“Wiijiwaaganag: More Than Brothers” by Peter Razor- Review

By: Angie Haddock


Niizh Eshkanag is a member of the first generation of Anishinaabe children required to attend a U.S. government boarding school—schools infamously intended to “kill the Indian and save the man,” or forcibly assimilate Native students into white culture. Though Roger is frightened of his Indian classmates at first, Niizh Eshkanag befriends him, and they come to appreciate and respect one another’s differences.

Goodreads


Let’s start with the name: wiijiwaaganag means companions or partners (plural).

The author, Peter Razor, published his own memoir in 2002. It looks like his family is posthumously publishing more books written by him, including this one. I am not sure how long ago he wrote this fiction novel, or if it is at all similar to his other works. I’d seen some other reviews that did not like the writing style – the book is all in third person, and told in a straight, linear manner. It’s not exactly the most exciting style, especially if you only read modern novels, but I don’t think it really detracts from the story.

As stated above, our main characters are the Anishinaabe-born Niizh Eshkanag and a white boy of the same age, Roger Poznanski. They befriend each other at a boarding school where Roger is only attending because his uncle is the headmaster.

Roger is suspicious of his Native classmates at first, but is quick to help when any of them get into trouble. This earns him their respect and friendship, but also infuriates his aunt, who doesn’t want him hanging out with the Native kids.

When summer break comes, Roger wants to visit Niizh’s village. After fighting with his family about it, he decides to head out on his own – basically, he runs away. He only intends to stay for a short visit, then make his way to Milwaukee, where he has other family.

But when his family offers a monetary reward for Roger’s return, the boys find themselves spending much of their summer in the woods, hiding out from white trappers and agents who are trying to find them. They get into several scrapes, some resulting in injury. Most of their troubles come from the white agents, but even some other Anishinaabe teens from Niizh’s village decide to go after that reward.

There is a lot of action in this book, and of course an exchange of ideas between the two cultures represented. While we do see some of the life of the boarding school, the story moves past that at around 35% of the way in. If you read classics, and don’t mind the writing style being a little dry, it’s an interesting look at a different time in our (American) history.

This book is set to be published this week, but I was able to read ahead thanks to Netgalley and the publisher, Michigan State University Press.


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“The Lindbergh Nanny” by Mariah Fredericks – Review

By: Angie Haddock


When the most famous toddler in America, Charles Lindbergh, Jr., is kidnapped from his family home in New Jersey in 1932, the case makes international headlines. Suddenly a suspect in the eyes of both the media and the public, Betty Gow must find the truth about what really happened that night, in order to clear her own name—and to find justice for the child she loves.

Goodreads


I felt like we needed a good ol’ fashioned Historical Fiction over here, and this one piqued my interest. Fun fact: my eighth grade honors history class did a mock trial at the end of the year, and we re-enacted the Lindbergh kidnapping court case. So, I’ve been familiar with the basics of this story since I was 14.

Because this one is based on real events, I am not going to hold back on “spoilers.” The basics of the case, for those who are not familiar:

Charles Lindbergh and his wife, Anne Morrow Lindbergh, were super famous. They tried to mostly keep their first-born, Charles Jr., out of the public eye. When Charles Jr. was 20 months old, he was kidnapped from his crib while all the adults of the house were home. A broken ladder was found nearby, which was assumed to be how the kidnapper got into his second floor bedroom. There was a ransom note left. The Lindberghs paid the ransom, but the baby was not returned at that time. His body was later found in the woods near the house. The police kept trying to find out who did it, even after the body was found, by tracking the bills that had been used to pay the ransom. Eventually, they arrested and tried a German immigrant who had no known ties to the family.

In this retelling, the kidnapping takes place around 40% into the book, and the baby’s body is found at around 60%. Which brings me to my only struggle here: there is a lot of backstory presented before the “big event.” But really, while it felt like a lot while getting through the first 4o% – during the investigation, every little detail comes back up to be questioned. So, in reality, that immense background is necessary.

While this story is told from the nanny’s perspective, it really shines a light on the lives of all the “help” that work for both the Lindberghs and the Morrows. (As in, Charles Lindbergh’s in-laws.)

