Legend by Marie Lu

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This book… feels sexy. It does. It’s got a roughened cover and just feels nice. Yeah, I know book cover fetish, but seriously, if you find it somewhere (the Speak edition from 2013): feel it.

And it doesn’t just have a sexy outside, the inside has its own magic you might want to discover. Here’s what’ what:

The North American states (that’s the Republic and the Colonies) are at war. Before this background, June Iparis wants to avenge her brother’s death. Only suspect is Day, a much sought-after criminal, who’s never killed before. But before June even knows that she’s found him, she spent some time with him undercover and (of course) falls for him. Turns out, he did not kill her brother, but others did. And they have more than that one secret to protect.

There’s much more to this story, naturally. This is a different North America from what we know, but it’s not Suzanne Collins united version, either. The Republic is a sinister place where the lines between rich and poor are quite severe. Much like in The Hunger Games and Divergent, there is a Trial children have to go through – this one is to rid the gene pool of its bad apples.

Day is such an apple. Even though he had a perfect score in The Trial, he was told he failed and was given over to experimentations (while the public thinks, children who failed The Trial were send to labor camps). But he survived and he wants revenge on a corrupt system. June is a prodigy of the system. She also had a perfect score, but because she was born to rich parents, she started training for the military, following in her brother Metias’ footsteps. But her family has a secret of their own, and as she finds out about it, her loyalties are tested until they break away.

I already compared this to The Hunger Games and Divergent, and it’s not far fetched. And yet, Legend is also different. Lu decided to break the book into two distinct voices, June and Day’s. Both are equally important, both are the main characters, and also I-narrators. I think she solved the problem I had with Divergent (or rather its sequel Insurgent) cleverly – giving Day his own voice, keeps this book from being about Day in June’s voice, while June is free to explore her own story.

Yes, there’s quite a bit of romance between the two characters, and I must confess, those pages bored me a little. But the story is so well written, so well thought through, that they were the only moments I did not entirely enjoy. It also made apparently clear to me how much I yearn for a story like Legend, or The Hunger Games with a queer protagonist (or two queer protagonists).

Legend is a really good book and it’s part of a series, followed by Prodigy and Champion, which I will probably read soon and will probably tell you about. I honestly hope Legend will get made into movies, and I also hope that these movies will not white-wash Day who is half-Mongolian. In fact, Legend lends itself perfectly as a series that could bring more Characters of Color to a ‘whitened’ genre.

A Spy in the House by Y.S. Lee

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Since I started reading Stephen King when I was only ten, I never really read young adult novels when I was a young adult. I’m pretty sure there weren’t as many around as there are now, I’m also doubtful that they were as good as some of them are today.

To these good ones belongs A Spy in the House, the first part of Lee’s The Agency series.

Mary Lang is kidnapped from her way to The Gallows, where London rids itself of its criminals by hanging. When she awakes, she finds herself in a school where she receives a formal education in the years to come. Same school is also a cover for The Agency, a covert operation helping the police and other interested parties to gain information. Like their students, all their agents are women.

Mary’s (now using the last name Quinn) first assignment for The Agency places her as a female companion in the house of the Thorolds. Mr. Thorold is suspicious in several crimes under the cover of his trading company. Mary tries to gather information, but gets involved in far more than just Thorold’s shady businesses.

If the summary sounds a little muddled, that’s my fault, because nothing in Lee’s novel is muddled. She did her research, she wrote an excellent, exciting tale. I couldn’t get away from this book, because I wanted to know what happened next, and next, and next.

Y.S. Lee spins an intriguing tale around her protagonist. Mary Quinn is a modern heroine trapped in times which treated women as anything but heroines. Victorian England is not for the faint at heart, and Mary surely isn’t. She has moments of doubt, moments of emotional turmoil, but she fights to be someone better than her lot in life has dealt her.

Mary’s story and the whodunit tale of the novel are woven into each other. We get to know Mary better as she unravels the mystery surrounding the Thorold family. And she finds herself a male adversary in James Easton. While their war of wits is charming and engaging, Easton is never put before Mary. She is the heroine, it is her story.

This is a book you will like, no matter if you’re 17, 37 or 67. While the main protagonists are in their late teens, they’re mature and interesting, the story is exciting and mysterious, the setting believably narrated. This is a truly wonderful tale. I bet you’ll like it too.

