Sunday, August 26, 2012

The Bronte Sisters, by Catherine Reef

How did a family produce not one, but three, stunningly talented writers?  And how would these talented women fit in to Victorian ideals of femininity?  We learn the family history of the Brontes, as well as the life experiences that so clearly colored the sisters' writings?  Known originally as Acton, Currer, and Ellis Bell, the girls would end up writing some of the most groundbreaking literary works of the times, and their stories would last throughout the ages.

Jane Eyre has always been one of my favorite pieces of classic literature.  There is something so universal to the story, aspects that resonate with modern readers despite the fact that it was written in a much different time and social climate.  So, given the chance to read more about the live of the author, and her sister, I jumped right on.  And typically, I love biographies, particularly of people I admire, but for me, this book just seemed flat.  I found very little in the book that would be engaging to the intended age group (ages 10 and up).  As an adult, with a vested interest in the subject matter, I was quite bored for the majority of the book, so I imagine many kids would be as well.  The facts of the Brontes lives were presented in a straightforward manner, but it was not until the book discussed the writings of the girls that I became the least bit interested.  The book is almost 200 pages, at the middle grades reading level, yet it took we an entire weekend to read, not because it was difficult, but because I just was not engaged at all by the writing.

Even as a child, I was a voracious reader.  I read any and every thing I could get my hands on.  I had a knowledge of classic literature, and while I was too young to read the works themselves, I adored film adaptations of many classic literary works, even before I was of school age.  So, as a child, this type of literary biography would have certainly appealed to me.  However, I was an unusual child, and kids today have so many other options in terms of reading, I am not sure that this book will appeal much to kids.  Certainly parents would encourage their children to read this, and it could be a great supplement to public school or homeschooling curriculum, but I do not see a child going out of their way to read this, as opposed to more engaging books.

I received a review copy as part of the Amazon Vine program.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Diving Belles, by Lucy Wood

Welcome to a place where the magical and mundane are entwined.  Prepare to realize that every person, place, and feeling has a story of its own.  This collection of short stories ranges from wives recovering husbands lured by mermaids to a house watching over its ever chancing occupants to a boy searching for a sign of his father in a boneyard for giants.  If this book teaches you anything, it is to not look at the everyday as being so everyday afterall.

I have quite mixed feelings about this book.  First off, Lucy Wood writes in a way that is silky and enchanting.  Her command of language is amazing, making me feel as if I were wrapped up in a giant sable on a cool winter's day.  I loved the exquisite way that she writes, full of sadness and beauty, joy and despair, dark and light all at once.  It is quite clear that she has a tremendous gift.  And I did enjoy the fact that the stories are so mystical.  I liked the hints of magic and the unexplained, it felt like a game of make believe.

As with any book of short stories, some struck me more than others.  I particularly enjoyed Of Mothers and Little People, as well as Notes from the House Spirits.  They were sweet and sad at the same time.  My only real criticism of the book is that I found a lack of resolution to the stories.  It seems like the just start and stop so abruptly.  It made me feel as if I were dreaming, or trying to hear underwater or something.  And this is not necessarily a bad thing overall regarding the book.  It just left me wanting a little closure.

I received a review copy as part of TLC Book Tours.  See the rest of the tour here.

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Tuesday, August 21, 2012

The Last Little Blue Envelope, by Maureen Johnson

After spending the summer running around Europe following instructions left in letters by her now dead aunt, Ginny seems lost.  She is lost because the letters, and her chance for closure, were stolen, and she was unable to carry out her aunt's final request.  When someone contacts Ginny about the final letter, she finds herself once again London bound, and headed off for another grand adventure.

It has been some time since I read the prequel to this book, so I was a bit worried that the details might be a bit funny in my brain regarding the unorthodox storyline of this series.  Luckily, within the first few pages, the story came back to me, and I was able to funny enjoy Ginny's adventure.  I feel like we really got to see Ginny undergo so serious growth with this last chapter of her story.  She is preparing for college, and reflecting on how much her life has changed since she read her aunt's first letter.  We find her dealing with a bit of a love triangle, which kind of becomes a love quadrangle in the end, and I liked this subtle tension.

