray.com
vintagebooks.com

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Review of The Reading List, by Sara Nisha Adams

The Reading List

by Sara Nisha Adams
read by Tara Divina, Sagar Arya, and Paul Panting

HarperAudio, 2021. 12 hours, 47 minutes.
Review written June 8, 2022, from a library eaudiobook
Starred Review

This book is about a handwritten reading list that several people find in different surprising places in Wembley, a suburb of London. And then how reading those books changes people’s lives.

The two central characters who get most of the book’s time are Aleisha, a 17-year-old who’s working at the library as a summer job, and Mukesh, an elderly Indian gentleman who lost his wife two years before. Aleisha has her own pressures as she and her older brother are trying to care for their mother, who keeps the house dark and rarely leaves her bed. Aleisha’s planning to head to university and study to be a lawyer when the summer is over.

The first time Mukesh comes to the library, he encounters Aleisha, who has no recommendations for him and is quite rude. But Aleisha feels guilty, so when she finds the Reading List, she decides to read the books and then pass them on to Mukesh. Both their lives are profoundly touched.

I love the way this book highlights how a good book can affect you so deeply. Books can give you insights into your own life and even help build relationships. Besides Mukesh and Aleisha, Mukesh also gains new ground with his granddaughter through books.

I’ve read and loved all but three of the books on the list. Here are the books:

To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee
Rebecca, by Daphne DuMaurier
The Kite Runner, by Kaled Hosseini
Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen
Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott
Beloved, by Toni Morrison
A Suitable Boy, by Vikram Seth

The book The Time Traveler’s Wife is also featured.

The three I haven’t read are The Kite Runner, Beloved, and A Suitable Boy. Now I want to go out and read those three if they’re anything as good as the others.

I did laugh that my favorite on the list – Pride and Prejudice – was the least favorite of the characters in the book. Oh well! At least it got included.

So it was all a wonderful story. I particularly loved the narrator who read Mukesh’s chapters. I felt like the character was talking with me and this kind elderly widower won my heart.

I did have some things that bothered me a lot about their portrayal of a library. Maybe things are different in the U.K., but I’m not really convinced they are.

First, a student working in the library for the summer is not called a librarian. A librarian is someone with a master’s degree in library science. Although a customer might mistakenly call such a person a librarian, the workers would not perpetuate that mistake.

Next, this poor hardly-occupied library needed library outsiders – Mukesh and Aleisha – to come up with an idea to “save” it – by having a program! A program where the community gets together. That’s all well and good and they had a very nice reason for it. But come on, is the author aware that most libraries have a full schedule of programs to engage their communities? It’s not actually a novel idea.

I did think it was interesting that while they talked about a few regulars, that particular library didn’t have any patrons experiencing homelessness. Maybe that’s not a problem in England? Of course, the library in the book was much, much less frequented than the one where I work. We get more than 800 customers on a typical day. I know there are libraries that don’t get so many, but the portrayal – in a book reminding us how reading can change lives – made me wince a little bit.

I also really wondered how the books on the list were chosen. It was interesting that there was only one children’s book – Little Women – and it’s a very old children’s book, set in 1860s America. But that of course got me thinking: If I were to make a list of my favorite books, books that had power to move people deeply and affect their lives and relationships, which books would I choose?

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Review of Lawn Boy, by Jonathan Evison

Lawn Boy

by Jonathan Evison

Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2018. 312 pages.
Review written May 28, 2022, from a library book

Okay, I’ll be honest — the only reason I read this book was to find out what all the fuss was about. After another library in our system included this title in a display of banned books, a resident protested, and Fox News picked it up — and people from all over the country called our library and complained. I particularly remember a man from Arizona yelling at me and telling me that I approve of pornography.

So let me tackle the objections head-on. My first reaction after actually reading the entire book is disgust — disgust at the book banners, not at the book.

First, let me point out this is a book for adults. It is published for adults and marketed for adults. However, it features a 24-year-old protagonist who’s figuring out how to make a living and move out of his mom’s house, so it may well be of interest to juniors and seniors in high school who are thinking about their future. It won an Alex Award, which is specifically for adult books that have appeal for teens. So it is appropriate for high schools to carry it. Not middle schools, but I doubt that’s even an issue.

And I have read so many adult books that are much, much more explicit in sexual content. The difference? Most of those other books involve heterosexual relationships, and I can’t help but think it’s the same-sex relationship that bothers the book banners.

But — get this — there is absolutely no “on-screen” sex in this book. I’ll give a little bit of a spoiler that the main character finds a wonderful and affirming relationship with another man and spends the night with him. But the book pretty much fades to black and he simply wakes up in the morning next to his partner. Absolutely no description of having sex.

And I don’t hear much about that. What the banners seem to object to is that the main character mentions some experimentation with another boy in fourth grade. The other kid’s idea, but it was a mutual activity, and not by any stretch of the imagination does it constitute “pedophilia,” as the caller from Arizona seemed to think. The narrator does talk about it using coarse language, and he’s a tiny bit more detailed when he talks about losing his virginity with a girl six years before the book opens, but it’s funny how the banners don’t mention that.

