29Mar/18

Pen vs. Sword, or Why Language Matters

The pen is mightier than the sword. As a writer, I’ve always loved that idea. Not that either swords or pens carry much weight these days. Even Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr used dueling pistols. Is Microsoft Word mightier than an automatic rifle?

The marchers against gun violence last weekend were hoping the people with pens in Washington are mightier than the people with swords. But those pen-wielders haven’t shown much respect for words. It’s ironic: here we are at the epicenter of English, the most universal language ever, and what are we doing with it? Advertising. Tweets. Cell phones that finish our sentences. A president with a third-grade vocabulary who uses language as a weapon. It doesn’t have to be true; just keep shooting. Like the slogans in George Orwell’s novel 1984: War is peace; freedom is slavery; ignorance is strength. In 2018, all of those contradictions are realities. Dystopian is the new normal.

Make no mistake about it: language matters. Last week when one GOP senator promised to hold a fulsome hearing, I wondered: Does he know that fulsome doesn’t mean full? It means stinky, or disgusting, or excessively flattering. Was he telling the truth on purpose? Language is often used as camouflage. Look at an academic journal article or scientific report. Is there information in there, or just hedging of bets? Look at our June ballot proposals. Is this a subtle form of voter suppression? I have to laugh when I hear the White House deny that the Russians hacked into our election results. Why would they bother, when they can get such a huge return on investment posting fake news on social media? Fluency in language is essential for critical thinking — Step One in telling fact from fiction. You know Facebook now has a link in those dots in the upper right corner where you can flag a story as fake news. The problem is our yearning to believe any story that confirms what we already think.

Paying attention to language is work. “Use your words” is not a skill humans are born with. We have to be taught to communicate by speaking, instead of hitting and hollering. Recently my friend Felix Justice asked some of us to remember being four years old. The memory that called up for me was, what a savage I was. My sister and I constantly tried to kill each other. Not that we understood killing. What we understood was power. Control. Just like the self-described grown-ups who run governments and gangs. There’s equality: In this economy, the White House, the Mafia, and the drug cartels speak the same language. Not English, to communicate. Money. The 21st century’s lingua franca for power. If you have it, you’re a winner. If you don’t, you’re a loser. When people squeeze the universe into a ball, as TS Eliot said, when they reduce the interactions between humans and all forms of life and energy into slogans, there’s no middle ground. No negotiation. No reaching across the aisle. For that, we need language.

A lot of outstanding writers came to English as a second language. Vladimir Nabokov. Joseph Conrad. Or because a band of conquerors forced their ancestors to learn it. I’m working with an Italian immigrant to North Beach right now, a retired restaurateur who’s turned to writing; he’s having a ball with English, piling up adverbs and adjectives and circumlocutions like frosting on a wedding cake. It’s a wonderfully rich tool. Many of the great bilingual Nigerian, Indian, and South African writers, among others, chose English so they could reach the widest possible audience. Some point out that it’s a double-edged sword: a gift of oppression. Some are amazed that we who were born with this gift appreciate it so little.

My favorite comment about that contradiction, that irony, that paradox, is by the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda. He was writing about Spanish, but as part of the international brotherhood of writers, I suspect he was thinking of English, too.

What a great language I have, it’s a fine language we inherited from the fierce conquistadors . . .
They strode over the giant cordilleras, over the rugged Americas, hunting for potatoes, sausages, beans, black tobacco, gold, corn, fried eggs, with a voracious appetite not found in the world since then . . .
They swallowed up everything, religions, pyramids, tribes, idolatries just like the ones they brought along in their huge sacks . . . Wherever they went, they razed the land . . . But words fell like pebbles out of the boots of the barbarians, out of their beards, their helmets, their horseshoes, luminous words that were left glittering here . . . our language. We came up losers . . . We came up winners . . . They carried off the gold and left us the gold . . . They carried everything off and left us everything . . . They left us words.

—    “Lost in the City,’ Memoirs, 1976

Originally presented as a meditation at the Church for the Fellowship for All Peoples, San Francisco, March 25, 2018.