The Diviners by Libba Bray

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Look who’s been a lazy book blogger! Yes, that would be me. I have been reading, but I’ve been too lazy to tell you about it. Shame on me. But today, I wanna tell you about this book, ’cause it’s really good.

I first came across The Diviners at my favorite multi-media store in the German version, but the cover had just the right mix of mystery and 1920s feel to it that I was instantly intrigued. I wrote the title down and totally forgot about it, then lost the note, but finally reremembered. At some point, it was the only book I wanted to read at that instant and that was last month. And finally, I read.

And let me tell you, there was no disappointment there. Libba Bray writes in a humorous style about young adults, but that doesn’t mean she writes just for young adults. Just like the J.K. Rowling, Bray understands that the tone of a story can lure in people of all ages. She tells a mature story, doesn’t shy away from gory details and delivers a tale that’s thrilliing and engaging.

And now I almost forgot to tell you what it’s about:

Evangeline O’Neill of Zenith, Ohio, gets herself in a little bit of a bad situation at home and is temporarily shipped off to her uncle in Manhattan. The perfect moment for Evie to shine, though she didn’t think it would be as a part of a murder investigation. Evie has the ability to divine secrets from the possessions of people and it gets her into more trouble when those possessions belong to murder victims.

She’s not the only diviner in town. Through the happenings of the story, a number of people with mysterious abilities revolve around each other: Ziegfeld girl Theta, poet Memphis, piano player Henry, and trickster Sam are more than just coincidentally acquainted in one way or another. But Evie is the one whose life is in danger as she fights the spirit of a serial killer who’s about to put an end to all that’s golden about the 1920s.

Evie is a charming protagonist, but she’s also a bit of a self-involved mess. The tone in which she and her peers talk is the big-talking way of youth, but also the quick-witted repartee of their time. Bray describes the 1920s so well, the book rushes by in a blur. I found myself completely pulled into the plot. And it’s only the first part of The Diviners-series.

This is a story for people who like a good scare, some mystery, some thrill and little drinky at a speak-easy before bedtime. And who doesn’t like that?

Panic by Lauren Oliver

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A paperback has become a rare occasion with me, but it felt good to go back to the printed copy and actually feel paper, turn pages, smell the glue of the binding. I like all these things. I also liked Panic.

The novel is about the youth of small town Carp who participate in a game called Panic after graduating high school. The lure is money, the danger is dying. Heather Nill participates to guarantee that her sister Lily doesn’t have to live in a trailer park for the rest of her life. Dodge Mason wants to get back at the brother of the guy who is responsible that his sister Dayna is now in a wheel chair – a direct consequence of entering the joust finale of Panic.

From the beginning the idea reminded me of something Stephen King might have written. It would have been set in Maine instead of New York, of course, but the idea is really that good. And it’s well-written and gripping, too. Given, it is not Stephen King, and that’s okay, only, I wondered reading this book what he could have made of this idea.

Oliver is an able story-teller, she weaves a gripping tale. I liked the idea with the tigers even though the final appearance of one might have been a little predictable. That is also the part with which I had my most issues – the ending. The last chapter was a little too happy ending-like for me, especially since some of the issues – What about Heather’s mom, didn’t she try to cut into the Panic-cake? Has Dodge simply forgiven his friends? Why did Luke had to appear of all people? – weren’t solved. In the end, the money from the game made everything okay, but nobody tried to put a stop to Panic, like it’s supposed to happen. And if Panic is supposed to happen, then Carp hasn’t changed at all and is still the dreary, hopeless place it was in the beginning. Could this town produce a happy ending like Oliver wants us to believe it did?

While the ending leaves things to be discusssed, the story as a whole is very enjoyable. Panic is well-written, the characterization is very good. You suffer with Heather and Dodge. Sometimes I wish that young adult novels weren’t so hopelessly heteronormative, but that’s not exactly a new problem. It would be nice, though, to have at least one main gay character… just saying.

It’s a good read, you should check it out. I’m not sure, but there might be a sequel in the works.

Reading in 2014

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[I took this picture on a clear, cold day in Travemünde, just a few days ago.]

