Tag Archives: books

An Interview

Months ago, a few book bloggers (including yours truly) were interviewed by a popular writer for an online article.   For various and sundry reasons, the article never appeared so we are posting it here with the four original questions that were posed and one bonus question.book reviews

Why do you blog?   Is it for free books or just the love of reading?

I see it as performing a public service.   My reviewers and I take the time to read books and make a judgment as to whether this is worth the average reader/consumer’s money and – even more importantly – time.   These days both are seen as precious commodities.   We either recommend a book or refrain from doing so.

If you agree to be in a book tour and you  hate the book, do you review it anyway?

When this happened to me, I notified the tour leader that I was withdrawing; I had no desire to ruin someone else’s party (a debut party for the first-time author).   But I also told the tour leader that I would be writing and posting my own honest and less-than-favorable review at a slightly later date.

By the way, on Joseph’s Reviews I’ve periodically posted multiple reviews of the same book.   In one recent case, three of us reviewed the same novel.   I did not recommend buying and reading it, but two other reviewers did.   None of us claims perfect knowledge, but we try to clarify for the review reader how and why we each arrived at our own position.   Sometimes the difference in perspective can be due to different life experiences, or even recent positive or negative events in our lives.

Why do you think you’re “qualified” to review books?

I have a degree in Communication Arts, wrote music and entertainment reviews in college, and earned a law degree from a major university.   I’ve also taught, done significant writing and editing as a government Public Information Officer, and done some pre-publication work for a publisher based in England.   However, I think the key prerequisite for being a reviewer is the ability to be completely honest about one’s views.   It is just one opinion, but it should always be a frank and honest one.

Does you blog have anything to do with your own writing (i.e., did you start it because you were writing a novel or are the two totally unrelated)?

Because I enjoyed writing reviews at a period when (in the words of The Who), “I wore a younger man’s clothes,” I elected to do something similar with my adult leisure time.   I was an avid reader of music reviews when I was in college, and I often loved the critics whose opinions I most often disagreed with – those who didn’t necessarily sway my own views but whose consistency and tenacity I admired.

Writing an engaging, and hopefully, convincing book review is a bit like trying to fashion a proper legal argument.

If you had the power to do so, what one thing would you change about the book publishing industry?

A number of years ago, when you purchased a blank music recording cassette, part of the purchase price went to reimburse artists for lost royalties.   The same is true today when you buy a blank CD-R.   I would like to see a small part of the purchase price for each book – hardback, paperback or e-book – used to fund a central editing clearinghouse.   In my fantasy, all books would receive a final read and edit prior to publication.   The clearinghouse would have to issue a stamp of approval before the publisher could actually release the book.   (Crazy people and speed readers such as I would likely work at the literal publisher’s clearinghouse.)

There’s nothing more frustrating than picking up a “finished” book and finding it loaded with typos and simple mistakes that should have been corrected in the editing and fact-checking processes.   For example, my wife was just reading a novel that placed the UCLA campus in Brentwood – which is likely a major surprise to the tens of thousands of students on the grounds at Westwood!

ucla-campusJoseph Arellano

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The Man Who Couldn’t Eat – Event Notice

What happens when a man who is obsessed with food is denied the taste of it?

“I have spent years of my life obsessing about my weight, feeling guilt over every mouthful.   Jon Reiner’s magnificent and devastating memoir accomplished the impossible.   It made me shut up and enjoy my food.”   Ayelet Waldman, author of Red Hook Road

“An engrossing and candid memoir…  fearless and singular.”   Publishers Weekly

On February 13, 2009, Jon Reiner – a James Beard Foundation Award-winning food writer – had just returned home with the week’s groceries (a task for this stay-at-home dad) when a near-fatal complication from his chronic battle with Crohn’s disease left him writhing on the floor in pain.   He was in desperate need of medical attention.

After emergency surgery to save his life, Reiner was placed on TPN (Total Parenteral Nutrition), meaning he was to receive nothing by mouth for 3 full months…  No food, no water, nothing but nutrition delivered by intravenous means.

“For a hospital patient, a (TPN) order is a condemnation.   It translates…  to: ‘starving on intravenous drip while your roommate groans over the vulcanized chicken, limp penne, and lumpy custard on his tray.'”

