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Review+Interview+Giveaway–“A Curious Collection of Dates: Through the Year with Sherlock Holmes” by Leah Guinn and Jaime N. Mahoney

14 Jan

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My Review

Anyone who has come anywhere near the world of the illustrious Sherlock Holmes knows that, especially for his many admirers, it is a world both deep and wide: deep, because of the riches that may be uncovered by paying close attention, digging beneath the surface of the Canon (the 56 stories and 4 novels penned by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle–with the help of Dr. John Watson); and wide, because of the breadth of Holmes’s active career, which has stretched from his home base in 221B Baker Street to the mountains of Tibet, and has created enormous, unflagging interest, worldwide, from the 1890s to the present. If anything, the fascination with Holmes has grown over the years. The places and situations where his services as consulting detective are needed have multiplied beyond counting in the industry of creative pastiches. To paraphrase Shakespeare (something Holmes himself did on occasion*), “Banish Sherlock Holmes, and banish all the world.”**

I cannot think of two more ardent or astute admirers of Holmes and his world than Leah Guinn and Jaime N. Mahoney, who are known for their impeccable research and attention to craft, not to mention their wit and warmth, at their blogs, The Well-Read Sherlockian (Guinn) and Better Holmes & Gardens (Mahoney). In their remarkable Sherlockian book of days, A Curious Collection of Dates, they have delivered something notable to read about for each day of the year. In fact, their knowledge is itself so deep and so wide that many times they provide two, three, four, or even more events (March 24 has six!) that fall on a particular date. One need go no farther than January 1 to discover: “that fateful meeting” of Holmes and Watson, recorded in “A Study in Scarlet” [STUD]; the founding of the paper that would become the Times of London, so essential to Holmes in his work; and the premiere of “A Scandal in Belgravia,” to open Season 2 of the BBC’s popular series, Sherlock, starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman as the inseparable colleagues in detection. This last entry signals that one need not blow the dust off this very engaging collection–while its display of learning among the Victorians is breathtaking, A Curious Collection of Dates brings the noteworthy Holmesian people, facts, and events right up to the present.

I heartily recommend exploring this fascinating book for yourself, but I cannot resist sharing a selection of some of the types of entries you will find when you do.

As befitting a book of days, there are many birthdays. These include actors who have played key characters in the adaptations of the stories, for stage, film, radio, and television. You can be sure to discover the birthdays of Jeremy Brett (November 3); Basil Rathbone (June 13), who shares a birthday with mystery writer and devoted Sherlockian Dorothy Sayers; and Benedict Cumberbatch (July 19), who shares a birthday with Russian actor Vasily Livanov, whose portrayal of Holmes in Russian productions earned him the Order of the British Empire in 2006 and a statue near the British embassy in Moscow (we learn all this from his entry). The legion of actors taking on the character of Holmes makes for numerous enlightening instances during the year. For example, of Peter Cushing (b. May 26, 1933), we learn:

Peter Cushing once famously proclaimed that “…he would rather sweep Paddington station for a living than go through the experience [of being Sherlock Holmes] again.” More than anyone, Cushing had certainly had enough turns at the characters to know whereof he spoke. Starring as the Great Detective on three separate occasions, Cushing appeared in the 1959 adaptation of The Hound of the Baskervilles by Hammer Films,  the BBC’s 1968 Sherlock Holmes series, and in 1984, the made-for-television movie Sherlock Holmes and the Masks of Death.

Cushing was not always so antagonistic towards the Great Detective, and had been, in fact, a fan of Sherlock Holmes since his childhood: “I love all the stories. It’s the atmosphere I love so much, and they’ve all got that. I love the way they start: it is always foggy and there were those equinoctial gales.”

I love the way the entries are seasoned with personal quotes such as these, revealing so much about the personalities involved. One can also enjoy the host of photographs and period illustrations that enhance the text. It is especially helpful to see the photos of the variety of actors who have remade themselves, for a time, into a living image of Holmes.

Of course, acting is only one occupation held by people relevant to the Holmesian canon. Besides such indispensable figures as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and many other writers, one finds the collector Richard Lancelyn Green; the naturalist Charles Darwin; the astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus; the scientist, Sir Francis Galton; the American detective, Charles Pinkerton; the inventor of one style of shorthand, Sir Isaac Pitman; the magician, Harry Houdini; the violin virtuoso and composer, Pablo de Sarasate; the engineer and architect, Isambard Kingdom Brunel; the psychiatrist, Sigmund Freud; and many, many more–all with their connection to the world of Sherlock Holmes explained and documented in compelling fashion.

Many of the people profiled would be classed by some as “fictional” (I use this term cautiously). For example, we find birthdays for Mary Russell (January 2, 1900; wife of Holmes in his retirement, as reported by Laurie R. King, her literary agent), Mycroft Holmes (February 12, 1847; elder brother), and of course, Sherlock Holmes himself, whose actual birthday is believed to be January 6, 1854.

Anniversaries, such as the first publication of particular stories and the premieres of adaptations, are another kind of birthday. The book includes helpful appendices for the publication of the stories in The Strand or in Collier’s. Many entries make excellent use of such anniversaries to offer insightful commentary.

Historical events, such as the Queen’s (i.e., Victoria’s) Diamond Jubilee (June 22), the Battle of Marengo (June 14, 1800), and the Indian Mutiny (May 10, 1857), merit inclusion because of story references, but probably the most intriguing historical entries are those that date events originating within the story world. Some of these are given in Watson’s own account, as in “The Scandal of Bohemia” where Watson chances to meet the King of Bohemia who is consulting Holmes about a very delicate personal matter; the date given is “the twentieth of March, 1888” but it is pointed out by the authors that this apparently straightforward date poses some chronology conumdrums for careful observers of the canon. In other cases, Watson may give indications of the timing without a precise date, or include very little information to fix a date. Then it is the happy task of intrepid scholars to reason from the evidence to deduce the correct date, usually with much debate ensuing. Entries such as “‘The Adventure of Wisteria Lodge’ Begins” (March 24) and “‘The Adventure of the Three Gables’ Begins” (May 26) show the results of such scholarly efforts and the chief arguments backing them up. Some events originating in the story world–I’m thinking of Holmes’s plunge over the Reichenbach Falls on May 4, 1891–were so profoundly significant that they spurred an outcry in the world at large, and led to his return to both the story world and the waiting reading public.