I found that, despite the fact that the plot once again involves a teenager tromping unchaperoned through Europe, the very heart of the situations in the book were quite believable.  Most teens have, at some point, pined for a romantic partner.  Some have found themselves making risky choices.  And I would venture to say all have found themselves facing a crossroad in life, and unsure which path to choose.  The biggest gift Ginny's aunt gives her is the ability to really seek out her own path, and her own story.  Even by revisiting places she had already been, each adventure has it's own story to tell.

All in all, I thought this was a good read.  Not as fast paced and crazy as the first book, but I found this book to be much more heartfelt than its predecessor.  I think in Ginny we see the "every girl" character who is given an opportunity to experience something amazing.  It is an opportunity of which most of us secretly dream, which is why so many will be able to relate to this book.

I borrowed this book from the local library.


Thursday, August 16, 2012

Dancing Dog: Stories, by Jon Katz

Dogs can have a huge impact on the lives of humans.  And humans can have an even greater impact in the lives of dogs.  See the profound nature of the symbiotic relationships that can be formed between man and dog in this collection of short stories.

I feel like I was reading a totally different book than everyone else who has reviewed it so far.  I really disliked this book.  A lot.  I felt like the stories were trite, and the character development was very superficial.  And, in many of the cases, the stories portrayed humans perpetrating terrible acts upon these animals.  I anticipated that this book would be uplifting, and to me, it just was not.

One story actually made me pretty angry.  It involved a woman dying and visiting her dog in the dog portion of heaven.  In dog heaven, they can run all over, defecate and urinate all they want, eat rotten food and never get sick, tear apart homes and furniture, and that is their version of heaven.  And the angel that guards dog heaven says that hell is a place where dogs on tethered on leashes, forced to eat what the masters chose, must void themselves in specific locations.  In other words, dog hell is life on earth as pets to humans.  As an extreme dog lover and owner of two dogs, I take great offense to the idea that canine hell is life in a home that provides safety, shelter, and nutrition.  I do not crate or leash my dogs to be cruel or to have mastership over them, I do not chose their diet to be in control of them.  I do these things to keep them safe and healthy.  Hell might exist on earth for dogs with abusive owner, for sure, but to paint all life on earth as hell is a total slap in the face to people, like me, to would do anything to insure our pets are happy and healthy.

Perhaps I just missed something, but this book simply did not connect with me.  

I received this as part of the Amazon Vine program.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

As I Close My Eyes, by Sarah DiCello

At the tender age of 18, Danielle has her whole life ahead of her, when suddenly, an accident has her contemplating the life she has behind her.  After a boating accident, Danielle begins having odd dreams of a woman named Caroline who lived over a hundred years prior.  It quickly becomes apparent that Danielle actually was this woman, and the people in her present day life have counterparts in the past as well.  Danielle becomes obsessed with learning about her past life, and determining if it was real.

I thought this was a really great concept, one that I have seen similarly employed in other books.  I like the juxtaposition of past and present, and the idea that everyone has a past/future counterpart.  It makes me wonder what it would be like to live in the past.  I actually enjoyed the "past" parts of the book more than the present.  I felt like the storyworld was more vivid, and the rich details made it seem more real.  Similarly, I was much more interested in the stories of the past characters.  I felt like the transitions between the scenes of the past and present were smooth, and one never wondered who we were seeing, Caroline or Danielle

While I did like Danielle as a character, I felt like the modern portions of her story were not as well developed, and therefore a little less realistic.  She meets a man, and boom they are in love, meeting each others' families and such.  I mean, sure, I guess that could happen so quickly, but I could not help but feel like the relationship seemed to lack enough substance to ignite so quickly.  In direct contract, I thought the relationship between Robert and Caroline in the past seemed to have an incredible amount of depth.  Similarly, I found myself wanting to learn Ben's version of the whole story.

I found the ending to be pretty surprising, with the last sentence being a bit of a twist.  This, coupled with what appears to be some unfinished business with other characters, leads me to believe there will be a sequel to this eventually.  All in all, a quick, engaging read, perfect for a little vacation reading.  I think fans of romance novels, particularly historical romance, will enjoy this unique book.

