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Instant Karma

Corn Flakes with John Lennon and Other Tales From a Rock ‘n Roll Life by Robert Hilburn (Rodale, $14.99, 280 pages)

“…the best music doesn’t just fill a void in the listener…  it can also fill a need in the artist.”   Robert Hilburn

“I look at people as ideas.   I don’t see people as people.”   Bob Dylan

“And we all shine on, like the moon and the stars and the sun.”   John Lennon

The fine long-time music critic for The Los Angeles Times, Bob Hilburn, takes us along on his trips with “the best rock stars” in this engaging account of his years in the music business.   It is mostly a study of personalities, big ones, such as John Lennon, Bob Dylan (“The most important figure in rock…  rock’s most celebrated living figure…  the greatest songwriter.”), Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Presley, Neil Young, Bono of U2, Johnny Cash and Janis Joplin.   There are also quick, brief encounters with Sir Elton John, Sir Paul McCartney, Michael Jackson, Mick Jagger, Joni Mitchell, John Prine, Waylon Jennings, and Jack White.

You’re probably thinking that you’ll enjoy this memoir if you happen to like these artists, most of whom were blessed with the approval of both Hilburn and Rolling Stone magazine.   You’ll be right in that thought, and also will likely find that it has less charm if these artists are not your cup of tea or Java.   Hilburn makes quite clear that he dislikes “superficial artists” (a term coined by Dylan), among whom he includes Rod Stewart, the “cold” Steely Dan, and Madonna.   He writes of the latter that she’s a “sharp cookie” who always provides good quotes for an interviewer, but “I’m not generally a fan of her music.”

So, yes, this is an account of hanging out on the road with the stars of boomer rock and country music.   The true tales from the 1970s are the most interesting ones – when rock was seemingly full of excitement and energy (and played on vinyl) – and the telling seems to get tired and grumpy as we approach current times.   Hilburn, in fact, closes the book with a tremendous sense of pessimism about the music trade’s prospects for survival.

If Hilburn has a fault, it’s an obvious one in that he often gets close to being over the top about those artists, those geniuses – such as Dylan and Mitchell, that he favors.   Not only does he realize it, but so do some of the performers he’s supported.   For example, at one point he asks Bono if the musician fears that the public will become tired of him.   Bono replies, “Look, I’m tired of Bono and I am Bono.”

“Paul’s like a brother.   We’ve gone way past all that.”   John Lennon

If there’s a reason to buy this book, now available in trade paperback form, it’s for the touching overview of Hilburn’s days spent with Lennon in New York City just two weeks before the former Beatle’s tragic death.   This Lennon is a man at peace with himself, in love with his life, and ready to forgive and forget.   One very revealing note is when John tells Hilburn that all of the stories about the deep rift between him and Paul McCartney were just that, stories.   John noted he and Paul were, deep down, brothers still.

Hilburn’s book is a brief for the magical power of rock ‘n roll.   It may now be an endangered art form, but Hilburn reminds us that, at it’s best – as when it’s performed by The Boss (Springsteen), “rock ‘n roll can still be majestic.”

Well recommended.

Joseph Arellano

Take Away:  This is a very entertaining journal of life within the rock ‘n roll circus tent.   However, Hilburn sacrifices a bit of credibility when he refers to Kurt Cobain as one of rock’s greatest figures and as “the great talent” of the 1990s.   As he admits, “I often had a hard time convincing…  people when it came to Kurt.”   In the words of The Band, take what you need and leave the rest.

This book was purchased by the reviewer.

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The Last Worthless Evening

The Last Blind Date: A Real-Life Love Story by Linda Yellin (Gallery Books, $15.00, 316 pages)

As I was finishing the Prologue (“Some Pertinent Information You Should Know Up Front”) of The Last Blind Date, I was thinking that this was going to be one entertaining popular fiction novel about love and romance.   Also, a very funny one…  It wasn’t until a few minutes later that I noticed the subtitle on this book, “A Real-Life Love Story.”   Oh, so this is not a novel but a memoir.   Interesting.

