Book Review—We Have Always Lived in the Castle

We Have Always Lived in the Castle Cover

Like many school children, I read Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” when I was too young to understand it. Later in my twenties, I read The Haunting of Hill House, a mesmerizing experience. Of course, I was well acquainted with the outstanding Robert Wise film adaptation starring Julie Harris as the pitch-perfect Eleanor Vance. What I learned best from that story is that hauntings are best when the victim cooperates.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle is Jackson’s last novel, and it is a masterwork of madness, deception, and envy. In words that are simple and well chosen, the author allows us to follow Mary Katherine Blackwood—also known as Merricat as she goes about her day in the house, the woods, and sometimes, the village. We come to learn early on that the other family members are long dead—poisoned. And we also discover the village’s hatred of the Blackwood family which, towards the end of the book, comes to a head in a way reminiscent of “The Lottery.”

Things are orderly and cloistered in the Blackwood house until Cousin Charles appears. It’s immediately apparent that he is hoping to cash in on the supposed hidden wealth of the sisters. And, being the imperious lout that he is, he underestimates the strength and protectiveness of Merricat as he bumbles his way through vague overtures toward Constance and threatening promises of things changing for the better.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle is a story that will chill you with characters who are sympathetic in their trapped existence. It is a brilliant novel that makes me wish Jackson were still alive to write more. After all, there are so many other castles yet to explore.

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Book Description
Merricat Blackwood lives on the family estate with her sister Constance and her uncle Julian. Not long ago there were seven Blackwoods—until a fatal dose of arsenic found its way into the sugar bowl one terrible night. Acquitted of the murders, Constance has returned home, where Merricat protects her from the curiousity and hostility of the villagers. Their days pass in happy isolation until cousin Charles appears. Only Merricat can see the danger, and she must act swiftly to keep Constance from his grasp.

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Book Review—From Away

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Those who experience the paranormal regularly aren’t like most people. Especially if they are, as the taciturn locals on Fox Island like to say, from away. This is the situation Sammy Kehoe faces when he convinces his sister Charlotte to flee to the scene of their many childhood family vacations rather than face the prospect of continuing as they have been, sad and numb from the long-ago death of their parents and brother. Not to mention suffering the slings and arrows of outrageous languor.

Others might have used the opportunity to refuel so they could return to “real life,” rested and ready to be productive. But Sammy has problems. For starters, he can’t stop seeing the dead and desperately wishes they would leave him the hell alone. Can that explain why at way past college age, he still works in a video rental store?

In lesser hands, the premise of this novel would have played out as maudlin and uninteresting. But the way this author describes Sammy’s state of mind as he tells the story—accompanied often by wry, even side-splitting observations—drew me into this strange family, wanting more than anything to learn how they would extricate themselves from their collective morass which, if left unchecked, could have a lasting adverse effect on Charlotte’s daughter, Maggie.

If you like ghost stories that are fresh and modern and feature plenty of humor, then I highly recommend From Away. You won’t be disappointed.

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Book Description
Sammy Kehoe, his sister, Charlotte, and her four-year-old daughter, Maggie, are all each other have left since the car accident that killed the rest of their family. When they visit their beloved old family home on remote Fox Island, Maine, Sammy and Charlotte each have relationship sparks with island locals. But the budding idyll is shattered when Sammy and Maggie’s unexplained abilities to “see things” are put to the test when dangerous ghosts from the past resurface. At first, this novel about an unusual and loving family draws readers in with warmth and intrigue—and then it builds with suspense that makes it impossible to put down.

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Book Review—Tender Enemies

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One of the things I love about an S.R. Mallery novel is how well researched it is. Years ago, I became interested in Germany during WWII and read extensively about the rise of the Nazi party. I also learned about the German American Bund, which in 1936 began openly supporting Hitler and his merry band of henchmen. It’s astonishing to me that such a thing could occur in this country, but there you have it. Not only were grown men and women engaging publicly in a giant PR campaign to convince Americans that the Nazis were a great bunch of people, the Bund also established camps for kids so that they could be indoctrinated—much like the Hitler Youth.

