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Saturday, May 5, 2018

Review: Private Lies (Jane Avery Mysteries Book 1) by Cynthia St. Aubin

Get your copy of Private Lies (Jane Avery Mysteries Book 1) by Cynthia St. Aubin here!

Publisher's blurb:

During Jane Avery’s shady childhood, truth was always a moving target. Since then, she’s learned that colorful fictions can clean up a lot of life’s messes—and she learned from the best. Her mother, Alexis Avery, is the most imaginatively duplicitous private eye in Denver. When the mother of invention goes missing, Jane knows that only her acquired skills of deceit can solve the mystery.

It’s what aspiring lawyer Jane doesn’t know that’s left her blindsided: for starters, Alexis's latest client—a sleazy and deadly gazillionaire architect whose exploits keep the tabloids in business—and her mother's two-year affair with fellow PI Paul Gladstone. Sure, Alexis has carved out a niche for danger. But this investigation is leading Jane down a rabbit hole of kidnapping, bribery, blackmail, hired assassins, and murder.

Maybe Jane doesn’t know her mother at all. Maybe to find her, Jane has to face the truth. She just hopes she can recognize it when she sees it. It could save both their lives.

Sitting in the kitchen of my mother’s home—a place where every gleaming surface once testified to her calm and orderly presence—tuned my all-encompassing sorrow into a fine, piercing ache at the base of my throat.
All the more irritating, then, when the muscular arm wrapped around my neck.

Private Lies is so much more than a mystery, and it fulfills all of the promise of a work by Cynthia St. Aubin.

Jane Marple Avery is a protagonist you root for, even as you face-palm over her very human foibles. Having a lifetime of lessons from her Private Investigator mother has provided sharp mental reflexes, unconventional skills, and an edge of cynical suspicion of others. St. Aubin could have made Jane a harsher character with that kind of background, but instead, turned the trope on its head. Every remembered lesson given by Alex Avery to her daughter (or once, to Jane's girl scout troupe), has hilarious consequences. Jane's own sense of humor adds to the never-ending stream of lies that erupt from her subconscious to her lips without forethought. The effect of this ranges from confusion to irritation, depending on Jane's audience. It's almost reflexive on her part, but like some odd savant, each lie is perfectly tailored to be mocking, and no one – not even herself – is spared.

The supporting characters are well-rounded, despite the first-person POV. Quite often, this single view in a story blinds a reader to the truths of the other characters, events, and environment. Not so here, as Jane's shrewd observations give a clearer picture. It lends a constant state of dark edginess lurking under the brilliant surface humor. Jane holds no one in a sacred space of trust, especially as she learns more about the tangled mess in which her mother has become involved. This makes everyone a suspect in her Alex Avery's disappearance.

The entire book is a breathless ride. Moments fraught with danger are gift-wrapped with stiletto-accurate belly-laughs, making the serious moments more stark and moving. The twists and turns in the plot aren't the kind with a warning sign. St. Aubin holds each revelation close to the chest until they hit the page with a resounding thud, like a dropped encyclopedia in a silent library. They hit hard and loud, but not as a lazy device to move the story along with a “wtf” moment. As the ripples of each flow out, the supporting clues add credence and evidence of a story crafted with aforethought and detail.

This was a departure from St. Aubin's previous work, but no less satisfying. Her voice is unmistakable - blending humor, witty dialogue, excellent plotting, and prose so good, it would elevate any genre. I highly recommend to fans of Janet Evonovich, and I'm definitely looking forward to the next book!

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Review: Unraveled: The New Adventures of Dr. Matilda Schmidt, Paranormal Psychologist by Cynthia St. Aubin

Get your copy of  Unraveled: The New Adventures of Dr. Matilda Schmidt, Paranormal Psychologist by Cynthia St. Aubin here!

Dr. Matilda Schmidt is not having a good morning. A stained blouses, messy toddler, and marital tension collide to form a perfect storm of self-doubt. 

Were the life choices she'd made the right ones?

A mysterious new supernatural patient is about to make the good doctor face those choices head-on, and give her a chance to stand on the other side of the fence. But is the grass really greener, or is it just a weedy mess of murder and hot sex?

