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Archive for the ‘Good Reads’ Category

The first thing to happen is your brain starts to slowly disintegrate on the way home. Once in the door, you need to tend to anything that needs tending to because your body is following close behind and is not going to be in an upright position too much longer. From stress? Nope – from the incredible rush of attending a two-day conference for writers and illustrators of children’s books. It’s exhausting alright, but in a good way.

Each June my New Jersey chapter of the SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) holds its big event. There are workshops, round tables, one-on-one critiques, a juried art show, portfolio display, keynote speeches, and more. This year, in choosing my workshops I focused entirely on writing in picture books. Other years, I have mixed things up and taken workshops in middle grade and young adult writing, picture book illustration, marketing/social media, and more. There were some truly fabulous speakers this year who inspired me and will keep me thinking long after the conference.

A highlight of the NJ event for many attendees is the availability of having one-on-one critiques, something not offered at all SCBWI (or other writing) conferences, and I picked very well this year. The picture book I submitted seemed a very good fit for Charlesbridge Publishing, and my mentor was outstanding – knowledgeable, insightful, and beyond helpful. Did I mention thorough? Yes, very thorough. A good editor or agent really knows how to show you where you need improvement without destroying your soul, acknowledge all the things that are right with your manuscript, and point out directions that will help you make your story perfect. And that I got.

The big challenge after a conference like this, for me, anyway, is to keep the momentum and all that excitement going because Monday morning rolls around pretty quickly and I am back at my desk writing and designing for everyone else, i.e., my clients. However, one of the first things I did Monday was to hit the library. I was picking up an adult novel I’d requested on inter-library loan, Before We Were Yours, and also a number of picture books that had been recommended by my mentor and other workshop leaders along the way. I also requested a few more from our main library. (As I did not take any photos of the event, I have included a handful of those books here.) I plan to read them over the next couple days for both enjoyment and to understand what makes them really good picture books. There is always much to learn.

Over the next few days I will revisit the MS I submitted and all my mentor’s notes and look to see how I can make my story shine yet brighter. For all the praise she gave me for this picture book, and there was plenty, it wasn’t enough – at least not yet – to be the one Charlesbridge wants to publish. Not yet.

 

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Life sometimes pulls us in one direction … then another … then another. Grabs us by the collar and says, “You need to take care of this, but be sure you do this, oh! and this!” The end result is we writers look quite absent from our blogs from time to time. But be assured, this writer is still here, just pulled in all those directions.

There’s been a boatload of work, which, as a freelancer, I will never complain about; preparation for my being a guest speaker at an Animal Writers Workshop (you can check that out here); preparation for the annual SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) June Conference coming up in 2 weeks; the usual (un)expected running around for all manner of things, some pleasant, some less so; and, of course, reading! No matter what else is happening, I am always reading.

To this end, I’m going to catch you up on the wonderful books I’ve enjoyed.

After reading The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein it was clear that I wanted to read more from this great mind. I perused Goodreads and requested A Sudden Light from my library. What a magnificent book. I will officially now read anything this man writes. A Sudden Light is a story told in the first person by 14-year-old Trevor who travels with his father to the family’s Riddell House in Oregon. His parents’ marriage is in trouble, and this trip to meet his aunt and grandfather is to allegedly settle some financial issues, put the grandfather in a nursing home, and dispose of the house. The home’s exterior is constructed of huge trees, and was built by Elijah, Trevor’s timber baron great grandfather. Trevor soon finds they are not alone in the house; there is a ghost, who has remained to see that Elijah’s last wishes be carried out, that the property be returned to a natural state as amends for the desecration he caused to the land. Somehow Stein has managed to put together an historical novel, a compelling ghost story, a tale of multi-generational conflicts and family secrets against a backdrop of the Pacific Northwest. Read more here and scroll down and visit The North Estate. Be sure not to read any spoilers!

