Monday, July 25, 2016

Review: You Before Anyone Else by Julie Cross & Mark Perini

Title: You Before Anyone Else
Author: Julie Cross & Mark Perini
Publisher: Bloomsbury USA Children's
Release date: August 2nd 2016
Pages: 400
Genre: Young Adult contemporary romance
Source: NetGalley - I received a free eGalley of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. Thanks!
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New York City model Finley is fed up with hearing the same feedback at castings: she needs to take some serious action to wipe the "good girl" stamp from her resume if she wants to launch to stardom.
Enter Eddie Wells. He's shallow, predictable…and just as lost as Finley feels. Deep down, Finley is drawn to Eddie's bravado, his intensity. Except Eddie is hiding something. A big something. And when it surfaces, both loving and leaving Finley will become so much harder.
My rating: 3 out of 5 stars

I liked You Before Anyone Else right from the start. The writing is great; even though the book is 400 pages long, it reads super quickly because the writing flows so well and really absorbs you in the story. The characters are easy to like: they're not the most unique characters, but they are fully-developed and make it easy to care about their stories. I especially liked how You Before Anyone Else blurs the borders between YA and NA, since Finley and Eddie are living on their own and have very adult responsibilities, but the themes of the book are still definitively YA. 

One thing I didn't find all that realistic is both Finley's and Eddie's success. Eddie just randomly decided to start modeling (we never even find out how and why he made that decision), and instantly, everyone loves him, and he gets all the jobs with all the big labels. I don't know all that much about the modeling world, but that just doesn't seem realistic. Finley struggles a lot more with getting modeling jobs, but, in the sense of the story, that's because her true passion is dance, not modeling, which she used to do but gave up a while ago. And when she suddenly shows an interest in dancing again, everyone is blown away by her talent and technique and she's immediately offered a job with a professional dance company. No matter how talented she is, I doubt that would happen if she hasn't practiced in a couple of years and is barely getting back into it. I wish we had seen some more actual struggle with the two of them succeeding because I think that would have made the whole story more believable.

I really loved the romance in You Before Anyone Else. Finley and Eddie have great chemistry, and I loved the unconventional (for YA) start to their relationship. The two of them manage to fall for each other quickly without it coming off as unrealistic or insta-love-y. In addition to the chemistry that makes them fun to read about, they actually have a really healthy, mutually supportive relationship, which I think is really important to see in YA. I also appreciated, though, that the focus isn't entirely on the romance: both characters' individual stories matter just as much, and the novel revolves around Finley and Eddie trying to combine their own passions with their romance.

And then, about half way through the novel, Eddie's secret is revealed and it steers the novel in a completely new direction. I'm still not really sure how I feel about this entire storyline, and I can't really talk about it without spoiling anything. It's definitely a surprising twist and it provides for an interesting story, but I just didn't really understand Eddie's motivation in all of this; he's such a good guy, but he's just being an idiot when it comes to this, to be honest. If the secret had more to do with his "bad boy" past, it would have made more sense to me, but his past struggles aren't really explored all that much, and it was more so his current decisions that I found confusing. And Finley's reaction is strange too, and also just really goes against what I wanted for her. I just don't know what to make of this storyline at all.

The ending is a veeery happy ending, the kind that generally makes me roll my eyes at how unrealistic it is. These types of endings always annoy me because, even if the characters were concerned with real-life issues over the course of the novel, in the end things turn out perfectly like they never would in real life. Finely and Eddie don't actually have to make any difficult decisions because, by coincidence, someone shows up or something happens that ensures that everything works out just the way they wanted, without them having to give up anything. The realistic conflict of needing to decide between pursuing your dream, doing the "safe" thing, and staying with the person you love just kind of... disappears. I understand that this probably makes a lot of readers happy, but to be honest, I feel like it discredits everything the characters went through before the ending.

