Book Review – ‘Croak’ (#1 Croak) by Gina Damico

Emo loner meets Grimm.

Croak (#1 Croak) Book Review Pic 01 by Casey CarlilseGenre: YA, Fantasy, Paranormal

No. of pages: 311

From Goodreads:

Fed up with her wild behavior, sixteen-year-old Lex’s parents ship her off to upstate New York to live with her Uncle Mort for the summer, hoping that a few months of dirty farm work will whip her back into shape.

But Uncle Mort’s true occupation is much dirtier than shoveling manure. He’s a Grim Reaper. And he’s going to teach Lex the family business.

She quickly assimilates into the peculiar world of Croak, a town populated by reapers who deliver souls from this life to the next. But Lex can’t stop her desire for justice — or is it vengeance? — whenever she encounters a murder victim, craving to stop the attackers before they can strike again.

Will she ditch Croak and go rogue with her reaper skills?

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This was a delightful detour from many of the YA novels I usually read. ‘Croak’ gives a great twist on grim reapers and a heavy dose of sarcastic teen. I will say that the sarcasm wasn’t really my thing – it got on my nerves a bit and stopped me from relating to the protagonist in the first half of the novel. But there were some real gems – laugh out loud stuff with this humour as well.

There were some aspects to ‘Croak’ that detracted from a raving review. My main issue had to do with how Lex accepted a lot of things around her new role and environment as it were nothing, yet struggled with others… and it seemed to me, centred around driving the plot forward and conflicting with her personality and character. It felt like a giant red flag of subtext waving at me that Gina Damico did not take the time to let Lex settle into her new surroundings organically. Yes, it’s me being nit-picky, but it was the one factor that was grinding in the back of my skull while reading ‘Croak.’ However, it was also nice to read a protagonist who wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows. Lex had a bit of prickle to her and also wrestled with some basic moral principles. It’s been a while since I’ve had the pleasure of reading a main character so conflicted in YA.

There was a bit of ‘the chosen one’ trope that had me rolling my eyes but it is what it is.

Croak (#1 Croak) Book Review Pic 02 by Casey Carlilse

We get a bit of romance, though it is not a strong theme – and I felt this too could have been left out, or introduced later in the series. I liked the tension and banter between Lex and Driggs. I hope it doesn’t change too much in future instalments.

Although we solve the main mystery, and open up a new one at the end of ‘Croak’ – so it kind of ends on a cliff hanger – there were still so many other questions I wanted answered. I’m hoping we get them uncovered in the rest of the trilogy ‘Scorched’ and ‘Rogue.’ I am definitely intrigued and interested enough to read on in this series. And if Gina Damico makes a strong enough impression, I’ll definitely order the rest of her back catalogue.

Damico’s writing style is colourful and sarcastic with a hint of darkness – whether it is due to Lex’s emo nature, or it’s in her narrative comfort zone I’ve yet to discern, but it was easy enough to read and the second half of the novel practically zinged by. I didn’t detect any issues with pacing, the story unfolded naturally and I didn’t guess the main reveal before reading the words on the page. I mean I suspected, but Damico placed a lot of other possibilities out there, so I was never confident, and subsequently got a delicious surprise at that ah-huh moment. So points for dodging any predictability.

It’s a soft recommendation from me. A fun read, but I had issues with the character developing organically. Who knows, Damico’s storytelling may improve with each sequel.

On a side note, this novel gave me serious ‘Dead Like Me’ vibes – a tv series that had a short run that has me praying for a re-make or reboot.

Overall feeling: Intrigued me enough to keep going with the trilogy.

Croak (#1 Croak) Book Review Pic 03 by Casey Carlilse

Croak (#1 Croak) Book Review Pic 04 by Casey Carlilse

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© Casey Carlisle 2019. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Casey Carlisle with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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Book Review – ‘Risk’ by Fleur Ferris

Realistic fiction with a scary scenario.

