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review 2019-11-12 03:34
The Greatest Lover in All England by Christina Dodd
The Greatest Lover in All England - Christina Dodd

 

 

Since childhood, Rosie's life has been the stage—passing herself off as a boy playing women's roles in the somewhat disreputable theatrical troupe of actor Danny Plympton, Rosie's adoptive father. But when unanticipated danger confronts them, they must flee London, taking refuge at the estate of Sir Anthony Rycliffe. A handsome, devil-may-care rakehell, Tony quickly sees through Rosie's disguise. But a lush, womanly form and eminently kissable lips are not the ravishing young beauty's only secrets—and the burning attraction Tony feels for her does not lessen the peril she has brought to his doorstep. The dashing rogue is determined to strip the irresistible lady of her mysteries—and her masculine garb—using all of his fabled seductive powers. After all, Tony has a reputation to uphold, as . . .The Greatest Lover in All England

Amazon.com

 

 

Rosie (aka Rosencrantz) is no stranger to life on the streets of 17th century London. She travels around with a group of performers, led by her adoptive father, Sir Danny Plympton (he "knighted" himself), singing for food or dollars. Though illiterate, Rosie has one illustrious benefactor in her life, the one and only "Uncle Will" --- William Shakespeare.

 

*BTW --- each chapter in this book opens with a quote from one of Shakespeare's plays.

 

Our girl is rocking one secret on the cusp of having an unplanned reveal: only those closest to her know she is female, everyone else has always accepted Rosie's masculine presentation as the truth. Sir Danny took Rosie in as a little girl and made the choice to raise & present her as a boy for her own safety. Only now, with Rosie's introduction to Sir Anthony Rycliffe (legitimately knighted), is that coming into question.

When it's suggested that Rosie may possibly be the true, lost heir of the estate Sir Anthony calls home, Anthony proposes they settle the dispute by marrying and combining their lands and wealth. The long-term benefits of the arrangement take some convincing for Rosie, but eventually she agrees to Anthony's idea. Naturally, because this is a romance novel, what starts as a seemingly straightforward business arrangement shortly turns into something much more feelings-infused.

 

But if you think that's all there could be to this story, oh no no. Dodd throws some fun intrigue her readers' way! We got the Earl of Southampton, a patron of Shakespeare's theater, asking him to put on a production of Richard III (the Earls of Southampton and Essex harbor secret hopes that it will incite rioting against Queen Elizabeth I); Is Sir Danny looking at a chance at love?; Then there seems to be a secret assassin targeting either Anthony or Rosie... or both... but who wants them dead so badly? And then we have a friend of Rosie's sent to Newgate Prison and Anthony does his best to charm the proverbial pants off the queen to get the friend released. But oooh, the scene where Anthony takes things too far and his flirtatious words happen to contain a verbal knock on Earl of Essex, one of the queen's current favorites... so Anthony ends up getting his ears boxed, repeatedly! There's no shortage of entertainment in these pages!

 

For a romance novel, this ended up feeling quite literary. The writing is wonderfully clever, with all sorts of bookish references woven in. The dialogue is light and cheeky, such as the line, "... the cat who got the canary...I can almost see feathers protruding from your lips, what do you have planned?" Anthony and Rosie have an adorable, realistic "I'm calling you on your BS" banter between them that kept me laughing and nodding. Those who have been in long-term relationships will appreciate the style of playfulness these two have. You can just imagine the twinkle lights going off in the eyes of these characters --- Great fun!

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review 2019-11-05 10:22
Becoming Mrs. Lewis by Patti Callahan Henry
Becoming Mrs. Lewis - Patti Callahan Henry

 