I'm still not really sure what to make of You Before Anyone Else. It had a ton of potential: I loved the setup, the writing, and the characters. And I did really like parts of the story, like the initial romance and both characters' individual story arches. But the plot twist halfway through kind of threw me off, and it ended up dominating most of the novel from that point on. I do recommend You Before Anyone Else because it's a quick, entertaining read; just don't expect everything to be realistic.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Review: The Assassin Game by Kirsty McKay

Title: The Assassin Game
Author: Kirsty McKay
Publisher: Sourcebooks Fire
Release date: August 2nd 2016
Pages: 336
Genre: Young Adult mystery
Source: NetGalley - I received a free eGalley of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. Thanks!
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At Cate's isolated boarding school, Killer is more than a game- it's an elite secret society. Members must avoid being "Killed" during a series of thrilling pranks, and only the Game Master knows who the "Killer" is. When Cate's finally invited to join the Assassins' Guild, she know it's her ticket to finally feeling like she belongs.
But when the game becomes all too real, the school threatens to shut it down. Cate will do anything to keep playing and save the Guild. But can she find the real assassin before she's the next target?
My rating: 2 out of 5 stars

The Assassin's Game sounded like a great read; with the theme of murder at an elite boarding school, it reminded me a little of the Private series, which I loved. The idea of the Guild and their game is fascinating, too. I was expecting a thrilling mystery. But unfortunately, I was very disappointed by The Assassin's Game; while the book had a ton of potential, I had a number of issues with the execution, and the novel just didn't have the level of thrill and danger that would have made it a worthwhile read for me.

A boarding school of geniuses and misfits on an isolated island has a ton of potential for unique and fascinating characters, but unfortunately, I wasn't all that impressed by any of the. Cate is okay, but I don't feel like we even got to know that much about her; I wish her passion for art had been explored more so that we could have maybe gotten to know her better. Cate also frustrated me with how useless she is in times of danger, never shutting up and listening to what anyone is saying to her. The entire cast of secondary characters is very underdeveloped: not Cate's best friend and roommate Marcia, whom we know basically nothing about, not Vaughn, Cate's childhood friend that suddenly reappears but who, to be honest, we don't really get to know either, and none of the other players in the Game that are really all just described with one or two adjectives each. Because none of the characters (and potential suspects) seemed like real people, I couldn't really get myself to care or try to figure out which one of them might be the killer.

Which leads me to my main problem with this book: the underwhelming-ness of the entire mystery. The novel starts out slow, with a really long introduction to the school and the game, and a ton of info-dumping. I kept waiting for the plot to pick up, and to some extent it does... buy in my opinion, it just doesn't pick up enough. I was expecting things to get completely out of hand, for people to actually be killed and for there to be a real sense of danger. But what happens, at least up until the very end, is actually relatively tame, and I never felt any immediate threat or danger. The plot just wasn't intense enough for me. It doesn't actually become dangerous for Cate until the very end, but I still found the resolution to be underwhelming: the bad guy's motivation is kind of petty and didn't seem strong enough to justify what had happened, And after this one scene of confrontation, the book just kind of ends, with a last chapter that wraps everything up nicely and reads more like an epilogue. I just didn't get out of this book any of the sense of thrill I like to read mysteries for.

To be honest, I don't think I can recommend this book. The writing isn't bad; it flows nicely (except for the info-dumping), making this a quick read, if nothing else. But with underdeveloped characters and a mystery that never really picks up steam or makes you feel any sense of threat or danger, the whole book was just very underwhelming for me. While I love the idea, there are other much better YA mysteries out there.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Review: All We Have Left by Wendy Mills

Title: All We Have Left
Author: Wendy Mills
Publisher: Bloomsbury USA Children's
Release date: August 9th 2016
Pages: 368
Genre: Young Adult contemporary
Source: NetGalley - I received a free eGalley of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. Thanks!
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Interweaving stories from past and present, All We Have Left follows two girls, Alia and Jesse, who discover that hatred and love have the power to reverberate into the future.
Then: Alia is a proud Muslim, even if it makes high school more difficult. Grounded for a stupid mistake, Alia decides to confront her father at his Manhattan office, putting her in danger she never expected. When the planes collide into the Twin Towers, Alia is trapped inside. There she meets a boy who risks everything for her.
Now: Jesse is haunted by the past. Ever since her brother died in the September 11th attacks, her dad's rage and grief has overshadowed their lives. When one hate-fueled decision turns Jesse's life upside down, the only way to make amends is to face the past and find out the truth of her brother's last day.
My rating: 3 out of 5 stars

I absolutely love the set-up of All We Have Left! I know there's a lot of 9/11 books out there, but I actually don't think I'd read any YA books about 9/11 before this one, and I do think the combination of these two stories from different time periods makes this a unique read. I loved the intertwined-ness of these two stories; it made them both feel more meaningful and made the whole book more suspenseful, since you're finding out what happened to Travis and Alia along with Jesse, but through Alia's eyes, All this being said, I did have some issues with the details and execution of the novel; I thought this story had a ton of potential to be an absolutely amazing novel, but because of some issues with the character and plot development, it turned out to be a pretty good book but nothing more.