"Before I had switched to non-human clientele, I had counseled women in my position by the dozen. Exhausted. Overwrought. Attempting to balance new motherhood with a career and a family. Of course, most of those women hadn't been married to hit men, nor did their careers involve interfacing with non-corporeal beings that could potentially end all life as we knew it. That probably meant something."

Once again, Cynthia St. Aubin is able to marry the absurdity of events with unexpected emotional depth.

On the surface, this is a post-script chapter to the Disordered series; one more crazy supernatural patient to twist our post-partum doctor in the winds of her own psyche. As a faithful reader of the series, (and admittedly, fervently Team Crixus! MatiXus 4evah!) I loved this nod to those of us that wondered, "What if...?"

The HEA we all imagined met with the reality of day-to-day life of a married couple. Matilda and Liam have their share of frustrations balancing life with work - natural / supernatural therapist and hit-man-with-a-conscience, respectively. Add a toddler to the mix, and Dr. Schmidt's frustration, resentment and lowered self-image become relatable. Doesn't everyone wonder if the choices they've made are the right ones, especially in moments of self-doubt?

Short but unerringly sweet, and funny on levels ranging from slapstick and sarcasm to wry and thoughtful, this glimpse into Dr. Schmidt's version of "What if...?" carries all the hallmarks of the previous books. The same strings that tug on your heart pull your lips into a grin, and yank a laugh from your core. St. Aubin's effortless prose brings every scene a depth of mental images that feel like you're watching in Hi-Def 3D (is that a thing?).

In a world of run-of-the-mill supernatural beings, St. Aubin once again presents us with a surprise. Her signature character-cum-plot-device, who is mysterious, yet oddly whole, blends science theory with fantasy in deft exposition that doesn't leave your mouth dry and your brain twitching. It does, however, cleverly offer Dr. Schmidt an opportunity she's not given a chance to pass up.

For reasons of personal character fandom, it did make me a little sad, but that is all my own, and has nothing to do with the quality of the work.
I love this series for its masterful blend of humor, emotion, and intelligence. And I'm happy to say, this book didn't disappoint!

Monday, October 26, 2015

Editorial - The Witches of Port Townsend: Which Witch is Wicked? Release Event

From left to right: Kerrigan Byrne, Tiffinie Helmer, Cyndi Stark, and Cynthia St. Aubin.

Have you ever been in a group of people with whom you just felt comfortable in less than a day?

You all come from different states, make different livings, wear different styles, and yet, there's a snap and suddenly, you're all aligned.  Everyone is smiling comfortably, talking as if you're all old friends. Laughter happens often, and it's got the full-bodied warmth that only comes when you're in the company of your people.

Speaking to anyone in the group is a pleasure. The myriad of personalities are as reflective as jewels, and all fit snugly into the setting in any order.  The thought of departing for home is bittersweet. You've met your tribe. Your coven. The mothership bearing your kind. The clique that makes your high school group look shallower than a snail's slime track.

This weekend has once again reaffirmed that the world of literature is my home.  I met people who read, wrote, edited, and assisted authors, and no matter what we discussed, books came up over and over. There were debates over interpretation and style, and genre preference.  We shared authors we loved and spoke passionately about what a heroine is and isn't.  Through it all, there was no anger or unkindness, just honesty and respect for each other's preferences.  I witnessed intelligence and wit and so much humor my cheeks are still sore, yet I can't let go of my smile.

The tireless ladies that collaborated to write The Witches of Port Townsend series are a perfect balance and it is clear that these books are more than just stories.  They are a labor of love created by four women whose affection, support for, and belief in each other is obvious just by watching them together.

Tiffinie Helmer is a fascinatingly earthy woman. I don't mean in the way that the word has been twisted.  In truth, she brings back the real meaning with a natural and honest beauty that reminds her fellow women that confidence is the ultimate sexy. There is not an inkling of judgement. Her easy smile is genuine and warm, and when she hugs you, it feels like home.

Cindy Stark is nothing less than delightful. Her bright smile holds such sweetness and I'm so very sad to say I did not get enough time to talk to her.  She's lovely both in visage and heart, and there's something about her that says there are many interesting facets to her.  Watching and listening to her reminds me that no matter how smooth the surface, intriguing undercurrents are constantly in motion.