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14Mar/18

FREE Time-Travel to Summer on Cape Cod

Tired of nor’easters? Fed up with snow, downed trees, and power failures? One click and you’re on your way to a short suspenseful  summer sleuthing adventure! “Disarmed: an Edgar Rowdey Cape Cod Mystery Story” is FREE on iTunes, Google Play, Barnes & Noble, and most other e-outlets. (Amazon insists on charging $.99.)

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24Feb/18

Life, Death, & Writing

Along with the cold spell in San Francisco has come bad news from everywhere, it seems. This morning I ran across a poem that impressed me back in 8th grade and has stayed with me ever since: a useful reminder that a sense of proportion can be a lever to move the world.

Interlude III by Karl Shapiro

Writing, I crushed an insect with my nail
 
 And thought nothing at all. A bit of wing
 
 Caught my eye then, a gossamer so frail
 
 And exquisite, I saw in it a thing
 
 That scorned the grossness of the thing I wrote.
 
 It hung upon my finger like a sting.
 
 A leg I noticed next, fine as a mote,
 
 'And on this frail eyelash he walked,' I said,
 
 'And climbed and walked like any mountain goat.'
 
 And in this mood I sought the little head,
 
 But it was lost: then in my heart a fear
 
 Cried out, 'A life—why beautiful, why dead!'
 
 It was a mite that held itself most dear,
 
 So small I could have drowned it with a tear.
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08Feb/18

TRUST: Bad News from the Front Lines

My longtime friend Bob Whipple is a corporate consultant (and ace musician) who specializes in an often overlooked cornerstone of productivity, success, and satisfaction: trust. In his role as “The Trust Ambassador,” Bob makes a point of keeping up with research on his topic. If trust doesn’t sound to you like a topic that calls for much research, take a moment to think about our federal government, or international diplomacy, or how the TSA has changed air travel. Think about closed-circuit TV cameras, e-mail phishing, Internet passwords and retinal scans. Think about this photo, which I recently received from another friend, unfortunately with no source ID.

So I’m grateful to experts like Bob, even when he’s the bearer of bad news. His e-mail last week was full of disturbing data and observations. Here are his musings about recent trust research, reprinted by permission, with a link to the findings he cites. (Just one chart is reproduced here, since although the Edelman site enables sharing, the material is copyrighted.)

* * * * *

Every year at the end of January, Richard Edelman puts out his “Trust Barometer” which is a huge study of trust in 28 countries around the world. The actual report is something like 70 pages of data.

This year, as I read the comparison of trust in the different countries, I was hoping an oxygen mask would come down so I could breathe. There are hundreds of interesting and some very frightening statistics as you review the data. I will be sharing the information with my leadership class because trust is the most important part of leadership (IMHO).

[Edelman’s findings] show trust in 28 different countries as measured at the start of 2017 (end of 2016) and the start of 2018 (end of 2017). [If you compare] data from “Informed publics” . . . with the entire population, including uneducated people, . . . you can see the incredible drop in trust that occurred in the year 2017 in the USA. It was by far the greatest decline in any country they have ever measured in the history of Edelman’s work for the past 17 years. (Incidentally, the numbers given are a combination of trust in Business, trust in Government, trust in NGOs, and trust in the Media.)

From “2018 Edelman Trust Barometer” https://www.edelman.com/trust-barometer

It is interesting to note that while trust declined in all four categories they measure in the USA, in China trust went up in all four categories. Here is the data for the number of percentage points lost or gained in the USA and China for 2017. As you read, keep in mind that changes in trust (up or down) of less than 5 points are routine and not worthy of explanation, but changes above 5 points have a specific cause that should be identified. Changes in the double digits are very rare and indicative of something major going on.

Business – USA lost 10 points while China gained 7 points

Government – USA lost 14 points while China gained 8 points

NGOs – USA lost 9 points while China gained 5 points

Media – USA lost 5 points while China gained 6 points

For informed publics, the USA was 6th from the top rated country out of 28 countries at the end of 2016. (The actual survey was taken from October 13 to November 16, 2016.) By the end of 2017 we have fallen to dead last in the world (normally Russia and Poland duke it out for the lowest trust country) and China is the highest rated country in the world for trust.