Yes, the book is full of profanity. It’s talking about working-class families where this is how they talk. It would feel very inauthentic if they talked like a suburban mom. Now, I personally prefer novels where characters do talk like me, a suburban mom, and don’t use profanity. But sometimes it’s good to read about lives I wouldn’t otherwise know anything about and build some empathy.

Let me, finally, talk about the story. It’s about a kid named Mike Muñoz who loves landscaping. He even has a talent for topiary. But he currently works for a company that watches his every move and makes him pick up dog droppings (not referred to so delicately), and he has enough, so he quits. But he’s already living with his mom, who works two jobs, and caring for his three-hundred-pound older brother with special needs. It’s not easy to find something new. And meanwhile, there’s a waitress he has his eye on, but how can he impress a girl without having any money?

The book follows his efforts and his stumbles. He encounters various people who seem like they’re going to help but then let him down. About halfway through the book, I told myself I was only finishing it because I wanted to know what I was defending. However, I was glad I did finish. As the book progresses, Mike does learn from his mistakes and his setbacks — even the ones that weren’t his fault. And he really grew on me.

I’ve already given away that there’s a same-sex romance — that happening is the first Mike realizes he’s gay. The portrayal of that relationship is beautifully done and it’s lovely to see Mike relating to someone who builds him up instead of exploiting him. Outside of that, Mike figures out who he is and what he wants — and yes, the book has a happy and deeply satisfying ending, and I’m so glad I didn’t stop in the middle.

I’ll admit this novel is not for everyone. In fact, it’s not the sort of book I typically recommend. But I ended up very happy I’d expanded my horizons by reading this book and gaining empathy for someone whose life is quite different from mine.

So I do recommend putting this book on hold at your local library. Chances are good you won’t find it on the shelves because with all the attention it’s been getting, the Holds list is long.

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Review of The Midnight Library, by Matt Haig, read by Carey Mulligan

The Midnight Library

by Matt Haig
read by Carey Mulligan

Penguin Audio, 2020. 8 hours, 50 minutes.
Review written May 17, 2022, from a library eaudiobook

This audiobook was a lot of fun and kept me entertained and absorbed to the end — which is saying something because I’m not in the target audience. I don’t believe in parallel universes.

The characters in this book say that it’s science, but I’m sorry, just because a physicist came up with a theory to explain some equations, that doesn’t mean it’s science. This isn’t a theory you can verify, after all. To me, the theory that a new universe is created every time you make a decision, besides seeming wildly unlikely, takes away a lot of human agency. What does it matter what choice you make if in another universe you made a different one?

In fiction, it also takes away from the story — why should I care about this particular character if another character just like them is doing something different in another universe? Why should I care about this particular set of choices? But if your choices do make a difference — you’ve got a story.

The way parallel universes come up in The Midnight Library is that Nora Seed has some sad things happen and decides to end her life. After she attempts to do so, she finds herself in the Midnight Library. It’s a library with infinite shelves where the time is always midnight. She sees her old school librarian there, who tells Nora this is her chance to undo her regrets. Each book in the Midnight Library represents another life that Nora could have lived. Choosing a book and reading it takes Nora into another life in an alternate universe where she made a different decision somewhere along the way. If she finds a life that she likes, she can stay.

So, in this context, the alternate universes do provide a fascinating way to explore Nora’s regrets. She quickly sees that if she had done what other people wanted her to — things didn’t always turn out so wonderful. So can she find the life she actually wants?

It does work as an interesting frame, but I still have trouble with the logistics. Nora dropped into lives without the memories of the alternate-Nora from that life. A lot of good it would do to be a polar researcher if you know absolutely nothing about the topic, after all. And I kept wondering, Where did the alternate Nora go? And wouldn’t it be a shame to have fallen in love and gotten married and had a child if you couldn’t remember doing any of those things? So it didn’t seem like a fair trial of the alternate lives. And without having actually made the choices that got her there, they talked about Nora’s “root life” — as if that Nora is the real person and her alternate selves are disposable.

But if you think of this book as a version of “It’s a Wonderful Life” — a vivid look at what would have happened if things had been different — and don’t get too bogged down in the details (as I tend to do), it is always fun to speculate how things might have turned out if you had made different choices.

This book also helped me realize that I’ve outgrown my regrets. There was a time when I wondered how life would have turned out if, for example, I hadn’t dropped out of a PhD program in mathematics. But after my divorce, that all seems like water under the bridge. My divorce was something that got me wondering if I could have done something differently to prevent it (even though it was my ex-husband’s idea). But now, twelve years after the divorce was final, my career as a librarian is blossoming — and if I hadn’t gotten divorced, I would have been content to continue to work part-time. But because I got my library degree and became a librarian, I got to serve on the Newbery committee, and just this week, I got word that I landed my dream job as Youth Materials Selector for my whole public library system. Life is good! So who needs regrets?

Still, this book, and this interesting story of Nora and many different things she might have done, is what got me thinking about how nice it is to live without regrets. So if you can keep yourself from thinking too much about the mechanics, I do recommend this book.

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