In Tender Enemies,  we get a chance to see all of this firsthand through the eyes of a beautiful and good-hearted amateur spy. Thanks to Lily, we are presented with an exciting story that brings this dark period of our history to life in glorious Technicolor. We meet the good, the bad, and the really bad. And much of the time, we’re not sure who we can trust, which is not good when you’re an operative who finds herself falling in love with the very person you are supposed to be spying on.

If you enjoy riveting historical fiction featuring characters who are realized wonderfully, I urge you to pick up this novel. After reading it, you may come away asking yourself—as I did—how in the world could something like this have happened in America?

You can find this review at Goodreads.

Book Description
A USA Today Best Selling author and two-time Readers’ Favorite Gold Medal winner, S. R. Mallery—as her fans say—”brings history to life.” Here is her newest, a romantic suspense thriller.

It’s 1941 in New York City, a time before Pearl Harbor, when Nazi spies are everywhere in the U.S. and no one knows who’s working for whom. In comes beautiful Lily, paid to gather intelligence by setting up a “honey trap” for Joe Stiles, a supposed German infiltrator. Problem is, she soon faces a danger she isn’t prepared for—falling in love.

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Book Review—Rise and Shine

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The very first thought that entered my head after finishing Rise and Shine by Simon Lewis was, thank God this didn’t happen to me. Selfish, right? Well, you might think the sentiment understandable when you’ve read this story of one man’s harrowing journey from hopeless near-death to physical and spiritual recovery over a heartbreaking span of fifteen years. By the time I reached the end of the book, I realized the author had been truly transformed. And so had I.

There are many stories—both real and imagined—of people who undertake the hero’s journey—often not willingly. I’ve read my fair share of novels and watched countless movies, and what the creators sometimes get wrong is the last part, where the hero returns to share what he has learned. Well, Mr. Lewis does this in spades. As we follow him along the “hidden path,” we come to learn that science and medicine aren’t the answer to everything and, sometimes, are at odds with each other. Not a very comforting thought, when we’ve always been taught to trust our doctors. We also learn, though, that science can be a benefit when applied appropriately.

If you love reading true stories of loss and redemption, I suggest you grab this book. The research alone is worth the price. And when you are finished, you may come to the same realization the author did—that life is precious and very much worth living.

You can find this review at Goodreads.

Book Description
An impassioned tale of survival and recovery, this inspirational story recounts the author’s horrific car accident, his subsequent coma, and the more than 15 years of cutting-edge treatments and therapies endured during convalescence. With specific details of the rigorous rehabilitation process that ensued, including numerous breakthrough and experimental surgeries, the book also provides practical insight into navigating the treacherous world of insurance and how to differentiate between the often conflicting medical opinions offered. In addition to describing the numerous procedures undergone, the author tells not only of his pain, frustration, and despair, but also of his childlike wonder at the beauty and miracle of creation. A first-person account of sudden, unexpected tragedy and life-affirming courage, this remarkable tale of regeneration imparts lessons both medical and spiritual.

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Book Review—Dust

Like “Mr. Dark” in Something Wicked This Way Comes, a pale, desiccated stranger appears in the region, and immediately, bad things start to happen.

Dust Cover

When I first began reading Dust by Arthur Slade, I didn’t realize it was a YA novel. To me, the writing was cold and hypnotic, and it unfolded the way that darker, more severe, stories about serial killers and children do. Nevertheless, this is most assuredly a young adult dark fantasy.

Like “Mr. Dark” in Something Wicked This Way Comes, a pale, desiccated stranger appears in the region, and immediately, bad things start to happen. Unaware of the danger, the local farmers and the town’s banker fall under his spell and buy into his scheme to save them from the drought. Good luck with that.

As we follow an eleven-year-old boy named Robert, who is desperately searching for his younger brother, Matthew, we come to learn that not only has Matthew disappeared but many other children have as well. And the grownups don’t seem to notice—or care. When we come to know Robert, we can see why he believes it is up to him to find his brother.