I received a review copy courtesy of the author.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

I Am Forbidden, by Anouk Markovitz

As a child, Josef witnessed the senseless murder of his strict Hasidic Jewish family.  He is taken in and saved by a Catholic woman, until friends of his parents find him and send him to American to live in a Hasidic community.  Mila also watched her parents get slaughtered in her childhood, and was taken in by a devout family.  For a while, both of these orphans live in the same house, connected forever by tragedy.  As young adults, they are reunited, and begin a life together.  The impact of their ultra orthodox upbringings colors their lives in ways never expected.

Talk about an intense book.  There is a so much going on here, I am not even sure where to begin.  At the book's opening, the reader is thrust into what is, for most of us, a totally foreign, darkly intense world of Hasidic Judaism.  I was really struck by the strict nature of this sect.  I knew some of the commandments, but the portrayal of them in the text was, at times, overwhelming.  The books' opening is confusing, and the religion is so foreign, but I think that this is intentional, to signify the confusion and guilt of Josef and Mila, as well as some of the other characters in the book.  By a third of the way through the book, everything that happened at the opening made perfect sense, and I was really glad that I was able to hang in there with the story, even when it was uncomfortable.

While Josef and Mila's stories take up the majority of the book, there is this really exquisite substory involving Atara, and her rebellion against Hasidism.  She pushes back against the oppression of women within the sect, and her level of independence has a profound impact on Mila, though that impact will take years to be evident.  

The book is incredibly complex, dealing with raw and dark aspects of Jewish life in Europe during the 30s and 40s.  I found the writing to be a little dense, which I chalked up to this being the author's first English language novel.  Even with that density, I found the book incredibly compelling.  It is certainly not the kind of book that will appeal to everyone.  If you are looking for a light read with a happy ending, this is not a good match for you.  But if you are looking for an intense, honest, raw glimpse of a world you might otherwise never experience, dive on in, you will not be sorry.

I received this book as part of the Amazon Vine program.

Monday, August 13, 2012

My Father at 100, by Ron Reagan

Ronald Reagan would have been 100 years old in 2011.  As a celebration of his father's life, son Ron sought to learn more about family history, and glimpse the often unseen side of our 40th president.  In learning more about family history, Ron learns a great deal about himself, as well as what shaped his father into the leader he seemed destined to become.

It is not often that I write a harsh review of a book, because I know that is most cases, an author has poured his life's blood into the book, eating, breathing, and sleeping the all consuming work for many months, only to put it out there for all the world to see, like their exposed inner child.  So, normally, I try to respect authors even when I do not like the book.  The exception to this is when a person with a famous name masquerades as an author, cashing in on that name, with a piece of pure schlock.  And that is totally the case with this book.

I personally have no strong feelings one way or the other in terms of Ronald Reagan.  I was too young during his presidency to remember much of it, and am too disinterested in politics now to devote too much time learning about him.  However, I thought a biography would be a good way to slightly expand my knowledge base regarding the former president.  And in that way, the book was successful, as I did learn facts about his life.  But I had to learn them in the most boring way possible.  This book is so boring, and poorly written.  It tries to be both a historical genealogy about generations past and a memoir of growing up as the son of the president; it fails at both.  The book starts out ok, if not a little slow, tracing the family roots back to Ireland, and telling how the family made their way to, and across, America.  However, the book kind of tanks about 60 pages in, when the author starts interjecting childhood anecdotes, often unrelated to the overall topic of the chapter, in a way that confuses the narrative.  In one chapter, he discusses himself as a teen, his dad as a teen, then his dad at his first inauguation, his dad as an adolescent, himself as an adolescent, and his grandfather as a young adult, pretty much in that order.  It was awful.  The same chapter included the following obnoxious (and what I suspect to be inaccurate in terms of current alcohol consumption) sentence about his grandfather Jack: "He drank during an age when men imbibed far more alcohol, on average, than in today's more abstemious climate."

I think that this book could have benefited from a heavy handed editor not so intimidated by the Reagan name that he was scared to tell Ron he cannot write.  Either an editor like that, or a ghost writer.  I cannot even speak to the factual nature of the content, because I could not get past the awful awful writing to even devote any energy to the content.

If I felt this were a book by someone who really tried, or that this was an earnest endeavor to write ones memoirs, I would probably not be so harshly critical.  However, I feel like this was just an attempt for Ron to cash in on his famous dad.  I would imagine there are many biographies, and even memoirs written by other Reagan family members, that are written better than this, and would tell more about Ronald Reagan in a clear, concise, logical manner.  I doubt I will go looking for them, however, as this one kind of soured me.

