Review of Cog, by Greg van Eekhout

Cog

by Greg van Eekhout

Harper, 2019. 196 pages.
Starred Review
Review written October 20, 2019, from a library book
2019 Sonderbooks Stand-out: #2 in Children’s Fiction
2019 Cybils Award Finalist

This book is utterly delightful. It’s true that I’ve got a strong prejudice against books that claim robots have emotion or that assign basically magical abilities to robots, so I did have a tiny bit of trouble with suspension of disbelief. But I loved the characters so much, and they were so quirky and creative, I didn’t really care.

Here’s how Cog introduces himself:

My name is Cog. Cog is short for “cognitive development.” Cognitive development is the process of learning how to think and understand.

In appearance, I am a twelve-year-old boy of average height and weight. This means I’m fifty-eight inches tall and weigh about ninety pounds and seven ounces. In actuality, I am seven months old.

Now I will tell you some facts I have learned about platypuses.

Cog tells us about his home and his bedroom and about Gina, who lives with him and makes repairs and adjustments when he needs them.

Gina is a scientist for uniMIND. She has brown eyes like my visual sensors and brown skin like my synthetic dermal layer. Her hair is black and shiny, like the feathers of birds in the corvid family, which includes crows and ravens. When she smiles, which is often, a small gap is evident between her two front teeth. My teeth, which are oral mastication plates, have no gap, but I enjoy practicing smiling with Gina.

Cog is programmed to learn, to increase his cognitive development. As the book begins, Gina takes him to Giganto Food Super Mart to learn about shopping. She gives him a list and asks him to get the items unsupervised.

Cheese is the first item. Cog discovers many kinds of cheese that he hadn’t known existed before. He fills the cart with them. When he gets back to Gina, she tells him that for a first attempt he did a very good job.

“But we actually don’t need all this cheese,” she continues. “Nor do we need seven dozen apples or eight different kinds of orange juice or twelve different varieties of dish soap. So let’s start putting most of this back.”

I learn that unshopping takes longer than shopping.

As we return items to shelves, Gina explains to me where my judgment was faulty and led me astray.

“Is my judgment the result of a bug?” I ask her. “Can you fix it?”

“No,” she says, hanging seven bags of shredded cheese back on their hooks. “It’s just something you have to learn. It’s like my old professor used to tell me: ‘Good judgment comes from experience, but experience comes from bad judgment.’ That means we learn by making mistakes.”

I process this for a while.

“How long did it take you to learn good judgment?”

“Oh, I’m still learning it, buddy. I’m learning it all the time.”

Since Cog’s mission is to learn, he makes a resolution. The next morning, he sneaks out of the house.

Leaving the house without Gina’s permission is a mistake. this pleases me, because a mistake is an act of bad judgment, and I expect my act of bad judgment to increase my cognitive development.

Unfortunately, out in the yard, Cog sees a Chihuahua about to be hit by a truck. He saves the Chihuahua – and gets hit by the truck.

When Cog wakes up, he is in bed and hooked up to data ports beneath his flipped-up fingernails, but something is not right. He is not in his bedroom at home, and Gina is not there.

It turns out that since she allowed Cog to be hit by a truck, she’s been taken off the project. Cog is at UniMIND headquarters and told it’s his new home.

When he finds out they want to open up his brain and take out the X-Module (whatever that is), Cog resolves to run away and find Gina.

And so we end up with a delightful road trip story. Cog travels with four other robots – ADA, an Advanced Destructive Apparatus who looks like a twelve-year-old girl, a Trashbot that asks everyone if they have waste, a robotic dog, and a talking Car. The Car asks if he will accept liability before it agrees to set out with them.

The adventure is wild – okay, perhaps quite a bit unlikely – but oh, so much fun. Each one of the robots has a distinct and consistent personality, and I love Cog’s voice narrating the whole thing. In fact, I will end this review with some words of wisdom from Cog:

Since leaving the UniMIND campus, I have had several bad experiences, and one thing I have learned is that friends and sandwiches make even the worst of situations more tolerable.