Linda Yellin’s book arrives at the  right time for those impacted by either Seasonal Affective Disorder – the aptly abbreviated SAD – or the holiday period blues.   Or maybe you’ve just done too much shopping or quaffed too much eggnog and you need something to bring your spirits up.   Belly up to the bar run by Ms. Yellin, a Boomer who offers healthy servings of humorous observations about life and living.   (Yes, she’s a baby boomer and you will find yourself asking, “How old could she be if she can remember watching Sky King on TV as a child?”)

In our household the mark of an engaging read is the number of times that I read excerpts to my wife or vice-versa.   In this case, I interrupted many episodes of Law and Order to read passages such as this one:

Commenting on other women’s relationships has always felt dicey for me…  I never know when to scream Red flag! and when to keep my trap shut.   I figure if you tell a friend she’s dating a jerk, don’t expect to be a bridesmaid if she marries the jerk.   Then, again, couldn’t at least one of Eva Braun’s girlfriends have sat her down and said, “Eva, sweetheart – trust me.   You can do better.”

What is the book about?   Glad you asked.   Yellin lost her first husband to cancer, lives in Chicago and had pretty much given up hopes of ever  being happy again when she’s set up on a blind date with a resident of New York City.   This is her true tale of how she found the right man, even if by blind accident, and became his second wife and the stepmother to this two children and their robot dog, Eddy.   (Yes, everyone needs at least one robot in their happily ever after home.)

The Last Blind Date is also about the culture shock experienced by a Midwesterner moving to the Big Apple, where everyone wears black and comments on one’s “strange” accent.   It’s also a story of learning to  love what you already have, and appreciating the fantastic experience of being a parent:

…along the way she’d break some hearts of her own, followed by lonely nights when she doubted herself and wondered why love came quickly for others but not for her.   Until there was finally a matching up of souls, and it seemed that every event in her life had led up to this one man, and she realized that if love were any easier, any less fateful – it wouldn’t feel like magic.

That’s Yellin writing about her stepdaughter Phoebe, but once you finish Blind Date, you’ll realize that it’s also about Yellin herself and her long, strange road to meeting and marrying her husband Randy.   Read this book and play Don Henley’s song, The Last Worthless Evening.   You’ll be so glad you did.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   The Last Blind Date was released on October 4, 2011.   Linda Yellin is also the author of the novel Such a Lovely Couple.

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Hill Street Blues

The Drop: A Harry Bosch Novel by Michael Connelly (Little, Brown and Company; $27.99; 416 pages)

“It was a city where not enough people cared about making it a better and safe place to live.”

Michael Connelly, author of the tremendously successful Mickey Haller (The Lincoln Lawyer, The Reversal, The Fifth Witness) and Harry Bosch novels, returns with what is likely his strongest tale yet.   The Drop stands for the Los Angeles Police Department’s Deferred Retirement Options Plan, which allows police officers and detectives to stay on as retired annuitants working past their normal scheduled retirement dates.   As we join the story, Bosch is bored, underworked, underappreciated and counting the months until the day of his departure from the Hall of Justice.

“Two days ago he didn’t think he could leg out the last thirty-one months of his career.   Now he wanted the full five years.”

Then, suddenly, Bosch is given not one, but two major cases to solve.   One assignment comes to him directly from the police chief.   Without explanation, a powerful city councilman who is a foe of the LAPD in general – and a long-time enemy of Detective Bosch – requests Harry’s services in resolving the death of his son.   The son’s death appears, at first blush, to be a suicide but is it something more?   And will the powers that be in the city permit Bosch to pull the strings even if it unravels a major political power broking scandal?

The second matter is a cold case investigation into a murderer, seemingly lost somewhere in southern California, who may be a rival to Ted Bundy as a dangerous serial killer.   While spending virtually every minute of the first 48 hours cracking the first case, Bosch and his partner also find and create the time to solve the mystery of the second.

Boomers will identify with Bosch, who is conflicted over whether he should remain on the job, retire immediately or stay on longer.   It will be familiar territory for some mature readers.   As Harry says to his 15-year-old wise, prospective-detective daughter, “I’ve been chasing my tail all week…  and you know what?   I think you were right.   You called it at the start and I didn’t.   I must be getting old.”