I received a review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Zo White and the Seven Morphs, by Barbara Silkstone

Zo White makes her living as an aerial acrobat, while seven men in morphsuits run around on the ground below her, acting as hypemen for the crowd of the Grimm Brothers Cirque.  When a tragic accident occurs during practice, it becomes clear that Zo is being targeted by a killer, and the Morphs decide to protect her.  This unlikely group gets involved in deadly situation including murder, drag queens, intrigue, turtles, mobsters, and some of the worst real estate ventures ever.  Who is behind all this deception, and more importantly, who are the men behind the morphsuits?

If you are looking for a fun read, a book that does not take itself too seriously, a story full of lighthearted comedy and heartwarming charm, then look no further.  Another book in the "Fractured Fairytales" series, this book is obviously a modern reimagining of the Snow White story.  But unlike with the Disneyfication of fairy tales, this version of Snow White is no wimp.  She is athletic, and crafty, and a total spitfire.  She would never waste her time merely singing with the birds, though she does spend quite a bit of time washing turtles.  I quite enjoyed Zo's character; she made me laugh at her antics, but more importantly, I rooted for her to have her own version of a happy ending.

Although the plot is humorous, it is also full of murder, mystery, and intrigue.  I find that, because of this, it is probably a lot closer to what fairy tales were originally intended to be.  This is obviously not a story for children, but really, neither were most of the original fairy tales.  I found the book to be quite witty, and I loved the subtle little references to many other fairy tales scattered throughout the book.  The book moves quickly, so readers need to stay on their toes.  At the end of the story, it will feel like you have been on a wild ride.  And like any ride, some will love it and some will hate it.  I went into this book looking for a flippant, slightly irreverent, funny alternative to the cookie cutter princess heroine.  And I think the book delivered just that.

I received a review copy courtesy of the author.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Gold, by Chris Cleave

Since they were teenagers, Kate and Zoe have always been in competition, both on and off the track.  As competitive cyclists, they have competed for spots on the national and international scale, and are now dealing with their final shot at Olympic gold.  Over they years, Kate has sacrificed winning for her personal life, while Zoe has sacrificed her social life for winning.  But, in the end, who will be the winner, both in the Olympics, and in life?

I sort of struggled with this book.  I found this to be a very timely read, as the 2012 Olympics are winding down.  I liked the timely nature of this book, and the Olympic aspect of the story.  And as far as stories go, this was a better than average story.  I liked walking into the story in the middle, then learning the backstory, before rocketing to the conclusion.  I enjoyed the structure, and found the writing to be solid.  I did somewhat struggle with the portions of the book dealing with a sick child.  It just made me a little uncomfortable, not only reading about this sick little girl, but reading it from her point of view.  It seemed a little confusing, and out of place.

In terms of the characters, I had an extraordinarily difficult time relating to, or being empathetic toward, Zoe as a character.  We hear so much about her difficult childhood, and her personal trauma, but I find her cold, and, in a word, unlikable.  I just really wanted to see her fail.  Her character caused a very strong reaction  Her character was my biggest problem with the whole book.  I just could not stand her, and I did not really want to read about her.

I think the only reason I enjoyed the book is much as I did is that it dealt with the current Olympic games.  But in some ways, I think the only kind of gold this book is, is fool's gold.

I received a review copy as part of the Amazon Vine program.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Following Atticus, by Tom Ryan

Tom Ryan lived a full, if not totally fulfilling, life as a reporter and newspaper man in Newburyport.  When an unwanted dog named Max enters his life, he opens himself up in a way he never imagined he could.  With Max's passing, Tom decides to adopt another dog, naming him Atticus M. Finch.  Never would he have imagined that Atticus would change his life in the ways that twenty pound bundle of fur did.  Over the course of several years, Tom and Atticus conquer hundreds of hikes of 4000 foot mountains, overcome sickness, raise money and awareness for good causes, and come to understand one of the purest forms of love ever.

I am always hesitant to read books about dogs.  As a dog owner and lover myself, I know that if these books foray into any kind of loss or sickness, I am going to be a blubbering mess, spending many hours hugging my dachshunds.  So, I was a little skittish about this book.  Never was I so happy that I took a chance on a book.  This book is, in a word, amazing.