The house where the kidnapping took place was actually still being built, so the family was often staying at the Morrow’s estate instead. The Morrow property had a gate and a guard out front, so it made sense to target the other house. But, who knew when the Lindberghs would be there? This becomes a central question. While the man eventually arrested for the kidnapping had no known connections to the family, the idea is that someone on the inside had to have leaked the whereabouts/schedule of the baby – intentionally or by just being careless.

So everyone inside the house becomes a suspect. As does any romantic partners they have, people they may have been out drinking with that night, etc. And, if a character was drunk that night… what are the odds they’ll remember everything accurately, anyway? This spreads suspicion on so many characters. One, Violet Sharpe, even commits suicide. Was she hiding something, or just overwhelmed by the pressures put on the staff by the police?

We do eventually get all the way through the trial, in which our main character, Betty Gow, is ultimately exonerated. But even she continues to question those around her.

The writer presents the story with the assumption that the man accused really was the kidnapper, but he had an unwitting accomplice on the inside. I don’t think we’ll ever really know the details on that, as most of the real people are now deceased (and some were already deceased by the time of the trial). But it makes for a compelling read, nonetheless – especially for fans of true crime.

This book comes out today, November 15th. I was able to read ahead on NetGalley, thanks to the folks at St. Martin’s Press.


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“Lessons in Chemistry” by Bonnie Garmus – Guest Review

By: Abby Phoenix


Hi, I’m Abby! Like a lot of people, I have gone through several ebbs and flows in life with reading, from a childhood with my nose buried in a book, through various love-hate relationships with school-assigned reads, to the exciting rediscovery of reading again for pleasure in adulthood. 

Nowadays, I’ve settled into a life routine where I try to always make space for my current read, because it just helps my mood so much when I have some sort of book that I can dive back into in my spare moments. I love being absorbed into a good story, so I mostly stick to fiction. That love of being immersed into a story’s world means that I’m one of the few avid readers I know who cannot (I’ve tried and always fail!) read more than one book simultaneously. 

In the last five years or so, I’ve also tried to make it a habit to primarily read books not written by white men, in an effort to balance out all the reading I did until that point. Initially I thought that might be a difficult or overly limiting restriction, but instead, I’ve found it to be both easy to do, and incredibly enriching in terms of expanding and challenging my perspectives on the world – the very thing that we hope all books can do for us!


Chemist Elizabeth Zott is not your average woman. In fact, Elizabeth Zott would be the first to point out that there is no such thing as an average woman. But it’s the early 1960s and her all-male team at Hastings Research Institute takes a very unscientific view of equality. But like science, life is unpredictable. Which is why a few years later Elizabeth Zott finds herself not only a single mother, but the reluctant star of America’s most beloved cooking show Supper at Six. Elizabeth’s unusual approach to cooking (“combine one tablespoon acetic acid with a pinch of sodium chloride”) proves revolutionary. But as her following grows, not everyone is happy. Because as it turns out, Elizabeth Zott isn’t just teaching women to cook. She’s daring them to change the status quo.

Goodreads


“History is written by the victors” – a quote that is so true that, of course, even its own origin underscores the point that the loudest and most famous voice gets to claim sole ownership of our collective story.

Most of us know this to be true with just a little bit of critical thinking: life never has been a single, streamlined story fitting the clean few paragraphs we read in our history books. Countless stories are discarded (often forcibly) from our histories in favor of the narrative most favored by those in power, until enough time passes that we accept that story as solid fact. 

But on the other side of fact is fiction, oh, fiction. 

Fiction has always been a welcoming home for the stories untold, the ones that we know have always existed too, and might be even better. One such narrative is found in the extremely appealing period novel “Lessons in Chemistry,” by Bonnie Garmus, which introduces us to Elizabeth Zott, a woman who seems to exist completely outside of her time.

Elizabeth’s 1960s American setting expects women to be homemakers whose sole priority is keeping their husbands and children happy. As a brilliant chemist who’d love to be laser-focused on her work and nothing else, Elizabeth’s only request of the world around her is to be taken seriously as a scientist. But when she’s of course stymied in her original path by the standard tools of repression (the one-two punch of structural discrimination and societal shame), only one life option opens up to her as a possible path forward. That option, combining the identities deemed appropriate for a woman of her time (cook, teacher, and actress) and the era’s shiny new medium: a television chef.

