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God Bless the Editor

God Bless the Editor: The Power Behind the Scenes

The late writer Norman Mailer was known to be a tough guy, and he was also quite a writer having won both of literature’s highest prizes – the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award – for his account of the domestic protests against the war in Vietnam, The Armies of the Night.   He was once asked by an interviewer to divulge the “secrets” of writing, and Mailer immediately invoked his First Rule, “Always trust your editor.”

I’ve thought about this more and more as I come across works by newer and debut authors; whose works often show promise (“There’s no heavier burden than a great potential,” to quote the wise philosopher Linus) but lack a firm and unified voice.   All too often I see the debut novel that starts off like a house afire but then dwindles away from the halfway point until the ending.   Perhaps it’s because the writer’s energy and confidence faded out; more likely, some type of scheduling conflict meant that the editor involved did not have the time to devote to smoothing out the rough spots in the second half that was devoted to the first.

I think that the work of a literary editor can be fairly likened to the work of a recording engineer.   Bands make all kinds of sounds in the recording studio – some too loud, some too harsh, some too tame and quiet, some jarring, some pleasant – and it’s up to the recording engineer (for a brilliant account read Here, There, and Everywhere: My Life Recording the Music of the Beatles by Geoff Emerick) to mold the sounds into something uniform.   Even more than uniform, they must be pleasing to the ear.   The human ear loves mid-range sounds, so the very best sound engineers minimize the highs and lows to produce a product that sounds unnaturally “natural.”

Buy a very expensive car today and you’ll be offered an equally expensive add-on option, a top-of-the-line audio system (think an extra $5,000 to $7,000) that produces comforting mid-range sounds from any genre of material, rock to jazz to classical or country music.   This stereo reproduction system will have a built-in range limiter, a single-function computer program that mimics and sometimes even  improves the sounds produced by a top-flight recording engineer blessed with perfect hearing and “golden ears.”

Similarly, the writer’s editor must take out what’s jarring, what’s unexpected or simply not registered in the author’s best, pleasing voice…  It’s the editor who must decide, whether or not the author concurs, the answers to the questions:  “What is it about this author’s tone that is pleasing to the reader’s inner ear?   Which part of the writer’s voice is pleasingly mid-range?”

In order to complete his/her task, the skilled editor must edit and sometimes brutally cut out that which does not seem to fit.   And this is where Mailer’s advice is so important to the new writer, the prospective writer.   I will restate his advice this way, in my own words:  Don’t argue, don’t take it personally.   The very best, the most talented, of writers have found that they must trust their editors.

The skilled editor can take multiple, disparate voices and make them harmonize like the fine instruments in an orchestra.   As an example, take the short story collection about true love, Love Is a Four-Letter Word.   This compilation contained 23 stories written by just as many writers.   Yet in the hands of editor Michael Taeckens, the collection never seemed choppy or disjointed.   I found that it had a singular mid-range tone – not too loud, nor too soft – that made it seem quite enjoyable.   And it wasn’t just me.   One reader noted at Amazon that, “…this collection was pretty good…  not just in theme but in tone.”   Said another, “…the stories flowed quite seamlessly from one to the other.   We have Mr. Taeckens, the editor, to thank for that.”   Exactly!

When a highly skilled editor can take 23 voices and make them sound like one melodious voice, just think of what he/she can do to assist the previously fledgling, isolated writer in finding his or her natural voice.

One other key function is left up to the editor.   Carolyn Parkhurst wrote, “…the ending of a novel should feel inevitable.   You, the reader, shouldn’t be able to see what’s coming…  you should (feel) satisfied that there’s no other way it could have gone.”   If the draft ending of the book does not feel natural and inevitable, it’s up to the editor to tell the writer so.

In the end, it does come down to that one word: trust.   Mr. Mailer was so right.

Joseph Arellano

Note: Thank you to author (The Language of Trees: A Novel) and former professional editor Ilie Ruby, for serving as one of my editors on this piece. And thank you to Daniel D. Holt for serving as the second editor. 

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Radar Love

Gateways: An Anthology, edited by Elizabeth Anne Hull (Tor Books, $15.99, 416 pages)

“The Federation is old, and it had gotten old by minimizing change…  The emergence of humans had disturbed the Galactic balance; change had occurred, and the Federation didn’t like change.”