In a most improbable friendship, she found love. In a world where women were silenced, she found her voice.  From New York Times bestselling author Patti Callahan comes an exquisite novel of Joy Davidman, the woman C. S. Lewis called “my whole world.” When poet and writer Joy Davidman began writing letters to C. S. Lewis—known as Jack—she was looking for spiritual answers, not love. Love, after all, wasn’t holding together her crumbling marriage. Everything about New Yorker Joy seemed ill-matched for an Oxford don and the beloved writer of Narnia, yet their minds bonded over their letters. Embarking on the adventure of her life, Joy traveled from America to England and back again, facing heartbreak and poverty, discovering friendship and faith, and against all odds, finding a love that even the threat of death couldn’t destroy. 
In this masterful exploration of one of the greatest love stories of modern times, we meet a brilliant writer, a fiercely independent mother, and a passionate woman who changed the life of this respected author and inspired books that still enchant us and change us. Joy lived at a time when women weren’t meant to have a voice—and yet her love for Jack gave them both voices they didn’t know they had.  At once a fascinating historical novel and a glimpse into a writer’s life, Becoming Mrs. Lewis is above all a love story—a love of literature and ideas and a love between a husband and wife that, in the end, was not impossible at all.
Amazon.com
 

 

 

As the title hints, Becoming Mrs. Lewis is a fictionalized look at the life of Joy Davidman, the woman who would eventually become the one and only wife of author C.S. Lewis, largely known for his beloved Chronicles of Narnia series. While the prologue briefly dips into Joy's childhood in the 1920s, the bulk of the story runs throughout the 1950s, finishing in 1960, the year of Joy's death. Her death would sadly inspire another classic work of Lewis', A Grief Observed, chronicling his mourning period. But let's focus more on how this unique bond came to be.

Callahan's story, as it pertains to C.S. Lewis (known as "Jack" by close friends), opens in 1950. At that time, Joy is Joy Davidman Gresham; her husband, Bill Gresham, also a writer (Lewis was Joy's second husband). The story informs the reader that for years Joy has been struggling with her husband's alcoholism and philandering ways. But she does her best to stick things out for her sons. She also admits that during this first marriage she considered herself an atheist, until one night when her husband wouldn't come home, called home hinting that he was having suicidal thoughts. In desperation, Joy falls to her knees in prayer, not entirely convinced it will do anything but just needing to latch onto some shred of hope. In a moment that spans less than a minute but also feels like ages, Joy is convinced she's having a connection with the Holy Spirit. For the next three years, she seeks out every book she can get her hands on to try to find answers to what she experienced. Her newfound passion for theology brings Lewis' works into her hands. Nothing gives her peace like his non-fiction essays on philosophy and religion. She particularly moved by The Screwtape Letters and The Great Divorce.

By this time, the Greshams are still struggling to regain a healthy marriage, so Joy decides to write to Lewis to ask his advice on some of the questions plaguing her. She's ecstatic when she receives a reply back! So starts a friendship in letters, because it turns out there's a comfort in Joy's letters that Lewis didn't realize he so strongly needed. Joy being a poet and novelist herself, as well as having some theological pieces of her own recently published... well,the two can't deny they might have stumbled upon kindred spirits within each other.

This correspondence carries on over the course of years, Lewis in England, Joy in The States. Lewis makes several offers for Joy to come visit him and his brother at The Kilns, their personal residence. Having struggled with health problems all her life --- low thyroid, lung and kidney infections, chronic fatigue --- her body eventually declines to the point where Joy feels an escape to England might be just the thing to turn her health right. With her physical troubles being worsened with her stressing over her books not selling as well as she'd like and the arrival of her cousin Renee, moving in with two more kids in tow, Joy increasingly feels more sure that England is the place to take a breather from everything, focus on her health and work on finishing some writing projects that will bring in some much needed money for the family. So England also becomes a quiet "research trip" for her WIP novel about King Charles II.

While Joy doesn't stay with Lewis on those early trips to The Kilns (she's still a married woman for most of the book, after all), she does visit with the Lewis brothers quite often. It becomes pretty evident, the longer one reads into the story, that the Gresham union is largely being held by a sense of duty and history rather than much remaining love and friendship. They might have pet names for each other, but Bill Gresham (in this story) often speaks to Joy with a thinly veiled demeaning, patronizing tone to his words. Though she's a published author with a number of professional accolades (Callahan's historical note at the end points out that the real Joy graduated college at 15!), he still insists on going about as if HER writing is a hobby, his work the real breadwinning stuff. When Joy and Jack first speak, right from the get-go she has an instant sense of being valued and acknowledged. Even just as friends, Lewis is constantly praising Joy's work and values her opinion as an industry colleague. When Lewis says to Joy, "Our friendship is big enough even for the sorrows." --- that's a HUGE statement!