First, I have to say that Tom is such an eloquent writer.  He is clearly a man of words, he admits that he loves literature, and it clearly comes through in his writing.  I think the reason Tom has been so successful at so many things (writing, hiking wild mountains, and a perfect relationship with Atticus) is because no matter what he does, he has intense respect.  He respects Atticus too much to try to write in the dog's voice.  He respects the mountains too much to forget their awesome power.  And he respects words too much to use them in a flippant or hyperbolic manner.  As a result, you have a book written with so much heart, so much earnest honesty, it seems improbable that any would not like it.  

I absolutely stand in awe of Tom and Atticus, not only for what they have achieved with hiking the 4000 footers, but just of their relationship in general.  There is no denying that this was a perfect match.  The story is so heartwarming and inspirational, I dare anyone to read this without being deeply touched.

The book focuses a lot of the time on the treks through the White Mountains, and describes the hikes in detail, so it will appeal to nature lovers, as well as fans of literary and poetry masters such as Thoreau, Wadsworth, and Longfellow.  One cannot read this book without feeling a bit of the adventure seep into his very being.  I only wish I had a great a command of language as Tom, to give this book adequate praise.

I received a review copy courtesy of TLC Book Tours.  See the rest of the tour here.

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Wednesday, August 8, 2012

The Kissing List, by Stephanie Reents

Traveling through the rugged terrains of love and sex is never easy, but traveling these territories while trying to preserve friendships is even trickier.  We watch a group of women navigate relationships with various, and at times the same, men, as well as their relationships with each other.  These are their stories.

The idea behind this collection of short stories is that we follow a group of women through various stages of their lives (college, young adulthood, engagements, long distance romances, terminal illness, etc).  However, I found not a single of the females in the book to be well developed or the least bit memorable as characters.  I had difficulty remembering who was who, how they were related, and any previous stories in which she was involved.  In short, I found this book to be a hot mess.

I felt like the author tried to hard to be edgy.  She would use expletives, not to give a rhythm or cadence of realism to the dialogue, but to be shocking.  She had explicit and taboo sex scenes for the same reason.  The plot and dialogue of many of the stories felt flat and stilted.  Nothing intrigued me about any of these women or their stories.  Some of the stories were fairly well written, but all in all I just found myself incredibly disappointed.  Particularly because the summary featured on the jacket and on commercial website indicates the book to be a cohesive collection following 4 women through their romantic travails, much like Sex in the City.  What you get, instead, is a hot hot mess.

I received a review copy courtesy of the Amazon Vine program.

Brooklyn Zoo, by Darcy Lockman

After four years of doctoral coursework, Darcy Lockman completed a year long internship.  Her placement was at the Kings County Hospital, in Brooklyn.  Her assignment was building G, where several notorious patients have resided.  The hospital was under investigation, and it becomes quickly apparent to Lockman that the system is horribly flawed.

As someone trained in psychology and counseling, I thought this book was going to be so interesting, but I found myself horribly disappointed.  The book summary on commercial websites talks about "haunting" cases, and really hypes the book up to be a sort of expose to the horrors of Kings County Hospital.  And perhaps to someone unaware of the realities of the mental health system, that is what this book is.  But to me, this book sounds a lot like Lockman trying to justify her behavior and pass the blame for her bad experience on to the institution.  Sure, the system is overburdened, and sure, I am a little appalled that the supervisors provided no supervision, but we must remember that this is the reality as Lockman presents it, perhaps not reality as it actually was.

I found the writing to be really dry.  Any of the patient cases that were presented were done so in such an emotionless, removed way.  I feel that Lockman is full of contempt, for her supervisors, peers, and her patients, and that contempt drips from the page.  What I found most appalling was how unprepared she was for this internship.  After 4 years of doctoral work, she had never encountered treating someone with an addiction, never encountered a simple phobia, and barely knew the DSM criteria for diagnosis?!  I know she was training in psychoanalysis, but come one, these are pretty common and basic things here.  Things I covered at length in my own Masters program.  Things any doctoral program should cover in an Abnormal Psych class.  