Kerrigan Byrne is one of those women that could seduce the planet with a wink and a smile.  Her wit and confidence are irrefutable, and her presence can be felt even as she is avidly listening to someone speak.  There is a radiating strength within her that bolsters you, makes you stand up straighter, and be in the moment.  She is startlingly beautiful, in a way that you'll find yourself staring, and then when she speaks, you'll be laughing at her humorous deep savvy and grounded personality.

Cynthia St. Aubin is instantly charming. Never before have I met someone whose joy is expressed without reservation or self-consciousness as Cynthia.  She is open-hearted, humble and has a kindness so obvious, I want to follow her around like a Disney forest creature.  Her classic beauty is only emphasized by the honest appreciation and affection she freely bestows, and her quick mind bubbles over with humor and intelligence.

Port Townsend is more than just a pretty tourist town with gables and widow's walks.  Streets and buildings bearing discreet historical placards hold shops, restaurants and galleries. A short wander along Water Street has such variety, it's impossible not to find something on display that won't tempt you to lighten your wallet, even if just a little. The history is rich and deep.  Listening to our very knowledgeable tour guide, Grymm, I felt a kinship to this place. There is something that speaks of strength here.  Through turmoil and hardship, this town has more than survived, it's retained its beauty and mystery.  There are talks of hauntings and odd happenings.  Whether you believe or not, there is no doubt that this place has a presence of its own.

Grymm (aka Geoff) told eye-widening histories and details that only a native could relate.  His enthusiasm was bone-deep, but not overbearing.  It made me want to know more, and I found myself recounting the tales of sailors going to sea - often against their will. The history wasn't whitewashed;  we learned about nefarious deeds, societal chasms, and the use of Chinese immigrants as veritable slave labor, as well as the swells of prosperity and strife.

The Old Consulate Inn is the Bed & Breakfast in town.  Other locales might be grander, but they have nothing on this stately Victorian overlooking a lighthouse and marina.  The care and detail of each room is impeccable and unique.  Modern amenities are present, but blend beautifully and are disguised with an artful hand.  The decor is true to the period but never feels cluttered. Instead there are nooks and shelves and niches displaying pieces to inspect and admire.  I found it comfortable, and not as though I was a naughty child exploring forbidden rooms, because the atmosphere is welcoming and homey.  The nearby clock tower at the Jefferson County Courthouse chiming the hour always made me smile.  It never caused me any lost sleep or annoyance even though my windows faced the building across the park.  In truth, I slept more soundly and longer at the inn than I have in months.  Breakfast is presented at 9:00 like clockwork and is a work of art in itself.  The proprietors are everything for which one could hope, looking quite at home in their period appropriate clothing.   Cindy is graceful, elegant, and capable. Her wry humor and economic movements speak of her confidence, and when she isn't bustling about behind the kitchen door, she is the epitome of a gracious hostess.  I liked her immediately.  Nathan is a charmer with a quick smile and an intriguing mustache. Though suited to perfection, he never failed to pitch in when necessary, and offered seamless transitions through breakfast and an event or two.  I saw more of him than Cindy, but had the impression that the two were truly partners, and both came and went with an elegant discretion that I envy. The staff is friendly and almost fairy-like in their spectacularly efficient and nearly invisible comings and goings.   The rules of the house are not overbearing or unreasonable.  Rather, they carry common sense, common courtesy, and a respect for the graceful home and its inhabitants.

As I am a cube dweller with an appallingly sedentary lifestyle, I found I was unable to keep up with all of my fellow adventurers and had to bow out of a few events.  However, the soiree, two history tours, dinners and author meet-and-greet were a swirl of laughter, fun, conversation, excellent food and drinks, and company I'd keep again, given a chance.  This was a trip I will remember always. I very much hope everyone I met and with whom I spent such swiftly departing hours stay in touch.

Friday, October 9, 2015

Review: Which Witch is Wicked? (The Witches of Port Townsend Book 2) by Kerrigan Byrne, Cindy Stark, Tiffinie Helmer, and Cynthia St. Aubin

Get your copy of Which Witch is Wicked? (The Witches of Port Townsend Book 2) by Kerrigan Byrne, Cindy Stark, Tiffinie Helmer, and Cynthia St. Aubin here.

The seals are opening, one by one...

The quintuplet sisters Claire, Aerin, Tierra and Moira are back, and facing down stranger and scarier dangers as they inadvertently continue to open the seven seals, one at a time. The four horsemen are still trying to stop the Apocalypse (with a capital A), each knowing that at least one of witches must die in order to prevent it from happening.