It’s done and over with – 2014, that is. And I’m glad of it ’cause it really wasn’t a good year, overall. The reading was okay, even though I didn’t read nearly enough. I only started in March, 26 novels and anthologies in all. They were mostly good, also mostly lesbian romances and some rereads. I want to spread out more this year but for 2014, it was okay.

My favorites among the new ones I read were Sometime Yesterday by Yvonne Heidt, Wicked Things, edited by Jay and Astrid Ohletz (which contains my short story ‘A Lesson i Magic’), and Roller Coaster by Karin Kallmaker.

But apart from the books I’ve read there were some I haven’t finished in 2014. There are always some of those each year. I often lose interest in books, but that’s not the only reason for not finishing a book. Let me just run down those unfinished books of 2014.

Insurgent by Veronica Roth – While I liked the first volume of the series, the second part has too many elements of that other series that treats its female protagonist like a second-class character. There were also some plot bunnies that didn’t make much sense, apart from the basis of the whole series being a little far-fetched.

The Age of Innocent by Edith Wharton – I love Wharton’s work and I would really like to read more from her. The problem is that I want to study her, but I’m not quite at a point where I can solely concentrate on a body of work by one author, especially one who has been studied by far more intelligent heads than mine. I haven’t gotten beyond the first chapter – though I rewatched the movie this year.

When the Clock Strikes Thirteen by Ylva Publishing – I contributed a story to this year’s Halloween anthology and wanted to read last year’s. I have read the first few stories but I haven’t gotten beyond them yet. I will pick this anthology up again to continue reading, I just got side-tracked.

Coming Home by Lois Cloarec Hart – This is one of my all-time favorite Xena-Uber fanfictions and now I have the paperback. But I haven’t gotten around to reading the whole book yet. I want to, but it’s been a while since I read it and I would hate to discover that it’s not as good as I remember it. That’s stupid, of course, Hart is a good story-teller. I’m just being silly, is all.

Guilty Pleasures by Laurell K. Hamilton – This is part of my research about supernatural creatures. I’m looking forward to writing my first supernatural story this year (probably come June) so I may finish this one yet. It’s good, so far.

Dancer from the Dance by Andrew Holleran – I’m trying to get involved in some gay (male) reading, but so far haven’t been very successful (as I’ve started and not finished At Swim, Two Boys last year). I like the narration so far but it’s a little more heavy-duty than I want to engage in at the moment.

Empress of the World by Sara Ryan – This is a sweet story about a coming out of a lesbian teen. I’m going to continue reading this at some point but not right now.

Heart’s Surrender by Emma Weimann – I really like the beginning of this one and if you ask me why I haven’t finished it yet, I can’t even tell you. My focus got diverted and I haven’t redirected it at this novel yet. I will, probably sometime this year. It’s been a lot of fun so far.

Emerald Green by Kerstin Gier – The third part of the series, a good, solid series. But I got a little tired of the narrator’s voice by the third book. Sometimes listening to teen first narrators gets a little tiresome. I like the premise of the story and the story, too. I will finish it, though I’m not sure when.

Blind Bet by Tracey Richardson – The Candidate by the same author was brilliant, I loved it. The Wedding Party was all right but I had some beef with it. And now this one… I don’t know. There were just some things in this I had a hard time working through. The writing is good but some of the plot bunnies are positively rabid. Not sure I’ll pick it up again.

2014 is over. Let’s see what 2015 brings. I’m looking forward to reading in 2015.

 

Ruby Red by Kerstin Gier

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[translated from German by Anthea Bell]

I came across this trilogy last month when I had nothing to do one day and went to the movies. I didn’t want to watch anything in particular and ended up watching a young adult film I knew nothing about – Sapphire Blue (or rather the German version Saphierblau). I didn’t even know it was the second part of three, but I learned pretty quickly and I liked it.

I think I’ve always been fascinated by time travel (movie-wise). The Back to the Future-Trilogy is part of my childhood and I remember that I was the only one in my family who really got the plot. I haven’t read much about time travel, if anything, I didn’t even finish The Time Machine when I started reading it earlier this year. Still, fascinated, so I thought I’d read the books of this trilogy.

So far, I’m not disappointed. I’m not sure how the German version is written but I find the translation really good and easy to read. The plot is certainly interesting and rather fast-paced. I guess, that’s one of the aspects of writing (or filming) time travel, things happen fast and some things are simply not explained. It makes sense since the paradox of time travel – are things changing constantly after one trip to the past after another, or have things been this way because they have been changed and everybody knew all along – is difficult to solve.