I could easily cite a further torrent of examples. In fact, the more I attempted to list and classify the entries in this book, the more I realized that they defy any simple classification–they seem to share Holmes’s “infinite variety.”  A Curious Collection of Dates gathers informative and entertaining accounts, in one place, that touch on formative events and influential people for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, for Sherlock Holmes, or for both of them. It also pays tribute to famous Sherlockians such as William Gillette, Christopher Morley, William S. Baring-Gould, and Vincent Starrett. Above all, it records milestones in the life of Sherlock Holmes, a towering figure who continues to draw us from our world into his.***

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My Interview with

Leah Guinn and Jaime N. Mahoney

I am delighted to welcome Leah Guinn and Jaime N. Mahoney, who have kindly agreed to disclose some of their methods and reflect on a life led with Sherlock Holmes never far from view.

Q1. When did you first encounter Sherlock Holmes? Can you recall the first story you read? When did the urge to become a student of all things Holmes first take hold?

Leah: Because Sherlock Holmes has become so ubiquitous, I’m not sure that I was ever completely unaware of him. But we “met” a few times before things “took.” In 2nd grade, for instance, I bought Eve Titus’ Basil and the Pygmy Cats  at the book fair. I loved it, but basically I was more about the talking mice. Later, in 4th grade (again at a book fair), I bought a collection of Sherlock Holmes stories. The very first one was The Sign of Four,  and I was absolutely shocked at the fact that Sherlock Holmes took cocaine! Obviously this was not a book or a hero for me! I put it away and didn’t bother with Holmes again until sometime in college, where I tried The Hound of the Baskervilles. Again, I was disappointed, because there was (I thought) far too much Watson and not enough Holmes—which is why I don’t recommend it for one’s first Holmes story.

Finally…I had just come off a major reading binge—Preston and Child’s Pendergast series, and was absolutely lost. I read online that their hero, Agent Pendergast, was inspired, in part, by Sherlock Holmes, so I thought I’d give him (yet another) try. I first read two pastiches—Edward Hanna’s The Whitechapel Horror, then Lyndsay Faye’s Dust and Shadow. I then moved on to the Canon itself and it was all over. I don’t think I read anything non-Holmesian for the entirety of 2011.

Jaime: The first time I ever encountered Sherlock Holmes was through a pastiche, even though I wasn’t familiar with the term at the time. When I was twelve-years-old, my mother gave me a copy of The Canary Trainer by Nicholas Meyer because I had developed an interest in opera and singing, and I think she was hoping I would develop an interest in something… not so loud. My singing voice has always been a bit… shrill. She had The Canary Trainer on her shelf because she was writing a novel about King Arthur, and her writing group had suggested Meyer as an author who had successfully captured an iconic figure. I certainly think they were right.

As for the first canonical story I read – is it terrible that I don’t remember? Deduction tells me that it was probably either A Study in Scarlet or – ironically, to those who know me best – “A Scandal in Bohemia,” simply because those stories tend to come first in collections and I was a somewhat orderly child. I think I’ve wanted to be a student of all things Holmes since I first read The Canary Trainer (if you aren’t familiar with the Canon, it’s a pretty confusing book and I spent a lot of time in the library looking things up when I was done with it), but it was around 2009 that I first realized that there were other people like me. People who wrote things, and analyzed, and researched, and devoted their time to this very specific topic – it was a tremendous relief!

Q2. If you are willing to reveal your methods, I am very interested in your process. With such a wealth of possible material, how did you select the types of events you wanted to include?

Leah: We decided that we would each play to our strengths. I am a history person. In the end, I want to know “what really happened.”  Jaime is much more literary, and far better at understanding the artistry in film and other media. We put everything we could think of on a spreadsheet, and went from there, trimming as we went—and as time grew short!

Jaime: At first, we weren’t very particular at all. Everything was going to get included (we thought, naively)! Every birthday, death, the original premiere date of every movie and television episode, every historical figure and significant event, every canonical moment. We soon realized that if we did that, the book would be unending. It would never be finished. Eventually we decided to just be consistent: every birthday was included, but only the deaths of significant figures. We included the premiere of every movie, but only the pilot episodes of television shows. Even then, some dates were overwhelmed with material (there is so much going on in May, it borders on ridiculous) and still had empty spots in others.

I can honestly say we clashed over very little, except for Louise Brealey (the actress who plays Molly Hooper in the BBC series). Leah was adamant that she be included, and I was equally adamant that she shouldn’t be. Molly Hooper isn’t canon, I argued! Not because I didn’t like Molly Hooper (I do, very much), but because I saw the door opening on writing a bunch of entries for other non-canonical characters. Suddenly I was metaphorically standing on top of St. Bart’s screaming that the book was never going to get done. I forget how we compromised on this one, but Ms. Brealey is in the book (March 27).

Q3. As you began mapping out events and dates, how did you go about filling gaps? How did you do research for specific dates, since, apart from birthdays, dates are not always that readily available?

Leah: We started out with the [William S.] Baring-Gould chronology. Even though it has some issues, it’s the one most people are familiar with, and it’s also very easy to find online. I would then back that up with Zeisler (whom I often like better), or use Dakin’s A Sherlock Holmes Commentary, in which he plays referee between chronologists. Another good source for that is Brad Keefauver’s online “Sherlock Holmes Timeline,” where you can see what the major players think in one place.

After that, I went through [Leslie S.] Klinger’s Annotated, page by page, to make a list of Canon events, historical events, people, works of art, places, crimes, actors, etc. Some of them had dates already—the Battle of Maiwand, for example. Others took some more digging. My favorite resources were online newspaper archives, the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, and Ancestry.com. You would not believe what you can get out of Ancestry if you think creatively and are willing to do hours of sorting. Towards the very end, we still had some dates without entries, and for those I turned to Chris Redmond, who was able to very quickly find Sherlockian connections for each one. When you do work like this, you should never think that you are all-sufficient. Sometimes you need fresh eyes, and fresh minds, and the Sherlockian community is full of people who are willing and eager to offer both.