Determining which witch is to be whacked is a difficulty – each horseman has a thing for one of four bewitching ladies, and none of the men can seem to fulfill their honor-bound duty. There's a new player in town, dividing loyalties, and straining relationships.

With the number of unbroken seals dwindling and tensions mounting, the choice of which of the sisters will die may be taken out of the horsemen's hands.

“Isn't that the ultimate goal here?” Julian asked. “To end this nightmarish Apocalypse?”
“They don't all have to die,” Dru reminded them. “Only one.”

Which Witch is Wicked? is the second book in the Witches of Port Townsend Series, and is a tight anthology penned by Cynthia St. Aubin, Kerrigan Byrne, Cindy Stark and Tiffinie Helmer. The first book in the series, Which Witch is Which? was released a year ago and ended on a semi-soft cliffhanger.

This second installment begins a week after the first book in the series ended. I highly recommend reading the first book before starting this one, even if you've already read it. While there is some exposition, there is not enough to cover all of the major events of the first book, and a refresher (or just plain fresh) read makes jumping into the story a lot smoother.

The stories are once again divided by sister, each written by a separate author. In the seamless style of the first book, there is a perfect flow without a discernible difference in overall voice from writer to writer. As a reader of all of these authors, I am amazed. They each have their own style, and the collaboration on this work is completely harmonious. None of their styles stand out, they just blend as though written by one person.

There is a little retreading of old ground here, in the form of reminders of the Apocalypse and the way to end it – causing the emotional turmoil of the couples. However, it is not tedious because it is woven into the intensifying of the relationships of the sisters, the men, as well as the romantic combinations.

More is at stake now, and that leads to character growth more on the part of the sisters than the horsemen. While the witches definitely stand out in my mind, I have trouble separating the horsemen. (Note: I fully admit, that may be a failure on my part.) The introduction of a new character acts as a catalyst for further discord. While not exactly being a fresh take on this particular villain, there's enough individuality and malice to keep the reader guessing.

The story moves along briskly and smoothly, with some short breathers. Due to the number of characters, there is a lot happening. I can't say I have the whole ending figured out, but there is some hefty foreshadowing which makes me wonder if it isn't a flashy red herring. Ending on another cliffhanger (not brutal, but obvious), the way is neatly paved for book three.

With humor, drama, action, and growing tension, this book has sidestepped the “sophomore slump”. I would say it's not quite as good as the first, but only by a very small margin. Along with other readers, I bemoan the time between releases, which attests to the power of the story.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Review: Accidentally Ever After (Accidentally Paranormal Series, Book 11) by Dakota Cassidy

Click here to buy Accidentally Ever After (Accidentally Paranormal Series, Book 11) by Dakota Cassidy

Antonia Vitali is hiding out in Jersey working in a discount clothing store. Her boss is a young, pretty nightmare that makes Antonia wish she was anywhere but there.

And in an instant she was.

Now she's in Shamalot with the ladies from O.O.P.S., a zombie reindeer, a great blue ogre with a tiny voice, and Jon Doe – a heroic reindeer herder with perfect, well...everything. To get home, she must embark on a quest wearing a get-up that would bring a proud tear to a beauty queen's eye. But like any fairy tale, this one has all the trimmings: danger, magic and a whole lot of derring-do.

Time is running out, can Toni get to the castle in time and find eternal happiness on the way?

Dannan's words plucked a memory in Toni's brain.
The one where she wished she were anywhere but the outlet mall?
No. Nuh-uh.
Crap, crap, crap. She really was responsible for them landing here.

As the eleventh book in the Accidentally Paranormal series, Accidentally Ever After defies series fatigue with a freshness that made it a delightful page-turner. Dakota Cassidy went all out with the world-building here, and that fearless dive into the deep end of the fantasy pool is why this story works. Had she gone half-measure, or tried to weigh it down with more of a hand-wringing heroine, it would have fallen flat. This story isn't as emotionally wrought as some of the others in the series, but that doesn't detract from the enjoyment, or the ending.