Risk Book Review Pic 01 by Casey CarlisleGenre: Y/A, Mystery, Thriller, Realistic Fiction

No. of pages: 279

From Goodreads:

Taylor and Sierra have been best friends for their whole lives. But Taylor’s fed up. Why does Sierra always get what – and who – she wants? From kissing Taylor’s crush to stealing the guy they both met online for herself, Sierra doesn’t seem to notice when she hurts her friends.

So when Sierra says Jacob Jones is the one and asks her friends to cover for her while she goes to meet him for the first time, Taylor rolls her eyes. 

But Sierra doesn’t come back when she said she would.

One day. Two days. Three . . .

What if Taylor’s worrying for nothing? What if Sierra’s just being Sierra, forgetting about everyone else to spend time with her new guy? 

When Taylor finally tells Sierra’s mum that her daughter is missing, Taylor and her friends are thrown into a dark world they never even knew existed.

Can Taylor find Sierra’s abductor in time? Or should she be looking for a killer?

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This is a brilliant book – more so for the experience of a young girl falling victim to an online predator and all of the education this tale supplies. Being honest, I put this book down halfway through because I was getting really frustrated with the protagonist Taylor and her best friend Sierra. They were annoyingly stupid, secretive, and well… realistically teen girls. I just wanted to shake them and force them to wake up to how idiotic and reckless their behavior was. Maybe if I had read this in my early teens when I was the target market for ’Risk,’ but maybe not. It doesn’t take a genius to work out the risky behavior of the girls involved. So I see putting the book down for a while not as a sign of bad writing, pacing, or character development; but of how immersed I was in the story. The strength of my emotional reaction to the situation.

Upon picking up the book again, it was evident that the narrative quickly changed and the pace stepped up even more. If I had only read another 20 pages before putting it down the first time, the tone of the novel would have completely changed. From stupid-stubborn-reckless teen girls obsessed with boys, to a high-stakes murder mystery. I was really taken on a ride with ‘Risk.’ It brought up some of my past friendships, memories of my childhood, of living in Melbourne, and of a depressing time when my Mother passed. I was triggered. But in a good way.

Risk’ follows Taylor’s story and involvement in her best friend Sierra’s relationship with a boy she meets online, her eventual abduction and the events that follow on thereafter. The scary part is that is all feels too real, so conceivable. Taylor and Sierra are so quintessentially those teen girls that long for this epic love story, pushing their parents away because, like, they don’t get it. They don’t realise their parents are looking out for them. The girls just want the romance. They don’t realise that they are ripe for an experienced child predator to step in with a routine, ‘grooming’ the girls to a meet up in real life. And that’s when the real scary stuff kicks in.

Risk Book Review Pic 02 by Casey Carlisle

I think the thing that has stayed with me the most after reading ‘Risk’ is how it affected everyone else. The novel follows friends, family, teachers, police, and the general public’s reactions as well as our main cast. It’s something that adds gravitas and seriousness to the storyline. This is where the education and awareness steps front and centre as a theme to really kick you in the guts.

Getting into the nitty-gritty of my reading experience, I guess I wanted more sophistication. From the characters and the plot. A quicker set up of the storyline in the beginning and further exploration of the mystery. Sleuthing out the online predator. But that’s only because I’m waaay out of the target demographic and loved the detective-styled second half of the novel.

This is no cliché’d after-school special on the dangers of online dating. ‘Risk’ is visceral and based in a real world scenario. I can see it as a valuable addition to a high school English curriculums reading list. It has some great discussion topics and educates in a way that is not depressingly obvious. Certainly a gem in the rough and something I want to give to all the young readers I know.

Overall feeling: a shake up and a wake up

Risk Book Review Pic 03 by Casey Carlisle

Risk Book Review Pic 04 by Casey Carlisle

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© Casey Carlisle 2019. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Casey Carlisle with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Book Review – ‘What If It’s Us by Becky Albertalli and Adam Silvera

The type of diverse novel I’ve been longing to read. No hate. Just meetcute.

What If It's Us Book Review Pic 01 by Casey CarlisleGenre: Y/A, Contemporary, GLBT

No. of pages: 437

From Goodreads:

Arthur is only in New York for the summer, but if Broadway has taught him anything, it’s that the universe can deliver a showstopping romance when you least expect it.