One of my favorite things about this novel is the world-building. It takes place in Horshoe, a small town in Saskatchewan during a terrible drought. In the US, the drought occurred in the early 1930s and led to the Dust Bowl. Farmers are barely able to grow any crops due to a lack of rain. It’s always hot, and there’s dust everywhere—grit that blows into peoples’ homes, clings to their clothes, and invades their food. It’s this kind of detail that makes Dust such a compelling read.

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Book Description
The children were disappearing.
And the worst thing about it?
No one noticed

A rainmaker brings rain to a drought-stricken town. The stranger amazes the townspeople with magic mirrors and bewitches the children with his beautiful butterfly.

First, one child vanishes. Then another. And another.

Only one young man sees through the lies and decides to act.

You’ll love this dark, mysterious young adult novel. Winner of the Governor General’s Award.

Get it now.

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Three Things I Learned from The Master and Margarita

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I don’t recall where I first came across The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov, but when I read the book description, I knew I had to have it. I won’t go into the details of the novel since its breadth is vast and includes dozens of fascinating characters, not the least of which are Woland and his bizarre retinue. Here is a highly condensed plot summary that I adapted from Wikipedia:

Satan appears in Moscow at the Patriarch Ponds in the guise of “Professor Woland,” along with a retinue that includes the grotesquely dressed valet Koroviev, a gun-happy, fast-talking black cat Behemoth, a fanged hitman named Azazello, and Hella, a beautiful female vampire. As soon as they arrive, they begin wreaking havoc. First up on the list is the murder of Berlioz, the head of the literary bureaucracy Massolit.

Major episodes in the novel’s first half include a satirical portrait of Massolit and their Griboyedov house; Satan’s magic show at the Variety Theatre, satirizing the vanity, greed, and gullibility of the new Russian elite; and Woland and his retinue taking over the late Berlioz’s apartment.

Part two introduces Margarita, the mistress of an embittered author, known as the Master, who has written a book about Pontius Pilate. She refuses to despair over her lover or his work and vows to remain with him rather than going back to her husband. Later, she is invited to the Devil’s midnight ball, where Woland offers her the chance to become a witch with supernatural powers.

As a reward for serving as hostess of the ball, Woland grants Margarita a wish, which he had expected her to use to release her lover—but which she spends instead on Pontius Pilate, freeing him from his shackle of guilt and infamy and allowing him, at last, to walk alongside Jesus, whose philosophy he so admired. Then, thanks to Woland, the Master and Margarita “die” only to leave civilization with the Devil as all of Moscow’s cupolas and windows burn in the setting Easter sun.

Okay, let’s get started.

Never Accept Anything from the Devil
Most people know this, but that doesn’t stop an audience at the Variety Theatre from taking Koroviev’s irresistible offer of free money and new clothes and running into the street, where the clothes suddenly vanish, and the money turns into strips of blank paper—or worse, foreign currency, which is illegal.

The corollary to this advice is, never get into an argument with the devil—especially over something you know nothing about. Mikhail Alexandrovich Berlioz learns this lesson the hard way at the beginning of the novel when he attempts to tell Woland that Jesus never actually existed, thus promoting the state’s official atheist position. Irritated with this pompous ass, Woland arranges for Berlioz to die in a freak accident with a tram, where he is quickly dispatched by beheading.

Totalitarianism Makes Everyone a Crook
During the period in which the novel was written, Bulgakov was living in the Soviet Union under Stalin. As the author described it, pretty much everyone was conning everyone for money, power, position, or a combination of all three. People were hoarding rubles under mattresses and foreign currency in hidden compartments.

Because decent apartments were so hard to come by in Moscow, people resorted to all kinds of deception. Styopa, the director of the Variety Theatre and Berlioz’s roommate at Bolshaya Sadovaya 302-bis, had denounced at least five innocent people as spies just so he and Berlioz could acquire their spacious apartment.

