Category Archives: Books

Book Buzz: Leaving Lucy Pear

I love historical literary fiction, especially when it teaches me something new. The luminous Leaving Lucy Pear is a novel so rich in sensory images that I found myself transported to a time and place I knew little about and felt instantly connected.

Book Buzz: Leaving Lucy Pear

Leaving Lucy Pear

Author Anna Solomon takes us to 1920s Prohibition-era Gloucester, New England, eschewing the glamor of that period for the dark side: the rampant racism and bigotry. The economic instability, political turmoil, the poverty, the violence.

Against this backdrop lives the eponymous Lucy Pear, the daughter of two women. Born to Beatrice, the unwed teenage daughter of a wealthy Jewish family, Lucy Pear is abandoned by her mother in the family’s pear orchard. It is the season when Irish trespassers steal the ripening pears to make bootleg moonshine.

Ashamed to keep the baby, and unwilling to surrender her to an orphanage, Beatrice sneaks out late one night clutching the blanket-wrapped baby and sets her under a tree. The plan works as the thieves discover the baby and whisk her away. Emma, an Irish Catholic immigrant already the mother of a large brood, becomes Lucy’s new mother.

For the next 10 years, the two families intersect in various ways, but the truth of Lucy’s parentage remains hidden. Lucy, a bold and instinctive child, senses there is information being withheld from her. At the same time, she holds on to disturbing secrets of her own.

Solomon uses two historical events that speak volumes in illustrating the bigotry of the time. There was the infamous case of Sacco and Vanzetti, two Italian-American anarchists who were arrested, imprisoned for seven years, and finally executed for a murder in spite of any solid evidence implicating them.

There was also the “secret court” at Harvard, a witch hunt to expose and then expel homosexual students.

The contrasts in the novel are many:  Jewish and Irish, the haves and the have nots, the fecund and the barren, heterosexual and homosexual, yet implicit in all of them are restrictions of the freedom we often take for granted today.

But the most heartrending contrast is between two women from different classes and places in society, of different temperaments and beliefs, who are bound together forever through their love for a child.

Bookended by the turn-of-the-century influx of European immigrants and the rumblings of World War II, the setting of Leaving Lucy Pear is one of the most absorbing features of the novel.

Solomon is an exquisite writer and skillfully weaves together multi-dimensional characters with a plot that is never predictable. You know when you can’t stop thinking about the characters?

That’s the sign of a great book.

 

One of my lucky readers will receive a copy of Leaving Lucy Pear. Please leave a comment below and a winner will be randomly selected. USA addresses only, please.

I received a copy of Leaving Lucy Pear from Viking for an honest review, which is the only kind of review I write.

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Book Buzz: Harmony

Harmony is that rare novel that hits my trifecta of an amazing read: compelling family drama, dark humor and heart pounding suspense.

Book Buzz: Harmony

Harmony

Written with storytelling skill and compassion by Carolyn Parkhurst, whose The Dogs of Babel was a huge favorite of mine, Harmony is about modern day parenting and the lengths we will go to in order to do right by our children.

It is about the pressure we put on ourselves as parents, the struggle to succeed at parenting and the scrutiny from society, the disapproval, that makes us doubt ourselves.

Alexandra and Josh Hammond, a middle-class couple living in Washington, DC, have two daughters. Tilly, age 12, is a precocious, creative child who happens to be on the autism spectrum. Iris, age 10, is the “normal” one.

The parents agonize over Tilly’s special needs. Her behavioral issues get her kicked out of every school. People stare at her. Children point fingers. Desperate to find the right school, the right therapy, Alexandra doggedly pursues every option, only to come up short. As Tilly’s extreme behavior dominates their lives, Alexandra despairs that Tilly’s issues will only get worse and it will be her fault, her failing as a parent.

My heart sank for this couple. I felt their frustration, their searing anger when other “normal” children made fun of their daughter. Wouldn’t I search everywhere for help as they did?

And if I were at the end of my rope with no stone left unturned, would I also surrender myself to an alternative therapy endorsed by a self-proclaimed parenting expert named Scott Bean whom I am convinced understands my child like no one else? Would I also persuade my husband to sell our house and possessions to follow this cult-like messiah into the wilderness, to a place called Camp Harmony, with just us, our children and a carload of belongings?