While I loved the two stories in combination, individually, I did have some issues with both stories, especially Jesse's. While some parts of Alia's story are underdeveloped, but I didn't mind too much, since most of her story takes place in the towers, the imminent danger overshadowing the exploration of anything else going on in her life. Jesse's story is more ambitious in the sense that it tries to cover a longer time period and a number of storylines of what is happening in Jesse's life. We start out reading about Jesse's romance with Nick, the "bad guy" who leads her to the "hate-fueled decision" that works as a starting point for the entire story. While I thought that Nick's racism and anti-Muslim ideas that Jesse gets sucked into due to her infatuation with Nick were a great premise, the book doesn't really have enough time to explore this in any depth: their relationship is insta-love-y and underdeveloped, making it hard to believe that Jesse would actually go along with Nick's hateful actions, and then regret them so deeply later on. Jesse's relationship with her family, especially her angry and spiteful father, is interesting too, but also isn't explored in enough depth, and I felt like their issues are resolved much too smoothly in the end. Jesse's relationship with Adam, a Muslim boy she meets at the interfaith center where she's serving her court-mandated community service, has a ton of potential, but again, it isn't explored enough and reads kind of insta-love-y. To be honest, I think there's just too much going on in Jesse's story to explore any of it in enough depth, since all of it has to share the spotlight with Alias's story in this still relatively short novel. All of the storylines had a ton of potential, but none were fully developed or let me really get to know Jesse enough for her to feel like a real person.

One thing I did really enjoy is the writing. Wendy Mills's style is immersive and addictive; even when I had issues with the plot, I didn't want to put the book down. The descriptions are realistic and vivid, making you feel like you're there along with the characters. All We Have Left is the kind of book that you just keep reading without noticing the time passing, and, to be honest, that's the only thing that matters, since that's what I really love about reading. It also conveys emotions really well, making this book a very sad but hopeful read.

I really wanted to love this book, since it has such a great set-up with so much potential. And I did really enjoy parts of it, and the writing made all of it worthwhile. But I still thought the novel had a number of flaws, and tried to cover too much ground and ended up not exploring any one thing in enough depth. I do recommend All We Have Left because it's a unique and engrossing story, but it's not the masterpiece I was hoping for.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Review: The Woman in Cabin 10 by Ruth Ware

Title: The Woman in Cabin 10
Author: Ruth Ware
Publisher: Harvill Secker
Release date: June 30th 2016
Pages: 352
Genre: mystery/psychological thriller
Source: Gift from publisher
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This was meant to be the perfect trip.
The Northern Lights. A luxury press launch on a boutique cruise ship.
A chance for travel journalist Lo Blackwood to recover from a traumatic break-in that has left her on the verge of collapse, and to work out what she wants from her relationship.
Except things don’t go as planned.
Woken in the night by screams, Lo rushes to her window to see a body thrown overboard from the next door cabin. But the records show that no-one ever checked into that cabin, and no passengers are missing from the boat.
Exhausted, emotional and increasingly desperate, Lo has to face the fact that her sleep problems might be driving her mad or she is trapped on a boat with a murderer – and she is the sole witness...
My rating: 2 out of 5 stars

I've been really into mysteries and psychological thrillers lately, and The Woman in Cabin 10 sounded like a great read, with the fear-inducing setting of the enclosed space of a cruise ship, a heroine with a dynamic backstory, and a psychologically complex murder story. But unfortunately, I found myself very disappointed by the execution of the novel: it just wasn't as gripping, suspenseful, or well-crafted as I had hoped.