Russians Are as Nutty as We Are
The characters portrayed in the novel are not only colorful but easily recognizable. They long for love and money. Husbands cheat on wives, and wives on husbands. They insult one another and kiss up, depending on the circumstances. They overeat and overdrink. They gossip. And some end up in the loony bin.

The Master is residing there, along with a frustrated young poet who goes by the name of Homeless after attempting to chase the devil and catch him for killing his friend Berlioz. George Bengalsky, the master of ceremonies at the Variety Theatre, also ends up in the asylum after having his head torn off, then put back on, when he had the audacity to suggest that what Koroviev was doing onstage was nothing more than tricks and deception.

Wrap-Up
The Master and Margarita was written between 1928 and 1940 and is as fresh today as when it was first published in the 1960s. The humor is sharp—sometimes caustic, which is necessary to depict the frustration of living as a “citizen” under Stalin. There’s an especially poignant tone that reflects the sorrow of being an artist in a heartless, atheist state. The novel is a gem that in a highly entertaining way gives everyone their due, including the devil.

Book Review—Secrets of the Book

Secrets of the Book Cover

If you are looking for a fun middle-grade novel filled with adventure, danger, and sly humor, you should take a look at Secrets of the Book by Erin Fry. I thought the author’s choice of lead characters was interesting. Typically, you give the hero a flaw, like Superman and his sensitivity to Krypton. Which I never really understood because isn’t that where he’s from? Never mind. In this story, Spencer Lemon (pronounced leh-MOHN) suffers from retinitis pigmentosa, which means he is slowly going blind. His best friend Gregor is on the spectrum and, as a result, occasionally has episodes when things disrupt his routine and become overwhelming, which essentially defines the entire book, so you can imagine. In lesser hands, these guys would have been relegated to the role of sidekick. But not today.

Now, add a cute, smart girl named Mel and a sketchy old man who goes by “Ed,” and you have the makings for some real excitement. Oh, I almost forgot—there’s this book, and you really shouldn’t mess with it unless you know what you’re doing, which of course, no one does. I mean, the thing has the name Pandora in it. Kind of says it all, don’t you think?

I had a great time reading Secrets of the Book. Fans of KidLit and history should check it out. I’m confident it will have you hooked after the first couple of pages.

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Book Description
You don’t choose the book—the book chooses you.

Sixth grader Spencer Lemon has a degenerative eye disease—and he’s rapidly losing his eyesight. So he has no idea why he was chosen to guard Pandora’s Book. When Ed, the old guy at the nursing home, hands over the book, he doesn’t get a chance to explain any of the rules to Spencer. Spencer only knows that the book contains famous dead people—people who can be brought back to life. Spencer and his autistic best friend, Gregor, soon figure out how to get people out of the book, but not how to get them back in. Then Ed disappears, and a strange man shows up on Spencer’s doorstep—and he seems to know a lot about Spencer and about Pandora’s Book. Is he one of the bad guys? Or is here to help Spencer unravel the secrets of the book? But there are others interested in Pandora’s Book, others who might use its powers to take over the world. And it’s up to Spencer, along with Gregor and Ed’s mysterious (and cute) granddaughter Mel, to protect the book—and save the world.

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Book Review—The Infinite Pieces of Us

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The more I read YA fiction, the more I realize just how hard it is to be a kid nowadays. I won’t bore you with idyllic memories of roasting marshmallows around a campfire, but I will say that for many kids—and parents—today the world is a harsh, unforgiving place fraught with consequences. And this reality was never more evident than in the wonderful new novel by Rebekah Crane entitled The Infinite Pieces of Us. In it, she has given us Esther Ainsworth, a smart, soulful sixteen-year-old girl who has already lived far beyond her years and who is now forced to live in a dry, brittle desert that serves as punishment for something she did and whose secret must never be revealed.