This is quite simply a feast for science fiction fans!   Gateways is a collection of new science fiction stories and tributes – including essays and poetry – by 18 authors in the style of Frederick Pohl.   Pohl long ago wrote a seminal creative novel called Gateway, and he was perhaps the first to predict the current day realities of personal computers and mobile phones.

Many of the tales in this collection focus on futuristic space travel and wars between alien cultures.   One of the best, and clearly unique, stories (Shadows of the Lost) is about an encounter between very early humans and Neanderthals.   It’s an unexpected twist.   Another (Chicken Little), about a future in which only billionaires can afford to extend their natural life spans, is eerily effective.

Not all of the stories work, however.   Gunn’s Tales – about spaceship travel – is one that goes on far too long and fails to arrive anywhere.   Star Trek it is not.

Frederick Pohl is now 90.   He was a contemporary of Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, and Kurt Vonnegut.   In his day, he won all of science fiction’s major awards (Hugos, Nebulas, the SFWA Grand Master Award) for his writing.   This worthy tribute compilation should put Pohl’s name on the radar for younger readers who are just coming to appreciate the many textures and flavors of science fiction.   Welcome!

Well recommended.

Joseph Arellano

Reprinted coutesty of San Francisco Book Review.   Gateways was released in trade paper form on July 5, 2011.   “…a must-buy for science fiction readers of all tastes,  from the traditional to the cutting-edge, from the serious to the laugh-out-loud funny.”   Amazon

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I’ll Just Hold On

Musical Chairs: A Memoir by Jen Knox (All Things That Matter Press, $16.99)

Jen Knox’s first book Musical Chairs is difficult to describe.  

What is the likely fate of a young girl who comes from a family with a history of runaways, mental illness, and substance abuse?   It is more likely than not that their adolescence will be rife with incident, but to succumb to all three and then manage to out-do the rest by becoming a stripper on top of it?   That is the unlikely, but true, story of Jen Knox.

Readers seem to gravitate toward memoirs, especially in recent years, and especially if they tell the story of overcoming difficulties such as substance abuse, domestic violence, and the like.   Those people will like this book, although it is difficult to figure out exactly why someone would want to expose themselves to this type of content.

What is admirable about this effort is the objectivity with which the author portrays the events of her life.   She does not try to blame others or elicit pity for herself.   This third person telling of a first person story, while unique, may leave some readers wanting more:  more of the inner thoughts, the perceived reasons behind the behaviors, the emotional reactions that have undoubtedly surfaced upon reflection, etc.   In this way the book may fall a bit short.

There’s a sense of rushing through some of the events in the author’s life.   The book is sparse (176 pages) and takes the reader through a decade.   It causes one to wonder if there’s more to the brutal vignettes outlined in these pages that the author has yet to quite work through.

The book is written in three sections:  Runaway, Dancer, and The Education.   The reader learns of some of the encounters with shady characters during the dancing era; follows the author through a variety of dead end jobs and temporary residences; and, eventually, learns more about her mysterious grandmother and catches glimpses of the relationship between her and her eventual soul mate, Chris.

This is a solid first effort, if not a great one.   Several episodes of the author’s life seem to cry out for more detail or explanation; although this may be intentional.   In fact, it appears that Knox wanted it this way.  

Many readers may want more, and some will be disturbed enough as it is.   Most will be happy that the author’s life has come together.   Ms. Knox should be.   The vast majority of the people who find themselves in similar shoes are not so lucky.

Dave Moyer

A review copy was received from the author.   Musical Chairs is also available in Kindle and Nook Book editions.

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Win The Stormchasers

On April 13, 2011, we posted a review of The Stormchasers: A Novel by Jenna Blum and concluded that it is Highly recommended.   It is also a 4.5 star-rated book at Amazon, and this rating has been earned after the submission of 55 customer ratings!   So we’re pleased to announce that, thanks to Kathleen, we can offer our readers three (3) copies of the trade paperback version of The Stormchasers, the version that is being released tomorrow.   Each book has a value of $15.00.