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Review of The Stars We Steal, by Alexa Donne

The Stars We Steal

by Alexa Donne

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, February 2020. 389 pages.
Review written July 12, 2019, from an advance reader copy picked up at ALA Annual Conference

The Stars We Steal is a science fiction retelling of Jane Austen’s Persuasion. Because I love Persuasion so much, and because I love Diana Peterfreund’s science fiction retelling of it, For Darkness Shows the Stars, and because I loved Alexa Donne’s science fiction retelling of Jane Eyre, Brightly Burning, I picked this one up eagerly after I got the advance reader copy at ALA Annual Conference.

I’m afraid I was a little disappointed. It’s still a fun romance, with an interesting science fiction setting, but it’s not a terribly faithful retelling and doesn’t have the poignancy of the original.

Right off the bat, the difference in the age of the heroines made me less sympathetic. Anne Elliot in Persuasion, was nineteen years old when she was in love with Frederick Wentworth and was persuaded to reject him. The story takes place seven years later. She is twenty-six years old and has no prospects for marriage. In The Stars We Steal, Princess Leo Kolburg is nineteen years old. She was briefly engaged to Elliot Wentworth when she was sixteen, but her father and aunt opposed the engagement. I probably shouldn’t be less sympathetic to younger love, but Leo seems to have much more chance for finding someone new than Anne Elliot did.

Anyway, that aside, Leo is a princess living in a society centered in space – humans have taken to space while waiting for earth to warm up from a human-induced ice age. She’s a princess, and lives with her father and sister – but they are running out of money, so Leo has rented out their ship while they stay with their aunt on the Scandinavian and participate in the big once-every-five-years match event where all the eligible young royals and nobility get together to find matches.

Now, Leo needs to find a match with money to save her family’s ship. But she would rather get the money with her water filtration invention. Meanwhile, Elliot is now wealthy, captaining a ship of his own, and ready to find a match. He doesn’t seem to mind Leo becoming fully aware of what she lost.

I want to mention, without giving anything away, that this book has the first mention I’ve seen in a YA novel of an asexual character. It’s a nice answer to a marriage of convenience.

The plot itself is somewhat convoluted. I didn’t really believe some of the interactions and motivations.

However, that said, I did thoroughly enjoy reading this book. It may not be my new favorite, but it was a whole lot of fun, and I hope Alexa Donne has more retellings in store for readers in the future, with more insight into this future society in the stars where the glittering wealthy try to forget about those who are struggling for space and food and teens figure out their response to that.

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Review of Brightly Burning, by Alexa Donne

Brightly Burning

by Alexa Donne

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2018. 394 pages.
Starred Review
2018 Sonderbooks Stand-out:
#4 Teen Speculative Fiction

This book is a science fiction retelling of Jane Eyre, and is tremendously good. It reminded me of For Darkness Shows the Stars, a science fiction retelling of Persuasion, which I also loved.

However, the last time I reread Jane Eyre I was disappointed that now I can see a whole lot of things wrong with the relationship, so reading this book, I was somewhat upset with myself for finding it very romantic.

Now, they did clean up some of the more unsavory details. The ward of Captain Fairfax, in this book, is not his illegitimate daughter from a youthful indiscretion, and he doesn’t actually have an insane wife shut up in the attic. Nor is he many years older than our heroine.

However, he is Stella’s employer. She’s in a subordinate relationship to him, and he orders her to spend some time with him each evening, enjoying his library of actual paper books. And, similar to Mr. Rochester of Jane Eyre, he tries to make her jealous, and succeeds abominably. He brings a woman to their spaceship along with her family, and Stella learns that the families have long planned to one day combine resources with a marriage. To make matters worse, Captain Fairfax (of the ship Rochester) requires Stella to be present when the groups socialize in the evenings – just as Mr. Rochester did to Jane Eyre.

The end of the book does have things play out somewhat differently than what happens in Jane Eyre – though the gist is quite similar.

Once again, I don’t really see why I want our heroine to end up with this guy. And yet I do find the story romantic.

Maybe it rings too true when I remember the pain of unrequited love as a teenager having crushes? Only in our book, it turns out the love is not unrequited.