Jaime: Hope, prayer and Leah’s exceptional research skills. When we finished our initial calendar, I remember there being only a small handful of dates that had nothing to mark them. In some ways, those dates became very easy to fill, as they were a very specific and narrow target. We were able to think in terms of just that date, instead of mapping out a specific group of material (actors or premiere dates, for example) in its entirety. Sometimes we had to think outside the Sherlockian box for material (events that weren’t necessarily tied directly to Sherlock Holmes, but had interesting links instead).

In the end, I’d say there is still one date in the entire book where the entry is only somewhat tenuously Sherlockian. It was a tough date (but I won’t say which one, in case you haven’t spotted it). [I haven’t!~LPG]

Q4. Can you talk about some of your favorite discoveries? Some a-ha moments that might have sent Holmes leaping over his couch or waking up Watson in the middle of the night?

Leah: My very favorites were dates that took a good deal of detective work. For example, I found Herbert Greenhough Smith’s birthday on Ancestry, in an online record of Cambridge alumni. Another was Daniel Rudge, one of the inventors of the Rudge-Whitworth bicycle which left those famous tire tracks in “The Adventure of the Priory School.” He was very elusive, but I finally managed to track him down, and obtain his vital records via mail.

Jaime: Ah, waking Watson up in the middle of the night – there’s a fine Sherlockian tradition! I’m not sure this revelation is worth waking up someone in the middle of the night (I rarely think things are – like Watson, I treasure my sleep), but I was astounded at how often Sherlockian actors crossover, and how their lives overlap. There are Watsons who have played the character two, three, four times or more – to different actors playing the Great Detective! Or an actor would play Holmes in one series and Watson (or Moriarty) in another.

Most of all, I enjoyed learning how the actors’ personal lives would intersect. Not just that Jeremy Brett and Edward Hardwicke were friends off-screen, but that Jeremy Brett and Robert Stephens knew each other before they had even heard of Sherlock Holmes. Or that Brett’s former brother-in-law, Daniel Massey, appeared in Granada’s adaptation of “The Problem of Thor Bridge.” Or that his former father-in-law, Raymond Massey, also once played Sherlock Holmes.

I think a lot about Jeremy Brett, obviously.

Q5. I know that Leah marks the year’s end with her annual Twelfth Night Giveaway, and I suspect that, like me, Jaime does not let November 3 go by without a grateful nod to the memory of Jeremy Brett. Are there other dates that you personally celebrate, as devoted Sherlockians?

Leah: I love doing this, because it gives me a chance to share Holmes with my kids. We celebrate Holmes’ birthday, “Reichenbach Day,” Conan Doyle’s Birthday, and “Watson’s Birthday,” always with cake, and sometimes with action figures and movies.

Jaime: The Master’s birthday – January 6 – of course! The perfect occasion to raise a glass to Sherlock Holmes, for all he has done and for all those whom he has saved. My non-Sherlockian friends are baffled that I take the time to celebrate Holmes’s birthday. They want to know if I celebrate the birthdays of Harry Potter, Bilbo Baggins, or Hamlet. I tell them, “Of course not. They weren’t real.”

Of course, in addition to Jeremy Brett’s birthday, we included the day of his death [September 12, 1995] in the book. I adore Jeremy Brett, and this was a particularly difficult entry to write. When it was done, I remember I told Leah, “You’d be proud of me. I only cried a little bit.”

Q6. Given the immortal partnership of Holmes and Watson, it seems wonderful that you chose to write this book as a team. As friends and colleagues, could you each say a few words about what the other brought to the project? Any stories you would like to share?

Leah: Not only did Jaime bring her superior literary and media skills, she also brought a sense of balance and proportion to the whole thing. I don’t know how to stop, pretty much. Without Jaime, the entries would be longer, there would be about one hundred more of them, and the book might not be done!  Plus, Jaime is such a wonderful person and so great to talk to. I think that working on (and occasionally suffering through) this book cemented our friendship.

Jaime: If I had walked into a shop and asked for a co-author custom built to my specifications, I still wouldn’t have received a better co-author than Leah. She is a tireless researcher, a gifted writer, and really just one of my very best friends. I was always astounded when she would look at a topic and see a 3,000 word essay, where I had only seen a 150 word entry. She has a way of cutting right to the heart of things, which I’ll never be able to do in all my days.

About a month after Wessex Press accepted our book for publication, I found out I was pregnant with my daughter. I was worried about telling Leah. I thought for sure that she would be annoyed, worried about the future of the book, and concerned about working with a pregnant co-author. I shouldn’t have been concerned. Outside of my husband and me, Leah was probably the most excited for Morrigan’s arrival. This story shouldn’t surprise anyone who knows her, but I’ll always remember how grateful I was to her.

My deepest thanks to Leah and Jaime for their marvelous responses to my questions. Their joy in the subject of Sherlock Holmes, in all its myriad facets, is only matched by their very evident dedication to careful research and thoughtful writing. They have given us a sublime book of days to stimulate the mind and imagination throughout the year. Such excellence of craft can touch the heart as well, something expressed so movingly in the closing scene of “The Adventure of the Six Napoleons.” Inspired by the words of Inspector Lestrade, I would like to say thank you to these authors–there is not a Sherlockian among us, from the oldest to the youngest, who wouldn’t be glad to shake you both by the hand.

♦♦♦♦

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Buy the Book

The Well-Read Sherlockian  ♦   Leah on Twitter  ♦  Leah on Facebook

Better Holmes & Gardens  ♦  Jaime on Twitter  ♦  Jaime on Facebook

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Giveaway!

I am very pleased to offer 2 paperback copies of A Curious Collection of Dates: Through the Year with Sherlock Holmes which will go to two lucky winners of the giveaway linked below. The winners will be chosen at random from the total entries. Follow the instructions to increase your number of entries.  The giveaway will be open for about one week and will end at 11:59 pm on Sunday, January 22, 2017. Open to residents of the U.S., Canada, and the U.K., 18 years of age and older.

Entry-Form

I will notify the winners by email. If you are chosen as a winner, please reply with your physical mailing address within 48 hours. If I can’t reach you by email, the prize will go to another entrant.

Good luck, and thank you for participating!