Following this, I read The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin, a novel (her first) with a most unusual premise. Four children, brothers and sisters edging into adolescence, hot and bored in the Lower East Side summer of 1969, decide to visit a gypsy fortune teller who is said to be able to give you the exact day you will die. The kids do it on a lark, just for something to do. The eldest brags about how far in the future her date is; she’ll live to a ripe old age. Another sibling shares, but the two others are clearly shaken and will not reveal their dates. It’s all just a joke anyway, right? The following chapters follow the life of each child, as the reader, in suspended animation, follows the sibling’s choices leading up to the possible fulfillment of their individual prophecies. Warm, engrossing, a fascinating premise, and very well-written.

I then read the next in the Inspector Armand Gamache mystery series by Louise Penny. I never thought I’d be interested in reading a series by anyone (at least not after my beloved Nancy Drew mysteries from my childhood) but Louise Penny changed my mind. Inspired by a post by fellow blogger Cynthia Reyes, I picked up a couple of Penny’s books from my local library and was very impressed. So much so, in fact, that I decided to read the entire series from the beginning (not one right after the other, but interspersed among other reading.) What a great decision! Penny is an excellent writer who knows how to hook you from beginning to end. With a cast of characters that one becomes more attached to with each book, mysteries unfold to be solved by Chief Inspector Armand  Gamache of the Surété of Quebec, the premiere investigative arm of homicide in that province. The Brutal Telling is book #5 and calls upon Gamache to solve the murder of an unknown individual whose cabin is buried in the woods surrounding the quaint village of Three Pines. The evidence points to a seemingly unlikely character, which can only leave the reader quite puzzled. Are they  really capable of murder? The book ends with that individual’s arrest, and we are left wondering.

The next book in the series, Bury Your Dead, is considered a companion to this one, so I elected to read it right after, and it does pick up quite literally where The Brutal Telling ended. What is engaging about Penny’s writing is that she is not just writing simple mysteries, but increasingly complex novels which explore Canadian culture and history from Vancouver to Quebec’s founder, Samuel de Champlain, to revered artists. Her characters grow realistically and empathically, and it’s very easy to become involved in their lives and the small town of Three Pines. If you like an absorbing mystery that will also give you a little more to sink your teeth into, look into this series. I suggest you start with the first in the series, A Still Life. There is a growing richness with each subsequent novel, and Penny will always keep you guessing until the end. Oh! And another small perk – whenever characters are eating, Penny always takes a moment to describe the deliciousness of their food. It’s a tantalizing little diversion each time.

I took a turn into another age group after this and read Crenshaw, a middle grade novel by Kathlerine Applegate, the author of a book I love (and own), The One and Only Ivan, an absolutely wonderful read. This story is about Jackson, a young teenage boy, and his family whose financial situation has changed from precarious to dire with them being forced to live in their minivan. Again. The story touches on an important subject, homelessness and the challenges faced by those who may be barely getting by. But there is another important character – Crenshaw himself, a very large cat. Crenshaw is Jackson’s imaginary friend from when he was a little boy, returned to be supportive of Jackson in his time of need … whether Jackson wants him there or not. Needless to say, this lends itself to moments of humor, but at its heart, this story is about resilience, friendship, and how we survive tough times. It was a good read, but for some reason, didn’t grab me the same way Ivan did. I’d still recommend it to the middle grade readers you know because we are all always facing some challenge or other, and this age group will appreciate Jackson and Crenshaw’s approach to a problem more common than most think.

I’m now reading Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver, another terrific writer. I have read at least four of her other novels, The Poisonwood Bible being a permanent resident on a particular bookcase reserved for those books that I would definitely read again. Hopefully, I’ll be able to tell you about Flight Behavior somewhere in the vague timeframe of when I finish it.

Whether you are inspired by the stories mentioned above or are on a book path of your own, I will always wish you … Happy Reading!

 

 

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It’s been a very long time since I wept so at the end of a book. And I mean wept. Even I didn’t see that coming. The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein is an outstanding novel, told in the first person by Enzo, a dog. But don’t think that this is just some dog story – it’s not; it is skillfully told through the keen observation, devotion, and insightful outlook of a narrator who just happens to walk on four legs.