I started out liking Lo and enjoying her story. I felt for her during the break-in, and I wanted to keep getting to know her throughout the novel. But I quickly grew bored with her character. The characterization became very repetitive, focusing on her anxiety and her drinking and not much else. None of the other characters are fully developed, and I couldn't really keep track of them, making it hard for me to really care what happened to any of them or to figure out who was a potential suspect.

The mystery was what I found myself most disappointed by in The Woman in Cabin 10. Like I said, I loved the set-up of the cruise ship and the woman in the cabin disappearing without anyone else noticing. But the development of the mystery is very mediocre. You find out who the murderer is relatively early on, and it's a very convoluted scheme - which I liked - but I wanted more shocking twists afterwards, some kind of suspenseful confrontation with the murderer, more connections to previous clues, and we don't get any of that. We find out what happened basically just through Lo's thought process, and I wanted more actual plot twists and, well, just more of a plot, really. I never had that edge-of-my-seat, can't-turn-the-pages-fast enough feeling that I love about mysteries.

To be honest, the writing just wasn't strong enough to keep me interested. The narration is very heavy on description, light on dialogue, and the descriptions are repetitive at that, which bored me. The pacing is too slow for a successful mystery, in my opinion - honestly, the book could have probably been half as long because of its simple and straightforward plot, if it weren't for the lengthy descriptions. One element I did really enjoy were the newspaper clippings, emails, etc. in between sections; these heightened the suspense and worked as ominous foreshadowing for what was to come for Lo.

The Woman in Cabin 10 had a ton of potential but unfortunately fell flat for me. With a disappointing mystery that lacks suspense and plot twists and a rather slow pace, The Woman in Cabin 10 just wasn't a book that really gripped me as a reader. If you're more interested in the character development aspect and the setting of the cruise ship, this book might work better for you, but if you're in it for the suspense and thrill, like me, I wouldn't recommend The Woman in Cabin 10.

Wednesday, July 06, 2016

Review: How to Keep Rolling After a Fall by Karole Cozzo

Title: How to Keep Rolling After a Fall
Author: Karole Cozzo
Publisher: Swoon Reads
Release date: August 2nd 2016
Pages: 272
Genre: Young Adult contemporary romance
Source: NetGalley - I received a free eGalley of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. Thanks!
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The party was at her house. The photos were posted to her Facebook account. That's all the evidence anyone needed to condemn Nikki Baylor for a cyberbullying incident that humiliated a classmate and nearly resulted in the girl's suicide. Now Nikki's been expelled from her old school, her friends have abandoned her, and even her own parents can't look her in the eye. With her plans for the future all but destroyed, Nikki resigns herself to being the girl everyone hates - almost as much as she hates herself. But then Nikki meets Pax, a spirited wheelchair rugby player who knows what it's like when one mistake completely shatters your life. Refusing to judge her because of her past, he shows her that everyone deserves a second chance... and everyone deserves to be loved.
My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Lately I've been struggling with whether I still want to read as much YA as I used to. I've been reading more adult books, and the last couple of YAs I read just didn't impress me all that much; some of them were cute, entertaining reads, but there hasn't been anything I really loved, and I was wondering whether I'm just too old for YA. This is why I'm so glad I picked up How to Keep Rolling After a Fall; it reminded me of everything I love about YA.

I loved the premise of How to Keep Rolling After a Fall; it reminded me a little of Tease by Amanda Maciel, another book I loved. Nikki is an intriguing character; I love when we get to see a perspective that's different from the typical nerdy, unpopular MC. Nikki shouldn't be an easy character to like, but, as wrong as this sounds, I understood her reasoning and related to her decisions. Nikki is especially vulnerable in her relationship with her parents, and I loved seeing the growth in those relationships explored throughout the novel. I also loved Sam, a victim of bullying at her new school whom Nikki befriends; this is another relationship that worked really well along with Nikki's personal growth.

But of course, none of these relationships that Nikki has with other people compare to what she has with Pax; I absolutely loved him. I think this is the first book I've read with a differently abled person as a love interest (which is a shame, really), so I loved that this is explored in How to Keep Rolling After a Fall. Luckily, Pax isn't only characterized as a guy in a wheelchair; I loved everything about his personality. Pax and Nikki are so cute together, they have great chemistry, and they're actually good for each other. They have problems, too, of course, but those didn't feel like silly drama that could've been easily avoided (which plenty of other fictional couples have); their conflicts make sense and are actual issues the two of them need to work through. I just loved everything about their relationship.