I am also slightly squirmy that this memoir was ever written.  Sure, she does change identifying information regarding patients, but I think she still leaves to much in there, about staff and patients.  It would not be hard to connect the dots.  Nothing in this book serves to help the mental health community, to fix the clearly broken system, or to do any good.  It only serves for her to make a name for herself.  So, she is using the suffering of her patients for her own notoriety.  That seems counter-intuitive to the therapeutic ideal of "first do no harm".

I think, in short, the book is more telling about the flaws within the author that the flaws within the mental health system.

I received this book for review as part of the Amazon Vine program.

Monday, August 6, 2012

What Alice Forgot, by Liane Moriarty

Life can change in an instant, as Alice is about to find out.  One moment she is 29, pregnant with her first child, and madly in love with her husband Nick.  The next thing she knows, she is waking up on a gym floor, and nothing at all seems to be making sense.  She is surrounded by strangers, and the few people she does know look, well, odd.  It turns out Alice has suffered an accident at the gym that has wiped out the last ten years of her memory.  She is now 39.  She has forgotten her children, her sister's struggles with infertility, the death of her best friend, and shockingly enough the breakup of her marriage.  How did her life become this, and where does she go from here?

I have read many novels that have a plot involving amnesia or waking up in another life.  Of all these stories, this one is the best I have read.  I thought the story was poignant, and often felt myself slipping into melancholy while reading.  I just felt so sad for Alice, waking up in this life she was so sure she hated.  But she had gotten there somehow.  Haven't we all had moments where we wondered how our lives ended up the way they did?  This book allows us to reflect on the changes that can occur in a decade, and whether or not we realize that we have control over these changes.  

In addition to Alice's story, we catch glimpses of her sister Elizabeth, chasing motherhood with relentless force.  She has suffered many miscarriages, and gone through grueling rounds of fertility treatments and interventions.  She is chasing a dream.  So is Frannie, Alice and Elizabeth's pseudo grandmother, who spent her entire adult life chasing love that is impossible.  We see in these women a glimpse of what Alice may be headed for, a life full of regret and impossible dreams.

I feel like Alice is being given a second chance at a happy life, but her life seems so foreign to her.  The eventuality is that the memories of the past years will flood back, and it is up to Alice to determine how it will affect her decisions.  We all have that same ability to chose.  I was a little unhappy at the turn I thought the book was taking toward the end, but quite pleased with the final resolution.

I felt the female characters in the book were, for the most part, fascinating and vividly developed.  The only character I wished was fleshed out just a little more was Gina, the best friend of Alice who has died.  All in all, I found this a touching story, and think many fans of contemporary women's literature will appreciate the book.

This book is from my personal library.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Shadow Show, edited by Sam Weller and Mort Castle

Every now and then, an author comes along whose impact is tremendous, whose mark on the face of modern literature is indelible.  Such is the case with Ray Bradbury.  The name alone conjures up iconic images of post Apocalyptic book burnings and rocket ships.  Bradbury's genius touched many, including some writers who are brilliant in their own rights.  This book is a collection of short stories inspired by and celebrating the works of a truly incredible man.

Having not really spent much time with Bradbury's works (a pitiful situation I hope to change soon), I was a bit nervous to read this book.  Would it be all Martians and robots?  Would I fully appreciate the impact of the stories?  In short would I "get it"?  Imagine my surprise when I not only "got it" but felt the desire to immediately read everything Bradbury had ever written.  This book is brilliant, and I desperately want to learn more about the man who inspired such brilliance.

As with any short story collection, some stories were more my style than others.  In a book full of stories by well know writers, the two that stuck out to me were the book's opener, "The Man Who Forgot Ray Bradbury" by the incredible Neil Gaiman, and the beautifully melancholic "Children of the Bedtime Machine" by Robert McCammon.  Something about these two stories, in particular, struck at the very heart of my humanity, at the depths to which I love literature.  

There was not a single bad story in this book.  Bradbury recently passed away, but he knew this collection was being done, and even wrote a short introduction for it.  I cannot imagine the pride with which he is now looking down, seeing the lasting impact he will forever have on American Literature.  I am so thankful to have said yes to this book, and to have a newly sparked appreciation for a truly gifted writer.

I received a review copy courtesy of TLC Book Tours.  See the rest of the tour here

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