Giving Elizabeth this platform though proves to be a mistake for those who would prefer she stay in her pre-assigned place. Looking through our 2022 lens, we all now know something that they were still waking up to in the 1960s: television has a way of lending automatic authority to anyone on its screens, and flattening their identity in the process. Elizabeth’s newfound notoriety helps her achieve a version of her original goal of establishing herself as a scientist, by the simple act of calling herself one on television. 

Additionally, and more powerfully, by using a medium that gives her direct access to women around the country (“this is a show for normal housewives!” is a message she receives repeatedly) Elizabeth is able to broadcast her profound expectations for all other women in the world. This is based in simple fact: modern society only operates as well as it does due to the consistent hard work that half of the population puts into keeping it moving. That work has tangible value, whether or not it’s socially and economically recognized. Crucially, Elizabeth both sees and inspires others to see the potential in this women’s work: women can do this, and they are capable of so much more too.

It’s a heady journey to witness, and Elizabeth and the characters who surround her (both human and canine) are largely likable compatriots on that path. But while the story itself may make you pump your fist or at the very least, nod along towards its satisfying conclusion, it’s worthwhile to examine this enjoyable read a bit more closely. Characters like Elizabeth star in so many of our favorite fictional stories that purport to tell some of the real story of the history we know: the single person who thinks differently from everyone around them and stands up to the system. This story of a charismatic iconoclast like Elizabeth igniting change in a whole society that never encountered someone quite like her is certainly cathartic as we try to reconcile how times seem to shift so quickly, turning American women from Donna Reeds to Gloria Steinems in the space of a mere decade. But it’s also a lie. 

Just like in the 1960s, and in all times before and since: there is no one Elizabeth Zott coming to save us – instead, it is incumbent upon us all to tap into our internal Elizabeth in ways small and large as we work together to build our own stories of what will hopefully one day become our history.


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“The Island of Sea Women” by Lisa See – Review

By: Angie Haddock


Set on the Korean island of Jeju, “The Island of Sea Women” follows Mi-ja and Young-sook, two girls from very different backgrounds, as they begin working in the sea with their village’s all-female diving collective. Over many decades—through the Japanese colonialism of the 1930s and 1940s, World War II, the Korean War, and the era of cellphones and wet suits for the women divers—Mi-ja and Young-sook develop the closest of bonds. Nevertheless, their differences are impossible to ignore: Mi-ja is the daughter of a Japanese collaborator, forever marking her, and Young-sook was born into a long line of haenyeo and will inherit her mother’s position leading the divers. After hundreds of dives and years of friendship, forces outside their control will push their relationship to the breaking point.

Goodreads


I knew absolutely nothing about the island of Jeju – or diving, really – going into this book. But, it seemed like solid historical fiction material – a friendship that survives decades, and all the things that happen during those decades.

We meet Young-sook in 2008, when she is already quite old. The “present day” chapters are fewer and shorter than the various flashback ones, though, and that’s where the real story starts to develop.

Young-sook and Mi-ja meet when they are still children, and Mi-ja is new to the village of Hado. Young-sook’s mother is the chief of her diving collective, but they also have some crops to care for on dry land. Mi-ja originally helps with some of this work, in exchange for some food. As they grow older, they also learn to dive together, and even travel to other countries to make more money.

We learn early on that the women in this village are the true heads of their households – at least, where “making a living” is concerned – and the husbands usually stay home and take care of babies. The roles of men and women are debated often, especially while the women are gossiping before or after a day of diving.

Early on, there are two diving accidents that change Young-sook’s life, and the makeup of their collective. Another young diver, only a few years older than her, has an accident that she never fully recovers from. While the girl lives, she is unable to speak again. Not long after, Young-sook loses her mother. This makes her the family’s primary breadwinner.

In their early twenties, Young-sook and Mi-ja enter into arranged marriages, and start having babies. This is where their lives start to diverge, as Mi-ja moves away to live with her husband’s family in the city.

While there is already a lot of personal drama this far into the story, the worst is yet to come.