Sorry, I forgot – the plot:

Gwendolyn Shepherd has never expected to be the one in her family to carry the time travel gene but then, one day, she’s pulled into the past and her life changes from there. The secret society bound to help her with this predicament is no help at all as they all expect her to betray them, and even fellow time traveller (and love interest), Gideon de Villiers, thinks she’s only a stupid goose. Gwen is reeling from new information and trips to the past. And that’s before she even knows about her cousin Lucy’s treason and Count Saint-Germain’s ability of scaring the heck out of her.

I like that Gier has not invented a new world, a different reality but rather deals with an exceptional situation in our society. Then again, she has created a secret society and is rather scetchy on the details, but she ties this scetchy-ness to what Gwen knows, or rather doesn’t know about it and it all makes sense again. The historical parts of her novel are well-researched but the mix of modern people in old times gives them a modern and sometimes comical touch.

Ruby Red is a great first volume of an intriguing trilogy – hopefully. It’s also a quick read. What I’m not entirely happy with is the short span of time that elapses. The first volume happens on two days. While a lot happens in that short span of time, it’s not a very promising premise for the trilogy. At this speed, the whole trilogy is over in a week. But other than that – if you like young adult novels and time travel and a young woman coming of age… go read.

Divergent by Veronica Roth

divergent-divergentThis is the first part of the Divergent-series – parts two, Insurgent, and three, Allegiant, are already in my possession, waiting on the sidelines to be read in order.

I must admit there is already something intriguing about the titles of this series. Part of this is that I had to look them up to understand their meaning (as non-native English speaker). I’ve never come across these exact words just variations of them and I think they have been well chosen. The same is true for the covers of the books (and, yes, there goes my slight fetish with book covers again), vibrant colors, the hint at an urban setting and the promise of an adventure. And then there’s a tag-line: One Choice Can Transform You. I must pay kudos where kudos are due, and the marketing department for this project did a great job. But a great marketing strategy does not a book sell alone, there’s also always what’s inside.

Let’s have a quick look:

Beatrice Prior lives in post-war Chicago. Her society is build into factions, one for each virtue that might prevent another war, and at 16 Beatrice is about to chose her own faction. The results of the test that should help her decide are, however, inconclusive. Beatrice is divergent, and being divergent is considered a very dangerous thing in her world.

As she chooses a faction, the Dauntless, her world is transformed by the violence she experiences. But a part of her remains with her old faction, the Abnegation, and it is that faction that comes under the scrutiny of the rest of the society as propaganda is spread against them. Tris (which is the new name Beatrice chooses for herself on entering a different faction) has to find a way to fit in to survive or fight a system that does not accept her divergence – and the time to choose one or the other is running out fast.

At first glance, it is an intriguing concept for a dystopian novel (and I don’t think that we should categorize into Young Adult novel here, as J.K. Rowling and Suzanne Collins have clearly shown that there is no expiration date on recapturing our youths by reading those) but I would argue that it does not hold up to anything but a superfluous first glance. The novel has the same short-comings as the movie, as it does not dwell on much of a backstory. We never learn what has caused the war that destroyed American society, we’re not even to learn how far this distruction goes. Chicago is all we are to learn about this new world (at least in this part of the series and I doubt that the other parts will go beyond this [but please don’t put spoilers in the comments should I be wrong, I will get there in time]) and we are simply told to accept the society build in this city. This might not be such a big problem (as we’ve already accepted Panem in Collins’ The Hunger Games without ever getting told what happens outside of it) if the concept of this society wasn’t so obviously flawed.

Maybe it’s me, it is possible that it is me and my cultural believe that diversity is a crucial part of the human condition, but building a society that is strictly parted into factions that are entirely focused on one virtue seems ridiculous to me. Why be just intelligent when you can be intelligent and brave and kind and honest and selfless? For those are the virtues of the factions. I find this concept highly illogical which makes this dystopia rather unbelievable to me. And yet, it does not completely take away it’s relevance. Because Tris finds out that she’s different in a world that does not want her to be different, and that is, at least, something I can relate to.