Recounted alternately by Alexandra and Iris, the plot thickens as the Hammonds become one of three families, each having a special needs child, to inhabit this experimental society in a rustic setting where communication to the outside world is cut off.

Will Scott Bean’s parenting theories put into action make a difference in the lives of these children? Will the parents of these children finally get the answers they have searched for, the answers that will lead to their children’s happiness and growth?

As the experiment slowly takes on a sinister shadowing, the tension builds  and … well, I’m not going to tell you any more. Let’s just say it elicited more than one OMG from me.

I don’t have a child on the spectrum. But after reading Harmony, I am more enlightened about what it means to live with a child who relates to the world differently but is no less of a person, whose potential can be discovered with love and patience, whose families deserve our respect and support.

Harmony captivated me from page one. I loved it.

 

One of my lucky readers will receive a copy of Harmony. Please leave a comment and a winner will be randomly selected. USA addresses only, please.

I received a copy of Harmony from Viking for an honest review,
which is the only kind of review I write.

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Book Buzz: Land of Enchantment

Book Buzz: Land of Enchantment

If you have ever been in an unhealthy relationship, one that you knew in your bones was wrong but couldn’t get out of, Leigh Stein’s unflinchingly honest memoir about obsessive love, Land of Enchantment, will take you right back to that dark place.

And if you’ve never been there, this will be an eye opener for you.

Land of Enchantment

The story begins with a jolt. Leigh gets a call that her ex-boyfriend Jason has died in a motorcycle accident. He was 23.

While preparing to fly across the country for the funeral, she flashes back to the course of their torrid and toxic love affair, and from there the narrative alternates between the younger, inexperienced Leigh and the older one with the perspective that time and distance affords.

Leigh was in her early twenties when she met Jason, several years her junior. With the rugged looks and bad boy rough edges of James Dean, he instantly cast a spell over her. Smitten, she accepted his offer to take off for New Mexico on a romantic adventure, and in doing so leave the safety of her parents’ Chicago home. They agreed to stay six months. He would get a job and earn some money and she would devote the time to finishing her novel. Then they would move to LA where he would get an acting job.

That was the plan.

From the beginning, though, the signs of impending doom were there. Jason was magnetic, yes, but also critical and manipulative.

In beautiful, bleak New Mexico, the land of enchantment, Jason’s behavior became cruel and disturbingly erratic. Leigh was unhappy, isolated with no friends and no car. Jason seemed to care little about her feelings. Stung when he announced he was going to a party without her, Leigh decided that was the final straw. She scraped together the cash to fly back to Chicago.

But that wasn’t the end of the story, or the end of her relationship with Jason. She flew back to New Mexico to be with him the next day.

The cycle of fighting and breaking up and getting back together, a textbook case of an addictive relationship, continued when they were both back in Chicago. Leigh, in denial, made excuses for Jason’s bad behavior, even the instances of violence. Drugs and alcohol provided a means of self-medicating to get through the depression.

And then …

A friend in New York shared a tip about a job opening in New York. Leigh was terrified at the thought of applying. There were days when she couldn’t even get out of bed.

Did she leave? Could she leave? Did she go back?

You’ll have to read the book to find out.

My hope is that this deeply affecting, coming of age story will have a wide reach, especially to girls and young women in troubled relationships whose sense of worth is in the hands of an abuser. Whether physical or psychological, abuse will erode your self-esteem and steal your life. It never ends well.

And I wish I could reach back in time and share this book with 20 year-old me.

 

One of my lucky readers will receive a copy of Land of Enchantment. Please leave a comment below and a winner will be randomly selected. USA addresses only, please.

 

I received a copy of Land of Enchantment from Plume for an honest review, which is the only kind of review I write.

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Book Buzz: We Are All Made of Stars

Live each day as if it were your last. You never know what tomorrow may bring. Life is short, seize the day. Hold your loved ones close.

We’ve all heard these phrases throughout our lives. But when we were young and felt immortal, who paid attention? The older we get, though, the more meaningful the message. Have you said what needs to be said to those who matter in your life?