This memoir is the story of how Reiner’s body and his marriage – which had suffered from the stress of a chronic and potentially fatal illness – came to be healed at a difficult time in his life.   Kirkus Reviews called it, “An amazing, incredible tale.”   John McEnroe said, “I will never take eating for granted again.   Wow!   What a roller coaster.   All I kept thinking was, you cannot be serious!   But he was.”

The Man Who Couldn’t Eat: A Memoir (Gallery Books; $25.00; 320 pages) was released on September 6, 2011.   Readers in northern California who are interested have a chance to see Jon Reiner on Monday, October 17, 2011, at The Booksmith, 1644 Haight Street, San Francisco.   This reading and book signing event begins at 7:30 p.m.

You may want to eat dinner before you attend!

Joseph Arellano

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Coming Up Next…

A look at 5 books that you might want to put on your to-be-read (TBR) list.

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Questions

The Quandaries of a Book Reviewer

It would seem, at first blush, that a book reviewer needs only to read the book in question and then write-up his or her thoughts.   Sometimes it is just this simple.   However, I’ve found that some unexpected issues – almost moral in nature – arise from time to time.   Let me go over a few of those here with you.

The Twin Books

Sometimes two books, fiction or nonfiction, are released at the same time and contain virtually identical content.   It may be that both books are biographies of a former First Lady or of a 70-year-old folk rock singer…  It may be that both novels tell a story that is the same from start to finish.   How does a reviewer handle this?   Is it relevant?   I think it is, but then how is the reviewer to make use of this factor?

Do both books get downgraded due to a lack of originality, or does one accept that this is simply what happens in life (independent and spontaneous creation)?   If two books are almost the same, does this not beg for a comparative review – a determination of which is better (like DVD versus Blu-ray)?   And doesn’t this mean that one of the two must be selected as the winner, and the other as the loser?

Should a reviewer ever express a suspicion that one writer may have copied the other – or at least cribbed an idea from the other?   Or should all of this be put aside, so that the reviewer is – in effect – placing his hands over his eyes, ears and mouth like a monkey?

The Shooting Star

Let’s say that the reviewer has a favorite author and is very much looking forward to reading this writer’s latest work (in our example, a novel).   For illustrative purposes, I will use one of my favorites, Pat Conroy.   If I’ve loved every one of his novels and then I find that his latest release is a dog, what do I do?   Or, rather, what should I do?   Do I compensate for this by stating that every author is going to have a down period (a compensation for a lifetime of achievement), or should I slam him since I know full well that he’s capable of doing better than this?

Is a talented author to be given a pass when he delivers something less than his usual best, or should the reviewer explicitly make the case that this author has gotten lazy – or something worse?

Pass/Fail

Some less-established authors may have only published a couple of novels.   I’ve found instances where one of the two is near-perfection (more often the debut novel), while the sophomore effort pales by comparison.   Is this something that should be mentioned in a review of the more recent release, or is it outside the bounds of propriety and relevance?   Is it acceptable for the reviewer to write something like, “While this new novel is not up to the standards of the author’s first, he clearly has demonstrated the ability to produce an impressive product the next time around.”

Does the average book review reader really care about whether the author is getting stronger or weaker, or does that reader simply want to know whether this book is worth purchasing?

The Same Thing, Over and Over

There are a few authors who write a great story – the sole problem being that they’re known for writing the same story, the same novel over and over again.   In one recent case, a publisher stated that a very successful author’s new novel was “completely new and different,” as if to apologize for all of the almost-photocopied novels (with similar cover images) that preceded it.   Should the reviewer judge each and every novel with the almost-same plot and resolution on its own merits – on “all fours” as law professors state, or is it justifiable to critique the author’s novels for a lack of originality?

If you love a particular author whose books happen to be very similar, does it bother you or is  it something that you’re able to put aside – like knowing that some rock bands are continuously original while others are not?

The End

If you happen to know the answers to these questions, please feel free to let me know.   In the interim, I will continue to stumble along not quite knowing (in the words of the immortal Van Morrison) “what is worst or what is best.”

Joseph Arellano

Pictured – Jackie as Editor: The Literary Life of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis by Greg Lawrence (Thomas Dunne Books, $25.99, 322 pages).   “The vision Jackie brought into editing embraced the recognition that every life has its own riches and meaning, waiting to be revealed by what she called ‘the hard work of writing.'”