As always, we want to keep the rules simple for this book giveaway.   In order to enter this contest, just post a comment below – with your name and e-mail address – telling us why you’d like to win a copy of this particular book.   (In other words, what is it about the story that you find to be intriguing?)   If you prefer, you can send an e-mail message with your name and e-mail address to Josephsreviews@gmail.com .   This is open book, so feel free to refer to our earlier review or any reviews or information about the novel that you may find online.

As you may remember, the protagonist in The Stormchasers is a young woman whose strongest relationship in life is with her twin brother.   For a second entry, tell us who has been the most important person in your life and why?   Post your response below or in an e-mail message to us.

In order to be eligible to win a copy of The Stormchasers, you must live in the continental United States and be able to supply a residential (street) mailing address if and when you are contacted.   Books will not be shipped to P. O. boxes or to business-related addresses.   The three winners will be picked at random and you have until 12:00 Midnight PST on Friday, May 27, 2011 to submit your entry or entries.

So much for the complex contest rules.   Good luck and good reading!

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Sequels and Prequels

“If you introduce a character that’s already familiar to somebody they have a vested interest.”   Sarah Bagby, managing partner of Watermark Books

One of the pleasurable facets of reading modern popular fiction is that once you discover an author (and it’s more likely to be a she than a he), you can read her earlier works and/or plan to read her future releases.   Once we arrive at a place of comfort with an author, we hope and presume that we will feel the same about separate works by that writer.   Generally each work will be separate, except when the author of fiction decides to create a series around a character, which is when we wind up with sequels and prequels.

The author who decides to extend a character’s life into a continuing series has a few minefields to deal with.   One is that people like continuity until they get tired of it.   Think of a new rock band with a successful initial CD.   Let’s call this band the Purple Onion (PO).   Everyone loved PO’s first album, Single Whammy, so when they release their follow-up album, Double Whammy, their fans are thrilled that it retains their “trademark sound.”   But what happens when Triple Whammy is released?   PO is then likely to be beaten up by both the critics and formerly rabid fans who say that they’ve become stuck in one place and have displayed little or no growth as musical artists.   (If Triple Whammy sounds nothing like the first two CDs, they are likely to get hammered for a different reason – for arbitrarily changing their style.)

An author faces the same issues in building a series of novels around a single character.   One example is Sarah Paretsky who has written for many years about the crusty Chicago-based detective V. I. Warshawsky.   Paretsky was praised for writing several “V. I.” books until some critics felt that the lead character had changed too much in later novels.   (Was V. I. getting soft?)   Her latest effort in the series was praised for being more like the original “V. I.” books.   Get back, V. I., back to where you once belonged!

So there’s a bend but do not break aspect to fashioning a lead character.   He or she must stay the same yet must evolve and grow the way most humans do in their own lives.   Suddenly the idea of hanging onto a main character doesn’t sound so easy, does it?

There’s also the fact that some readers may view the author as getting lazy, or feel that she/he is not challenging herself/himself enough.   What does one get out of writing about the same character(s) all of the time, except maybe a relatively safe source of income?   What about stretching oneself as an artist, a writer, by taking on new themes and styles?   This tends to be a valid critique, but only to a point.   That’s because authors like Richard Ford and John Updike wrote several books structured around a single character and both series were well-recognized with journalism’s highest awards.

The lesson here is that some skilled authors can write about the same character repeatedly and make it not only interesting but fascinating.   The key word, though, is skill.

Novels in a continuing fictional series based on a lead character tend to be sequels, but on occasion a writer decides to fashion a prequel.   This is a novel that deals with events that precede, rather than follow, the author’s introduction of a lead character.   In my view, prequels are much harder to write well because the mind of the average reader does not deal well with a character’s pre-introduction life…

Let’s say that I read a novel featuring detective L. A. Jones.   When I read the first book in which L. A. Jones appears he’s in his early forties.   If I finish this book and pick up the second in the series eighteen months later, it does not bother me that L. A. is now in his mid to late-forties; this seems natural.   But if I pick up the third book in the series and see that it deals with L. A. when he was a young man in his teens and twenties, it seems odd and hard to follow.   The mind tends to ask, “Why did the author do this?   I’m not interested in the character’s life before I knew (encountered) him!”