And I guess here is where the life lessons of the Young Adult novel set in and young people are to learn that what makes them different is actually a good thing. But it does so under the premise of Christian values which are barely disguised in this novel as factions. More to the point, Tris is a symbol of Christian virtues as she possesses not all but more than the average person and teen in this story – as translated into our world. So the difference that is supported here is one of virtuous behavior – not of the more controversial aspects of teenage life in our society like sexuality, gender, mental health, body image, etc.. I’m not saying that the message is completely lost on our society, we should always be nicer to each other, but I think Roth could have expanded on her definition of diversity here and without much of an effort.

To be fair, she’s not the only writer of a successful Young Adult series who failed to acknowledge minorities – the problems of mnorities in acknowledging that they’re not exclusive to minorities. Whiteness, heterosexuality (in a heteronormative society), cisgendered, and able-bodied are the attributes attached to the heroes of these stories, infallibly so. This is where diversity ends and I think that’s rather sad – as representation of the Young Adult novel and popular literature in general.

With all this said, I don’t think Divergent is a bad novel (fooled you there). I wouldn’t attempt to read parts two and three if I did. But it’s lacking and it’s not remarkable as these stories go. Yes, on first glance we can draw lines from the factions to Hogwarts houses, we can compare Tris’ struggle to Katniss Everdeen’s against the injustices of her society but Divergent falls short to these other serieses. It’s entertaining and possibly educational to a certain degree but it is not the great achievement in story-telling that the Harry Potter-series is, or the very unique attempt at creating a female character of Katniss Everdeen’s caliber. It’s good, it’s readable but it won’t change your life to the extent that other Young Adult novels did or will.

The Miseducation of Cameron Post by Emily M. Danforth

themiseducationofcameronpostReading is kind of slow these days and I hope you’re all more successful on the reading front than I am. But I muddled through one and I think it is worth a shot (every book that I finish when I’m not really in the mood for reading is certainly worth a shot).

It’s aboout (as the title suggests) Cameron Post, a young girl who loses her parents in a car accident. Now an orphan, she is living with her grandma and aunt Ruth in the middle of nowhere, Montana. Figuring out that she is gay isn’t as much of an issue as the attitude of the people around her toward homosexuality and it comes as no surprise that once Cameron is ‘found out,’ she ends up in a place to end all same-sex tendencies, a religious compound called ‘Promise.’ But the promise of ‘healing’ is hard to fullfill, especially when one is as unwilling to be healed as Cameron and her new friends are.

Emily Danforth did a great job conveying life in the middle of Montana where she herself grew up. The book is also a vivid picture of the possibilities of youth, the ways one finds to escape from the doctrines of the church and religious upbringing. Cameron is rebellious enough to make us believe that escape is possible because there is no doubt that it is necessary. It’s sometimes a little discouraging, though, to see a young person struggle against unbeatable odds – especially since it plays during the nineties and one would expect a more understanding environment all around.

This book is one of those rare occasions where one would have sat through a whole life-story without ever getting bored. Danforth’s prowess as story teller are impressive but are seemingly cut short by the ending. While I liked reading the story as such, the ending left me dissatisfied. I’m not saying that it doesn’t make any sense but it certainly felt abrupt compared to the way she builds the story. While Cameron finally gains some closure, I (as a reader) felt left with some story yet untold. It is possible that this is my own fault, that I did not prepare myself enough for an ending that came too soon for me. I like to dwell in a good story and sometimes it’s simply too hard to reenter reality after a good read.

On the whole, The Miseducation of Cameron Post is a well-written coming-of-age and coming-out novel. It’s believable, vivid and will throw you back into a time in your own life when you broke some rules… a time when rules were meant to be broken.

Annie on My Mind by Nancy Garden

annieonmymindI must say that I read the book as if it was a modern book – because I failed to realize that the copyright date in the front was for the interview in the back of the book and not for the book itself. I read it as if it had been published in 2007, not 1982 – and from that point of view it struck me as old-fashioned, but still relevant.

The story is about Liza who falls in love with another girl, Annie – and Annie with her. They struggle through their awakening feelings of love and sexuality but as if that wasn’t hard enough to do, they are faced with the humiliation of a public outing and a scandal that has two of Liza’s teachers fired. Still, love prevails as Liza reminisces the events that have led her to not talking to Annie for half a year.