In this 22nd novel from Connelly, we find a protagonist who has never seemed more likable, more flawed and more human.   This is about as good as it gets when it comes to fiction set in the City of Angels.   And don’t just take my word for it:

Thank God for Michael Connelly…  (He) retains his journalistic gifts; his eye for detail is spot on…  his 22 novels form an indispensable, compelling chronicle of L.A.”   Los Angeles Times

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   The Drop will be released on November 28, 2011, and will also be available in e-reader form (Kindle Edition and Nook Book), and as an unabridged audiobook on CDs.   “Connelly is a master of building suspense.”   The Wall Street Journal

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Over and Over

The Boomers in our audience will remember what things used to be like during the late 1950s and the early 60s.   A recording artist, like Chubby Checker, would have a hit with a song like The Twist; which meant that the follow-up 45 single had to sound as close to it as humanly possible (this usually meant a virtually identical tune with different words attached to it).   In Chubby’s case, the next song was Let’s Twist Again.   It is to the credit of the Beatles that they broke this pattern of releasing songs that were virtual clones of each other.

Sometimes as a reader and reviewer I see this same pattern applying itself when it comes to popular fiction.   Let’s say that our debut author Christy Crafty writes a novel called Becky from Bakersfield.   Against seemingly all odds this story of a woman who can see what is going to happen in people’s futures becomes a moderate success.   So what happens next?   You guessed it, Christy does not want to rock the boat so she releases a follow-up (and the titles and book covers will naturally be quite similar) called Florence from Fresno.   This will turn out to be almost the same tale except for the fact that this time around our female protagonist can see what happened in the past of the lives of the strangers she meets.   The third book may be Sally from Stockton, about a woman who knows when people will die as soon as she encounters them.

Now this may not be such a horrible strategy from a sales standpoint, except for the fact that book one is likely going to get great reviews, and each succeeding variation is going to be less charitably commented on.   Eventually, Christy herself is likely to see that she’s put herself into a rut.   And then even her most loyal readers will begin calling for something new and original from her.

Why are reviewers and readers going to be increasingly disappointed in this commercial product?   Because the freshness that accompanied the original novel from author Crafty is slowly leaked out like air from a damaged tire.   The once delightful story that gets reworked over and over again becomes dull and flat.

It is my own view – and it’s much easier for me to say since I do not write novels – that the moderately to highly successful new author should, after the release of the first well-sold and reviewed novel, quickly change styles before the release of the second book.   Why?   To prove to readers, critics and the world that he/she is a writer, one who can write novels of many forms, short stories, poetry (if the muse strikes), and perhaps articles on politics and sports.   Again, why?   Because this is the creative process – this is the essence of writing.   Writing the same story repeatedly is not creative and fails to display one’s talents.

It was the singer Natalie Merchant who noted that you simply cannot give the public what it thinks it wants, which is candy (musical or literary) all of the time.   If you do, the public gets tired of you after it comes down from the sugar high – the false creative rush.   Once they get tired of the same old thing, they not only stop buying it, they also join the critics in their anguished howls.

So what is the moral of the story?   That creativity has its costs.   Being creative, continually and over a career, takes courage.   It takes real courage to write what you need to write even if it is not what you wrote before…

Just look at the careers of this country’s most highly rewarded authors – the Capotes, the Mailers and others of their ilk – and you’ll see that they did not settle for rewriting one story time after time.   (Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s and In Cold Blood could not be less similar.)   They branched out; they changed even if simply for change’s sake.   They stayed alive, as the Beatles did with their music, ever evolving, ever-growing; each and every collection of songs by John, Paul, George and Ringo was the result of new periods and experiences in their lives.

To borrow the words of Bob Dylan, life should be about new mornings.   It’s not dark yet, unless you elect to go living in the past, the shades drawn tight.

Joseph Arellano

Pictured:  The Girl in the Green Raincoat: A Tess Monaghan Novel by Laura Lippman, which was released by William Morrow and Harper Audio on January 18, 2011.   This book (actually a 176 page novella) has absolutely no relationship to the matters discussed in this article – I simply like the intriguing cover image which makes me want to read it.   Look for a review of The Girl in the Green Raincoat to appear on this site in the near future.

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Kiss From A Rose

The Weird Sisters: A Novel by Eleanor Brown (Amy Einhorn Books/Putnam; $24.95; 336 pages)

“See, we love each other.   We just don’t happen to like each other very much.”