As adults, we are well versed in the notion that we must accept the consequences for our actions. But we also lie—to ourselves and to others—to avoid those consequences, even if only for a while. In this story, Esther learns just how willing adults are to lie to keep the consequences at bay so we can live our lives as though nothing had happened. In such a world, Esther can’t rely on adults for guidance and must turn to her peers, hoping they can help. A touching subplot explores how Esther has fallen away from her sister, Hannah, who blames Esther for ruining her life by making the family move, even though it was their parents’ decision to do so. I found Hannah tragic and vulnerable and could easily picture a sequel starring her.

If you are a parent raising teenagers, read this book. Because these honest, hurt characters will tell you truths that your children will not—that what you see on the surface doesn’t begin to describe the pain and anxiety they carry inside like an even smaller hurt child.

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Book Description
From the author of The Odds of Loving Grover Cleveland comes a hilarious and heartbreaking novel about coming apart, getting it together—and moving on. It’s just a two-hour drive…

Pondering math problems is Esther Ainsworth’s obsession. If only life’s puzzles required logic. Her stepfather’s solution? Avoidance. He’s exiled the family to Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, to erase a big secret from Esther’s past. So much for the truth. Now for the consequences: an empty swimming pool, a water-sucking cactus outside her window, a goldfish rescued from a church festival, and Esther’s thirst for something real.

Step one: forget about her first love. Step two: make allies. Esther finds them in Jesús from the local coffee bar; a girl named Color who finds beauty in an abandoned video store; Beth, the church choir outcast; and Moss, a boy with alluring possibilities. Step three: confess her secret to those she hopes she can trust. Esther’s new friends do more than just listen. They’re taking Esther one step further.

Together, they hit the road to face Esther’s past head-on. It’s a journey that will lead her to embrace her own truth—in all its glory, pain, and awesomeness.

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Three Things I Learned from Anne of Green Gables

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I suppose if I had been an English Lit major, I would have read this beautifully crafted classic years ago. But I never got around to it until recently. I don’t know what drew me to Anne of Green Gables, L.M. Montgomery’s tale of an extraordinary orphan who, by her very nature, continually amazes and confounds everyone in her path. Maybe it was because I have two daughters? Sure, let’s go with that.

What struck me more than anything is Anne’s indomitable spirit. And let me tell you, it’s so contagious that after finishing the novel, I realized that in some ways I had changed, demonstrating once again the power of words to move the human heart. I want to talk about three things I learned, and I hope that for those of you who have not read this lovely book, you will set aside the cozy mysteries and historical romances for a time and introduce yourself to Anne Shirley. Okay, let’s begin.

The Human Spirit Can Soften Even the Most Hardened Hearts
By the time Anne arrives at Green Gables, she has charmed the socks off Matthew Cuthbert. This man is the classic strong, silent type, but in his heart burns an eternal child who, in some ways, longs to see the world as Anne does—a wondrous place full of mystery and promise. He had actually gone to the train station to collect a boy from an orphanage to help out at Green Gables now that he and his sister, Marilla, are getting on in years. But due to a mix-up, Anne was sent, and she is the one Matthew finds waiting for him at the station. At first, worried that he would now have to return Anne to the orphanage, he quickly decides that it might not be a bad idea to keep the girl. But he knows his sister, and Marilla surely won’t have it.

Marilla is interesting. Though she and her brother manage a small farm with all the work that entails, I really couldn’t see that things were that bad. There was always plenty of food, a warm house, and beauty all around them in Avonlea. Yet we find that Marilla is a dour woman who never permits herself even a smile. She acts severely, and to meet her, you would think circumstances were much worse. What’s interesting, though, is that secretly Marilla has a sense of humor she keeps to herself.

Despite Marilla’s temperament, Anne manages to convince her to let her stay and then, over the course of the novel, proceeds to soften Marilla’s heart to the point where the old woman can express love outwardly. No one—not even her brother—could do that. Anne’s incredible spirit has triumphed.

Never Underestimate a Girl
Though only eleven when she arrives at Green Gables, Anne has already been through a lot. While being passed around from family to family, she learns some useful skills. But adults don’t believe children know anything, which is best illustrated by Mrs. Rachel Lynde’s attitude toward the girl at the beginning of the story.