The way the story is build is certainly unusual: Liza is looking back at the previous year, trying to tell Annie how she’d felt about things, why she couldn’t talk to her for the past half year. She tells the story chronologically from a point in the present which isn’t years after, she’s not old yet, her rememberances are not tainted by wisdom, experience or age – or whatever else makes us think we had been foolish when we were young. Liza is still young and unsure, she is still struggling and this makes the novel rather unique. Another thing I found in this novel, something I have never before read, is that Liza isn’t always sure of what exactly had been said. Yes, she gives the reader the notion of what had been said but she is unsure – this is actually very compelling because who always remembers something just the way it had been said or done? I like it, the style of Garden’s writing, and am eager to find out if this is something she simply does or just did in Annie on My Mind.

It can be said that Annie on My Mind is outdated – but the same argument can be made about every other book that had seen 25 years since publishing, or even ten or less. What is compelling about Annie on My Mind – and is something that is never outdated – is the love story. In this case, it is a love story between two young girls and I would say apart from the old-fashioned views of others onto that love, it is a story that could be told exactly like this today. Except today they would text and talk on their cell phones.

Another thing I liked about the story is that it is about LIza’s personal outing more than her outing to other people. Yes, she lies about it when asked by her mother but how could one be expected to tell other people the truth when one hasn’t even come out to one’s self. And that happens later, in her present from which she tells the story. And it is still relevant. What straight people often fail to realize in their insistence of homosexual people being honest with them is that you have to be honest with yourself first. If you haven’t reconciled with the feeling of being gay or the label itself, you cannot be expected to explain anything to others. I like how Garden shows this, how she gives Liza time to come to terms – even if that means that she is cruel toward her lover, or lies to her mother.

I think Annie on My Mind is still an important book. It shows how things were in the past – and how little or how much has changed since -, it tells a meaningful love story about two adolescent girls, and it does so in a beautiful prose that on top of it is stylistically interesting. So, if you find the time go treat yourself to this lovely tale.

Don’t Die, Dragonfly by Linda Joy Singleton

dontdiedragonflyI have never been a great fan of young adult novels which probably stems from the fact that I haven’t read a whole lot of them when I was a young adult. I started reading my mom’s books when I was 10 and there was just no way back to the books my older sister was reading at the time. While there is a trend in books which are aimed at young adults but read in great numbers by adults (a trend the Harry Potter-series has probably launched), Don’t Die, Dragonfly is not a part of it. This is a young adult novel.

So why have I, proclaimed non-fan of young adult novels, read it? It is the first part of The Seer Series, and as such part of my latest research project that concerns itself with the supernatural. There are fairly few very well-known books about seers – at least as far as I can tell from my research so far. Vampires, werewolves and witches have gained a steadier footing in their genre. The interesting aspect of the seer is probably its rooting in our world since there are quite a number of people claiming to have or see with the third eye. Psychics are a reality of our time. While I’m as suspicious of people claiming to see the future as any other person, I still like the idea of there being all kinds of supernatural beings – and I certainly like to read (and hopefully write) about them (in the future).

Don’t Die Dragonfly is the first part of the story of Sabine Rose who has ‘the gift.’ She is sixteen and has just moved to her grandma’s because of problems she’s had at her old high school. Since moving to her grandma’s, she has been deliberately blocking her ‘powers’ because they’re the reason she’s gotten into trouble. But then they start again. Sabine has a vision about a girl her age with a dragonfly tattoo, there is blood involved and danger is hinted at. But this is only part of the mystery as Sabine meets the girl from her vision and is soon caught up in a tale about cheating and thievery at her high school. And then there is Sabine’s new boyfriend Josh who is too good to be true, and the boy who is living in the barn at her grandmother’s: Dominic. And he’s got a gift of his own.

Singleton wrote an intriguing first chapter to her Seers Series with a young protagonist who is afraid of being ostracized by her peers. While the plot is tight and gets better with each page, the story is written in the sometimes a little annoying voice of a sixteen year-old. And as with the Twilight-series one is never quite sure whether it is the voice of the author herself or a rather good attempt at emulating the voice of a sixteen year-old. It’s an easy read and well concocted for young people interested in the supernatural, while I will probably not work through the whole series. I find myself craving a fantastic tale with a more mature protagonist but find that Don’t Die, Dragonfly is still a deserving read.