The connection works great as long as it doesn't go beyond the boundaries of strictly friendship --- philia, as Lewis refers to it. That's not to say they both don't feel more. Both are definitely aware of intensified feelings as the years pass. But there's plenty working against them, in Lewis' mind. He doesn't love Joy's confession about her meeting and getting involved with Bill when he was still with his first wife, but Lewis can brush that off as a "I didn't know you then" moment. But even after Joy's divorce from Bill is finalized, Lewis still hesitates to have ANY bodily contact with Joy, not so much as a brush on the arm most days, because now she is a divorcee, which is frowned upon in Lewis' church. They eventually find a way through these confusing feelings, the turnaround largely brought about by Joy's cancer diagnosis shortly after she and Lewis decide to marry (the first time around, it was essentially a green card marriage, solidified later with a second ceremony).

This does seem to be one of those stories you have to dedicate some time to --- there's a lot of themes covered and it doesn't always move terribly fast, but I was never bored! The early chapters hit the heavy topics early on: the prologue briefly referencing child abuse, the first chapters past that bringing up alcoholism, PTSD, abuse, suicidal tendencies... spouses who have these things and the spouses caring for them. Early in Part 3 there is also a scene of spousal abuse when Joy confronts Bill once and for all about his infidelities and he attacks her for it.

While the topics of philosophy and religion, references to Lewis' nonfiction Christian essay collections, etc do get somewhat heavy at times, much of the story is more about the various roles and difficulties a woman has to navigate throughout the course of her life. Much of Joy's story seems to be a woman's 30+ year journey towards addressing "daddy issues", as some might call it these days. There's a father she works so hard to please, but who is so quick to backhand her over a B on a report card, of all things! In that moment, something breaks in her and her path from that point on becomes an obsessive drive to prove to everyone that she is worthy of love and admiration. Her story is also one of a woman's aggravating struggle to be taken seriously by the medical community. Every complaint she takes into a doctor's office --- nausea, fatigue, leg pains, heart palpitations --- is regularly dismissed as rheumatism, middle age, "lady troubles".... until the day she loses the ability to walk and a doctor says her body is riddled with cancer that's probably been growing in her for at least seven years!

Those of you drawn to this book for the sheer "bookish" aspect, Callahan delivers on that front as well. You'll see plenty of literary figures pop into the story, from Lewis's good buddy JRR Tolkien... he wrote something people are always raving on about, what was that.... :-P .... mention of Joy having lunch with P.L. Travers (author of Mary Poppins stories), has a doctor consultation with a doctor who happens to be Graham Greene's brother... there's even a funny discussion where Joy is having a chat with friend Dorothy Heyward, whose husband wrote the book Porgy & Bess that was later turned into the famous stage production. Dorothy mentions how she did much of the work on the stage adaptation but for a time her contributions went largely uncredited. The fact itself -- not exactly laughable --- but the ladies have a little commiserating chuckle about their similar circumstances when Joy is at a particularly low point.

In the end, Joy's story made me that much more grateful to be in a solid relationship these days, deeply rooted in honest friendship. Having been on the other end of the spectrum myself --- having experienced a previously unhealthy cohabitation like Joy did --- I can tell you it makes all the difference to one's soul to find a centered sense of being within a cozy, supportive relationship where your partner doesn't guilt trip you for health issues beyond your control or accuse you of being lazy or self-indulgent when you have days where the energy just isn't there no matter how hard you try, someone who encourages your passions and professional pursuits, rather than feel threatened by them.

I'll close on saying that Callahan was also successful in not only motivating me to pick up some of these still-unread copies of Lewis' essays parked on my shelves but also in checking out Joy's works, which I'll admit, I was largely unacquainted with prior to diving into this story.

* Discussion guide included in the hardback edition

FTC DISCLAIMER: TNZ Fiction Guild kindly provided me with a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. The opinions above are entirely my own.
 

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review 2019-10-24 13:51
Letters from Skye by Jessica Brockmole
Letters from Skye - Jessica Brockmole

A sweeping story told in letters, spanning two continents and two world wars, Jessica Brockmole’s atmospheric debut novel captures the indelible ways that people fall in love, and celebrates the power of the written word to stir the heart.
 