The main character, Denny, to whom Enzo has been deeply bonded since a small pup, is a race car driver, so periodically, there is background and information about racing. But don’t think this is a story about racing either – it’s not. Racing is a metaphor for life and how to live it, particularly racing in the rain, of which Denny is a master.

The first chapter begins at the end of Enzo’s life, where he wishes to be released with dignity. From watching “too much television” (according to Denny), Enzo has learned of a Mongolian belief whereby a dog who’s lived a good life will become human in his next incarnation. This is what Enzo aspires to, and despite his periodic dismay at not having speech and being unable to communicate what he knows, or to have been denied opposable thumbs, Enzo does his best to live a model life.

The second chapter begins the story of Denny, his love, Eve, their child Zoë, and the journey of their lives together. From Denny and Enzo watching race tapes on the TV, with Denny explaining all the details to Enzo, to Eve’s illness, to the in-laws overbearing attitude and ultimately cruel shattering of Denny’s life, we are drawn into a story – sometimes funny, sometimes tragic – of a life that could be anybody’s. It’s always set against the backdrop of Denny’s aspirations to be an accomplished driver, and his teaching Enzo the subtleties of mastering the track. Enzo gets it. “Your car goes where your eyes go. Simply another way of saying that which you manifest is before you.”

You do not need to have ever had a dog to appreciate Enzo or his telling of Denny’s story. But if you have ever loved a dog at any time in your life, you will be greatly enriched – and moved – by Enzo, and all that he is. Likewise, those familiar with racing will have the extra bonus of understanding the racing world references. But you don’t have to know anything about racing – as I do not – to understand the story, for again, in the end it’s not about racing, but life.

While we knew from Chapter One where this book would end, the impact is unexpectedly profound; the epilogue, deeply touching. If nothing else, Enzo is a remarkably skilled writer. I had not realized how invested I was in this story … and in Enzo … until the end. The Art of Racing in the Rain is a keeper.

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How many times have you finished a book, and it was so good that you wanted to go back to the beginning and read it again? I’ve felt that way; I think we all have. But how many times have you actually done it? I’m guessing you haven’t, and until now, neither have I. Until I read The Queen of the Night by Alexander Chee.

This is an amazing historical novel, written in first person by a young woman, who, at the opening of the book, is making her entrance at the Sénat Bal in Paris, autumn of 1882. She is “La Genérale”,  Lilliet Berne, famed opera singer and a falcon soprano. She is approached by a novelist who dares to get her attention, and asks her to listen to his proposition – a story he has in his possession, to which a score will be written by a promising composer, an original role created just for her. Such a thing is the apex of an opera’s singer career. And then Lilliet hears how much of the story is her own past life, which, if it came to light, would destroy her career. So few know her past; who would want to see her fall? And so begins our story.

We return to Lilliet’s beginnings in the then free-state of Minnesota in 1866, sixteen years old, when she loses her entire family to scarlet fever. Alone and practically penniless, she decides to cross the country, and then the ocean, to find her mother’s only sister in Switzerland. The ensuing story unfolds in endless twists and turns of Lilliet’s trying to survive, becoming a circus equestrienne, a courtesan, later purchased by the tenor, the keeper of the empresses’s furs, and an opera singer. This all takes place largely in Paris during and after the reign of Emperor Louis Napoleon III and Empress Eugénie.

The Queen of the Night is a very complex novel. There is subterfuge, characters using each other and being used, and many unexpected betrayals. Set against the backdrop of an opulent Paris as well as the utter desolation after the Prussian attack, there is also opera, loyalty, friendship, devotion, and most importantly, love. One might say that this is a love story, but truly, it is so much more. When I decided to reread this book, I was initially aware it was because there was so much going on, that I knew I had missed certain things, and I needed to feel that I really understood everything.

But as I approach the final chapters this second time, I know that a major attraction for me is Lilliet Berne herself. I found Lilliet to be an amazing heroine, who fights to stay alive, to try to be whatever it is she is born to be, despite not knowing at all what that might be for so long. She starts our story as an orphaned girl of sixteen, and ends … well, I can’t really tell you that. I can say that this is a demanding book, not one to be read when you’re tired or distracted, because I guarantee, you will miss something critical. But it is also one you cannot put down. Alexander Chee is highly successful in writing a story with fine attention to rich historical detail, and also for creating characters who will live in your imagination between each reading and after.