*Following the lead of author Leah Guinn’s practice at The Well-Read Sherlockian, I shall provide footnotes. In “The Adventure of the Empty House” [EMPT], Holmes paraphrased a line from Antony and Cleopatra (“Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale / Her infinite variety,” Act II, scene 2) when he said, “I trust that age doth not wither nor custom stale my infinite variety.” Scott Monty (I Hear of Sherlock Everywhere) chose this quote to title his birthday post in 2008, and Jaime N. Mahoney used it to delightful effect, while musing on EMPT and the difficulty of Holmes’ return, to cap off her own return from hiatus in January 2015 .

**See Henry IV, Part 1, Act II, scene 4: “Banish plump Jack, and banish all the world.”

***In The Fictional 100, I emphasized how fluidly Sherlock Holmes has migrated beyond the page to engage with us in our everyday world. This book reminds me that it is a two-way street: that he continually calls on us to pay him a visit and immerse ourselves in his world, the way he saw it. Sherlock Holmes ranks 9th on the Fictional 100.

Review+Interview+Giveaway: “Time and Regret” by M. K. Tod #FranceBT

3 Sep

Time And Regret Banner

My Review

When a plot involves finding an old document, such as an old diary or a set of letters, I feel both an emotional tug and that insistent spark of curiosity–I am soon deeply committed as a reader.  Time and Regret offers such a plot and wastes no time in getting it underway, introducing the intriguing set of diaries in the first chapter.  Mary K. Tod’s heroine, Grace Hansen, is newly divorced; while sifting through her belongings to make a clean start, she finds a “battered tackle box” left in her attic by her grandfather during one of his visits–with no explanation from him at the time. Prying it open, she finds some letters, a photograph, a map, a French magazine, and a set of notebooks tied with a ribbon. These notebooks prove to be her late grandfather’s World War I diaries, and the photograph shows young Martin Devlin and his friends Pete, Bill, and Michel as they were in May 1915. They are so young, as were most of those serving in the “Great War,” and the diaries will tell their story, but above all it relates the particular experiences of Martin.

It is a marvelous way to connect generations in a family, both in real life and in fiction. And this is especially true when the earlier generation lived during a war, a time the younger generation finds hard to imagine but desires to understand better. A diary can give it form and substance.  It also connects people when death separates them, putting them beyond questioning.  And Grace will have many questions as she reads the diaries.  Tod adds the element of mystery to this gift from the past because her grandfather left her an important message, but chose to hide in it in a puzzle only she is likely to solve; solving puzzles was one of their shared pastimes and passions. The brief note he leaves her, saying, “To my dearest Grace, read carefully.  I never should have taken them,” is cryptic indeed.  What could he have taken, she wonders. As she traces his journey through the war years, she finds the stakes of solving this puzzle may be even higher than she anticipated.

Grace’s prickly grandmother is stubbornly reticent about the war years and offers little or no help, so Grace decides to take matters into her own hands with a bold stroke. She will go to France and Belgium to visit the places, one by one, that figure in her grandfather’s account of his war experiences.  After the thorough upheaval of divorce, this change is just what she needs, and it begins to rebuild her confidence.

As she travels from one town or site of a battle to the next, she reads and rereads her grandfather’s words carefully, as he had urged her to do, and a picture of him begins to form in her mind and heart. She also confronts the devastation of the war itself.

Ruins of Ypres, 1919

Ruins of Ypres, Belgium, 1919. Photo by W. L. King. Library of Congress, Reproduction Number: LC-USZC2-6192

The Belgian town of Ypres, which was the locus of several significant battles, costing hundreds of thousands of lives, was one of her stops. It was also a base from which to visit surrounding villages, such as Passchendaele, where some of the fighting occurred.

Wherever I stopped, I checked Martin’s diaries.  I thought of him as Martin now, not Grandpa, like a character in an unfolding story rather than a man I had known for more than thirty years.  Having read the notebooks three times from beginning to end, I was familiar with the entries, yet I felt the need to honor his service at every opportunity. (p. 25)

The war memorials erected at these sites help Grace in this pledge to herself to honor the service of her grandfather and so many others, and through their sheer size, these monuments, along with their adjacent cemeteries, convey the enormous scope and cataclysmic effects of the war. The Battle of Thiepval Ridge, the first battle of the Somme in September 1916, was marked by an imposing structure 140 feet high with foundations 19 feet thick (a detail Grace learns from her guidebook). Beside it she felt like “a tiny insect.” The Thiepval Memorial was dedicated to the 72,246 British soldiers missing during fighting in the Somme, not only in that initial battle, but in the years 1915 to 1918. It was designed by the renowned British architect Sir Edwin Landseer Lutyens. The ingenious fractal structure of its arches, splitting with each new layer into more and more arches (set at right angles), echoes the row upon row of grave markers.

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Thiepval Memorial to the Missing. Photo credit: Chris Hartford via Flickr.

In writing Grace’s story, Tod does more than intersperse WWI diary entries in the present-day narrative. Martin’s entries are revelatory in many ways but also terse and constrained by the pain he is feeling. One can imagine that diaries of the time would be a place to unburden troubled minds, yet it might take many years to relinquish certain secrets, even to oneself. Tod’s novel tacitly acknowledges this by providing chapters of third-person narrative fleshing out Martin’s story following each of his diary entries. These paired accounts during wartime are then interspersed with Grace’s life events unfolding in 1991.

This proves to be very effective and necessary. One memorable example for me paired Martin’s diary entry reporting his channel crossing and landing at Le Havre.  From there he will travel to the front. Tod’s narrative tells us what Martin’s first view of the front looked like and hints at how much it shocked him.

Beyond the next rise, the war burst into view, a zigzagging patchwork of Allied trenches facing German lines. The scene looked nothing like Martin had imagined. Instead of deep, carefully constructed trenches designed to protect their men, uneven ditches were connected together in haphazard fashion, with mounds of earth and sandbags marking the lip of every section, and soldiers standing guard at uneven intervals. A sudden breeze carried the smell of mud, sewage, rotting flesh, gunfire, and death.

As far as he could see, the land had been blown to bits, leaving nothing but brown and gray and black, devoid of vegetation except a pocket of shattered tree trunks to the far right. Great rolls of barbed wire and deep craters partially filled with water defined the space between the lines. No-man’s-land. (p. 33)

Martin was certainly not the only character affected by the war, or the only one appearing in his diaries. I appreciated the way we see Grace’s grandmother, Cynthia, as a young woman during the war–when she first met Martin–and then later when Grace is seeking to uncover the family’s past. The intervening years brought many changes to her grandmother’s life but her stubbornness and her determination to secure happiness despite the war proved to be her most enduring traits.