This is the story of three sisters, and of their retired Shakespeare-spouting professor father and a mother stricken with cancer.   They are three very different sisters, which is what creates the tension in this family novel.

Firstly, there is Rose (Rosalind), the oldest and the smart one, born six years before the second child and twelve years before the youngest.   She has found a perfect man to marry but with one small problem:  He’s teaching at Oxford and wants to stay there, thank you very much.   Secondly, there’s Bean (Bianca), the glamorous middle daughter fired from her job in New York City due to a crazy little thing called embezzlement.   She’s not quite perfect.   And, thirdly, there’s Cordy (Cordelia), the baby, the wild one pregnant with the baby of an unknown father.   Cordy’s always been a wanderer.   Is she finally ready to settle down?

It’s their mother’s cancer that brings them back together under the same roof in a small town in Ohio.   There’s not much oxygen to spare…  You are likely thinking that this is going to be one very predictable read; if so, you would be wrong.   This is a novel that surprises and delights.   Author Eleanor Brown seems to tell the story flawlessly – I kept searching in vain for the seams in the tale.   They’re there somewhere, but they seem to be woven with invisible thread.

Brown’s journalistic voice contains a beautiful tone – it is never too strong nor too weak.   It simply feels like one is listening to someone accurately describing and detailing the events of three sisters’ lives.   And there’s likely more than a trace of real life in this tale, as the author just happens to be the youngest of three sisters.

“There’s no problem a library card cannot solve.”

Anyone who loves literature and the greatest writer in the English language will treasure Brown’s educated and clever references to the writings of William Shakespeare.   Each of the daughters is, of course, named after a character in one of the Bard’s plays, and their lives sometimes feel as if they’re characters on a stage.

As the story unfolds, each of the daughters must deal with their mother’s mortality and with their own coming to grips with what it is they actually want out of life.   In one sense, each of them must decide between an external version of achievement and an internal one.

Boomers and those of a younger generation will identify with the struggles of these late-maturing sisters:  “When had our mother gotten so old?   Was it just because she was sick?   Or was this happening to us all without our noticing?…  There was no use wondering about it – we were all getting old.”

“We were all failures,” thinks Bean at one point about herself and her siblings.   But they all wind up successes in a story that is wrapped up so beautifully well.   Contentment is the reward for the reading.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was received from the publisher.   The Weird Sisters was published on January 20, 2011.

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I Ain’t Living Long Like This

Chinaberry Sidewalks: A Memoir by Rodney Crowell (Knopf; $24.95; 256 pages)

“To be well-loved is to be free of the evil lurking around the next darkened corner.   Every child should know that feeling.”

The country music artist Rodney Crowell is known for his singing and songwriting skills.   His singing voice, often compared to that of Kris Kristofferson (but higher pitched), may leave something to be desired.   But the artist who has written songs like Shame on the Moon, I Ain’t Living Long Like This and (The Way You Burn Me I Should Be) Ashes by Now, has shown himself to be a bright star in this category.   Crowell is also known as being the ex-husband of Rosanne Cash, which has presented other issues, such as coming off second in comparison to her singing, songwriting and writing skills.

It proves to be true again.   For while Chinaberry Sidewalks is interesting in some places, it does not hold the reader’s imagination and interest the way that Rosanne Cash’s brilliantly written memoir Composed does.   Cash displayed a skill for always finding the right interesting words to describe the happenings in her life; and her voice was just as unique as Bob Dylan’s in Chronicles.

Crowell never seems to find his voice or his style here, although he has stated that he felt freed from the strict rules of song writing in putting together – over a decade – this autobiographical account.

With my grandmother and Charlie (the shoe shine man)…  I experienced love as something tangible between myself and another human being.”

This is a tough read because much of it covers the sad scenes of a childhood filled with bickering parents and domestic violence.   No doubt Crowell is being brutally honest, but it is often difficult to wish to read about a childhood described as filled with nothing “but a primal instinct for survival, theirs and mine.”   In one of the hard-to-concentrate on scenes, Crowell’s inebriated mother hits his father whereupon his very drunk dad responds by punching his mother in the face.   The young Crowell intervenes by breaking a Coke bottle over his own head, requiring a trip to the hospital for stitches.   Yes, a few stories like this go a long way.