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That’s not what we usually see, is it? More often we find articles about engendering the love of reading in kids.

So I was pretty impressed to find in the September 2017 issue of Family Circle an article about the importance of reading for pleasure. I assume that many of you reading this blog, as writers, are already immersed in a regular reading habit, but this short article with “how-to” tips addresses how we, as women, are pulled in so many directions that we often let reading slide. And it’s true; an inordinate involvement with our phones, TV, internet – not to mention the real-life issues of our families and work – can leave us feeling we have no time to read.

But a Yale linguistics professor, Kenneth Pugh, mentions the importance of reading for pleasure as highly important for our emotional health as well as strengthening our creativity. Tips on how to get back into reading include never leaving home without a book; literally penciling in time in our daily schedule for reading; swapping a chunk of our TV addiction for reading time; keeping a book on our nightstand, etc.

For anyone not sure of how to get back into reading, the article suggested as number one – your local librarian. Librarians are a fantastic source of knowledge of the books on their shelves and with a few questions, can have you in a book you love in no time. A good local bookseller can do the same. In addition, they recommended the New York Times Best Seller list, Goodreads.com, or 2017 Popsugar Reading Challenge. What I loved most about seeing this article is that Family Circle is a magazine with a huge circulation of about 17, 560 readers that reaches a very mainstream audience.

Reading – and reading for pleasure – is important. I find myself concerned about all these moms glued to their phones. What kind of inspiration is that for their children? I’m hoping that a family-oriented magazine like this one will inspire more than a few women to reconsider their habits and pick up a book – for themselves, and also to read to their kids.

 

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One of the very compelling features in a good novel can be place, where an author writes with such depth and attention to the environment inhabited by his characters that the location becomes a character all its own. I just finished The Ice Bridge by D.R.Macdonald, and was amazed at how quickly he had me immersed in the landscape of Cape Breton in Nova Scotia. This is an outstanding book in so many ways, not least of which was my having moved to the harsh, wintry landscape of Cape Seal Road right along with one of the main characters, Anna.

The intensely rich descriptions of the land and the nearby sea in every mood and facet imaginable captured my imagination. Anna is an artist, moved here from California, leaving her soon-to-be ex to rediscover her artistic self. Her drawings of the landscape, animals, and the many found objects she retrieves from both water and shore, further expand the reader’s feel for Cape Breton.

The story of her settling into the “weather-wracked” house once belonging to next door neighbor Red Murdock’s grandmother is a story in and of itself. While the jacket flap is right in saying it’s a story about love after love, it is also a story about a fading Scottish culture which once thrived in the area, and the changes that modern life has exacted on its residents. Each character in this small, somewhat forgotten community adds to the sense of place in Macdonald’s novel. He is, in my opinion, a brilliant writer who has seemingly effortlessly made me care about his characters in this slowly unfolding tale.

When Anna does something extremely foolish, it is hard to criticize her because the author has already portrayed her so completely and compassionately that we can only wonder what would make her do such a thing. The characters are real, and the conflict builds slowly through the friendships, past loves, danger, pain, and wonder of them all. And always the sea and sky, forest and field, so beautifully, beautifully rendered, from the challenges of winter through the final warming of spring in July.

What a masterful writer! What I also loved about this novel was Macdonald builds the suspense to the very end, and even with the ending given us, one can still wonder what might happen next. This is one where I was sorry to close the book and leave what I’d come to love in Cape Breton.

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One of the joys of reading a good book or watching a good movie is that of surrender. When I open to the page where I last left off or the theater lights go dim, I breathe to myself (hopefully not out loud), “take me.”

Take me into some neighborhood I’ve only passed by; let me smell their food, hear their music and experience the love, joy and anger that is so essentially human, but through the heart of another culture. Or take me to another land so I may breathe their icy cold into my lungs or feel the heat upon me that breeds crimes of passion. Take me to the stark loneliness of outer space to be in awe of galaxies; to live inside the utter loyalty and devotion of a scout dog in the Vietnam War and see through her eyes.