Or maybe it’s seeing someone who thinks herself small and insignificant being noticed for her shining character? In this book, Stella won’t let things progress between them until Captain Fairfax acknowledges her as an equal. (I’m glad that point was made, but it doesn’t quite make up for the disparity in power between them.) The truth is that in this book, Stella is the only one who seems willing to stand up for what’s right. So I’m not sure she should have fallen for him. But it is lovely that he found her, despite the fact that she wasn’t seeking his attention.

All that aside, as a science fiction retelling, this is cleverly executed with much obvious love for the original. The story is wonderful.

Parents, you might want to read both Jane Eyre and this book before you hand them to your teenage daughter – but I promise you’ll have a whole lot of fun if you do that. As well as having lots to discuss.

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Review of We’re Not From Here, by Geoff Rodkey

We’re Not From Here

by Geoff Rodkey

Crown Books for Young Readers, 2019. 250 pages.
Starred Review
Review written June 19, 2019, from a library book

Here’s a tremendously fun and creative science fiction book for kids, with plenty to seriously think about as well.

Set in the future, the book begins with Lan and his friends on Mars, talking about rumors that the colony has found a new planet where humans can live.

Humans made earth uninhabitable a year before, but many escaped to a colony on Mars. However, the air processors were wearing down, people’s clothing was ragged and stinky, and the only food they had to eat was something called Chow manufactured by the Nutrition department. So humans needed a new place to live.

They found a planet called Choom with an atmosphere that will support human life. What’s more, Choom had taken in alien refugees before. There were already four species of aliens on Choom, three of which originally came from different planets. The main species, the Zhuri, look like giant mosquitoes. After some negotiating, they get an invitation to come to Choom as refugees. They go into bio-suspension for twenty years to make the trip. But when they wake up, the government of Choom has changed, and humans are no longer welcome.

In orbit around Choom, the humans who are left do not have enough fuel to go anywhere else. If Choom doesn’t take them, they’ll die. But the Zhuri now believe that humans are too warlike. After much negotiating, since they did invite the humans to Choom, the Zhuri agree to take one human family. If they can live in peace, all the humans can come, but if there are any incidents, the whole human race will have nowhere to go.

Lan, his sister, and their parents are the family chosen to represent humans. Lan and his sister must navigate going to school on an alien planet and trying not to cause any trouble – without knowing how anything works.

And they soon realize they have been set up to fail. Movies about World War II (from earth transmissions) have been playing on Choom television, showing how violent humans are. The Zhuri swarm in protest. Do Lan and his family even have a chance of saving the human race?

That makes the story sound grim, but it’s full of humor – because natural misunderstandings have plenty of food for humor. In fact, humor may be the key to saving the day.

This one takes the new-kid-at-school story and makes it intergalactic.

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Review of The Stone Sky, by N. K. Jemisin

The Stone Sky

The Broken Earth, Book 3

by N. K. Jemisin

Orbit Books, 2017. 416 pages.
Starred Review
2018 Hugo Award Winner
Review written May 18, 2019, from a library book

The Stone Sky finishes off The Broken Earth trilogy, the first trilogy ever to have all three books win Hugo Awards, and the first time an author has won three consecutive Hugo Awards. You should definitely read the books of this trilogy in order, because it would be very confusing without the background laid in the first two books.

The strength of this trilogy is in the world-building, though perhaps I should say in the world-breaking. The planet has literally been broken apart and humanity is dying and all life is struggling in this latest Fifth Season, with the sky full of ash and the earth unstable. There are two people who can do something about that – Essun and her daughter Nassun.

But Essun and Nassun are far apart from each other. Both have been growing more powerful as the trilogy progressed. Nassun has been taken under the wing of Schaffa, the Guardian Essun once thought she’d killed. Essun has been wanting to get to her daughter all this time, but other matters of survival got in the way. By now we wonder what will happen when they come together.

Besides orogeny – feeling and manipulating the forces of earth – the two are learning to manipulate the silvery magic in all living things – including the earth itself – and to harness the power of the obelisks, made by ancient people centuries in the past. But using that power comes with great risk.

The reader also learns more about the Stone Eaters. They were human once, long ago, about the same time that the obelisks were made. In this volume, we hear more of their stories.