At one point during the war, the weight of grief and responsibility from losing men close to him began to take its toll on Martin, interfering with his performance of duty. His captain ordered a few weeks of medical leave at a facility in England. As a psychologist, I found the therapy sessions between Dr. Berger and Martin especially interesting. These scenes separate Martin from the group setting of trench life with his comrades and mark a turning point for portraying his individual character, his frame of mind, and the underpinning of his choices.

Besides the regrets that many characters harbor, trust becomes a major theme for Grace. The novel begins with broken trust because Grace’s husband Jim suddenly demanded a divorce. Then she discovers that her grandfather has entrusted her with his diaries, and the secret they conceal.  When secrets are involved–family secrets, business secrets–who can Grace really trust?  Can she even trust her grandmother? Someone is following Grace in France–a man wearing a distinctive fedora–and he seems determined to interfere with her apparently innocent plans to discover her family’s story. Could her grandmother be trying to thwart her efforts to uncloak the past?  Finally, she desperately wants to trust in her new feelings for Pierre Auffret, an attractive art curator she meets during her travels, and with whom she joins forces to investigate the path her grandfather took. The romantic frisson between them is spontaneous and exhilarating. Her heart tells her that it is mending, but still, she is not sure whether her trust can keep pace with her hopes for the future.

In her three novels so far, Unravelled, Lies Told in Silence, and now Time and Regret, and on her blog, A Writer of History, M. K. Tod has shown her commitment to deeply researched, intelligently crafted, and beautifully written historical fiction. I have read and reviewed the latter two novels (I want to read Unravelled next!) and I found both of them to be satisfying as fiction, unsettling as history, and tremendously moving in their treatment of people caught in the rough grasp of war, trying to keep on living and loving.

Interview with M.K. Tod

I am delighted to welcome M.K. Tod, who has kindly agreed to share some thoughts on her novel and her approach to writing historical fiction.

Q1. Your previous novel Lies Told in Silence recreated the battle of Vimy Ridge primarily from the point of view of those living nearby, in northern France near the Belgian border, whereas Time and Regret takes us right into the heart of that battle, and others. Through Martin Devlin’s diaries, we can feel the pain of the combatants and the variety of emotions they experience. Can you describe how your own experience writing about World War I differed for these two novels?

Vimy Ridge has been a central battle in all three of my novels—Unravelled, Lies Told in Silence, and Time and Regret. My grandfather fought at Vimy and when I first researched World War One, I spent a lot of time trying to understand what had happened. The battle itself was enormous both in preparation and execution and in that regard it fascinated me. In Lies Told in Silence, Helene Noisette and her brother Jean are observers and so I concentrated on the feelings of horror and awe that an ordinary citizen might feel. However, in Time and Regret and Unravelled, I wanted the reader to feel in the thick of battle, making decisions and reacting to the chaos as a soldier would. Of course, one experience is female and the other male and I had to imagine those different perspectives as well.

Q2. To tell Martin’s story, you use not only his diary entries, but also longer narrative recreations of the events. Was this choice based on the nature of the diaries and accounts you read? What is it like to try to transform a primary source account of a battle or a soldier’s part in it into the storytelling world of a novelist?

The central concept of Time and Regret is Grace’s discovery of her grandfather’s diaries and a puzzle he has left for her to solve. I came up with the idea after reading many soldiers’ diaries during earlier research efforts. While many of the diaries downplay the horror of battle, a few write more honestly about their feelings and experiences and this is what I tried to emulate in Time and Regret. Including the diaries also allowed me to have Martin’s voice in first person so the reader comes closer to what he really thought and felt about the war.

As to the second part of your question, there are many, many accounts of the facts, figures and military details. The challenge for a novelist is to turn those into a compelling story, making sure that such historical details don’t detract from it. It’s a very selective process and I often worry that I haven’t done justice to the true horror and slaughter of WWI. At times I used Martin’s diary entries to position an upcoming battle and then only told a snippet of the battle itself, leaving the rest to the reader’s imagination. Actual battle details are as accurate as I could make them.

Q3. Grace Hansen is your main character in 1991. Her name feels significant to me. When I read about someone named Grace, I expect her to be either the recipient of unusual grace in the course of things or the bestower of grace on others. Or a little of both. Did you pick her name with any such considerations in mind? How do you go about naming your characters?

This answer might be a bit disappointing, however, I picked Grace just because I like the name! As I wrote the story, the thought occurred to me that perhaps Grace should embody the attributes of the word and I hope she does, at least by the end. In general, I don’t go about naming characters with any particular objective in mind. For the most part, a name will pop into my head. I’m sure that doesn’t sound very ‘writerly’. I did choose names for Grace’s grandparents that I thought would suit the era and hence Cynthia and Martin. Pierre’s name immediately suggests someone who is French (my objective) without being too difficult for an English-speaking reader to pronounce. I’ve even found names on grave stones.

Q4. The element of mystery blended very well with the historical side of your fiction. Did you enjoy incorporating a puzzle into the story, and do you plan to write more historical mysteries?

What a lovely compliment! The mystery was my husband’s idea—he loves mysteries—and in fact, he helped me sketch out the initial story concept. Writing a mystery is quite difficult and I enjoyed the process very much. My next novel isn’t a mystery, but you never know, Grace might appear again!

Q5. In your blog, A Writer of History, you generously open a window on your own process and reflect on the craft of historical fiction in general. Now that you have written three novels and have a fourth in the works, what has been the hardest lesson to learn or the most valuable one to pass along?

I’m so pleased you like my blog, Lucy. What a tough question! Beyond learning the craft of writing, I think learning how to incorporate historical detail without weighing down the story is the most difficult challenge. Readers expect to feel immersed in the times of the story, whether that time is ancient Rome or World War One, but they don’t want the facts to obscure the story or slow it down. History needs to serve the story, not the other way around. In terms of the most valuable lesson, I’m reminded of something Hilary Mantel called the dramatic arc of history. Mantel suggests that authors need to find the events that dramatize the time and serve the story. The real answer to your question is that I’m still learning and exploring what makes historical fiction tick!

Q6. Can you tell us a little about your next project, set in Paris during the 1870s?