March 1912: Twenty-four-year-old Elspeth Dunn, a published poet, has never seen the world beyond her home on Scotland’s remote Isle of Skye. So she is astonished when her first fan letter arrives, from a college student, David Graham, in far-away America. As the two strike up a correspondence—sharing their favorite books, wildest hopes, and deepest secrets—their exchanges blossom into friendship, and eventually into love. But as World War I engulfs Europe and David volunteers as an ambulance driver on the Western front, Elspeth can only wait for him on Skye, hoping he’ll survive.
 
June 1940: At the start of World War II, Elspeth’s daughter, Margaret, has fallen for a pilot in the Royal Air Force. Her mother warns her against seeking love in wartime, an admonition Margaret doesn’t understand. Then, after a bomb rocks Elspeth’s house, and letters that were hidden in a wall come raining down, Elspeth disappears. Only a single letter remains as a clue to Elspeth’s whereabouts. As Margaret sets out to discover where her mother has gone, she must also face the truth of what happened to her family long ago.

Amazon.com

 

 

 

 

Elspeth Dunn is a 24 year old wife and published poet who, due to a phobia of boats and the sea, has never left the Isle of Skye (Scotland). She's surprised to receive fan mail from American university student David Graham. A friendship through letters soon develops. The tone of the correspondence, as you might guess, eventually takes on a more romantic tone. 

 

In any case, don't stop writing to me, no matter what. It may not be poetry to you, but I've never thought of your letters as anything less.

 

Waiting for the poetry.

David

November 1914

 

Soon after the start of WW1, David volunteers to serve as an ambulance driver for the French Army (Elspeth's husband, Iain, is also serving in the war). She's not happy with his decision, to put it mildly. Her feelings having intensified for him over time, she hates to think of him in danger. David obviously understands there are risks going into a war zone, but he explains to her that he needs to do this. He needs a sense of purpose. David begs Elspeth to meet up with him. More than once, she tries to push past her phobias and grant his request, but it doesn't go so well. Drama within the letters (this being an epistolary novel) unfolds.

 

Fast forward to World War 2 and Elspeth's grown daughter is in love with an RAF pilot. Elspeth goes missing after a bomb attack on the village. Margaret sets out to track down her mother's whereabouts with only clues from one old letter to help her in her search. Just prior to the bombing, Margaret and her mother had had a major argument after Margaret had announced her intention to marry Paul, her longtime friend, now love interest (the pilot). Now with her mother missing, Margaret decides to track down her estranged uncle Finlay for answers, hoping not only that he might have an idea where her mother might have gone, but also if he has any knowledge that might help answer the paternity question that has haunted her entire life. 

 

 

As much as I try to push the past aside so that I keep moving forward, nothing is holding you back that way. You have more questions than memories, more mystery than enlightenment. You have to look behind you. The present and the future are built on the past. I know that you want to find where you came from before you'll know where to go.

 

My lass, don't give up. Disagreeable uncles? They are no match for you.

 

Love,

Paul

August 1940

 

The plot is maybe not the most complex thing ever, but it remains a satisfying read. Maybe it's my love of epistolary novels in general speaking --- I like the easy flow of them --- but the format just makes for a cozy, immersive reading experience. There's a good friendship built up between Elspeth and David, though I will admit I was a little uncomfortable seeing this romance grow when it's made clear there's still a husband in the picture. Maybe that was part of the appeal --- the forbiddenness of it --- for these characters. At different times they could both be a little on the immature side, but somehow I STILL found myself rooting for them. Though, in the later part of the book, I did feel for the stress it causes daughter Margaret, not entirely knowing which love interest is her biological father. 

 

The initial connection between Elspeth and David that Brockmore works up did strike me as a little thin... Her books aren't even published in the US, he just happens to have a friend in Oxford who sends him stuff? I mean, yeah, possible...  but you gotta admit, the likelihood (considering the time period, especially), seems a little improbable. The whole book, does it run a little on the cliched side? Yes, But somehow I'm not mad about it. (Note: I've recently gone on to try a couple other of Brockmore's historical fiction works and have definitely been less impressed with those.... they're not in the epistolary format, so again, maybe my love of this style of book in general is allowing me to cut this one some slack for its possible flaws).