Ben thinks the universe needs to mind its business. If the universe had his back, he wouldn’t be on his way to the post office carrying a box of his ex-boyfriend’s things.

But when Arthur and Ben meet-cute at the post office, what exactly does the universe have in store for them?

Maybe nothing. After all, they get separated.

Maybe everything. After all, they get reunited.

But what if they can’t quite nail a first date . . . or a second first date . . . or a third?

What if Arthur tries too hard to make it work . . . and Ben doesn’t try hard enough?

What if life really isn’t like a Broadway play?

But what if it is?

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This was such an adorable story. Arthur and Ben are deliciously, awkwardly cute. A realistic things-don’t-always-go-right sort of thing.

What if it’s us’ is everything I expected it to be. Well written characters, a meet cute oozing innocence, awkwardness and angst. I may have rated it higher, but in comparison to ‘Simon vs the Homo Sapien Agenda’ this didn’t hit me as hard… or have as much comedy. So it just missed out on a perfect score. But that is not to say that is any less of a captivating read.

Four hundred pages and still ‘What if it’s us’ flew by. I was always eager to see where the next chapter would take me. The alternating perspectives between Arthur and Ben lead off on two different storylines that happened to intertwine more and more as the novel progressed without rehashing information as we head-jumped into each narrative. I will say that the writing style did not differ too greatly between each perspective – if it weren’t for chapter titles and references I would have difficulty discerning whose voice was whose. I’d love to have seen some idiosyncrasies, habits, common word usage and tone separate the two perspectives a little more.

What If It's Us Book Review Pic 02 by Casey Carlisle

Arthur, the shorter college-bound nerd discovering his first love made me smile with his uncertainty in everything but love. His values in family and friendship. I think this is the first story where there is no bitchiness or bullying, so a surprisingly fun rom-com.

It felt like Ben had the biggest journey in this contemporary; discovering things about himself through introspection, friends, and of course, Arthur. He felt more like the stoic introvert that finally comes out of his shell.

It’s all about coming of age…

All of the secondary characters had their own stuff going on too: getting together, breaking up, fighting, and supporting each other. I really loved this aspect of ‘What if it’s us’ and really fleshed out the narrative.

It ends on the same note of the title as a question – like a true contemporary. One of hope that left me satisfied and hopeful myself.

The pacing is fairly steady. It’s not a fast read, but definitely does not feel like its dragging. The perfect timing for this type of genre.

Definitely recommend for lovers of stories of diversity, light romances, and New York City.

Overall feeling: A deliciously snuggy story

What If It's Us Book Review Pic 03 by Casey Carlisle

What If It's Us Book Review Pic 04 by Casey Carlisle

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© Casey Carlisle 2019. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Casey Carlisle with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Book Review – ‘Armada’ by Ernest Cline

Sci-fi geek nostalgia abounds!

Armada Book Review Pic 01 by Casey CarlisleGenre: YA, Science Fiction

No. of pages: 372

From Goodreads:

Zack Lightman has spent his life dreaming. Dreaming that the real world could be a little more like the countless science-fiction books, movies, and videogames he’s spent his life consuming. Dreaming that one day, some fantastic, world-altering event will shatter the monotony of his humdrum existence and whisk him off on some grand space-faring adventure.

But hey, there’s nothing wrong with a little escapism, right? After all, Zack tells himself, he knows the difference between fantasy and reality. He knows that here in the real world, aimless teenage gamers with anger issues don’t get chosen to save the universe.

And then he sees the flying saucer.

Even stranger, the alien ship he’s staring at is straight out of the videogame he plays every night, a hugely popular online flight simulator called Armada—in which gamers just happen to be protecting the earth from alien invaders. 

No, Zack hasn’t lost his mind. As impossible as it seems, what he’s seeing is all too real. And his skills—as well as those of millions of gamers across the world—are going to be needed to save the earth from what’s about to befall it.

It’s Zack’s chance, at last, to play the hero. But even through the terror and exhilaration, he can’t help thinking back to all those science-fiction stories he grew up with, and wondering: Doesn’t something about this scenario seem a little…familiar?