I don’t have a title for this story yet, so I refer to it by the names of the two main characters, Camille and Mariele, who were introduced in Lies Told in Silence. In that novel, Mariele is Helene Noisette’s grandmother while Camille is her deceased great-aunt. Having written three novels with WWI settings, I wanted to explore a different era, so I chose 1870s Paris: Paris because it’s one of my favorite cities and 1870s because Camille and Mariele would be around twenty at that time. Happily, all sorts of tumult occurred in France at that time including a war with Prussia, the siege of Paris and the Paris Commune. Can you imagine me rubbing my hands with glee when I discovered all that?

Q7. Could you tell us about one of the places you visited in researching Time and Regret, someplace that made a particularly strong impression?

So many places to consider! Vimy Ridge, which I refer to in your first question, remnants of zigzag trenches still visible in the Somme, memorials marking major battles with enormous casualties in northern France, Le Havre where Canadian and British soldiers disembarked on their way to the front lines, Bailleul where many went for training. But let me tell you about a tour my husband and I had in the area around Ypres and Passchendaele. Our guide took us to various places but the event that made a significant impression on me was when he stopped to grab what I thought was a handful of dirt and came up with a handful of shrapnel. Looking at those bits of metal so readily at hand hit me hard as I imagined thousands and thousands of similar pieces flying about during battle. A visceral feeling. It’s a wonder anyone survived.

Many thanks for having me on your blog, Lucy. I really appreciate the opportunity to talk about Time and Regret and the writing of historical fiction.

And many thanks to you, Mary! Not only do you craft a compelling story (and a mystery with some subtle clues!), but you reflect on the writing craft with such infectious vitality, such joie de vivre! Your novels convey this too: although your characters are facing some of the most sobering realities that can affect a person’s life, they seem to find their way toward renewal and hidden graces. So, yes, I would say Grace Hansen is aptly named indeed.

***

M. K. Tod

on Tour

September 1-10

with

Time And Regret

Time and Regret

(historical mystery)

Release date: August 16, 2016
on Amazon

ISBN: 978-1503938403
366 pages

Author’s page | Goodreads

SYNOPSIS

When Grace Hansen finds a box belonging to her beloved grandfather, she has no idea it holds the key to his past—and to long-buried family secrets. In the box are his World War I diaries and a cryptic note addressed to her. Determined to solve her grandfather’s puzzle, Grace follows his diary entries across towns and battle sites in northern France, where she becomes increasingly drawn to a charming French man—and suddenly aware that someone is following her…

Through her grandfather’s vivid writing and Grace’s own travels, a picture emerges of a man very unlike the one who raised her: one who watched countless friends and loved ones die horrifically in battle; one who lived a life of regret. But her grandfather wasn’t the only one harboring secrets, and the more Grace learns about her family, the less she thinks she can trust them.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Time And Regret MK TodTime and Regret is M.K. Tod’s third novel.
She began writing in 2005 while living as an expat in Hong Kong. What started as an interest in her grandparents’ lives turned into a full-time occupation writing historical fiction. Her novel Unravelled was awarded Indie Editor’s Choice by the Historical Novel Society. In addition to writing historical novels, she blogs about reading and writing historical fiction at http://www.awriterofhistory.com,
reviews books for the Historical Novel Society
and the Washington Independent Review of Books, and has conducted three highly respected reader surveys.  She lives in Toronto, Canada, with her husband and is the mother of two adult children.

Please visit her website and her blog A Writer of History.
Subscribe to her mailing list
or contact her at mktod [at] bell [dot] net

Follow her on Facebook and Twitter
on Goodreads and Pinterest

Buy the book (print, ebook, audiobook): Amazon

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Review + Interview + Giveaway: “In Another Life” by Julie Christine Johnson #FranceBT

1 Mar

in-another-life-banner

My Review

In Another Life by Julie Christine Johnson takes a pivotal historical event — the assassination of Archdeacon Pierre de Castelnau on January 15, 1208 — as her inspiration for this speculative mystery and fantasy romance.  The novel opens, however, in the present day when recent widow Lia Carrer returns to Languedoc, France to complete her research in medieval history, specifically the murder of Castelnau. The return is bittersweet: the region’s beauty and rich history stir her soul, as they did when she lived there in her youth, but it is also the site of her husband’s death in a competitive cycling accident. She plans to reconnect and heal with her close friend Rose and Rose’s  husband Domènec who live there, but she has arrived at a liminal time, the winter solstice, when uncanny things are possible.  On her first night in the town of Minerve, she emerges from a restorative bath and sees a ghostly image in a tall window:

In the space between heartbeats, she saw the face of a man.  Moonlight revealed fierce dark eyes and the etched planes of cheekbones. A seeping black streak marred the left side of his face, running from his temple down his cheek to the corner of his mouth.  The palm of a hand came into view, reaching toward her.

She slaps the glass and the image dissolves, becoming a “Bonelli’s eagle,” a rare and portentous bird of prey.  She will not disclose this, even to her friends, right away. Instead she revisits her advisor and confidante, Fr. Jordí Bonafé,  who is archivist at the Cathedral of Saint-Just and Saint-Pasteur in Narbonne. They have a close connection: when she insisted on giving her planned address to a historical meeting at Carcassonne only three days after her husband Gabriel’s death, he was there to console her. Now he has hinted at possible new evidence concerning the death of Pierre de Castelnau, a document that could change the substance of her research and revive her interrupted career.  Castelnau’s murder was the trigger that led to the Cathar, or Albigensian, Crusade, in which the church and the French king both ultimately benefitted by crushing the renegade heretical sect and the independent region where they flourished.

While events unfold in present-day Languedoc, we are also given interspersed scenes from the past, in fact the life-and-death moments in 1208 that began the cruel extermination of the Cathars.  Very early in the story we witness the murder of Archdeacon Castelnau, through the eyes of a shadowy bystander in the church of St. Gilles. History records that Castelnau may have been ambushed while returning from Rome, but his relics are interred in St. Gilles, and Johnson makes good use of the dramatic possibilities by setting the assassination in the church itself. The slain cleric drops a letter to the floor under the altar; partially hidden by the altar cloth, this mysterious letter with its coded message goes unnoticed by the assassin but not by the trembling witness to events, whose actions will safeguard it through the centuries.