We Are All Made of Stars

This is the premise in Rowan Coleman’s poignant new novel, We Are All Made of Stars. Through the eyes of several characters, we get a glimpse of how love and loss, missed opportunities and second chances have shaped their lives. Although the subject matter sounds grim, do not be deterred; this thought-provoking and often uplifting story will tug at your heartstrings.

We Are All Made of Stars

Stella is married to an army veteran whose leg was blown off in battle. Suffering from PTSD and guilt over not being able to save his buddy, Vincent has withdrawn emotionally and won’t let anyone in, especially Stella.

Frustrated by his rebuffs, Stella throws herself into her work as a hospice nurse on the night shift. She is loved and trusted by her patients, some of whom have made their peace while others express regrets about things left unsaid. After helping a patient write a final letter to a loved one, she becomes known as the conduit for relaying final messages through sealed letters that will be opened only after the patient’s demise.

The other main characters are Hope, a young woman with cystic fibrosis who yearns to experience love, and Hugh, a man who lives alone except for the cat that his erstwhile girlfriend left him with. Their chance meeting with Stella turns into a transformative experience for both.

The minor characters in Stella’s con-stella-tion are also well drawn and factor prominently into the plot. But what enchanted me most were the letters, the letters that Stella ghost wrote for her patients. In turn tender, funny, sad, and heart wrenching, they are written to first loves, faithful spouses, longtime friends, children and even cranky neighbors. Replete with honesty, humor, untold secrets, hopes for the future once they’re gone, they are a delight.

The art of letter writing is fading just as surely as texting is thriving, and that is sad. There is something about the permanence of a letter that texting can’t hold a candle to. Letters are a lasting treasure. You can imagine the recipient holding this last piece of their loved one, reading it with brimming eyes, folding it carefully and putting it in a safe place.

That is truly the essence of this life-affirming book. We Are All Made of Stars might inspire you to pause for a moment and think about the people that are closest to you. What would happen if they were gone tomorrow?  Is there unfinished business?

Say what needs to be said now, because you just never know.

One of my lucky readers will receive a copy of We Are All Made of Stars. Please leave a comment below and a winner will be selected randomly. USA addresses only, please.

 

I received a copy of We Are All Made of Stars from Ballantine Books for an honest review, which is the only kind of review I write.

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Book Buzz: Jonathan Unleashed

I have a soft spot in my heart for books about dogs, so I eagerly dove into Jonathan Unleashed, best-selling author Meg Rosoff’s quirky new novel about a young man at odds with the world and the two dogs that help him find his way to happiness.

Jonathan Unleashed is also Jonathan Unhinged

Recent college graduate Jonathan Trefoil is ensconced in an advertising job that he hates and stuck in an unsatisfying relationship with his girlfriend of four years. He yearns for a more meaningful existence but has no idea how he can get there.

Book Buzz: Jonathan Unleashed

In the midst of this millennial angst, he agrees to take care of his brother’s two dogs, Dante the Border collie and Sissy the cocker spaniel, while his brother is in Dubai on business for six months.

Being a sensitive and, I’ll be honest here, neurotic kind of guy (or more kindly, charmingly flawed), he frets that the dogs are plotting against him because they are unhappy being cooped up in his New York City apartment while he is at work. Although the veterinarian he consults gently tells him that the dogs are fine, he continues to obsess. But, good news, his company allows him to bring the dogs to the office, and all is well.

But then, not.

It turns out that four is a crowd when his girlfriend moves in with him and can barely contain her disdain for the dogs. A conniving sort, she convinces him to marry her because the wedding magazine she works for, Bridal-360, will foot the bill if they agree to let it be live streamed on the internet. Confused and unsure, but anxious to mollify her, he agrees.

As the wedding date approaches, his life continues to unravel. His job and his boss irritate him to the point of collapse. Mysteriously, he loses his ability to speak coherently (the ensuing malapropisms are very entertaining).

Who, or what, will save the day? As all dog lovers know, canine intuition is second to none, and Dante and Sissy take matters into their own hands paws. With a clever twist in the story, Rosoff shows how man’s (and women’s) best friend has an uncanny way of making everything right.