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This book managed to recapture the child in me. I had been obsessed with sci-fi pop culture in the ‘80’s, dreamed of being teleported away to fight in some all-stakes space war and arise the victor. ‘Armada’ delivered on all fronts.

There have been some not so great reviews accusing Ernest Cline of ripping off some popular movies to construct the plot for ‘Armada,’ and well, while there are heavy influences of their storytelling, ‘Armada’ is still a creature of its own, yet stays true to the genre. You could say that about most of the sci-fi from that era… they were all a bit formulaic and followed the same rules. Having said that, I think many readers missed that this is an homage to that type of storytelling. I mean there are huge flashing neon signs pointing to that along the way with copious references to video games, tv shows, movies, scientists, historical events. You’d have to be an idiot to assume Cline intentionally ripped off famous pop culture stories to repackage it as his own. This novel follows the same vein as the ‘Scream’ franchise spoofing common horror tropes.

In that respect, the story is somewhat predictable and we get less surprises because the plot is following a well-known route. To counter that we get the saturation of images from the ‘80’s and ‘90’s to connect with the reader and create interest. The novel is meant to feel familiar. It was such a nostalgic read for me and definitely brought forward cherished memories. But I can’t help wishing there had been some more surprises or plot twists to give ‘Armada’ a touch more individuality – much like ‘Ready Player One’ managed to achieve.

Zack is the quintessential hero protagonist from this genre. A teen having lost his father in mysterious circumstances, driven into a world of escapism to deal with the loss – developing unprecedented skills with computer game simulations. Those skills lead him to be recruited into a clandestine army being raised to fight off an alien threat. Zack gives the impression that he is intelligent beyond his years early on, he questions things, forms his own assumptions, and it was refreshing to see he wasn’t some maverick with a chip on his shoulder or a superior-pleasing army savant. He was easy to relate to and didn’t feel two dimensional.

Armada Book Review Pic 02 by Casey Carlisle

I will say the book is a bit slow at the beginning, taking the time to set up the scene, the story, and the characters. The pacing and tension only really start to build in the last third of the novel. I’d like to say I wish this was paced a little faster, but in hindsight, it would not have worked for ‘Armada’ or the protagonist.

Clines writing style was magnificent, there were moments his short descriptive sentences painted worlds of sensation, and the pop culture references and slang rang true to the genre. Though if you are not a fan of the ‘80’s or classic elements in sci-fi culture and gaming, much of the stories elements will be lost on you.

If I was being nit-picky, I’d say there wasn’t enough character development on the secondary cast members – but, given the slow burn of plot and tension, if Cline had spent more time exploring these characters, the pace of ‘Armada’ would have been laboriously slow.

Overall, I really enjoyed ‘Armada’ it was the perfect nod to a geeky childhood of a sci-fi nerd. But recommend this more for enthusiasts – if you don’t’ get subtext and nuances of what this story is about, and why it has been written – then you will not understand the brilliance of ‘Armada.’

After the treatment ‘Ready Player One’ received on the big screen, and now ‘Armada’ in in development to become a film, I am really excited to see how this turns out and will be first in line at the box office. Though I’m still holding my breath. With many remakes on their way this movie would have to be released at a key moment so as not to clash with some of the re-imagined classics that it is inspired from.

Overall feeling: Had me playing battleships in the back yard with my little brother all over again.

Armada Book Review Pic 03 by Casey Carlisle

Armada Book Review Pic 04 by Casey Carlisle

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© Casey Carlisle 2019. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Casey Carlisle with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Book Review – ‘The Marque’ by Michael Patrick Harris

Western meets Space Invaders.

The Marque Book Review Pic 01 by Casey CarlisleGenre: Science Fiction

No. of pages: 57

From Goodreads:

The world has fallen beneath the rule of alien invaders. The remnants of humanity are divided into two camps: those who resist, and those serve.

Darrel Fines serves. He is a traitor, a turncoat who has betrayed his people, his wife, and most of all, himself. In this new world order, in which humanity is at the very bottom, Fines is a lawman for the violent and grotesque conquerors.