Take me where creatures walk among us who look like you and me but harbor lives beyond our imaginings. Tease me with unexpected twists and discovery of villainy or delusion. Speak to me in ways that make me work a little to understand the subtleties of another tongue, or variations of my own from another place and time.

Take me where I may know the deepest and most heartbreaking love, be outraged and demand justice, or laugh because sometimes life is just funny.

But whatever you do, be well-written with characters that ring true to the very end (but can still surprise me) and where I can get lost in your world without hesitation. I am ready to surrender.

Take me.

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There are just periods when one cannot find the time – or brain – to post. Really, I’m kind of still in one of those, but I guess I had to share my love of books – and this amazing haul – with you book lovers out there. Today was day #1 of the annual Hunterdon County Library Book Sale. And below is what I brought home, limited only by the fact that I literally could not carry any more. (Though the library folks said they’d be happy to help me get more to my car. 🙂

This year, I went with a list – some MG/YA (since I continue to write children’s books, I always want to read the good stuff out there): a goodly bunch of fiction titles; and a selection from a list my friend had recently sent me from Buzzfeed entitled 37 Books with Plot Twists that Will Blow Your Mind. Hey, that sounded promising, so I perused the list, eliminated those I’d already read, and added those of interest to my library sale list. Now I was ready to go!

Amazingly, I actually found 6 from my list – The Westing Game – Ellen Raskin and Savvy – Ingrid Law (both MG/YA); The Thirteenth Tale – Diane Setterfield; Fingersmith – Sarah Waters; and The Queen of the Night – Alexander Chee from the “plot twist” list. While I couldn’t find others from the Buzzfeed group, I did find alternative books by a couple of the authors, so picked upThe City of Falling Angels – John Berendt, in place of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, and The Infinite Plan – Isabel Allende, in place of The House of the Spirits – a chance to check out new authors.

And then there were these that I just happened upon – The Silent Boy by Lois Lowry because The Giver and Gathering Blue were excellent; Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver because she’s one of my favorite authors; I Am the Messenger by Markus Zusak because The Book Thief is one of my favorite all-time books and I promised myself I’d read something else of his and try not to compare; Forever – Pete Hamill because I love the premise and he’s an excellent writer; Morality for Beautiful Girls – Alexander McCall Smith as I love his #1 Ladies Detective Agency series; The Perks of Being A Wallflower – Stephen Chbosky (MG) – just wanted to read it;  same for Evermore – Alyson Noel (YA) and Ape House by Sara Gruen.

And then, The Art of Racing in the Rain –  Garth Stein, recommended highly to me years ago by my dearest friend, since passed over; Pushing the Bear – A Novel of the Trail of Tears – Diane Glancy, because I know this will touch me deeply; and Louise Penny’s Still Life in excellent condition, a wee gift to my own town’s small local library for their shelves (I had to borrow the copy I’d read from the county library). And there you have it.

The two big questions: where will I put them all? and what will I read first after I finish the wonderful book I’m already reading? The first is a minor problem but solvable; the second – just a delicious conundrum. I wish you all happy reading – it is truly one of the riches in our lives.

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Serene is sure a feeling that can escape us when we’ve got a lot on our plate. And lately, this photo is what’s been bringing me back to some semblance of serene.

Beautiful orcas in a sea of calm. I feel like perhaps they are dreaming. Diving, resting and just breathing in the night air. The last few weeks have been far too busy with one thing or another and although I know – we all do – that from time to time, it’s just how life is, I found myself longing for a touch of the serenity I see in this photo. I found myself wishing I could weave among them as kin where they would welcome me, not be afraid, and just share with me whatever they know and feel in the moment captured above.

“They were watching, out there past men’s knowing, where stars are drowning and whales ferry their vast souls through the black and seamless sea.”
~ Cormac McCarthy

But this period of so much going on has had its up-side, too.  I have been on a real reading tear, loving diving into one book after another, middle grade, adult, picture books, no matter. Perhaps these books have all given me the respite I needed, new places to go, people to know, situations that grabbed my attention and heightened sensation. What a rich world books bring us.