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The Grand Illusion

I very much love reading fiction, but there’s just one thing that bothers me when I do.   My mind starts spinning around fictional scenes and I begin wondering how much of what I see is not fictional but true; that is, based on actual events in the author’s life?   So, dear Reader, I think I may have developed a solution to this question of real versus fake via the development of a new ratings system.

Publishers, effective immediately, each novel is to carry a cover sticker that states, “This book is based __% on actual events.”   Yes, every fiction book is to carry an informational sticker that gives the prospective reader a number that represents the average amount of content derived from true happenings.   Or should it be the median?

The beginning of each chapter must also contain a similar statement, “Chapter 4 is based 62% on actual events in the author’s life.”   In addition, at the rear of the novel, a summary must detail which ” fictional” scenes were based on which real events in the life of the writer – let’s call her Suzie Smith.   As an example, “When the protagonist Liz Bordon crashes her Mini Cooper into the Goodwill drop-off box on her way home from a college party in 2011, this scene was based on the time that Ms. Smith crashed her Toyota Tercel into a U.S. postal service box on her way home from a fraternity-sorority mixer in Berkeley in 1987.”   See, in this way, we will be able to determine exactly how original and creative each author is, and we’ll also see how often they’re just writing down things that happened to them decades earlier.

This relates to the matter of why most successful novelists are past their twenties and early thirties…  Because one needs to live at least 35 or so years before one has enough big and interesting experiences in life to turn them into alleged fictional events.   If you think about this, it’s totally logical.   How would one be expected to make up things about situations one knows nothing about?   It would be like asking a middle school drop-out to write about life in graduate school at Harvard.   You’re not very likely to get a novel out of that.   But ask a Yale graduate school drop-out to write about graduate school life at Harvard and you might well have something.   (Note: A new federal law prohibits individuals from making up scenes about life at a rival’s campus.   If you went to Stanford, you cannot legally write fiction about being a Cal student.   Writers, this is a matter to talk to your legal counsel about.   Better safe than sorry.)

This is not something that I’ve studied scientifically, but my guess is that the range of fictional content in a novel is likely to be in the range of no more than 20 to 35 percent.   If this is true, then there’s bound to be a demand for additional consumer protection.   Federal regulations will surely come into play requiring a minimum of 51 percent fictional content in order for a story to be classified as fiction.   Anything less, and the book must be labeled as a pseudo-fictional work (Caution: This book is substantively based on things that happened in the writer’s life when he/she wore a younger person’s clothes.   You’re not getting much fiction for your money if you buy this one.)

See how helpful this will be?   And, yes, I can see what it’s going to mean in the long run…  Many of today’s novelists will be converted into new-born memoir writers, telling us about their past lives without covering them in the guise of fictional events.   The truth shall set them free!

If you think I have some good ideas here, then write your congressperson or U.S. senator today and urge them to adopt these essential reader protections.   Or better yet join my public interest group, the Association to Properly Brand So-Called Fictional Works.   Once my crusade has proven to be successful, I may write a novel about it.   Oh, make that a memoir.

Joseph Arellano

Pictured: The Other Life: A Novel by Ellen Meister which was not based on actual events (read the synopsis and you’ll understand why).   BTW, this is not intended to be a serious essay – it’s a joke, folks.  Thank you.

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Good Times, Bad Times

Good Times, Bad Times in the Book Trade

The New York Times created a dust-up recently by posting an article about what was said to be the current glut of memoirs.   The writer seemed to think that everyone and his dog and cat were writing their book of memories, and that there should be some type of pre-publication test of worthiness.   Most did not meet his standards.   Of course, that was but one person’s opinion, one which I happen not to share.   If there’s one area in which the publishing industry seems to have shone brightly in 2010-2011, it’s in the publication of some fine memoirs.

Five memoirs are on my recommended list:  The Memory Palace by Mira Bartok (nothing short of brilliant), The Foremost Good Fortune by Susan Conley (a cancer survivor), Between Me and the River by Carrie Host (another cancer survivor), No Place Like Home: A Memoir in 39 Apartments by Brooke Berman (about being nearly homeless in New York City), and Perfection by Julie Metz (sometimes frustrating but ultimately satisfying).   It also appears that new and worthwhile releases are on the way, including The Long Goodbye by Meghan O’Rourke (about a daughter’s crushing grief following her mother’s death) and History of a Suicide by Jill Bialosky (an examination into the causes of a sister’s self-destruction).