As Rosoff said in an interview,

“It’s much easier to have a relationship with a dog than with a person. Dogs tend to be happy, affectionate, emotionally consistent companions. They don’t sulk or insist on seeing Spiderman when you’d rather see a foreign film.  They don’t come with in-laws and don’t mind eating toast you’ve dropped on the floor. It’s why every eight-year-old boy fantasizes about having a dog not a wife. Dogs are relatively simple, people are relatively complicated. Plus, dogs look better naked than most people do.”

A woof and a tail wag to that.

 

One of my lucky readers will receive a copy of Jonathan Unleashed by leaving a comment below. USA addresses only, please.

 

I received a copy of Jonathan Unleashed from Viking for an honest review, which is the only kind of review I write.

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Book Buzz: The Space Between Sisters

The ingredients for a pleasurable summer read are all found in The Space Between Sisters, Mary McNear’s latest novel in her Butternut Lake series.

Book Buzz; The Space Between Sisters

Take a scenic and charming lake community, add in two sisters and two eligible bachelors, combine with the allure of summertime, sprinkle in a bit of nostalgia and a few secrets, finish off with a dash of whimsy with a cat named Sasquatch, and voila.

The Space Between Sisters

Poppy and Win have the same parents but couldn’t be more different. Now adults, Poppy is impetuous and flighty and Win, a widow, is organized and steady. They haven’t lived together in 13 years, but one day Poppy appears on the doorstep of the Win’s lakeside cottage in Butternut Lake — jobless, out of money, and having nowhere to go.

The cottage, once owned by their grandparents, had been their summertime destination when they were children. The sisters both have fond memories of idyllic summers spent in Butternut Lake. When the grandparents died, Win — the more responsible sister– inherits the cottage, and she decides to live there year-round.

Poppy and Win were close as children, relying on each other perhaps more than most siblings do. Their household was chaotic. The parents were negligent and for large chunks of time the girls were on their own, even at a young age. They yearned for a stable home environment but the parents were unable to provide it.

Now adults, the love is still there. But it’s complicated.

Living together for the first time in many years, the sisters still love each other but find new tensions in their relationship. Win is frustrated with Poppy’s lack of initiative and her messiness. Poppy is irritated by Win’s OCD type of organization. At the same time, they are trying to reframe their broken lives: Win, reeling from the death of her husband, and Poppy, struggling with a painful secret she has been harboring for years.

But the bonds of sisterhood prove more durable than the adversity each has faced. Poppy and Win realize they are both ready to find closure with the past. Willing to move on, to accept what is and put it behind them, they find strength in the ties that bind them. In doing so, they find that they have much more in common than they once thought.

This is a breezy, easy read that definitely meets the requirements for a great beach book (even if you’re not at the beach). And if you haven’t read the three prior books in the Butternut Lake series, no worries. The Space Between Sisters is fine as a standalone.

One of my lucky readers will receive a copy of The Space Between Sisters. Please leave a comment below and enter the giveaway.

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I received a copy of The Space Between Sisters from William Morrow for an honest review, which is the only kind of review I write.

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Book Buzz: There Was a Fire Here

We’ve all played the game, the one where you consider what you would grab if your house was on fire and you had no time to pack. When your life literally depended on your getting out of there ASAP.

Risa Nye and her family faced that decision, but it was no game.

It was less than a month before Nye’s 40th birthday. She was musing over the passage of time and her lost youth when the unthinkable occurred.

Book Buzz: There Was a Fire Here

There Was a Fire Here

In her beautifully told but wrenching new memoir, There Was a Fire Here, Nye recounts the trauma and the aftermath of the devastating fire that destroyed her home.

It happened on October 19, 1991. A grass fire was reported and quickly contained by fire crews. Or so they thought.  The next day gusts of wind quickly spread pockets of fire still burning in the grass. Within a short time flames destroyed the local power station, obliterating eight pumping plants. Water pressure dropped. The smoke and fluttering ash were heavy enough to cause residents’ eyes to sting.

And the fire spread like … wildfire.

Nye and her husband Bruce told their two young children that they would wait out the firestorm at the home of Bruce’s parents nearby. They gathered what they thought was important at the time: changes of clothing, jewelry, photo albums.