Yes, prequels can work in extending the life of a successful film or TV series, but that’s a bit different.   Fans of Star Trek, for example, so desperately wanted the series to continue in some form that they eventually learned to accept a prequel version.   But, when it comes to prequels in popular fiction, the words sung by Ringo Starr would seem to apply – “It don’t come easy.”

The take away point may be that an author who has developed a popular character would seem to have climbed on board the gravy train, and he/she would seem to be crazy to abandon that character.   But the public is extremely fickle about characters they’ve come to know and love.   These characters must stay the same while changing, but not too much so.

Perhaps the biggest issue, however, is with the author who fails to change his lead character enough.   One of the most critical and deadly comments is one that can often be found at Amazon.   It goes something like this, “I LOVED Joe Blow’s books about detective L. A. Jones and I bought every one!   But this book, the 17th in the series, stinks!   Joe Blow should have killed off detective Jones before now.   Blow’s now writing on automatic pilot, and these books are now nothing if not repetitive and boring.”

A fan of an author can go from loyalist to attack dog in an instant.   Woe to the author who creates a continuing character and lets that character over stay his/her welcome!   Better to let the character leave the stage a bit too early rather than far too late.

Reprinted courtesy of Sacramento Book Review.   This article is one in a continuing series.

Pictured:   Innocent, the sequel to Presumed Innocent by Scott Turow; the sequel released 20 years after the original.

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A Memorial Day Giveaway

Thanks to Hachette Audio, we have three (3) audiobook copies of War by Sebastian Junger to give away.   Junger is the author of The Perfect Storm and this book, War, is a 4.5 star book at Amazon.   The unabridged audiobook is read by the author on 7 CDs and has a list price value of $29.98.

Here is a synopsis of War and a comment by an early reviewer.

From the author of The Perfect Storm, War is a gripping book about Sebastian Junger’s almost-fatal year with the 2nd battalion of the American Army.   They were known as “The Rock.”   For one year, in 2007-2008, Junger accompanied a single platoon of thirty men from the 2nd battalion as they fought their way through a remote valley in Eastern Afghanistan.   Over the course of five trips, men that Junger knew were killed or wounded, and he himself was almost killed.  

War is a narrative about combat: the fear of dying, the trauma of killing and the love between platoon-mates who would rather die than let each other down.   Gripping, honest, intense, War explores the incredible bonds that form between these small groups of men.   War goes to the heart of what it means not just to be a soldier, but to be human.

“There aren’t many books that really tell the reader what it means to be in battle.   Sebastian Junger is a writer of rare skill who can paint a frighteningly real picture of places few of us would ever think of going.”   Michael J. Edelman, Amazon

In order to enter the contest to win an audiobook copy of War, simply post a comment here or send an e-mail with the heading “War” to Josephsreviews@gmail.com .   This will count as a first entry.   For a second entry, explain what Memorial Day means to you or your family.  

In order to enter this giveaway, you must have a residential mailing address in the U.S. or Canada (audiobooks will not be mailed to P.O. boxes).   You have until midnight PST on Wednesday, June 30, 2010 to submit your entry/entries.  

Good luck and good listening/reading!

 

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Win Dark Deceptions

Thanks to Anna at Hachette Books, we have 5 (five) copies of Dark Deceptions by Dee Davis to give away.   This is a Forever novel, just released on April 1, 2010, and rated as a 4-star book at Amazon.   Here is a quick synopsis:

Covert operations expert Nash Brennon has spent the last eight years trying to forget Annie Gallagher, his former field partner and the only woman he has ever loved.   Annie betrayed him when he needed her the most, then vanished without a trace.   Now suddenly she’s back in the game – as a suspected traitor and threat to the national security.

Annie’s son has been kidnapped by political terrorists.   The price for his life?   The assassination of a U.N. ambassador.

This is a unique suspense romance thriller.   “…(a) page turning, white knuckle, romantic thriller.”   ReadertoReader.com  

Dark Deceptions was delightful!” wrote a reader at the Barnes and Noble website.

“Don’t miss any book by Dee Davis.”   Christina Skye

“Dee Davis is at the top of her game.”   Mariah Stewart

In order to enter this book giveaway, just post a comment here or send an e-mail with the heading Dark Deceptions to Josephsreviews@gmail.com.   Make sure to include an e-mail address where you can be reached in case you are one of the 5 winners of Dark Deceptions.   This will count as one entry.