 

800px-West_church_portal_in_St-Gilles-du-Gard

West portal of St.-Gilles-du-Gard. JMalik, Wikimedia commons.

 

We learn that one of the heretical tenets of Catharism was a belief that souls would need to be perfected and purified from the  taint of matter through many lives before they could be admitted to heaven.  The hints of reincarnation are dropped early in the novel as we hear the names of present day characters–Lucas, Raoul, Jordí–echoed in the names of the figures glimpsed in scenes from the past.  Lia becomes involved with two men, attractive photographer Lucas Moisset, who helps her with her research and wants to get closer to her, and brooding Raoul Arango, a local farmer and winemaker, who stuns her by his resemblance both to the ghostly face she saw in her window and to a mysterious man she encountered at Carcassonne only two days before.  If you think this disclosure will dull the suspense, have no fear of that because the dramatic tension for the reader is only heightened. Johnson skillfully constructs her mosaic of past and present events to reveal the full picture only at the end. One of the persistent mysteries is how Lia herself fits into the puzzle? Is she herself a reincarnated soul?

At one point after Lia has met Raoul at Rose and Domènec’s house, Le Pèlerin, she lets Rose take her on a visit to Lagrasse and the winery that Raoul is restoring. She does not know their destination until she gets there.

“What is this place?” Lia trailed behind Rose, who walked resolutely to the front door and knocked. Rose held up a finger, listening.

Lia hung back, wandering through the small front garden. Tendrils of newly green wisteria crept up the outside wall—last year’s dead growth had been trimmed away. The first perennials poked through black loam in window boxes, and the flowerbeds had a fresh layer of straw to keep them warm over the chilly, early spring nights. A hopeful heart had foreseen a season of flowers, and gentle hands had prepared the soil.

Unexpectedly, she meets Raoul himself, who has returned to supervise work on his property, and I could not help but be reminded of Elizabeth Bennet’s visit to Pemberley and her surprise encounter with Darcy in Pride and Prejudice.  A nice touch, as readers will sense the romantic implications.

I gladly recommend this impressive book, which combines historical and religious reference, vivid description of setting, careful plotting, and sensitive character development, for a well-paced, satisfying read. The book also includes helpful maps of the Languedoc region and its position in France to help the curious reader follow the sites of the action.

******

Interview with Julie Christine Johnson

I am delighted to welcome Julie Christine Johnson, who has kindly agreed to share some thoughts on her novel, her writing process, and the interplay between life and fiction writing.

Bonjour Lucy! And thank you for featuring me, and ‘In Another Life,’ on your beautiful blog! It’s an honor to be here.

Q1.  I see that your education includes degrees in French, psychology, and international affairs.  I came to literature by way of psychology myself, and I know it often influences my perspective on fictional characters, whether directly or indirectly. Your novel seems very sensitive to the kind of trauma Lia has faced before the story opens. Do you feel your psychology training has informed your fiction writing, and in what ways?

What a great question. I think it’s one of those chicken-and-egg things. I may have gravitated to psychology because I have always been a keen observer of the human condition, trying to sort out what drives us, inspires us, why we make the choices we do, what weaknesses and strengths we exploit in ourselves and in others. I’ve always listened carefully to others’ stories and their hearts, and for a time I considered a career in counseling and therapy. Yet, I was keenly interested in psycholinguistics, as well, which led to the degree in French. So, it all ties together to make a writer: an ear and heart tuned to stories and language.

With regards to Lia’s trauma and grief, that comes from within the writer. Colum McCann says, “Sometimes it seems to me that we are writing our lives in advance, but at other times we can only ever look back. In the end, though, every word we write is autobiographical, perhaps most especially when we attempt to avoid the autobiographical.” Although I have not lost my life partner, I have experienced terrible loss, I have mourned. It is that grief I tapped in order to touch Lia’s own.

Q2.  The Cathars and the Albigensian Crusade against them continue to fascinate us after 800 years.  Their suffering seems so extreme, and the means to enforce orthodoxy so harsh and unforgiving. I knew about their rejection of the flesh and the material world, but I wasn’t really aware of the reincarnation aspect. At what point did that become a key driver of your novel? In other words, did you begin with the time shifting in mind, or did it come as a Eureka moment during your clearly extensive research process?  Did it present any special problems or puzzles to solve as you worked out the story?

The Languedoc region and Cathar history have enthralled me for years. Long before I knew I’d be writing a novel of this time and this place, two facts buried themselves in my psyche: history never identified Pierre de Castelnau’s assassin; and the Cathars believed in reincarnation and the transmigration of souls.

This belief in reincarnation became my way into the story—my wings to make the leap from historical fiction into fantasy. Although the story’s foundation is historical—the assassination of a papal emissary which led immediately to the crusade against the Cathars—the very premise of characters who emerge from one era to another by way of reincarnation allowed me to play with the notions of history (what we can prove), of the past (what we can make a reasonable guess at), and of faith as fantasy. By writing a fantasy, I took tremendous license in building a world that is disconcertingly similar to, but fundamentally different from, our own.

Rather than pursue a science fiction approach to the characters’ transition from past to present, where the mechanics of time travel are examined and perhaps explained, I kept to the theme of faith and used Biblical and other religious mythologies as my guide: what must Adam and Eve have felt, awakening to a world they did not know, but somehow understood? They were fully able to use the technology of their time. For me, the interest wasn’t in the how, but in the why, the who, the “what now?”

What I hint at in the narrative, however, is the role memory plays. That there is an understanding of modern life because there have been other passages through time where things were learned and retained by the body and brain, but those passages are not remembered. And that each man has experienced his transitions differently-hence, the fundamentals of reincarnation: that rebirth can occur in many different forms.

Time travel doesn’t interest me as a plot device. It seems too mechanical, too dependent upon logic and processes. My world is the world of faith and religion, where beliefs are held as sacred, upheld by tradition, and it is not for the believer to ask how, but to accept.

Which of course, leaves open all sorts of possibilities for future “past” adventures, doesn’t it?!

Q3.  A Bonelli’s eagle makes an appearance early in the story and seems to be a symbolic portent.  Without giving too much away, can you tell a little bit more about this bird and why you chose to introduce it?