I can’t say that I thoroughly enjoyed reading these books. Lots of death and destruction in the middle, and this final book was awfully cerebral – I felt like I sort of understood the mechanisms of magic and orogeny and the obelisks, but not completely.

All the same, this book is unlike anything I’ve read in a long time, and I am amazed at the author’s mastery of world-building and unusual narrative structure. It works, and all tells a fascinating story about family, love, and the fate of the world.

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orbitbooks.net

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Review of The Obelisk Gate, by N. K. Jemisin

The Obelisk Gate

by N. K. Jemisin

Orbit Books, 2016. 410 pages.
2017 Hugo Award Winner
Review written April 2, 2019, from a library book

I wish I could say that I enjoyed this book more than I did. It is the middle book of the first-ever trilogy to have all three books win the Hugo Award. The world-building is intricate, complex, and mind-blowing.

I’ll say the good things first. I indeed understood better what was going on in the second book, and appreciated the richness of the background that her way of writing the first book gave us. In this book, Essun has lost track of her daughter Nassun, but the reader gets to follow both. Both find a place of refuge against the Season which is building up – ash covering the sky and the whole world hunkering down and trying to survive.

Orogeny – the ability to sense and manipulate the movement of the earth and stone – is commonplace in that world, although feared by the “stills.” Both Essun and Nassun are powerful orogenes still growing in their power. In this book, they each also discover an ability to sense magic – silver threads in the world and people and creatures around them.

Most of the book is about their survival concerns in two different locations. Essun is in an underground comm that accepts orogenes – or do they? Nassun is far to the south, still learning from Schaffa – and we’re not sure if that’s a good thing or very, very dangerous.

But we do sense that something much, much bigger is at stake. We learn that the moon left the earth’s regular orbit long ago – and that’s what started the cycle of fifth seasons. But it’s due to come back around before long. Alabaster is dying – but he’s trying to teach Essun what she will need to be able to do to deal with that. And then there are those obelisks in the sky, obelisks with strange and awesome power. And stone eaters – those statue-like creatures that move either very slowly or more quickly than sight – turn out to be both benevolent and malevolent, with agendas of their own.

This book is also very violent. You should not pick this up if you’re looking for pleasant, light-hearted reading. The earth has been broken, and everyone on it is somewhat futilely fighting for survival. Unfortunately, this is the book I was reading when I tried to read on the metro going into DC and was struck with motion sickness. Alas! In that section, a couple of arms got cut off and many people died in gruesome ways. That was decidedly not good for decreasing my nausea. So I’m afraid that influenced my enjoyment of the book.

I am indeed fascinated by the world-building, and I do want to know what happens next, so I will be finishing the trilogy before long. But I’m going to read something light and fluffy first!

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orbitbooks.net

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Review of Thunderhead, by Neal Shusterman

Thunderhead

Arc of a Scythe Book 2

by Neal Shusterman

Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2018. 504 pages.
Review written January 25, 2018.
Starred Review
2018 Sonderbooks Stand-out:
#2 Teen Speculative Fiction

This book was a bad choice to bring to Silent Book Club — I wanted to shout when I got to the last page. I did NOT see that coming! (And it’s perfect!) And I doubt that any reader will see it coming, even if I warn you.

But let me back up. This book is a sequel to Scythe. One thing I liked about Scythe was that I wouldn’t have even known it was a Book One if the flap cover hadn’t said so. It wrap ups nicely, and you think good is winning.

Ummm, let’s just say that Good has many setbacks in Book Two.

This series is set in a future earth where mankind has conquered death. They have also eliminated government, and the world is run by the Cloud – which is now known as the Thunderhead. And the Thunderhead is a perfect ruler.

But because it’s not sustainable to have the population keep growing forever, some people need to die. They didn’t want to leave that choice into the hands of a machine, so that’s why the Scythedom was developed. Scythes must hold themselves to high standards and ten commandments. Their responsibility is to glean people and end their lives.

There is strong separation between Scythe and State. So even though the Thunderhead knows something is going terribly wrong with the scythes, it cannot intervene directly.

This book shows that something is indeed going terribly wrong.