In order to enter a second time, please tell us what you think about digital “e-books”.   Would you read a book on a Kindle (Amazon) or a Nook (Barnes and Noble) or a Sony Reader?   On an Apple iPad?   As a download onto your PC?   Why or why not?   Your answer will count as a second entry.

You must live in the United States or Canada to enter and have a valid residential address.   Books cannot be mailed to a P.O. box.   The deadline for entries is 12:00 midnight PST on Wednesday, May 26, 2010.   If your name is drawn by Munchy the cat as a winner, you will be sent an e-mail message and you will need to respond with your residential address within 72 hours.  

This is it for the contest rules.   Good luck and good reading!

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Finding the Balance

Finding the Balance in Book Reviewing

A book reviewer needs to find a fine balance in approaching a new work of fiction, although the reviewer is not always going to deliver the product that each reader is seeking.   A review should perform a service by answering the question, “Is this book worth my money or – even more importantly – my time?”   Still, there are other considerations.

Just a Synopsis

First, there’s the knowledge that some readers simply want a synopsis of the story.   Although they could look this up at Google Books or Amazon or elsewhere, they want to know the plot and what the book’s about.   And some reviewers, often newspaper-based, just deliver this skeletal information.   But it’s about as helpful as one of those new car write-ups in which the test driver/journalist tells you everything about the car (price, features, and available options) except whether or not it’s fun to drive.   So a review needs to be more than just a summary.

Is it the Singer or the Song?

The first thing to be analyzed about a new novel is whether the magic lies in the story or in the telling.   Is it the song (story) or the singer (writer)?   If the strength is in the story, then the plot should be laid out in the review, stopping short of revealing the conclusion.   Some authors who are not necessarily the most skilled writers make their living off of great plots, great set-ups.   This being said, many new authors write debuts that start off strong but lose their focus half or two-thirds of the way though.   Good to great ideas are not always sustainable over 300-plus pages.

If the story is not much, but the writing is impressive, then that’s what the reviewer should focus on.   Audrey Niffenegger, for example, does not come up with the most complicated plots…   Her Fearful Symmetry is a ghost story.   So much for the plot, except that she writes the heck out of it; which is why she makes millions per novel.   Hand another 100 writers the same plot, and it’s doubtful that any one of them would write a tale that’s in the same league.   And that’s reality, as John Lennon would say.

Negative Reviews

Once a decision is made as to whether the book has a strong plot or rests on technique, the direction of the review should be clear.   Some novels, sadly, are not going to be excellent in either category.   This may result in what’s called a “negative” review, which may bother some readers of reviews.   It bothers the review writer, also.   Reviewers would love to love everything they devote their time to reading but, in the end, reviewers must have a commitment to truth as they see it…   And if you don’t like the reviewer’s opinion, keep in mind that it’s just that.  

What is, and should be, the reviewer’s obligation is to explain how he or she arrived at his opinion; building the case for the opinion.   You do not have to agree, but you should be able to examine the thought process that a reviewer went through in arriving at a positive or negative opinion.

Opinions

About opinions – sometimes they’re everything in life, sometimes they’re nothing.   Brian Epstein’s guess that the Beatles were a pretty good band was a pretty good opinion.   The opinion of the guy at Decca Records in London who passed on signing them (“The days of guitar bands has passed.”) was nothing.   But he may have been the guy who signed the Rolling Stones to the label.   Such is life.

A Final Issue

Should a reviewer read other reviews of the same book before writing his or her own?   It is probably best avoided until after the review is written, so that the reviewer is not influenced by the opinion of others.   Reviewing is not – and should not be – about finding consensus or mirroring public opinion.   It can, however, be helpful for a reviewer to scan other reviews in order to spot unique literary devices.   For example, earlier, I read a review in a newspaper in which the reviewer compared the novel’s story line to a bit of poetry.   I really liked that, so the very next time I read a novel, I searched for a line of poetry that seemed relevant for the review and I included it.

A nice idea and, hey, I don’t think anyone has a copyright on dead poets!

Reprinted courtesy of Sacramento Book Review and San Francisco Book Review.   First in a series.