Things first start to change on Jeju during the World War II years. They were already under the control of the Japanese, who most of them despised, but after the war they now have to contend with Americans. The division of North and South Korea also affects them, as does internal fighting between the government and rebels who want an independent election.

The story takes some brutal turns that I was not prepared for. The adage that came to my mind is “the personal is political,” as these women’s daily lives are definitely affected by the things going on in Korea and in the world at large. One very climactic event was based on real events that happened in 1948-1949. The government then made it basically illegal for people to talk about what happened for decades afterward! Even when the events were publicly acknowledged, and no longer a secret, many older folks – like those in the fictional Young-sook’s age range – still had trouble talking about it, because they had kept their secrets for so long. This aspect of the story was both fascinating and disturbing.

Near the end of the story, I started putting together one “twist,” if you will. The final chapter confirmed my theory, but also still held two more heartbreaking revelations.

Life on Jeju, especially back in the 1930s, was such a different world to me, that it did take me a few chapters to really get into this one. But I loved the strong female characters from early on, and was intrigued by their way of life. That way of life changed drastically over the decades, but the personal and political dramas within their lives became the bigger story.

If you’re a fan of historical fiction, or want to learn more about cultures much different from American/modern culture, this one might be a good pick. But be forewarned that there are some brutal scenes.


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“The Mad Girls of New York” by Maya Rodale – Review

By: Angie Haddock


In 1887 New York City, Nellie Bly has ambitions beyond writing for the ladies pages, but all the editors on Newspaper Row think women are too emotional, respectable and delicate to do the job. But then the New York World challenges her to an assignment she’d be mad to accept and mad to refuse: go undercover as a patient at Blackwell’s Island Insane Asylum for Women.

Goodreads


While I was reading this one, several friends added it to their “to read” list on Goodreads – so, I think the world is hungry for more great historical fiction based on real life badass women. (I’ll call that the “Marie Benedict effect.”) How exciting!

Nellie Bly had worked as a reporter for a few years already, in Pittsburgh, but she eventually moved to New York City with hopes to work for one of the bigger papers. But just getting in the doors to get an interview proves hard for a woman, because women weren’t considered good choices for reporter jobs.

She’s been in the city for four months, and she’s struggling to pay her rent. She is also very aware that women who are considered “inconvenient” often end up in insane asylums, with no way to prove their sanity. So she needs to land on her feet, soon.

Which is how she comes up with the crazy plan – to act crazy. To see how easy it is to get herself locked up, and to report on the actual conditions and practices inside the asylum, which does not open its doors to reporters. Specifically, she aims to get inside the asylum on Blackwell’s Island, which is rumored to be the most inhumane. She does this “stunt” with the cooperation of the deputy editor of the New York World, who promises to get her out in a week or so.

She does get in, and is there for about 10 days. She meets other women, and of course, most are not really crazy at all – some are heartbroken and/or depressed, sick and in need of medical care their families couldn’t provide, foreign and unable to understand English, or maybe just poor (and therefore a nuisance).

The conditions are deplorable, and they are given no reasons to hope for more. They have to sit on hard benches all day and not talk or move. Nelly reasons that some of them may become insane while there, because they are given no mental or physical stimulation. It’s also freezing cold (she is there in October), and they don’t get enough to eat.

The title – “The Mad Girls of New York” – refers to the women of the asylum. But the story also follows some of Nellie’s acquaintances in the city, as well as her time before and after this assignment. Women trying to support themselves financially, and not just depending on a man to take care of them. And these girls could also be considered “mad” for their time (the 1880’s).

This whole scenario is based on actual events, which Bly wrote her own book about at the time (“Ten Days in a Mad-House“). The author used info from that book, but also based characters on other people and stories from that era.

If you’re a fan of historical fiction, I’d definitely recommend this one. Even though we know Nellie will get out eventually, the stakes still seem high for her comrades in the asylum. And there’s one more fun twist after she gets out, too.

This book comes out today, April 26th. I was able to read an advanced copy through the publisher and Netgalley.


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“Circe” by Madeline Miller – Review

By: Angie Haddock


In the house of Helios, god of the sun and mightiest of the Titans, a daughter is born. But Circe is a strange child – not powerful, like her father, nor viciously alluring like her mother. Turning to the world of mortals for companionship, she discovers that she does possess power – the power of witchcraft, which can transform rivals into monsters and menace the gods themselves.