I am still trying to fathom the magnitude of the changes. I have been studying the Edelman data each year for the past dozen years. Every February I spend about 20 hours drinking in the data and updating my presentations on trust and leadership. This year, within the first 20 minutes it was obvious that we are living in a very different country now than we did in 2016.

So my friends, we still have much work to be done and some interesting times ahead as a nation. My best description to one of my cronies is that it feels like a toboggan ride down a mogul-infested slope blindfolded.

— Bob Whipple, “The Trust Ambassador” https://thetrustambassador.com/

Bob Whipple is CEO of Leadergrow Incorporated, an organization dedicated to development of leaders. He speaks on leadership topics and the development of trust in numerous venues. He also teaches leadership and business classes at graduate universities. As a leadership coach and business consultant, he works with individual clients as well as large organizations such as government agencies, corporations, and The Greater Rochester Chamber of Commerce. A highly successful leader at a Fortune 500 company for over 30 years, Mr. Whipple accomplished revolutionary change while leading a division of over 2000 people through the application of outstanding “people” skills.

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15Jan/18

Review: Custom Made Theatre’s “Man of La Mancha”

Did 2017 spit you out feeling demoralized, angry, confused, and/or frustrated? Quick, go see Man of La Mancha! Custom Made Theatre’s production of this marvelous show by Dale Wasserman (book), Mitch Leigh (music), and Joe Darion (lyrics) is much more than a nostalgia trip. It’s a rousing cheer for the bright side of humanity: not just love but honor and aspiration.

I had qualms about revisiting a show I’d loved 50 years ago when Richard Kiley first rode his imaginary Rosinante into New York’s Circle in the Square. When I saw Man of La Mancha again, decades later, at the Cape Cod Melody Tent, a thunder and lightning storm lit up the climax. Could a small local company do justice to a picaresque full-size musical on a stage the size of a San Francisco apartment, broken up by wooden beams, with the actors playing all the instruments?

Yes. Custom Made’s staging is a surprisingly good fit for this play-within-a-play set in a Spanish prison, where the Inquisition is breathing down Miguel de Cervantes’ neck and his manuscript for “Don Quixote” is a hostage. On the last preview night, the house was full, and so were our hearts. We laughed, we cried, and I can’t have been the only one itching to sing along with long-forgotten gems like “Little Bird” and “Knight of the Woeful Countenance,” as well as the now-legendary “Impossible Dream.”

OK, the production is a bit rustic. Not every supporting actor is excellent, although each of them excels at something. But Edward Hightower was born to play Cervantes/Quixote — swelling each moment with drama, pivoting in a breath from the mad old knight to his pragmatic creator. As the innkeeper, Anthony Aranda also is outstanding, and Rachael Richman makes a convincing Dulcinea. Best of all is the show itself: an inspiring, energizing reminder that human civilization has been stumbling over itself at least since Cervantes wrote this pioneering novel 400 years ago.

Life is not about winners and losers, Man of La Mancha reminds us. It’s about being true to our bravest, most generous selves:

To fight for the right
Without question or pause
To be willing to march into Hell
For a heavenly cause.

Read about, or buy tickets to, Custom Made’s production here — running now through Feb. 17 at the Shelton Theater.

 

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28Dec/17

Still Unsolved: Mystery Writer Josephine Tey, AKA Playwright Gordon Daviot, AKA . . .

Pity the poor 21st-century writer who became a Josephine Tey fan in her/his formative years. Vanity Fair contributor explains why in this excellent story from September 2015:

Decades After Her Death, Mystery Still Surrounds Crime Novelist Josephine Tey

Unlike Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, and Ngaio Marsh, Josephine Tey ignored the rules of golden-age British crime fiction—with brilliant results. But 60 years after her death, the greatest mystery Tey created still may be herself.
, the mystery form offered a structure within which a writer of wide-ranging curiosity could explore and experiment.

Perfect! I wrote sonnets (and other poetry), and I wrote plays. I avidly read horse stories, magic and fantasy, international adventure, and science. I played basketball, softball, and field hockey; I was a champion broad-jumper and short-distance runner. Like Josephine Tey, I fiercely resisted any pressure to narrow my focus. I still do.