I used to tell people that besides apparently having a grim reaper on the cover and being about two teens becoming apprentice scythes, the first book was more thought-provoking than grim. The second book, I’m not going to say that! Some truly horrific things happen in this book, as well as some enormous surprises.

But they are all brilliantly done and I really really really want to read the next book!

Since I won’t be able to post this review until a year after I write it, maybe the next book will be out and I can finally find out how this all turns out. (If this ends up being longer than a trilogy, I may scream.)

Added in March 2019: Nope, not yet! No next book yet. I want to add that this was probably the best-plotted book I read in 2018. In my opinion, though, it is not a children’s book. Teens will enjoy it, yes, but the book appeals to the part of them that is becoming an adult. The characters have chosen careers (grim ones) and are living on their own or with a mentor. And again, they are dealing with some truly horrific events and choices.

But wow! For young adults and old adults – this series will make you grapple with lots of big and profound life-or-death right-or-wrong questions you might never have even thought to propose before.

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Review of The Fifth Season, by N. K. Jemisin

The Fifth Season

The Broken Earth, Book One

by N. K. Jemisin

Orbit Books, 2015. 471 pages.
Starred Review
Winner of the 2016 Hugo Award

After the Newbery, I was ready to read something completely different. Both my adult children highly recommended the Broken Earth trilogy. They told me N. K. Jemisin was the first black woman to win the Hugo – and then the first person to win the Hugo three years in a row – with the books of this trilogy.

Tonight I finished The Fifth Season, and I had to go back to the beginning to see if I understood now what was going on at the start of the book. I think maybe, sort of? I am hoping things will be a bit less murky after book two. Which I am going to read.

This book, like much science fiction, is more cerebral than emotional. The world-building is amazing. We’ve got three plot threads going on, one of them addressing the reader as “you.” You do learn how the three threads are connected before the book ends – but it does end up having you do some rethinking.

The world here is a world that may be ending. They’ve long had “Fifth Seasons” – where ash from a volcano or some other disruption means there is a prolonged winter and little to harvest. They’ve got stonelore to tell them what to do, how to prepare. A new one is beginning, and this may be the worst ever.

This world has orogenes – people who can sense and manipulate the earth. They can raise volcanoes and still earthquakes. Earthquakes that are constantly happening in this world. Orogenes can also kill you by icing you – sucking all the energy out of an area around them and instantly freezing you to death. So they are deeply feared – and kept away from society, trained at the Fulcrum.

There are also Stone Eaters. They seem to be made of stone and can eat stone and move through stone And then there are Guardians, who can neutralize the power of orogenes. Their job is to watch over them. But if you don’t follow the rules, you’re in trouble.

The book follows a woman who was hiding her orogeny and has lost her son, a young girl being taken to the Fulcrum to be trained, and an orogene well along in her training, given a job under a new mentor – where something happens that she can’t explain and changes everything.

I’m still not sure I completely understand all that happened in this book. I need to read on…. How lovely that for once I’m reading a trilogy that’s already completely written!

Go to this book for intricate world-building and mind-blowing ideas. I have a feeling I’ll like it more as I begin to understand more of what’s going on! But I’ve definitely gotten hooked.

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Review of Dark Energy, by Robison Wells

Dark Energy

by Robison Wells

HarperTeen, 2016. 278 pages.
Starred Review

Dark Energy is set in the near future. Aliens have landed, well, crash landed, in Minnesota, after skidding through Iowa. Alice Goodwin’s Dad is director of special projects for NASA, so this news means that Alice is moving to Minnesota and enrolled in an elite private school there.

It’s actually a few weeks before the aliens emerge from their giant spaceship. When they do, they look like humans.

Naturally, there are protestors. Almost 20,000 people died when the ship crashed. The aliens don’t seem to be looking for conquest, but they also don’t seem to have special insight or knowledge capable of creating such amazing technology.

Most of the thousands of aliens are settled in a tent city, but Alice’s Dad arranges to have two of them attend her private school. Can Alice teach Coya and Suski human ways? And can she and her friends figure out what’s so fishy about their story?