Goodreads


I had heard the name Circe before, and a quick Google search reminded me that she was in The Odyssey. I did read that, but in high school, so… it’d been a minute. For anyone who is familiar with that story – Odysseus does play an important role in this story, but his ship does not appear until about half way through this book.

The first half of this one is dedicated to Circe’s childhood and growth into the witch she becomes. She is one of four siblings who all possess the ability to use herbs and spells to change the beings and world around them. She is meek as a child, and is the last of them to discover her abilities.

Her first attempt at spells comes after she falls in love with a mortal, and wants to make him immortal (like her). After he rises to the ranks of the gods, however, he falls in love with a nymph named Scylla. Circe uses some potions on Scylla that turn her into a hideous and ravenous beast. For this, Circe is exiled from the halls of the gods, and sent to live alone on an abandoned island.

She uses her time there to hone her abilities, and experiment with the plants she finds on the island. But she doesn’t remain alone for long, as she occasionally receives visitors – sometimes gods, but more often sailors who are lost or in need of restocking their supplies. (She even gets to leave the island herself, to help her sister in childbirth.)

So, she loosely keeps up with the world around her. Eventually, Odysseus and his men arrive, and they end up staying for a good while. She does take Odysseus as a lover, but he wasn’t the first. What makes her tryst with him different, though, is that she gets pregnant.

Her son is mortal, and Circe has to spend a lot of energy warding off the goddess Athena, who has promised to kill him. Around age 16, though, he wants to venture out into the world and find his father. Circe struggles with the idea that she will not be able to protect him forever – much like we mortal moms do still to this day. She does realize that, even if she can keep him under her wing, she would still have to watch him die from old age someday. So she lets him make his own decisions.

Near the end, with her son gone, Circe decides she has one mission she must complete – stop the monstrous Scylla from killing sailors who pass her cave. Since Circe turned her into the monster she is, she feels guilty for much of Scylla’s destruction. She must blackmail her father into releasing her from her exile, but she is finally able to go into the world for herself to accomplish this task.


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“Champagne Widows” by Rebecca Rosenberg – Review

By: Angie Haddock


Champagne, France, 1800. Twenty-year-old Barbe-Nicole inherited Le Nez (an uncanny sense of smell) from her great-grandfather, a renowned champagne maker. She is determined to use Le Nez to make great champagne, but the Napoleon Code prohibits women from owning a business.

Goodreads


This is a fun bit of historical fiction, based on real people and events. I hadn’t read much about this era in a while, so it was also a good change of pace!

Our heroine, Barbe-Nicole, has a knack for blending wine, which was a business her grandfather was in. She can’t directly inherit the business, of course, because she’s a woman. But, she does talk her childhood sweetheart into going into business with her, as a married couple.

As the title implies, her wedded bliss only lasts a few years. With Napoleon trying to take over all of Europe, she now faces multiple challenges: how to keep her business in her own name as a widow, and how to sell her products. The French people are broke, but other countries have mostly outlawed French imports. There are blockades, even. And some of her seller’s journeys are so long and treacherous that the product is ruined by the time it gets to its destination!

Barbe-Nicole has to reinvent her business several times over during the long years of the Napoleonic wars. She takes on various partners and investors, but still wants to have the last word on her wines. This makes some of her (male) partners very frustrated, as they all think they know better than she does.

There are some lean years, often due to weather harming the crops. She also employs mostly women, many of them war widows. This is one of the reasons she keeps trying again every year – she doesn’t want to leave these women without jobs. She is stubborn, but it’s for a good cause!

She also faces a lot of personal heartbreak during these years, often from the loss of family members. She also feels the losses of her freedom to practice her religion, her family’s old way of life before the wars, and the loss of cultural norms she grew up with.

There is also a lot about winemaking in here! If you have any interest in wine, vineyards, etc. – that’s a fun aspect.

The year of the Great Comet brings the best harvest in years. Napoleon is finally facing defeat. But will the laws change in time for Barbe-Nicole to sell the fruits of that year’s labors?

This book comes out in paperback today, March 1st. I was given a copy by the author, Rebecca Rosenberg, who intends it to be the first in a series of novels about real-life women in the wine business.