When the offspring of the Marque goes missing, Fines is charged with locating and recovering the alien. Caught in the crosshairs of a subdued worker’s camp and the resistance cell that he was once allied with, Fines is forced to choose between a life of servility and a life of honor.

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This review will be short and sweet – because ‘The Marque’ is only 57 pages long.

While I enjoy sci-fi and horror, this combination was akin to Stephen King. Though I’m uncertain of the message.

The writing is gritty and dark and fiercely masculine. I think that is what disappointed me a little, I was hungering for a bit more perspective! A bit more mythology.

The Marque’ was more like a soundbite. A premise of a great story. A snapshot of an interesting character facing a moral crossroad.

And then it was all over.

Fantastic writing and imagery, great concept… but that is all this is.  I’d love to read a full length novel by this author, I have a feeling it would be incredible. Checking his back catalogue I can see he has only listed short stories and novellas on Goodreads. While I enjoy this medium of storytelling, I prefer novels. I like to get lost in the world building, character development, and feel the build of a fast-paced plot. You don’t get that in a shorter lengthed tome. Michael Patrick Hicks is definitely a talented writer and I recommend you check him out (but only if you enjoy mini-bites of fiction.)

Overall feeling: Not too shabby.

The Marque Book Review Pic 03 by Casey Carlisle

The Marque Book Review Pic 02 by Casey Carlisle

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© Casey Carlisle 2019. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Casey Carlisle with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Book Review – ‘Without Merit’ by Collen Hoover

Messy can be beautiful… or just plain miserable. But there is also beauty in misery.

Without Merit Book Review Pic 01 by Casey CarlisleGenre: YA, Contemporary, Romance

No. of pages: 385

From Goodreads:

Not every mistake deserves a consequence. Sometimes the only thing it deserves is forgiveness.

The Voss family is anything but normal. They live in a repurposed church, newly baptized Dollar Voss. The once cancer-stricken mother lives in the basement, the father is married to the mother’s former nurse, the little half-brother isn’t allowed to do or eat anything fun, and the eldest siblings are irritatingly perfect. Then, there’s Merit.

Merit Voss collects trophies she hasn’t earned and secrets her family forces her to keep. While browsing the local antiques shop for her next trophy, she finds Sagan. His wit and unapologetic idealism disarm and spark renewed life into her—until she discovers that he’s completely unavailable. Merit retreats deeper into herself, watching her family from the sidelines when she learns a secret that no trophy in the world can fix.

Fed up with the lies, Merit decides to shatter the happy family illusion that she’s never been a part of before leaving them behind for good. When her escape plan fails, Merit is forced to deal with the staggering consequences of telling the truth and losing the one boy she loves.

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What a train wreck of a family! ‘Without Merit’ is all about keeping secrets and putting up a front that contributes to this family imploding. But you don’t get the info dump of all the elements that have built up this tension – Colleen Hoover reveals them like peeling back layers of an onion in an organic way through the perspective of our protagonist Merit. It is a moderately paced book with a slow burn romance. It’s not overly traumatic, and has a cute ending but is very engaging. I completed it in two sittings and found the characters – and their arcs – delightful. It is just another novel that adds to the proof of Hoovers’ deft writing and stylistic flare.

We’re introduced to Merit as someone who is angry yet hopeful… and then slowly shown why she is both of these things. I related to her because she is both flawed, intelligent, and resourceful. She questions and challenges the world in her loner fashion.

Without Merit Book Review Pic 02 by Casey CarlisleThe rest of her siblings each have a different dysfunction – their mechanisms for dealing with the repercussions of their parents’ divorce and parental style. Utah, Honor, and Moby were still connected enough to be a family unit, but had their own story arcs going on. It was great to read that all the characters were so intricately crafted.

Two other characters of note revolving around the family: Luck seems like a bright addition to the family, but is soon discovered as the grenade that starts the inciting moment of self-inspection the family desperately needs. And Sagan, who comes across as the tattooed brooding love interest with a touch of mystery about him – and while he is all of those things we soon discover there is more: an artist, a compassionate soul. I really enjoyed discovering him through Merits eyes, though the whole quiet brooding thing was starting to get a little tired towards the end.