 

Francis Wheen writes:

[Tey’s] disdain for formulaic fiction is confirmed in the opening chapter of The Daughter of Time (1951). In a hospital recuperating from a broken leg, Detective Inspector Alan Grant despairs of the books on his bedside table, among them a writing-by-numbers mystery called The Case of the Missing Tin-Opener. “Did no one, any more, no one in all this wide world, change their record now and then?” he wonders despairingly.

Was everyone nowadays thirled [enslaved] to a formula? Authors today wrote so much to a pattern that their public expected it. The public talked about “a new Silas Weekley” or “a new Lavinia Fitch” exactly as they talked about “a new brick” or “a new hairbrush.” They never said “a new book by” whoever it might be. Their interest was not in the book but in its newness. They knew quite well what the book would be like.

Still true today (are you listening, James Patterson and Lee Child?), but this is not a charge that could ever be made against Josephine Tey. In The Franchise Affair (1948) she can’t even be bothered to include the obligatory murder: all we have is a teenage girl who claims that two women kidnapped her for no apparent reason, and we know almost from the outset that she is lying.

What a 21st-century writer must contend with, unlike Tey, is a flooded book-publishing market in a culture that’s shifted its focus to television, film, audio, and other content-delivery modes. Commercial publishers rarely consider new authors at all these days, even in genre fiction, but they shrink in horror from a genre fiction book that’s not part of a series. It’s all about marketing. The looming mystery in the publishing world is how to forge that crucial (and preferably lasting) connection between books and readers. And among the core assumptions is that readers’ interest is “not in the book but in its newness” — the same author writing the same kind of story as last time, but with some different characters and a twist in the plot.

 
Can anyone nowadays work successfully in both fiction and playwriting? Or does marketing pressure oblige authors to pick one path and stick with it? Is this the same question museums answered decades ago when “cabinets of curiosities” morphed into organized sets of collections? Is it a question that’s currently shackling bright young people to a professional specialty as early as middle school?

As for Josephine Tey, reading Francis Wheen’s inquiry reignited my desire to see a play by Gordon Daviot. Until then, I’m looking forward to rereading Tey’s mystery novels. I’m also cautiously curious about Nicola Upson’s series in which Josephine Tey is a character . . . and the biography that was still just a gleam on the horizon when Vanity Fair published this fascinating account of that vanishing golden-age renaissance woman, Josephine Tey AKA Gordon Daviot AKA Elizabeth MacKintosh.

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12Dec/17

Through a Glass, Darkly: A Meditation for this Orwellian Season

For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.

That line from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians has always haunted me. I can vividly remember lying awake when I was young, wrestling with my brain to know more: Who am I? What am I doing here? and What is God?

Now that I’m at the other end of life, I understand a truth I’ve learned from science as well as from just plain living. Human understanding is limited by human physiology. What a piece of work is a man, said Shakespeare, and it’s true. But what a piece of work is a dog’s nose. A mosquito’s flight. A whale’s sonar. We know in part, because part of existence is all that our human senses can detect, and our human brains can process. They’ve evolved to cope with the fraction of reality that’s essential to our survival.

We feel like we know and understand the world. But in fact, we live in metaphors. In fact, the sun and moon are not the same size, and stars are not candles in the sky, and a piece of wood isn’t solid. It’s mostly space, dotted with atoms flying faster than a mosquito. We treat it as solid because that’s how we perceive it, and because we have a practical need for it to be solid, as furniture or fuel or whatever.

As the world has become more global, I’ve been trying to be aware how different people’s metaphors are, according to the person, and even more, the culture. Westerners think villagers in country X are backward because they believe diseases are caused by demons, whereas we know they’re caused by germs. The villagers think we’re backward because we’re always washing our hands, when we should be praying or casting a spell. What matters more? If a metaphor is true, or if it works?

I spent Thanksgiving week in London and Barcelona. London is gearing up for Brexit, to leave the European Union, and Barcelona’s preparing for an election following the recent vote for their province of Catalunya to secede from Spain. I worried it would be crazy over there, maybe dangerous. But after the US, I felt like I’d left a place of chaotic insanity for a healthy safe atmosphere that I used to define as normal.