This is an imaginative look at what would happen if aliens crash-landed, combined with a mystery as to what it is the aliens aren’t telling. Combined with a boarding school story and a road trip tale, with some life-or-death danger, this book is an entertaining read.

I enjoyed this paragraph, where the aliens first come out of the ship and are met by a delegation:

Still, it was apparent from the communication that the aliens were impressed with the dress uniforms of the military men, and the alien woman’s hands moved from a dangling award on one of their chests to the dangling tie around the vice president’s neck and back again. Then she noticed that the man in the back had the same kind of tie, only his was striped instead of silver, and that seemed to impress her even more. The alien man was the first to approach the woman in the business suit, and he pointed to the tiny flag pin on her lapel, and then at the many pins on the military uniforms, then the men’s ties, and he gave her an encouraging Try harder next time smile.

I liked Alice’s voice as the narrator describing all this. She’s got a sense of humor about it all and because of her Dad’s job, tends not to catastrophize one way or the other. When things take a dramatic turn for the worse, she’s level-headed and thinks through how to help her friends.

How would you feel if aliens landed?

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Review of Titans, by Victoria Scott

Titans

Victoria Scott

Scholastic Press, 2016. 313 pages.

I’ve loved horse racing novels since I was a kid collecting The Black Stallion books. This book is in that tradition — except the horses are “Titans” — sophisticated robots with artificial intelligence.

Astrid has loved watching the Titans race since she was thirteen — which was also when she first saw a man die in a race.

The horses are a mixture of the real things and race cars. That’s why I’ve studied both. There isn’t much to do in the suburbs of Detroit, especially when where you live is less suburb and more slum. As working conditions at my father’s plant worsened, and my parents began to argue, the horses were transported from the heart of the forest that nuzzled my house. A glittering promise of hope in the form of iron bolts and smooth steel….

They run and the world trembles beneath my feet. Steam puffs from their nostrils and their eyes cut a crimson path and their bodies clash against one another, steel on steel. As the Titans rumble past, a smile sweeps across my face. Watching them is like kissing a speeding train. Like dancing with a hurricane. The horses are terrifying and beautiful at once. They are mindless beasts, but under the stadium lights, their bodies moving down the track like ghosts, they are glorious.

Racing the Titans is a rich person’s sport, with huge entry fees and a high price for the Titans, but betting on the Titans entertains the masses. It also ruined Astrid’s family’s financial situation. Of course her father didn’t know he was about to get laid off when he gambled so much money on a Titan.

But Astrid meets a grumpy old man who reminds her of her grandfather. And it turns out he has a Titan 1.0 he’d like to race. And she can do the riding.

This book has all the tension of a classic racing novel. Teen gets a chance to race in the big leagues. The stakes are high — both her family and her best friend’s family are about to lose their homes. I stayed up to finish the book because I enjoyed the characters and the tension kept me turning pages.

But I do have some quibbles with the story. I’m afraid I didn’t believe in the “EvoBox” that was only in the Titan 1.0 model and gave the creature emotions. Artificial intelligence, sure, I can believe in, but it was a machine. Astrid felt that way at first and was won over — but I’m afraid I really wasn’t. And when her Titan’s life was in danger, I’m afraid I was unmoved. Just build the machine again, okay?

Another thing played on my little pet peeve. Astrid is a prodigiously gifted mathematician, so that means she’s able to calculate angles in her head and see patterns and use that to take turns more efficiently. I’ve seen this idea in another book. The character was an exceptionally good pool player because they were good at math.

I’m sorry, but having the physical skill to put your body or other things at the right angle is a very different thing from being good at math. As a kid, I was exceptionally good at math. I was, however, terrible at sports. This is not at all uncommon in people who are good at math. Even though, yes, there are math concepts behind pool shots, it doesn’t necessarily translate into being good at pool. And it was hard for me to believe that being good at math would make Astrid good at racing robot horses. Does being good at math make people good at video games using joysticks?

However, it was a good story, and I especially liked Astrid’s friendship with Magnolia, who is especially talented at making hair accessories. Besides running in races, Astrid has to go to social events, like the ball where she needs to find a sponsor. Magnolia by her side keeps good humor in the story and adds warm light-hearted moments to what otherwise could have been a grim book.

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