 

 

The funniest thing --- I was greeted in one bookstore by a display of my own books. I must've looked amused as I picked up a copy... as a salesclerk hurried up to me. "Twee little verse," she said, quite seriously. "The author lives up in the Highlands of Scotland. You get a lovely sense of their superstitions and almost primitive lifestyle." I nodded sagely, then took the book to the counter and signed the flyleaf with a very distinct "Elspeth Dunn." I handed the book back to the astonished salesclerk and said, with what I hope was an airy tone, "We're regular savages but don't always eat our own young."

 

For those interested in novels featuring feminism, the topic does make a healthy showing here. Plenty of the letters have life lessons in them as well as lectures in feminism. For book lovers there's also mention of Charing Cross road bookshops :-)

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review 2019-08-10 18:23
Overseas by Beatriz Williams
Overseas - Beatriz Williams

A passionate, sweeping novel of a love that transcends time.

When twenty-something Wall Street analyst Kate Wilson attracts the notice of the legendary Julian Laurence at a business meeting, no one’s more surprised than she is. Julian’s relentless energy and his extraordinary intellect electrify her, but she’s baffled by his sudden interest. Why would this handsome British billionaire "Manhattan’s most eligible bachelor” pursue a pretty but bookish young banker who hasn’t had a boyfriend since college?


The answer is beyond imagining . . . at least at first. Kate and Julian’s story may have begun not in the moneyed world of twenty-first-century Manhattan but in France during World War I, when a mysterious American woman emerged from the shadows of the Western Front to save the life of Captain Julian Laurence Ashford, a celebrated war poet and infantry officer.

Now, in modern-day New York, Kate and Julian must protect themselves from the secrets of the past, and trust in a true love that transcends time and space.
Amazon.com
 
 
 
 
In 2007, twenty-five year old Wall Street analyst Kate Wilson gets friendly with British hedge fund CEO / billionaire Julian Laurence at a work meeting. While she's drawn to him, she's actually surprised by his level of reciprocated interest in her. She's more of a bookish sort than a seductress, so what would someone like him see in her?
 
Spending more time with Julian, she comes to find out that their connection may actually date back to 1916, when WW1 infantry officer JL Ashford was saved by a mystery woman on the Western Front. Once this premise is laid out, the storyline can get a little complicated to keep straight. It seems Kate knows Julian during the World War 1 era of the story, recollecting her "past" in the future, trying to explain it to him. Julian goes through something similar in modern times when his memories are retained by Kate's are not.... I think?
 
The concept is not bad, but the characters themselves are collectively cringey.
 
** Charlie, a friend / co-worker of Kate's has this Pauley Shore-like way of talking that grew increasingly grating to read. 
 
** I was not impressed with Julian unnecesarily causing potential traffic accidents (while already navigating a Maserati through NYC traffic with difficulty!) just to kiss Kate. Yes, romance is great... but needless manslaughter kinda kills the mood... at least for me.
 
"A guy's gotta have a little fun once in awhile," so says Julian. 
 
** Kate could be ridiculously dramatic at times. She falls into a fountain of tears in his driveway over a job loss like someone just died. She gets into a spot of trouble but goes off on Julian for wanting to spend money to keep her safe. He lets her stay at his house, but tries to be a gentleman, setting her up in the guest room. Again, explosion of emotions because he didn't assume they should just bed together. Poor guy can't win a lot of the time with her.... but at the same time, Julian does have moments where he can come off a little presumptuous in his actions.
 
For much of the book I just wasn't buying these two as the perfect fit, but I did like the time traveling adventure. My favorite scene was Julian figuring out how to cross time periods to pull Kate away from boarding an ill-fated ship. She likewise had a similar journey to save his 1916 self from a painful fate. So that aspect of the story was pretty cool to think on, imagining an enduring love like that. I just struggled at times to really feel the spark between these two. The plot itself can get slow at times as well, but if you stay committed, the interesting stuff picks back up about twelve chapters in when Julian's big secret slowly starts to be revealed.
 
And for sticking with this whirlwind til the very end, Williams rewards her readers with a pretty romantically staged HEA. 
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review 2019-07-10 06:28
The Secrets of Paper & Ink by Lindsay Harrel
The Secrets of Paper and Ink - Lindsay Harrel

Brought together by a charming bookstore in England, three women fight to defy expectations, dream new dreams, and welcome love into their lives. 