At one point, Anne is forbidden to see her dearest friend Diana because, through no fault of her own, she served Diana homemade currant wine instead of raspberry cordial. When Mrs. Barry finds her daughter incapacitated, she ends the relationship on the spot, thinking Anne is a wicked, irresponsible girl who has gotten her daughter drunk on purpose.

Later, Diana’s little sister, Minnie May, comes down with croup, leaving the clueless babysitter “helpless and bewildered.” Mr. and Mrs. Barry are away and, as the child’s condition worsens, Diana panics and runs to Green Gables for help. Marilla is also away, and while Matthew goes to get the doctor, Anne accompanies Diana back to her house. Having babysat her share of children, Anne knows well how to treat croup and takes charge, administering regular doses of ipecac. By the time the doctor arrives, the child is sleeping comfortably.

When Mrs. Barry learns that it was Anne who saved her daughter, she happily agrees to allow Diana and her to stay friends.

Recognizing That Mistakes Are Necessary Is Very Grown Up Indeed
Anne Shirley makes lots of mistakes throughout the book, exasperating Marilla and making her wonder how she ever let the girl stay. Some of them are funny, like the time Anne leaves a pie in the oven to burn because she is daydreaming. Others are more serious, as when Anne meets the judgmental Mrs. Lynde and screams in her face for insulting her. But in each case, the girl learns something. Take a look at this exchange between Anne and Marilla later in the novel when Anne is older:

“But have you ever noticed one encouraging thing about me, Marilla? I never make the same mistake twice.”

“I don’t know as that’s much benefit when you’re always making new ones.”

“Oh, don’t you see, Marilla? There must be a limit to the mistakes one person can make, and when I get to the end of them, then I’ll be through with them. That’s a very comforting thought.”

I’ve known plenty of adults who never figured that one out.

Wrap-Up
In a way, Anne Shirley has changed my outlook. I tend to get stressed easily and constantly miss the everyday beauty around me because I’m always focused on getting the next thing done. After finishing the novel, I decided I am going to take more time, enjoy family and friends, and notice things. Yeah, I know. Corny, right? Well, it’s already made a difference. The trick is to keep it up, though. Often, I find myself slipping into old patterns—especially while driving. I sometimes wonder what kind of driver Anne would make. I mean, she does tend to daydream a lot.

Back to the big lesson I learned from reading Anne of Green Gables. It’s about finding joy in everyday things and sharing that joy with others. Not a bad way to live, if you ask me. Peace and love.

Book Review—The Replacement Crush

The Replacement Crush Cover

This is the story of a high school girl named Vivvy—sorry, she hates that—Vivian, whose heart is broken by an attractive, thoughtless jerk named Jake. Viv is smart and funny. She loves romance books and the original Star Trek series—especially Mr. Spock. Any decent guy would be lucky to have her. But because of what happened with Jake, she has taken herself off the market. From now on, she plans to focus on boys who frankly do nothing for her. No sparks, no chance of another broken heart.

I enjoyed this story very much. Each of Vivian’s friends is unique and, like dueling Greek choruses, happily expresses their opinions about true love, raging hormones, and revenge. Of course, it takes two to make a romance, and Dallas is the mysterious newcomer who represents everything that threatens Viv’s plans. He, too, is smart and loves Star Trek—especially Captain Kirk. Also, he is computer-savvy, and plays the cello—the cello! Didn’t see that coming.

If you enjoy breezy romantic comedy with lots of snappy dialog, quirky townsfolk, and a nice beach setting, then this book is for you. And don’t let yourself get too upset with Jaz. She means well.

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Book Description
True love can’t be strategized.

After book blogger Vivian Galdi’s longtime crush pretends their secret summer kissing sessions never happened, Vivian creates a list of safe crushes, determined to protect her heart.

But nerd-hot Dallas, the sweet new guy in town, sends the mission and Vivian’s zing meter into chaos. While designing software for the bookstore where Vivian works, Dallas wages a counter-mission.

Operation Replacement Crush is in full effect. And Dallas is determined to take her heart off the shelf.

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