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“Hamnet” by Maggie O’Farrell – Review

By: Angie Haddock



Warwickshire in the 1580s. Agnes is a woman as feared as she is sought after for her unusual gifts. She settles with her husband in Henley street, Stratford, and has three children: a daughter, Susanna, and then twins, Hamnet and Judith. The boy, Hamnet, dies in 1596, aged eleven. Four years or so later, the husband writes a play called Hamlet.

-Goodreads


This was a book that had been on my radar for a while, and I finally put myself on the wait list for it at my library. It was well worth the wait!

The facts of William Shakespeare’s son’s death are not known. The author, having dug up what little info she could find, started ruminating on a thought she had… Shakespeare lived during the time of the plague, yet never mentioned it in his plays. (It had to affect him, at least in the professional sense, as theatres would sometimes have to close when outbreaks were high.) So, she contemplated.. what if he avoided the topic because it was too personal?

From this one thought, and the other scant information she found on his wife and family, she built a whole novel.

While we are introduced to Hamnet and his siblings right away, the real focus of the book is Agnes (William’s wife and Hamnet’s mother). The story shifts between two eras of Agnes’ life – the time of Hamnet’s sickness and dying, and the one of her meeting and marrying her husband.

Agnes came from a farm family, and was adept at making medicinal concoctions from herbs and plants. While many sought out her help, there were also some who thought she was extremely odd (maybe even a witch?).

Because she is so often called on to help others cure their ills, it crushes her even more that she could not save her own son. We sit through her mourning and contemplations, both during his death and burial and in the years after. There is so much sadness, as the reader is going through this from Agnes’ perspective. In the time after, it is obvious to a modern reader that Agnes is dealing with severe depression. In her own time, some of her family members grow tired of her inability to move on.

William and Agnes basically lead separate lives, with him in London or touring with his players and her raising the kids in Stratford. His parents make their home feel unsafe and claustrophobic for him, which is part of why he wanted to leave. Eventually, when he is making good money, he buys her a house away from his parents. Thankfully, she can rely on her oldest brother to have a level head. He is always willing to help her, and William sometimes goes through the brother to get to Agnes when she is being distant.

In the last section of the book, her brother actually goes with Agnes to London to confront William about writing a play with their dead son’s name in it – Hamlet. This is her first time seeing London, and his work.

This is a sad and beautiful story. Read it if you’re in the mood to be faced with big feelings.


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“M, King’s Bodyguard” by Niall Leonard – Review

By: Angie Haddock


Based on a true story, M, King’s Bodyguard is a gripping, atmospheric thriller about anarchy and assassination in Edwardian London, and one detective’s mission to preserve the life of his king and prevent a bloody war in Europe.

Goodreads


I don’t read a ton of mystery/thriller novels, so I picked this one out just for variety. And its setting – London in 1901 – makes it more akin to Arthur Conan Doyle or Agatha Christie than the more contemporary thrillers.

William Melville worked within Scotland Yard, and had a special assignment protecting the Queen – very much like what we Americans would call the Secret Service. Upon the Queen’s death, his services transfer to her heir, the next King. While preparing for the royal funeral, Melville uncovers a plot to attack the Kaiser – the leader of Germany at the time – during the funeral procession.

He feels compelled to run down every lead to stop this act of terrorism, but has several obstacles. First of all, can he be sure his leads are even valid? He also has to balance the wishes of his boss at Scotland Yard with those of his real boss, the King. Lastly, the King is insistent that Melville works with the man in his position within the targeted Kaiser’s retinue – a man named Gustav Steinhauer – but Melville isn’t entirely sure that Steinhauer is trustworthy.

There are several women characters in the mix as well, and while they don’t feature as prominently as Melville or Steinhauer, they do prove to be pretty integral to the plot.

There are a few twists I didn’t love, but obviously… as the story is based on true events, I can’t very well blame the storyteller here. Sometimes real people are messy.

The story was fun, and fairly full of action. The fact that it was based on real events makes it even more intriguing.

“M, King’s Bodyguard” is being released today, July 13th. I read an advanced copy through NetGalley and Knopf Doubleday Publishing.


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