But my chaotic insanity is some people’s normal. Apparently there are American citizens who felt as threatened by President Barack Obama, or almost-President Hillary Clinton, as I feel by the current occupant of the White House, who to me is so threatening that I can’t call him the president of my country. I watch him gleefully dismantle economic recovery measures, and environmental protections, and just about every strand in the social safety net, and I see a crazy dangerous man who is deeply hostile to the values of community and justice that for me define my country. My expat friends in England told me that most of the world sees him, not me, as an accurate representation of my country: it’s not about community and justice, but warfare and profit, oppression and exploitation.

And I look at my cat, fighting the imaginary mice under the living room rug; and I wonder: Are they imaginary? Maybe in her metaphor, she’s keeping me safe from deadly demons.

So here we are, preparing to celebrate Christmas. The birthday of a man we know was not born on Dec. 25, whose coming was probably not announced by a new star, whose humble manger was not surrounded by adoring cows, donkeys, shepherds, and wise men, much less by falling snow; whose mother was probably not a virgin, nor visited by an angel. We celebrate a metaphor. You could say Christianity has perceptively linked the values of Jesus, from rebirth to nonviolent resistance and love, with the winter solstice, when the sun turns back in its path across the heavens, and daylight stops getting shorter, and we can trust that warmth will soon return, and lakes will thaw, and crops will grow, and life will be safer again.

I still hope that someday I will know and understand a larger reality than this. But right now my job is to be human, and I have to live by a metaphor, not a full knowledge of truth. And since this metaphor is incomplete, I cherish the values we celebrate at Christmas: the brave generosity, the community, and the commitment to justice which offer our best hope of keeping us, and life, and our world, safe and healthy.

Meditation for the Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples, San Francisco, December 10, 2017

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10Nov/17

Who Killed Pronoun? Mysterious Death of a Promising E-Publisher

The dashboard announcement is startling and terse. The explanation is corporate-ambiguous:

Two years ago Pronoun set out to create a one-of-a-kind publishing tool that truly put authors first. We believed that the power of data could be harnessed for smarter book publishing, leveling the playing field for indie authors.

That’s an allusion to Pronoun’s launch 2 years ago as a rebirth of Vook, an early cutting-edge multimedia e-book platform whose greatest asset turned out to be its data innovations. As Publishing Perspectives reports:

“Vook specialized in combining electronic elements for storytelling such as video and social-media links with text. In 2014, Vook also developed a sales-tracking revenue dashboard for authors called AuthorControl, and was said at the time to be supplying book-publishing software services to several news-media corporations.”

In May 2015 Pronoun arose from Vook’s ashes, after the latter’s acquisition of “Booklr (a data analysis service for e-book sales founded by Brody), Byliner (a literary e-book publisher), and Coliloquy (a choose-your-own-adventure platform using enhanced e-books and apps).”

When Macmillan bought Pronoun a year later, the consensus was that they were after these data assets more than the stylish e-books Pronoun was producing. Although the connection to a major publisher may have been a carrot for aspiring authors, it did not propel them into any lucrative contracts with their new parent.

Pronoun’s obituary claims: “We are proud of the product we built, but even more so, we’re grateful for the community of authors that made it grow. Your feedback shaped Pronoun’s development, and together we changed the way authors connect with readers.”

Publishing Perspectives adds:
The statement doesn’t elaborate on how Pronoun is deemed to have “changed the way authors connect with readers.” And its message is sobering: “Unfortunately, Pronoun’s story ends here.” [It] avoids any clear explanation of why the [sic] Pronoun is being shut down. “While many challenges in indie publishing remain unsolved,” the statement reads, “Macmillan is unable to continue Pronoun’s operation in its current form. Every option was considered before making the very difficult decision to end the business.”

So far, the analyses I’ve seen agree that what doomed Pronoun was its start-up policy of free services to authors. That changed in 2017; 100% royalties to the author became a sliding scale starting at 65%. Not enough, evidently.