I'm not really sure how to explain my love for this book; Karole Cozzo just sweeped me off my feet with her writing. The style isn't necessarily what I would call beautiful, but it flows nicely and works perfectly for this story. It reads super quickly; I finished this book in a day and didn't even notice the time passing. Karole Cozzo's is the type of writing you can read forever and that really lets you get lost in the story and the characters.

My one complaint would be that, at the end, things are wrapped up a little too quickly. Maybe this is just because I didn't want the book to end, but I really wanted to see Nikki and Pax continue to navigate the problems in their relationship and to see how exactly they make it work. I also wanted to see some more development in Nikki's relationship with her ex-best friends and with Taylor. But really, this might have just been because I wanted to remain within Nikki's world and never stop reading.

I'm so glad I decided to pick up How to Keep Rolling After a Fall, both because it's such a great story and because it reminded me of what I love about YA, and about reading in general. With immersive writing, unique characters that really come to life, and a story that I didn't want to end, I absolutely loved How to Keep Rolling After a Fall. I'm going to need to check out Karole Cozzo's debut, How to Say I Love You Out Loud, as soon as possible, and I can't wait to see what she publishes next!

Monday, July 04, 2016

Defending Taylor Spotlight: Excerpt & Giveaway

Today we have a spotlight for Defending Taylor by Miranda KenneallyDefending Taylor comes out tomorrow, July 5th. Here's what it's all about:

Defending Taylor by Miranda Kenneally
Captain of the soccer team, president of the Debate Club, contender for valedictorian: Taylor’s always pushed herself to be perfect. After all, that’s what is expected of a senator’s daughter. But one impulsive decision—one lie to cover for her boyfriend—and Taylor’s kicked out of private school. Everything she’s worked so hard for is gone, and now she’s starting over at Hundred Oaks High.
Soccer has always been Taylor’s escape from the pressures of school and family, but it’s hard to fit in and play on a team that used to be her rival. The only person who seems to understand all that she’s going through is her older brother’s best friend, Ezra. Taylor’s had a crush on him for as long as she can remember. But it’s hard to trust after having been betrayed. Will Taylor repeat her past mistakes or can she score a fresh start?

I loved this book (and all of Miranda's Kenneally's previous books); you can check out my review here.