But then there are a couple of negative trends that I will touch upon here.   When it comes to popular fiction, tight editing seems to have been relegated to the sidelines.   More and more I run across novels that seem to have no beginning; they meander on and ramble for dozens of seemingly unstructured pages.   And some make things worse by incorporating non-chronological structures that veer back and forth between the present and past, past and present until it becomes dizzying.   Every now and then I’m reminded of the frustrating quick-cut and overly trendy music videos of the 70s.

Are there no longer any editors who will tell a writer, “Look, you need to be very clear about the storyline at the start and quickly hook the reader.   Confusion has its costs!”   Who has the patience to read a hundred or two hundred pages just to figure out what story is being told?   Sigh…  Well, I guess some people do.

Then there’s the release of what I call the non-biographical biography.   These are the ones that decide to be clever by telling us everything about the subject except precisely what it is they’re supposed to be known for!   If the subject is an actor, we’re told about his sex life, his animals, his apartments and homes, marriages and divorces, where he went on vacations, what he liked to eat, and how much he tipped the servers.   Yes, we come to learn about everything in his life except his acting and the films he made.

The same rule seems to apply to politicians – the cool author writing a bio of Ronald Reagan using this style would cover everything except Reagan’s acting career and his terms as governor of California and president of the U.S.   If you prefer, substitute the name Robert F. (Bobby) Kennedy or Edward M. (Ted) Kennedy and the same strange rule will apply – there are sideways bios on them out there on the book store shelves.   I won’t name names but they’re not that hard to find.

So, despite the view from Manhattan when it comes to memoirs the state of the publishing industry seems to be strong.   When it comes to editing today’s novels, improvements may be in order.   And when it comes to biographies, readers should hold out for the old-fashioned substantive kind, even if it requires a journey over to Powell’s Books to find a used one.

Joseph Arellano

Pictured:  The Long Goodbye: A Memoir by Meghan O’Rourke, which will be released by Riverhead Books on April 14, 2011.

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Rescue Me

Rescue by Anita Shreve (Hachette Audiobook)

Anita Shreve is one of my all-time favorite authors.   I have read every one of her novels.   This is my first time listening to one of her books instead of reading it the old-fashioned way.   I enjoy audiobooks and it was interesting to determine whether a Shreve novel would translate well to an audiobook.

Rescue is a novel that encompasses many of Shreve’s themes throughout the portfolio of her work.   Sheila Arsenault is a woman on the run from an abusive relationship.   After crashing her car in an alcohol fueled incident, Sheila is rescued by rookie paramedic Peter Webster.   Webster is taken by the beautiful young victim and searches her out after she is discharged from the hospital.   Webster is determined to help her and falls in love along the way.   Sheila is happy to be rescued, but finds that old demons are hard to leave behind.

Eighteen years later, Webster is raising their daughter, Rowan, alone.   Rowan unfortunately seems to have inherited some dangerous addictions and traits from her mother.   Will Webster be able to save his daughter or is it already too late?

I enjoyed listening to this audiobook.   Dennis Holland did a fairly good reading of the novel, although I found his attempts at a Boston accent to be rather jarring.   I almost wanted to do the dishes every day so I could listen to what was going to happen next.   I found the plot to be compelling, but the best thing about the novel was the in-depth character studies.   Rash decisions that were made in one’s youth can lead to consequences that can last a lifetime.

I also found Webster’s job as a paramedic to be very interesting as were the stories of his rescues.   I’ve never read a book with a paramedic as the main character and I really enjoyed it.   It left me wanting to know even more about the profession.   I think it was a great way to talk about how Webster rescued people as his job in life, but that he had troubles with rescuing his wife and his daughter.   It’s not as easy to rescue those you love from addictions and bad behavior.

Anita Shreve is a gifted writer.   I love her style of writing.   That being said, while Rescue was a good book, I still hold some of her earlier works such as The Weight of Water and Fortune’s Rocks in much higher regard.   I miss her historical books!