OK, change of plans. I’ll sit on an outcropping of rocks next to the orcas, they with their dreams, me with my book, one in spirit under a full moon. Join me?

 

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FoggyMorning

Nature XXVII, Autumn

The morns are meeker than they were,
The nuts are getting brown;
The berry’s cheek is plumper,
The rose is out of town.
The maple wears a gayer scarf,
The field a scarlet gown.
Lest I should be old-fashioned,
I’ll put a trinket on.

~ By Emily Dickinson

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applebars-squaresdone-small2It’s no revelation to say that routine can be a real buzzkill. And that can be true in any area of our lives. And yet, many of us are confined by the strictures of work, family, chores, etc. A fair amount of our scheduled days is necessarily and simply unavoidably routinized.

But what about some of that other time? I have been noticing lately how much of certain nights is all packaged up ever-so-neatly around the TV. Very American, yes? Truly I am not all that into TV the way I realize a lot of people are, but still … I have my favorites that I like to catch. However, I will find myself parked there, watching something relatively inane that has been sandwiched in between some things I really like. Why am I watching it?

I decided to take a harder look at what I’m watching and … decided to skip a bunch of it. Dumping the telly for a good book. Yeah, I remember that. Sunday afternoon I came home from a picnic with the plan of baking something – had all the ingredients already on the counter and everything. (Ergo the photos you see.) But I wasn’t feeling it, so did some other things, yet was still aware of he clock ticking. Who starts baking after 7 p.m. with work looming on Monday? Well, I guess that was me.

applebars-prep2

The dry and other basic ingredients are gathered; the butter and egg at room temperature. Ready to start.

And that’s what made me think of/remember the importance of mixing it up. Even on the small stuff. Was there really anything so pressing on TV? Did I feel like watching the Netflix movie that was waiting? No and no. Why not go ahead and bake even if it’s getting late? Who cares how long it takes? (It was cooled off by 10:00 p.m. – Double Apple Bars. Yum.)

applebars-donecuttingapples2

The apples are pared and cubed. There are 2 cups of apples to about 1-1/2 cups of batter. Very apple-y.
I gave my favorite Macouns a try in this recipe.

We all get so comfortable doing what we’re used to. I’m at the point where I really need to mix it up more – need to feel inspired, have fun, try some new things, go back to some old ones I haven’t done in a while. I don’t know that I’ve actually been bored, but I do know that I have, in too many ways, succumbed to routines. How about you?

I just got a funny image of Bugs Bunny. “What’s up, doc?” he always said. What’s up? Well, I don’t know – what say we go find out.

applebars-squaresdone2

They taste like apple pie in a bar – moist, spicy and full of apple flavor. The pecans are yummy as an addition.

 

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We all know that reading has incalculable benefits of every kind. And although it seemed so obvious when I read an article about fiction readers having more empathy, it never had occurred to me that way.

girlreadingtodog2

It makes perfect sense that as we read about the experiences and feelings of others, putting ourselves into their shoes, we consider these things from an entirely different perspective. But now science is bearing out that each time we’ve opened a book of fiction we have been learning to understand and empathize with others in real life from when we first began to read.

Scientists have determined these results through studying the effects of reading on the brain through MRIs, polls, surveys and experiments. And when the book is more challenging, it helps us become smarter as well as more empathetic.

An example comes to mind. Some time ago I read Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris. Hannibal Lecter was a monster with no conscience and terrified many a reader of this novel. Later on I picked up the “prequel”, if you will, of this book, Red Dragon. What truly blew my mind about this book is that Harris, in describing the cruel childhood of Hannibal Lecter, actually made me feel understanding and empathy towards him. No small feat, but a comment on the power of the well-written word to do just what science is now proving – reading fiction engenders empathy towards others, even in as extreme a case as this one, and this was a character of fiction. The implications of how this translates to the real world are immense.

So all you readers and writers of fiction – forge on. You are making the world a better place.

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