As a counselor, Sophia Barrett is trained to help people cope with their burdens. But when she meets a new patient whose troubles mirror her own, she realizes she hasn’t dealt with the pain of her recent past. After making a snap decision to get away for the summer, Sophia moves overseas to an apartment above a charming bookstore in Cornwall, England. She is hopeful she will find peace there surrounded by her favorite thing: great literature. Bookstore owner Ginny Rose is desperate to save her business without asking for help from a husband who’s decided to take a break from their marriage. Ginny never imagined she’d be solely responsible for keeping afloat her husband’s dream, but the unexpected friendship with her new renter has her feeling more optimistic. Between the two of them—and Ginny’s brother-in-law, William—the bookstore might stand a chance. Then Sophia finds a notebook in the bookstore that contains journal entries from Emily Fairfax, a governess who lived in Cornwall more than 150 years ago. Sophia learns that Emily harbored a secret passion for becoming an authoress—as well as a deep love for her childhood friend, Edward, whose station she dared not dream to touch. Eager to know more of Emily’s story, Sophia goes on a quest—dragging Ginny and William with her—to discover the heart of the woman behind the beautiful entries. Soon Ginny’s need to save the bookstore becomes more than a way to save her marriage, and Sophia finds new purpose of her own. Together they find that sometimes both heartache and hope can reach across the centuries.

Amazon.com

 

 

 

 

As a counselor to victimized women, Sophia Barrett is quite skilled at offering solutions and guiding her clients to a place of healing. When it comes to her own hurts? Not so much. Sophia recently suffered an emotional breakdown following the one year anniversary of the death of her fiance, David. Her feelings around the death are complicated, as it is revealed to readers that, to some degree, the relationship was beginning to take an abusive turn just prior to David's passing.

 

Wanting to finally face and resolve the long avoided issues and emotions within herself, Sophia makes a spur of the moment decision to rent a flat above a bookshop in Cornwall, England. The property owner, Ginny Rose, has her own struggles and soon enough both ladies come to lean on each other, bonded through their mutual hard-luck experiences. In Ginny's case, it's a combination of the bookshop struggling to make a profit and the state of her marriage growing increasingly rocky. Even though the shop started as the dream of Ginny's husband, he's largely checked out of both the business and the relationship. Having given up everything for him, Ginny is determined to throw everything she's got into keeping the shop financially afloat because it's the only home she feels she has left. 

 

Though the bond between Sophia and Ginny might have started on a tenant - landlord footing, they're soon unbreakable best friends. Sophia starts helping Ginny revamp the shop to draw in more customers. During one lengthy book sorting process, Sophia comes across what looks like a reprinting of a journal belonging to one Miss Emily Fairfax, a Cornwall governess from over 150 years ago (The Secrets of Paper and Ink actually opens with a bit of Emily's story). Intrigued by the story of star-crossed love she finds in the journal pages, Sophia dedicates herself to unearthing more on the life of Ms. Fairfax. In the process, she finds a new romance herself, with none other than Ginny's brother-in-law.

 

This book will likely have plenty of high praise simply for the fact that it is a story set around a bookshop. As far as the specific plot here itself.... everything was just much too convenient for me: Ginny needs a new website for the shop but can't really afford a top tier web designer, but husband Garrett's good friend just happens to be a web designer who likes Ginny so much he'll happily do it for free... Boom. Suddenly she has mad business to the shop with very little work necessary on her end. Sophia wants to research the life of Emily Fairfax, but overwhelmed with where to start. No worries, her new crush just happens to have a professor friend who has just the right connections for Sophia to find every answer she seeks in only 2-3 steps. Everything, even down to the "twist" at the end is just SO PREDICTABLE IT'S BORING.

 

The dialogue is silly and cringey a good part of the time. With the exception of the Emily / Edward passages, nearly every character in this story feels way too 2-D.

 

Christian themes are not all that present until the closing chapters, where Harrel chooses to douse readers with it all at once right before they go. 

 

FTC DISCLAIMER: TNZ Fiction Guild kindly provided me with a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. The opinions above are entirely my own. 

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