The Cathars also believed in transmigration of human souls into non-human animals. The moment I read this, I imagined birds of prey soaring above the mountains and valleys of Languedoc, great raptors battling the good and evil within their own souls, souls that had at one time been human. And then I learned that the dove had become a symbol of the Cathar people, a tender and tragic reminder of all those souls lost to fire, torture, starvation and disease, eradicated by evil, yet rising above, pure and peaceful. Everything clicked into place: Paloma as the dove, Raoul as the eagle, Lucas as the falcon. In earlier drafts I emphasized the transmigration element to a much greater extent, but I gradually toned it down to make human-bird soul exchange more of a thread in the tapestry of the story, weaving in and out, catching the light or disappearing into the shadows.

Q4.  Apart from their specific roles in the plot, Lucas and Raoul seem to bring out different sides of Lia’s character; both interest her, and neither one is easy for her to dismiss.  How would you describe each one’s appeal for Lia? How did you think about them as you were writing?

In earlier drafts, Lucas was far more sinister, but as I got to know him and fleshed out the story, I realized I wanted a more ambivalent, richer character, someone who had made poor choices, had done terrible things, but who was not inherently evil. One of the major themes of ‘In Another Life’ is redemption and through that I came to develop affection for and a desire to forgive Lucas. For Lia, the first glimpse of Lucas is a reawakening of her desire and he immediately becomes associated with guilt. And of course, he is a man consumed by guilt and regret. As she realizes her desire for him is more of a reflex action and nothing made from love, she is able to reach out to him in compassion.

There is a theme running through this novel that only recently occurs to me, perhaps because I have been too close to it; yet it is something I strive for, and that is acceptance of the now and moving forward with what you hold in your heart at the moment, without looking back or pushing against the future. There is an essential peacefulness in both Raoul and Lia that I admire. I think this is how they were able to find one another, at least this time around—their hearts were capable of and open to wonder. In Lucas, a chance for redemption; in Raoul, a reawakening of her true emotional self and genuine desire, of honor to marriage and true love, and ultimately, selflessness.

Q5.  The Languedoc region of southern France is a place that Lia longs to return to in the story, a place where she feels at home, despite its being the site of some painful events. You have studied and worked abroad, including two years spent in New Zealand. Is there a place that still beckons you? Somewhere you long to revisit or make your home for extended periods?

There is so much of the world I have yet to explore, it takes my breath away. Western, southern, eastern Africa; the Levant, Southeast Asia. But my heart, oh my heart. It is in a vineyard in southern France, close enough to the sea to smell the salt air and be scoured clean by the wind.

Q6.  I hope you will one day write more historical fiction (!), but I am quite interested to know about your next two novels, which have contemporary settings. Can you tell us a little about The Crows of Beara and Tui?

Oh, thank you! I can tell you right now that I am not done with the Cathars and Languedoc. Whether it’s a sequel to ‘In Another Life’ or something else entirely I won’t say, but I will be returning to this world.

My second novel, ‘The Crows of Beara,’ will be published September 2017 (Ashland Creek Press). I’m in the midst of working with my editor on revisions. It takes place in contemporary Co. Cork, southwest Ireland, and weaves together themes of industry vs. the environment, addiction, creativity, and hill walking, with a thread of magical realism woven through (of course, it’s Ireland!).

My third novel, which was ‘Tui,’ but now has the new working title ‘Upside-Down Girl,’ follows the journey of Holly Dawes as she emigrates from Seattle to New Zealand, where she befriends a young Maori girl, and realizes there is more than one way to fulfill her desire to be a mother and more than one way to lose a beloved child. ‘Upside-Down Girl’ is now with my agent and revisions await me as soon as I wrap up ‘The Crows of Beara’ (and breathe!). I lived in New Zealand in the mid-late 2000s, and ‘Upside-Down Girl’ is perhaps the most personal of my stories. At least it started out that way. It became something else entirely by the end. It’s the first time I’ve written a child as one of the main characters.

Lucy, thank you for such an outstanding interview! It’s been a joy connecting with you and your readers.

Thank you, Julie, for such illuminating answers! You speak eloquently of the underpinnings of your writing and of storytelling in general.  Personally, I am very glad that you took the choice to make Lucas a motivationally complex character, as you grew to know him during your writing.  Also, what you say about Lia and Raoul rings very true with me as a reader and deepens my appreciation for them.

I look forward to your two upcoming books and especially to your return to Languedoc and the Cathars for some more mythic fantasy before too long! 

******

Julie Christine Johnson

on Tour

March 1-10

with

in-another-life-cover

In Another Life

(Historical Fiction/Contemporary Women’s Fiction/
Fantasy/Romance)

Release date: February 2, 2016
at Sourcebooks

368 pages

ISBN: 9782954168197

Website | Goodreads

SYNOPSIS

Historian Lia Carrer has finally returned to southern France, determined to rebuild her life after the death of her husband. But instead of finding solace in the region’s quiet hills and medieval ruins, she falls in love with Raoul, a man whose very existence challenges everything she knows about life–and about her husband’s death. As Raoul reveals the story of his past to Lia, she becomes entangled in the echoes of an ancient murder, resulting in a haunting and suspenseful journey that reminds Lia that the dead may not be as far from us as we think. Steeped in the rich history and romantic landscape of the Languedoc region, In Another Life is a story of love that conquers time and the lost loves that haunt us all.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

In Another Life- Julie Christine Johnson

Photo by Al Bergstein

Julie Christine Johnson is the author of the novels In Another Life (February 2016, Sourcebooks Landmark) and The Crows of Beara (September 2017, Ashland Creek Press).  Her short stories and essays have appeared in several journals, including Emerge Literary Journal, Mud Season Review;  Cirque: A Literary Journal of the North Pacific Rim; Cobalt, the anthologies Stories for Sendai; Up, Do: Flash Fiction by Women Writers; and Three Minus One: Stories of Love and Loss and featured on the flash fiction podcast, No Extra Words. She holds undergraduate degrees in French and Psychology and a Master’s in International Affairs. A runner, hiker, and wine geek, Julie makes her home on the Olympic Peninsula of northwest Washington state with her husband. In Another Life is her first novel.

***

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5 participants will each win a print copy of this book.

Be sure to follow each participant on Twitter/Facebook,
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Enter here

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*Note*: I received an advance electronic copy of this book, in exchange for an honest review.  I did not receive any other compensation, and the views expressed in my review are my own opinions.

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