It must be noted that this memoir contains some near-charming stories of growing up as a boomer child (Crowell was born in August of 1950).   But the reader interested in tales of playing soldier, or cowboys and Indians, etc. will find better written accounts in the memoirs of Bob Greene (When We Get to Surf City).

“…my parents’ deaths were unique to their personalities.”

At the end of Chinaberry Sidewalks, Crowell’s parents have found a sense of normalcy in their lives before they depart the earth.   And love in a marriage that somehow lasted for decades.   It is a comforting message but one that arrives only after a narrative that might have benefited from tighter editing.   Crowell’s narrative never equates to the level of his songwriting skills in this account.

This is not a bad first effort, but the Rodney Crowell that’s found in Cash’s Composed – such as in the classic scene where a nervous young Crowell meets his legendary future father-in-law for the first time – is a far more interesting person than the one found here.

Joseph Arellano  

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   Chinaberry Sidewalks was released on January 18, 2011.  

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When I Was Young

The Last Time I Saw You: A Novel by Elizabeth Berg (Ballantine Books trade paperback; $15.00; 288 pages)

last-time-i-saw-you

The Last Time I Saw You by Elizabeth Berg is a novel guaranteed to appeal to Boomers.   It’s the story of 58-year-olds who attended Whitley High School together and who are gathering for what is said to be their “last reunion.”   Why they won’t be gathering again is never clear, but we do know that the glamorous Candy Sullivan has just been diagnosed with ovarian cancer.   Her husband insists that this is just a first opinion, but Candy knows better and is determined to enjoy what little time is left to her.

“The diagnosis let her recalculate the meaning of time and relationships.”

Berg, the author of Home Safe, has a smooth and relaxing style and she’s at her best when describing human vulnerabilities.   At one point, a male character feels sorry for the spouses who have been dragged along to the reunion.   Then “all of a sudden he feels sorry for everybody.  Here they all are, these people, all these years later just…  what?   Trying, he guesses.   Just trying.”

The Last Time celebrates the joy of spending moments with those who knew you in times past, while highlighting the futility of getting them to accept you as a new and different person.   It’s an enjoyable read that’s deeper than it first appears.

Well recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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A Simple Question

A Simple Question, Not So Easily Answered by Joseph Arellano

One seemingly easy question facing a book reviewer is – When should a book review be published?   Yet the answer varies greatly – and surprisingly – in the publishing industry.   I say surprisingly because I once wrote music reviews for a college newspaper.   At that time, if one asked when a record album review should be published, the answer would be “any time is fine.”   Record companies did not seem to care whether their albums were reviewed prior to release, on the date of release or even days, weeks or months later.   (Today you can find books with recent reviews of record albums that were released decades ago.)

Major publishers have so many different policies on book reviews that it’s a wonder they’ve been able to agree on an International Standard Book Number (ISBN).   One publisher wants no reviews posted prior to the date of release because, in their view, people get angry if they read about a new release and can’t find it at their local Barnes and Noble or favorite independent bookseller.   Another says a review is OK if it is posted one week or less before the release date.   Several publishing houses encourage book reviewers to post their reviews within the first one or two weeks following the book’s release.

If this isn’t confusing enough, a few publishers indicate that they do not embargo reviews.   In other words, if a reviewer has a galley or advance review copy (ARC) of a future release in his/her hands and wants to write about it now, that’s fine.

There’s similar confusion over posting pre-release excerpts; so-called sneak peeks.   Some publishers won’t allow them.   Some will allow them if the reviewer requests permission, and will then respond with specifics as to when the excerpt can be posted online or in print.   Ironically, some of the publishers who do not allow the posting of pre-release excerpts themselves post them on their websites or on online sites which cater to librarians and booksellers!

Confusing, huh?   You bet…

Then we have the policies of book review publications to which reviewers like me submit reviews.   Some want only reviews that they’ve received prior to the book’s release date so that they can post on the date of release.   Some review only new releases (often in hardbound form) but not the subsequent popular re-releases in trade paperback form.   Some, like this publication, review new releases and those re-releases missed the first time around.   It all means that a book reviewer needs something akin to a flow chart to track which policy applies to which publisher, and which policy applies to which publication.   Oh, my!