We also get the neighbour’s dog that Merit adopts; who is by far my favourite character and a wonderful symbol of moving on from a painful past.

I like how mental illness is represented and discussed in ‘Without Merit.’ It doesn’t necessarily paint a pretty picture, but once brought out into the open and dealt with, can be treated in a way that is not destructive.

The novel really deals with how perceptions and assumptions are continually deconstructed and the truth revealed.

The first half takes a while in setting up the characters and plot, so the pacing feels moderately slow, but after the halfway mark, things really get interesting and I did not want to put the book down. It’s not really an angsty novel. More one of uncovering one sensational thing after another, like some telenovela, it was tragically juicy and I was hooked.

Hoovers writing style slayed me yet again, and it was hard to predict what was going to happen because the predicament Merit finds herself in is just so deliciously messy. It all made great reading and a novel I’d happily recommend.

Overall reaction: Knock me down with a feather.

Without Merit Book Review Pic 03 by Casey Carlisle

Without Merit Book Review Pic 04 by Casey Carlisle

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© Casey Carlisle 2019. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Casey Carlisle with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Book Review – ‘No Vain Loss’ (#3 No Ordinary Star) by M.C. Frank

All I can say is… blerg!

No Vain Loss Book Review Pic 01 by Casey CarlisleGenre: Science Fiction

No. of pages: 229

From Goodreads:

A soldier is summoned to the North Pole, days before the year changes, told to fix the great Clock for a celebration. He has no idea what to do. 

A girl, hunted for the crime of being born, almost dies out on the ice. She is rescued by the last polar bear left alive.
A library waits for them both, a library built over a span of a hundred years, forgotten in the basement of an ice shack.
The world hasn’t known hunger or sickness in hundreds of years. It has also forgotten love and beauty. 

This is the One World. 

The year is 2524. 

This is by no means a standalone novel in a trilogy – more like the third act of a whole. Why M.C. Frank released these novellas in this format has me dumbfounded. The novel jumps right into the action and there is little back story or summary of what has come before. Again, like its predecessors, I found it extremely difficult to connect to any of the characters or fully understand their motivations.

One gleaming positive about ‘No Vain Loss’ is the plot. It was the most interesting of the trilogy so far. There are hardships, twists and turns, and definitely the most intricate so far. So viewing the novella from a mechanical standpoint, it was pretty good. But as for the rest, I found it miserably deficient.

There was not enough character development for me to identify with any of the cast, or cheer for their journey. The descriptions are bland and bleak. The world building (though confusing at times) is much more colourful. I wanted that same care taken to the characters as well. This, added with short chapters and alternating perspectives, also contributed to the distancing from the narrative. I never really had enough time to grow with either protagonist. And then calling each other ‘Tin Soldier’ and ‘Match girl’ might have been cute, but it was used so repetitively it lost the romance and became annoying. Slapping a throwback signifier also distanced me from either protagonist. It all felt a little forced and disingenuous.

No Vain Loss Book Review Pic 02 by Casey CarlisleThis has got to be the worst series I’ve ever read. I had to force myself to complete each and every one of these novellas. And that’s not a great compliment because they are meant to be short, paced reads. I kept putting them down due to boredom and lack of interest.

I don’t even want to re-gift these to anyone, I prefer to toss them in the bin. The art work looks like it’s been done by a primary schooler on PhotoShop – couldn’t there have been some original images used that relate to the story and its symbolism instead of low resolution clip art?

Yes the concept of this trilogy, and the plot outline is fantastic, but its execution is the worst I’ve come across to date.

Definitely don’t recommend this one. (Or the series.)

 Overall feeling: Worst. Book. Series. Ever.

No Vain Loss Book Review Pic 03 by Casey Carlisle

No Vain Loss Book Review Pic 04 by Casey Carlisle

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© Casey Carlisle 2019. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Casey Carlisle with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.