Here's our excerpt from Defending Taylor:
I now understand culture shock: it’s me experiencing Hundred Oaks High for the first time.
A lot of kids go here. Five hundred? A thousand? There are so many I can’t tell. At St. Andrew’s, there were only forty kids in my entire class. We lived on a calm, sprawling, green campus. Walking down the halls of Hundred Oaks feels like last-¬minute Christmas shopping at a crowded mall.
Two guys wearing football jerseys are throwing a ball back and forth. It whizzes by my ear. A suspender-¬clad male teacher is hanging a poster for the science fair, while a couple is making out against the wall next to the fire alarm. If they move another inch, they’ll set off the sprinklers. At St. Andrew’s, kissing in the hall was an über no-¬no. We snuck under the staircase or went out into the woods. Ben and I did that all the time.
Thinking of him makes me stop moving. I shut my eyes. Dating Ben was stupid. Going into the woods with him was stupid. Thinking about what happened makes me so mad, I want to rip that newly hung science fair poster off the wall and tear it apart.
A boy shoves past me, slamming my arm with his backpack. That’s what I get for loitering in the middle of the hallway with my eyes closed. He looks me up and down. “You coming to Rutledge Falls this afternoon?”
“Paul Simmons challenged Nolan Chase to a fight. Rutledge Falls. Three o’clock. Don’t tell the cops.”
A fight? Where the hell am I? Westeros?
A girl bumps into my side. “Watch it!” Flashing me a dirty look, she disappears into a classroom with a group of friends, chattering away.
Seeing those girls together reminds me of my best friends, Steph and Madison. Right now, they’re probably gossiping before trig starts. I miss Steph’s cool British accent and Madison’s cheerful laugh.
I take a deep, rattled breath. And then another. I feel trapped, like the time I got locked in my grandpa’s garage and no one found me for an hour and I banged on the windows until my fists turned purple from bruises.
I can’t believe I had to leave my school. My home.
All because I made one stupid decision.
I check my schedule. My first class is calculus 1, the most advanced math course Hundred Oaks offers. Just a week ago, I was taking an advanced calculus quiz at the University of the South. St. Andrew’s is one of the best prep schools in the country, and they offer seniors the opportunity to take courses at the university, which is up the road. Even though I was still in high school, the professors treated me just like a college kid. I was only in the course for two weeks, but still. It was insanely difficult. The truth is, unlike everybody else in my family, I hate math. I have to work at it harder than anything else in my life.
But if I didn’t take college calc, there’s a good chance I wouldn’t get into an Ivy League school. I need to go to a top-tier school because that’s what people in my family do. My father attended Yale, and my sister Jenna is there now. According to Dad, my brother Oliver—¬Jenna’s twin—¬is a traitor for going to Princeton, but I think Dad respects him for having the balls to make his own decision.
When Dad called me into his home office last night, he barely looked at me as he pored over my new schedule. The silence was killing me.
“I don’t know how Yale will still consider me if I’m not taking all AP courses,” I said. “Hundred Oaks only offers AP chemistry.”
Dad sighed, took off his glasses, and set down my schedule. “I’m incredibly disappointed in you, Taylor.”
I looked him straight in the eyes. His quiet restraint worried me. I’d never seen him so upset.
But I was upset too. He rarely had time to call me when I was away at school, but he could spare a few minutes to comment on my one screwup? After how hard I’ve always worked?
Over the years, I’ve done hours of homework every night. I had a 4.2 GPA at St. Andrew’s. A 1520 SAT score. I was on track to be valedictorian. I was captain of the soccer team and on the debate team. I did everything I could to show Yale that I worked hard. That I am a unique individual. Because that’s what Yale wants.
But my one misstep has muddied my glowing record.
Dad ended our conversation with a death knell.
“Tee, I gave you all the tools you needed to succeed,” he said. “I’ve paid for your private school education since first grade, and you squandered it by getting kicked out.”
“I’m sorry,” I said, my face burning. “I’m going to keep working hard at Hundred Oaks though.”
“You’re damn right you will.”
My father had me so flustered, I wasn’t thinking straight when I said, “Maybe Yale will still take me because of who I am.”
“You mean because of who I am.” Dad rubbed his eyes. “I’ve always taught you kids the importance of integrity, and the minute you got into trouble, instead of owning it, you called me to bail you out. And now you’re doing it again. Using my name to try to get ahead.”
I hung my head. “I’m sorry, Dad.”
“I love you more than anything, but you have to take responsibility for what you did. You’ll have to figure college out on your own.”
“What does that mean?” I asked slowly.
“It means I’m not lifting a finger. I won’t be calling the alumni association or the school president to put in a good word for you.”
“But didn’t you do that for Jenna and Oliver?” I blurted.
He put his glasses back on. “You need to own up, Tee.”
So here I am, glancing around the unfamiliar halls of Hundred Oaks. The school is neat and orderly, but it doesn’t look completely clean, like no matter how hard you scrub, it still looks old. At least it’s not juvie.
I step into my math class, which is already filled with kids. I choose an empty seat at a wobbly wooden desk and stare out the window at the sunny, seventy-¬degree September day. I bet at St. Andrew’s, my world politics teacher is telling my friends, “Gather your books. It’s a beautiful day out. Let’s have class in one of the gardens.”
I check out the problem set on the whiteboard. I could do this level of math years ago…
My former guidance counselor told me that colleges look for trends in our GPA and activities over four years of high school. So that means when colleges see my application, they will see:
I’m taking easier classes;
I’m no longer doing debate;
I’ve lost my soccer captainship this year; and
I was expelled.
I have never simply given up when calculus got a lot tougher or an opponent ran faster than me on the soccer field. So I refuse to believe my entire future is over because of one mistake.
I just need to figure out how to move forward.
If you're intrigued, fill out the Rafflecopter form below and enter to win one of two copies of Defending Taylor! Open to US & Canada; giveaway ends on July 30th.

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