Overall, Rescue was a compelling read with characters that I enjoyed listening to. This review was written by Laura Gerold and is used with her permisson.   We interpret this review to be the equivalent of a recommended position on this novel.   You can read more of Laura’s fine reviews at http://lauragerold.blogspot.com/ .

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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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Midnight Rambler

Trail of Blood by Lisa Black (William Morrow; $24.99; 400 pages)

Who knew that Cleveland, Ohio could be so interesting?   Lisa Black, a member of the National Academy of Forensic Sciences, proves that there’s more to Cleveland than the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame.   Her third Theresa MacLean book is not only set in this Midwestern city, it features some really gory murders that are based in fact.   Black’s main character is a forensic scientist who happens to belong to a family with a history of crime fighting all the way back to her grandfather.

When present day murders bear a striking similarity to Cleveland’s most horrific killing spree during the 1930s and 40s, the city police and coroner’s offices are summoned to cut short the present day nightmare.   Theresa and her cop cousin Frank are at the center of the action.   Yes, Theresa takes more than her share of risks; however, she also uses her instincts to get out of peril.   There are plenty of false leads and hints to keep the reader guessing right up to the end of the book.

There are several other mystery/thriller series written by expert authors that feature main characters with similar talents.   The most notable of these is the Kay Scarpetta series by Patricia Cornwell.   Black unfolds Trail of Blood as a more personal story with less ostentatious criminology and more good-old-fashioned shoe leather detecting than does Cornwell.   In addition, the story is actually told in two time frames, current day and 75 years ago.  

Black is excellent at keeping it real.   The mix of accurate historic details, a map up front in the beginning of the book and a detailed timeline of the original murders set this book apart from the rest of the pack.

Well recommended to fans of thriller novels that actually have more than gore to offer.

This review was written by Ruta Arellano.   A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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Sail On Silver Girl

Brooklyn Story: A Novel by Suzanne Corso (Gallery Books; $23.99; 336 pages)

Suzanne Corso’s Brooklyn Story is described on the back cover as being a true-to-life novel, which is something of an understatement, considering the acknowledgements open by stating, “The one thing that I know is that I am a survivor and was extremely determined to have my story told.”

This admission is good because without it, some of the storytelling would be confusing.   The story is told in a very even and objective manner, but in the first person.   The reader is inclined to believe this to be a personal tale.   But when the detached narrative continues, it becomes difficult to understand how the main character, Samantha Bonti, can continue to be so naive as to follow along with her mobster boyfriend, Tony Kroon, seemingly oblivious to the obvious.   The admission that the story is largely, if not entirely autobiographical, makes it easier to accept the human frailty associated with this young girl’s mistakes.

In the book Bonti grows up in Brooklyn and dreams of being a writer and crossing the Red Sea, or, in this case, the Brooklyn Bridge into Manhattan and an alternate lifestyle – one free of the curse of abusive males, crime and cyclical poverty.   The life she dreams of differs radically from that of her mother, who, though pregnant young, poor, and addle-minded from years of drug and alcohol abuse, deeply wishes for her daughter to avoid these traps, despite her inability to adequately communicate that to her.

When Bonti falls under Kroon’s spell, thanks to her best friend Janice’s efforts to connect the two, Bonti’s life begins to unravel.   Miraculoulsy, she narrowly escapes her mother’s fate.

Bonti’s grandmother is a kind soul who takes up residence with the two, both to take care of her daughter and, at the same time, shield her grandmother from her.

There are two redeeming male characters in the book, Samantha’s teacher, Mr. Wainright, who encourages Samantha in her writing endeavors, and Father Rinaldi.   Both see the good in Samantha and encourage her to pursue a more enlightened path.   Without either, she may have not made it beyond her circumstances.   If she frustrated them as much as she frustrates the reader with her behavior. then they perhaps both should be up for sainthood, because Samantha’s escape is a near miracle.   How desperate must one be to ask a priest for money for an abortion?

At least one passage serves more to provoke the reader or appeal to a certain readership than to actually advance the core themes of the story, but these are things that one must accept when digesting a story that is, for the most part enjoyable, though it did not elicit in this reviewer the emotional reaction that the author was likely shooting for.

Recommended.  

This review was written by Dave Moyer, author of the novel Life and Life Only.   A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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