Why do things have to be so confusing?   I have no idea, except that if a publishing company foots the bill – and assumes all the risks of failure – it is fair to assume that the publisher can call the shots.   However, if I ran a publishing house – let’s call it Brown Cat Books for the purpose of illustration – I would have no problem with reviews of BCB releases running at any time.   Why?   Because from everything I’ve read, publishers must rely on the sale of back catalog books to keep them in business.

Think about high school and college students, and boomers who walk into a Barnes & Noble or community bookstore these days.   How many of them would you guess are buying a book that was released more than a year or two ago?   Perhaps not half of them, but it’s probably a higher number than your first guess.

Despite my view, one source has written that the expiration date for buzz to be generated on a new book is its release date.   In this source’s view, if people are not talking about it – and reading about it – on the first day it is sold, it is not likely to become a best seller; which translates into dead on arrival.   Yes, of course, there are and have been spectacular exceptions to this “rule” – two examples being The Time Traveler’s Wife and The Lovely Bones.   These are popular fiction releases that took months and years to become overnight best sellers.

This reviewer simply wonders sometimes why things are as they are in the publishing trade, but then I can’t complain.   I just need to remember to continuously update my Publishers and Publications Review Policies flow chart.

Reprinted courtesy of Sacramento Book Review.   Written for “The Critical Eye” column.

Pictured:  The Stuff That Never Happened: A Novel by Maddie Dawson, which will be released by Shaye Areheart Books on August 3, 2010.

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Live Dead

The Grateful Dead in Concert: Essays on Improvisation (edited by Jim Tuedio and Stan Spector; McFarland, $35.00, 355 pages)

“Where I enjoyed the music, the audience was immersed in it; they were tuned to the slightest nuances coming from the stage.”   Cristian Amigo

The Grateful Dead in Concert is a non-essential but fun collection of essays about the Dead’s live improvisation, and other things related to the band in its heyday.   This reviewer sees it as non-essential because the notion of writing academic essays on the Dead’s intentionally sloppy musicianship is a little silly.   A comparable book would discuss the classical elements and phrases in the music of Bruce Springsteen.   And does anyone really need a list of the seven Requirements for Strategic Improvisation? 

But there’s some great writing in here, such as the article by Cristian Amigo that calls to mind Junot Diaz; Rebecca Adams’ essay on seeing the Dead play live for the first time; and Joan Millay’s wild and wooly tale of sharing drugs with the band members.   The latter will take Boomers back to the time when they read magazines like Cream, Ramparts, and the then-rebellious Rolling Stone.

This might make a nice gift for an egghead that’s been a closet Dead Head.   Just warn the recipient not to take it too seriously.   As musician Wynton Marsalis said about jazz, “Anyone can improvise, but any improvisation is not jazz.”   Writing about music is not music.

Reprinted courtesy of Sacramento Book Review.

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On Wisdom

Wisdom: From Philosophy to Neuroscience by Stephen S. Hall (Knopf, $26.95, 320 pages)

Whether you’re fascinated by psychology, philosophy, or science, you’re likely to find much of interest in this survey book by Stephen Hall.   This is a search for the meaning and definition of “wisdom” with a capital W – sometimes interpreted to be emotional intelligence or an internal calmness.   Hall’s journey reads like the script for a public television documentary, one that might have been entitled: “The Search for Wisdom.”

Boomers will like the conclusion that older persons are apparently wiser, calmer and far more content than those with their entire futures ahead of them.   Research shows that younger people become angrier about daily slights and hold onto these negative feelings longer than their elders.

Although the language in this nonfiction work is generally clear, it unfortunately sometimes sounds like an academic textbook.   It also often comes close to parody (“proverbs and aphorisms…  are the cocktail peanuts of conventional wisdom”; large events in the world can “change the lens of one’s emotional view like a new prescription from a spiritual optometrist.”).   Wisdom could have used a lot of wise editing, still it offers both old and young readers a chance to re-examine their lives and their yet-to-be-made choices.

Recommended.

Reprinted courtesy of Sacramento Book Review.

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