In fact, they never returned to their beautiful home. It was the Great Oakland Fire that destroyed thousands of homes and killed 25 people.

Their home was leveled to its foundation. It would take two years to rebuild.

Nye skillfully builds the tension and horror, the feeling of surrealism, as she and her husband absorb the extent of the destruction.  Belongings and keepsakes that remained in the house were gone forever. Articles of clothing, photos of great-grandparents, children’s toys, were never to be seen again. The blue baseball glove Nye’s father had given her; a gorgeous pink party dress — a consignment shop steal — she had worn just twice; a baby blanket. She grieves their loss. In chapters titled “Artifacts,” Nye shares the sentimental significance of these items, and it is heartbreaking.

She writes, “There was a fire here that wiped out not only things, not only people, but memories–a past with nothing left to mark its presence.”

Haunting and sobering, yes, but inspirational with dashes of humor as well, There Was a Fire Here is one woman’s story of catastrophic loss and the will to move on.

 

I received a copy of There Was a Fire Here from She Writes Press for an honest review,
which is the only kind of review I write.

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Writing a Book Made Simpler in 1-2-3

This book writing stuff. It’s really hard.

My novel has been a work in progress for a good year and a half, and I wish I could say it was almost done. I realized, however, during three days of writing workshops at the Philadelphia Writers Conference that I have much to do before calling it a day.

Book writing isn’t just the writing.

A key part is the planning, the structuring. There are mechanics to novel writing that can not be ignored. Each character, for example, must have a story arc comprised of the situation, the spark and the conclusion. A character must have a goal and obstacles that must be overcome to reach that goal. And once that is established, the character’s arc must intersect with the other characters’ arcs.

Dialogue needs a context and a subtext. Dialogue must be authentic but not mundane. It can be reported or condensed, and it needs to propel the action.

I could have done this differently.

There is another way, a better way, that writer and editor Stuart Horwitz presents in his new book, Finish Your Book in Three Drafts: How to Write a Book, Revise a Book, and Complete a Book While You Still Love it, the third book in his Book Architecture Trilogy.

Writing: Finish Your Book in Three Drafts

Horwitz is the founder and principal of Book Architecture, a firm of independent editors based in Providence, RI (www.bookarchitecture.com) whose clients have reached the bestseller list in both fiction and nonfiction.

I was fortunate to meet Horwitz at last year’s Philadelphia Writers Conference, and his keynote was one of the highlights for me, so much so that I approached him after his presentation to tell him how much I enjoyed it. Not only is Horwitz a smart guy, he is down to earth and has a great sense of humor. As a writer, he totally gets the frustrations we writers experience with endless revisions. He’s been there himself.

Finish Your Book in Three Drafts gives writers, fiction and non-fiction alike, a practical way to get through the revision process with minimal consternation. Horwitz proposes that a book can be completed in three drafts:

  • The messy draft: which is all about getting it down.
  • The method draft: which is all about making sense.
  • The polished draft: which is all about making it good.

“I think about the people who don’t publish their books, and too often it’s not because they lack the writing skills. It’s because they got lost along the way. One draft isn’t going to cut it, but neither is twenty,” Horwitz says. “All you need is three drafts, and the tools to know where you are in the process.”

What’s more, Finish Your Book in Three Drafts is interactive. The book is nicknamed “3D” because it contains nine stop-motion videos that bring the concepts to life through the use of action figures, and nine PDFs for when you want more detailed information and instructions about topics such as “How to Find Your Theme,” “The Five Definitions of Scene,” and “How to Construct Your Book Proposal.”

Finish Your Book in Three Drafts is available in both print and digital editions from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Indiebound.

I’m taking a look at my novel through a different lens now, and it is so worth the extra time.

 

I received a copy of Finish Your Book in Three Drafts for an honest review,
which is the only kind of review I write.

 

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Book Buzz: Under the Harrow

If there is a season for good reads, it is certainly summer. Have I got a juicy one for you.

Book Buzz: Under the Harrow

Under the Harrow by Flynn Berry starts off, as all good psychological thrillers do, with a sense of normalcy. Nora, the narrator, is boarding a train in London to go visit her sister Rachel in the countryside as she often does. Her mind wanders as she muses about the mundane: her job, old conversations, the sisters’ vacation in Cornwall, the scenery out the window.