Eschewing a rehash of the fairy tale twist, Cassidy gleefully mows down the trite stories without losing the crux of their existence, e.g. the journey is more important than the destination. The humor is clever and quick.  Familiar characters are lampooned with tongue-in-cheek affection that is more of a wink at the reader than a gratuitous laugh grab or mocking eye-roll. Of all the Accidentals it's the most self aware, giving a sense that Cassidy is laughing with you, even while she openly acknowledges foreshadowing.

While Toni's character feels familiar, she's different enough to remain interesting. Jon Doe is a true fairy tale hero, but his charm doesn't grate or feel overused. The peripheral characters are almost more interesting, running the gamut of personality and silliness, and definitely round out any rough edges.

The pace is swift, without being frenetic. Every scene has a purpose toward Toni's quest. Cassidy twists the end a bit, making Accidental Ever After stand out in the series. There is a strong lead in for another book, which will delight fans to no end.

Once again, I found myself laughing out loud, feeling warm fuzzies, and looking forward to the next book in the series.   

Friday, September 4, 2015

Review: The Highwayman (Victorian Rebels #1) by Kerrigan Byrne

The widow Farah MacKenzie has built her life with meaning and compassion, even as she crosses paths with London's criminals as a clerk at Scotland Yard. Despite the passage of years, time did not diminish her love for the young man whom she'd wed and lost to a cruel world.

Dorian Blackwell, the Blackheart of Ben More was a legend; a dark shadow controlling the strings of the dangerous London underworld. Calculating and cruel, and forged by suffering and injustice, he is determined to keep a promise made long ago, by any means necessary.

Protecting Farah from a danger she'd thought she'd escaped, Dorian sets in motion a plan that will forever change her life and circumstances. Intrigue, passion and secrets soon tie them together, but Dorian is as determined to protect Farah from himself as from the sinister machinations that threaten her life. His implacable will is constantly challenged by the soul-deep temptation of Farah. Her gentle strength remains unwavering in the face of her own peril, but the safety of her heart lies in Dorian's ruthless hands.

“Do not speak of love, Farah. For it is something I cannot give. I can offer you protection. I can offer you revenge. But I cannot offer you my heart, because I am not capable of giving something I do not possess.”

For many years, historical and regency romances were my reading cornerstone. Lindsay, Garwood, McNaught and a host of others still adorn my bookshelves. I'd comb bookstores, saving my money to buy their backlog of work. Then, I'd return once or twice a month, hoping to see an upcoming release heralded on an announcement board. On release day, I'd be there as early as possible to get my copy, reading late into the night. Over the years, the historical changed shape and my tastes evolved. The last new historical I read was almost a decade ago. Since then, any I've tried seemed to be missing...something.

I came across Byrne's work through a friend. My friend's recommendations were solid; she'd never steered me wrong. In this case, my hopes were exceeded. Byrne's berserker series captured my imagination completely. The writing style was fresh, but was reminiscent of the books I loved.

So, many months ago, when I found out The Highwayman was to be released in September, I felt that old familiar tingle of pre-book anticipation. The literary gods must have been smiling down on me, because at the RT convention in May, I got an advance copy. (And squealed like a fangirl at a boy band concert!) Eschewing sleep for several days, I devoured the book, and have been eagerly anticipating the day when the rest of the world could get their hands on it, too.

The Highwayman is eloquent. Byrne's style of showing rather than telling draws the reader into the tale swiftly. Her ability to convey the subtleties of emotion and the nuances of personality gives all the characters a richness that brings them to vivid life. While most of these details are focused on the hero and heroine, the supporting players each have their own voice.

Farah is resourceful and clever. Her kindness is not naive, instead it's hopeful. Pragmatism keeps her from becoming a Pollyanna clone. Though the period restricts some of her behaviors, her unconventional occupation showcases the sweep of her character, without stretching credulity. Her humor makes her a lovely contrast to Dorian.

Dorian is a deep well of neurosis, and his back story is painted with an ever darker brush, unflinchingly revealing atrocities that are often brushed over or merely hinted at by other authors. Because of this, the angst and harshness of his character is not alienating. Even when he seems unflinchingly cruel, his humanity is never completely gone.

The peripheral characters are more than plot-movers, they are interesting in their own right. Dorian's companions are each given enough back story to make the reader want to know more about them. Morley is not a foppish suitor, but a worthy rival for Farah's affections. Warrington is fiendish, but not a caricature of evil. Though he's not always present, his wily intelligence is implied.