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Birds

Imperfect Birds by Anne Lamott

I try to write the books I would love to come upon…   Anne Lamott

I love the way Anne Lamott writes.   She writes like Anne Tyler (Noah’s Compass, Breathing Lessons, The Accidental Tourist, Digging to America) with a professor’s seriousness about life, but a child’s smile.   Life scares Lamott but she keeps the bogey men away by writing about people who are like her, except that maybe they have just a bit more courage.   Or maybe they don’t.

Imperfect Birds is a novel about a family, about mother Elizabeth Ferguson, her second husband James and her daughter Rosie, a senior in high school in Marin County.   Elizabeth and James worship Rosie as they simultaneously count the days until she’ll leave for college so that they can stop worrying about her.   “…life with most teenagers was like having a low-grade bladder infection.   It hurt but you had to tough it out.”

Rosie’s been a straight-A student until, as a 17-year-old senior, she begins getting Bs in even her best subjects.   That would not be much of a disappointment for other students, but there’s a reason she’s coming undone.   She’s using drugs, of almost every variety, to the point where even her extremely forgiving mother can no longer ignore what’s happening.   “…(Elizabeth) had a conviction now that when she thought something was going on, it was.”   This also means that a mother’s worst fears are coming true:  “I was afraid of how doomed you would be as a parent.”

The title, of course, refers to imperfect people – people who have lost the ability to fly straight.   Elizabeth is too forgiving of her daughter’s faults for too long.   James is too judgmental and too quick to prescribe a harsh remedy for his stepdaughter’s problems.   Rosie, who lost her father to cancer years before, is young and wants to enjoy life until…   Until she finds that her drug abuse has left her dreamless and with a heart “like a little dead animal.”

Rosie also wants to be loved by someone other than her mother and step-father, which is why she creates fantasies about one of her male instructors and later becomes involved with someone older.   Eventually a decision has to be made…   Will Rosie’s parents save Rosie from herself or will they step aside and let her self-destruct before her life even really begins?

If this was the work of a less-talented writer, the reader might be tempted to take a guess at the ending and put the book down prematurely.   But Lamott is one of the best writers we have – about this there can be little doubt.   So this story feels like a gift – one to be savored and treasured – and will be appreciated by any reader who does not make a claim to perfection in his or her own life.Highly recommended.   An advance review copy was provided by Riverview Books.   Imperfect Birds will be released on April 6, 2010.

“Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing there is a field.   I’ll meet you there.”   Rumi    

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Everything Must Go

Everything Must Go by Elizabeth Flock

This was, for me, a very enjoyable read.   Everything Must Go is the story of Henry Powell, an Everyman whose life (like that of the narrator-sister in Therese Walsh’s The Last Will of Moira Leahy) has been touched and battered by a family tragedy.   Henry’s parents blame him for that tragedy and so he’s forced to put aside the life he otherwise would have led.

Henry’s an all-state star high school football player who receives an offer to play for a big-time college.   But it’s not to be as he is called home to take care of his unemployed father and sickly mother.   Henry has to make do with a “temporary” job working in a men’s clothing store.   Even after he moves into his own apartment and works full-time at the store, he’s still forced to take care of his mother each evening.

Life goes on as normal until Henry happens to meet the girl of his dreams, Cathy.   She seems to really like Henry until she meets his mother and then rushes to get away.   Yes, Henry’s mother has secured a measure of revenge for what she views as his role in the family’s deadly accident.

With time Henry not only goes on to live without his beloved Cathy, he even comes to realize and accept that they were just not meant to be together, which is when he becomes open to meeting someone better for him…

As the clothing store eventually is set to close (to be reborn as a Restoration Hardware site), Henry becomes aware that his life has come to make sense.   It’s time for him to move on, even if he’s not sure where the rest of his life will take him.   He’s gained confidence in his fate and is willing to let the past go.   As the sign says in the window of the clothing store, EVERYTHING MUST GO.

A charming and calming story is so very well told by Elizabeth Flock.   There are many very nice touches in the telling of the tale that future readers will enjoy discovering.   Let it be said that Flock does not depend on implausible events or loud explosions to tell her story.   She simply chronicles the story of an average person’s life in an above average way.

Recommended.

Joseph Arellano

This book was purchased by the reviewer.

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