She reaches her destination and finds that Rachel and her dog are not there waiting. Nora figures Rachel has been stuck at work and sets off for the house by herself.

What awaits her is a ghastly scene. Rachel is the victim of a brutal murder.

Under the Harrow

By definition, under the harrow means distressed and in peril. In the aftermath of her trauma, Nora struggles to gather her wits so she can be helpful to the police. She is skeptical that they are on the right track, however. Rachel had been the victim of an assault years ago, a case that has gone unsolved. Was this perpetrator the same? Was it the married neighbor, a handyman, who had done work in Rachel’s house and was the last one to see her alive? Was it any one of the townspeople whom Nora regards with suspicion? By obsessively tracking down the killer she finds a way to work through her grief.

This is Berry’s debut novel, and she is a gifted writer and storyteller. Her prose is spare and powerful, and as the story unfolds we learn much about the tender, fiercely loyal, complex relationship between the sisters.

Under the Harrow is an emotional, suspenseful story that is as much a study of the bond between sisters as it is an absorbing murder mystery.

Who doesn’t love a page turner? Slap on your suntan lotion and enjoy this engrossing summer read.

 

One of my lucky readers will receive a copy of Under the Harrow. Please leave a comment and a winner will be selected randomly. USA addresses only, please.

 

I received a copy of Under the Harrow from Penguin for an honest review,
which is the only kind of review I write.

If you like my blog post, please share it!
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Book Buzz: The Ecliptic

Writer’s block. The two words that can make a writer shudder. Or any creative person who produces, produces, produces and then — bump — hits a wall.

Book Buzz: The Ecliptic

I suspect we’ve all encountered this at some point or another. For promising artists on the rise, however, who have achieved some level of success, the public scrutiny can only exacerbate the problem, creating a vicious cycle of self-doubt and creative paralysis.

The Ecliptic

In Benjamin Wood’s novel The Ecliptic, a group of gifted but stalled artists is voluntarily sequestered on the Turkish island of Portmantle to have the time and space to be inspired to complete their work.

To become a part of this artist’s colony is actually a gift; one needs to be sponsored by a wealthy benefactor to even apply. Once there, the artist is free to stay as long as it takes, as long as the benefactor continues to provide support. In exchange, the artists agree to give up all ties to the outside world, including their own names;  they are assigned new names upon their arrival. They also surrender their passports.

The story is narrated by Elspeth Conroy, or Knell as she is named, a talented but insecure, even tortured Scottish painter who has achieved some renown in the London art world. She struggles to finish a mural featuring the ecliptic – the sun’s journey through the heavens as seen from Earth. She has been on the island for ten years. Her companions are Quickman, who was struck with writer’s block when his only novel became a classic, MacKinney, a playwright, and Pettifer, an architect who obsesses over the cathedral he has yet to create.

The setting shuttles back and forth between the isolated island and the London art scene, where we see Elspeth establish herself as an artist of promise, only to fall into despair when her creativity dries up.

The book is divided into four parts: the first, an introduction to life on Portmantle. The second section reveals Elspeth’s backstory, her rise in the art world and the concomitant struggles, internally, romantically and commercially. In the third part we return to Portmantle where mysteries  begin to unfold and there are rumblings of discontent following the untimely death of a newcomer to the island. Elspeth is becoming disenchanted with her stay and contemplates leaving. In the last section, well, I can’t say too much because of spoilers, but there are plot twists that will surprise or possibly disappoint you. But I’m not going to give it away!

Part fantasy, part mystery, part expose, The Ecliptic is a compelling read about the life of an artist, the day in, day out struggle to maintain one’s creative muse. Wood is a skillful, imaginative writer who brings these likeable, conflicted characters to life and gives us a bird’s eye view into their world.

 

One lucky reader will receive a copy of The Ecliptic. Please leave a comment below and a winner will be selected randomly. USA addresses only, please.

 

I received a copy of The Ecliptic from Penguin for a honest review,
which is the only kind of review I write.

If you like my blog post, please share it!
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