The scenes between Farah and Dorian build with a riveting tension. Byrne's deft handling of their slow dance toward each other keeps the relationship from stagnating or causing reader frustration. Even as you think Dorian's walls will come down, the author validates his character traits with his continued, but fraying, resistance.

The intimacy between the two is scorching, and I was very impressed with the author's continuation of Farah and Dorian's personalities throughout their sexiest scenes. Dorian's darkness is soul-deep, and his psychological scars are shown with raw clarity in the way he beds Farah. It gives a small release to the reader, but actually adds to the tangled issues that prevent them from being together.

Overall, the story moves along very well. It's a sizeable read, but doesn't suffer any hand-wringing filler that's so often found when one of the characters is so troubled. Though there is some foreshadowing, the reader doesn't always know what's going to happen.

I enjoyed this story immensely. It was everything I'd hoped it would be, and more. I'm absolutely delighted to know it's the first in a series, and I eagerly await the next book!

Monday, February 16, 2015

Review: The Accidental Dragon (Accidentally Paranormal Novel) by Dakota Cassidy

Get The Accidental Dragon (Accidentally Paranormal Novel) by Dakota Cassidy here.

Tessa Preston and McAllister Malone have pushed each other's hot buttons since they were little kids. Each hides their attraction for the other behind temper-sparking spats. Lately it's been getting hotter and hotter, until Mick actually sets Tessa's antique shop on fire. With his breath. Must have been that headache powder he took...

Suddenly embroiled in a mystery to determine the source of Mick's new fire-breathing abilities, the two find themselves surrounded by some sooty, (and scary!) but experienced guides to the paranormal. As the weirdness ratchets up, Tessa needs Mick more than ever. But Mick's loyalty to his dearly departed best friend, Tessa's brother, could endanger any future they have.

His eyes searched each woman’s. “Are you going to tell me that if I look in a mirror, I’ll see wings on my back? Wings?”
“Yeah. Just like the kind on those feminine protection commercials, only not,” Nina said on a cackle.
Before he had the chance to respond to this next batch of weirdness, Wanda began hopping around from one foot to the other, holding up her iPhone. “I know what you are!” she sang. “You, Mick Malone, are a dragon!”

In true Accidental Series form, The Accidental Dragon jumps right in, feet first. The reader, in tandem with the main characters, learns the situation is...GASP!... paranormal... with well-crafted, and humorous observations. Piecing together the "How?" part of the mystery, soon leads to the question of "Who?", and from there, the stakes and the drama build exponentially with a smooth arc. Information is carried in on the back draft of the peripheral characters - some new, some old favorites, and some that are mysteries until the very end.

Tessa and Mick are so stubborn that if it weren't for the sudden fantastic situation they were in they'd never have gotten anywhere. They're the kind of people that will think themselves out of a feeling or situation. Mick lashes out to cover his feelings for Tessa, constantly getting her goat. His over-protective smothering would be enough to make any independent woman lose her temper. Tessa fights just as hard as he does. But, in her most vulnerable moments with Mick, it's clear Tessa's feelings for Mick have helped her get through some of the darkest moments of her life. Their relationship isn't at all sibling rivalry, it feels more like a desperate lose/lose battle that will just tear them to shreds if nothing ever changes. Enter the O.O.P.S. team.

Cassidy's got a great ability of using her peripheral characters to advantage. Even ones that have died. The struggle with the memory of Tessa's brother doesn't seem any less important than the fear of the big bad paranormal meanie that seems to have it out for Tessa and Mick. All the O.O.P.S. favorites are here. They seem to be a bit more present than in a few of the other books. It didn't seem as though Tessa and Mick got a lot of time alone.

The book is liberally coated in laugh out loud humor. You'll never hear certain music the same way again. Ever. I promise. Nina's smart-mouth is on fire, as usual, and Mick's mental musings are quite funny. All of this, and yet two little words..."Where's Carl?" had me laughing the hardest. With her signature style, Cassidy pulls together humor, danger, heart-tugging moments, and a twisty, full-circle everything-explained plot line with her usual flair and panache.

After reading the entire series, The Accidental Dragon felt like coming home. There was enough familiarity to feel comforted, and so much original fun that I now have some new favorite characters to hopefully see in future works.

I highly recommend this book.