We’ll probably learn more in the days ahead about whatever financial losses, fears, or moving of the goalposts prompted Macmillan to pull the plug. My own diagnosis is that, in various ways, Pronoun’s reach didn’t match its grasp. For instance: despite its author-centric rhetoric, the only way to ask a question or solve a problem was by e-mail; I often fumed at having to wait a day or two for a reply from Elissa Bernstein, Author Happiness Advocate (a higher bar than one rep could hope to meet). Pronoun did pioneer in offering useful analyses and guidelines on keywords and categories. Its publishing process was straightforward, easy, and quick. As an aggregator, it distributed e-books to the 5 outlets I most wanted to reach: Amazon, iBooks, Google Play, Kobo, and Barnes & Noble. On the other hand, Pronoun’s 6 book-design templates — The Shelley, The Austen, The Didion, The Lamott, The Sandberg, and The Rowling — didn’t fit their titles, but ran a visually narrower, stuffier gamut.

Of course it makes sense for an e-book publisher to aim to be all things to all people. Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing hits that mark with a brisk, bland breeziness. Pronoun chose to shoot for a cutesy specificity of tone — Valley Girl meets Lizzie Bennet — and gambits like The Verb, a chatty dashboard-topping distraction with heads such as “Are You a Pantser or a Plotter?” that to me felt more patronizing than professional. Still, they did move the needle toward authors as the core of publishing, a valuable nudge to the industry. I’m sorry to see Pronoun go. I’m sorry to see one more hole blasted in the hull of that noble frigate, the book.

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20Sep/17

Why Quit Reading?

Lately the pile on my bedside table is so tall it’s toppling, and even my tablet can’t remember what e-book I was halfway through. As the SF Public Library’s annual Fall Big Book Sale looms, it’s time to winnow . . . and wonder what tips the scale from “keep reading” to “let it go.” Here are a couple of books I liked but just didn’t finish.

Death Comes for the ArchbishopDeath Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather

I love plots, and this limpid lucid book has none. It’s fascinating if you’re in a mood to slow life’s hectic pace to a crawl and let your gaze linger over long stretches of Southwestern landscape, traveling by mule or foot with two French clerics dispatched to secure Catholicism’s grip on pre-U.S. New Mexico. I enjoyed as much of it as I read, but didn’t find it compelling enough to look forward to at day’s end. Tipping point: my old copy is literally falling to pieces.

The Strange Files of Fremont Jones (Fremont Jones, #1)The Strange Files of Fremont Jones by Dianne Day

A charming, compelling voice gets this novel off to a zippy start. Once under way, though, I began to suspect that her narrator’s voice and a few plot ideas were all Dianne Day had planned. In 1905, rebellious bluestocking Caroline Fremont Jones flees Boston for San Francisco, drops “Caroline,” and sets up as a typist. Excellent premise! However . . . Another reviewer has compared Day to Sue Grafton; I agree in that both authors meander and vamp, as if they’re not sure which way to steer their narrators. Fremont Jones vacillates much more than Kinsey Millhone: sometimes she’s a take-charge amateur detective, sometimes a rather limp romantic heroine, sometimes a bystander in a Poe tale. The pre-quake San Francisco setting is dotted with just enough anachronisms to put me off (“mom and dad”? no formalities between ladies and gentlemen? and the big sex scene is a Harlequin classic); and by midway through the story, suspense–alas!–had dissipated.

Ascension Day Part 2 of 2Ascension Day Part 2 of 2 by John Matthews

This book is well written and fast paced enough to keep me reading (a freebie from BookBub) while I traveled. But once I stopped, I realized I wasn’t learning anything from these characters or this story, and I haven’t picked it up again. Too many mysteries and thrillers out there — too little reading time!

View all my reviews

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10Sep/17

Free e-book! ZAPPED: An Edgar Rowdey Cape Cod Mystery

Like mysteries? Try ZAPPED!

Thanks to Authors’ Marketing Club and Book Funnel, you can get a free e-copy of ZAPPED: An Edgar Rowdey Cape Cod Mystery (while supplies last). Here’s the deal: Click this link, download and read the book, then write an honest review on Amazon or Goodreads. Short or long, it doesn’t matter. But start the wheels turning now — the freebies are almost gone.

Enjoy!

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