“Together We Will Go” by J. Michael Straczynski

Together we will go

Genre: Contemporary Fiction
Publisher: Gallery/Scout Press
Pub. Date: July 6, 2021

While reading the book I was not aware that J. Micahel Straczynski, is the co-creator of many TV shows including “Babylon 5: The Lost Tales.” Even without this knowledge, I could tell that he is a talented and funny writer.  “Together We Will Go” is a tragic comedy.  I say this because the novel looks at the reasons why people commit suicide yet, the author will make you laugh time and time again.  He manages to do this without taking away from the seriousness of the subject matter. For example, the main narrator is a failed novelist with tons of student debt and a degree in writing that pretty much is useless for paying the bills. He thinks, merely coming from Jersey is reason enough to off yourself. If you know any New Jersey jokes, how do you not laugh and that?

The premise of the story is just plain weird.  A group of strangers come together, through the classifieds, for a bus trip where the destination is death. They intend to go somewhere pretty and then drive the bus over a cliff.  The idea is to not die alone. Straczynski gets the reader to ignore how unbelievable the plotline is by making his characters relatable, human. You can probably find a little bit of yourself in each of them. The only condition to join the death bus is that each rider must journal his/her reasons for wanting to die. Each journal reads like a case study on the character. Some journals are so deep and thought provoking they could have been novels by themselves. Among others, the reader will meet, a person living in chronic pain who just can’t take it anymore, a party-loving bipolar woman who cannot be stabilized with medication, a terminally ill man with a hole in his heart that turns his skin blue, and a gentle soul who is mentally ill and wants to die with his dying cat. They are all hoping that their next life will be a better one. The author does not clump his characters together. He makes them individuals. Some characters believe that they will be going to heaven or hell, others think that they will be reincarnated while others feel that they will return to earth as lifeless particles of matter.

The novel is narrated in a gutsy way that forces the reader to pay attention. Think “A Visit from the Goon Squad” by Jennifer Egan. Egan had a PowerPoint presentation, but Straczynski has journals, texts, emails, voicemails, and audio recordings. As expected, all characters become endearing to the reader. Nevertheless, don’t expect a Hollywood ending. This is an intelligent, bizarre, and sad story that will make you think that the characters are your friends. You may even go back and reread some of the journals. Sometimes, the tale is a bit too much for my taste. Such as when they break into a mall, cause why not. They are going to die anyway. While inside they do whatever they want, so all hell breaks loose. Even though this is hard to buy (like where are the police?) I did chuckle when an obese girl whacks a stick-wide mannequin, which no real woman looks like while telling the mannequin that she needs to eat a ham sandwich. “Together We Will Go” is not making light of suicide.  What the author does do is explore those intense emotions that can become deadly. He just does this in a Monty Python kind of way. He uses humor to show us what it looks like to be depressed, or have suicidal ideation, and how anyone can be vulnerable to suicide. The book closes with The National Suicide Prevention Hotline.
 
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“Dark Roads” by Chevy Stephens

Dark Roads

Genre: Mystery & Thriller
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
Pub. Date: August 3, 2021

The only part of this novel that I truly enjoyed was the prologue and the epilogue since they are similar to a book I did enjoy, “These Lovely Bones” by Alice Sebold. In both books a teenage girl who, after being raped and murdered, watches from heaven as her family and friends struggle to move on with their lives while she comes to terms with her death.  In this crime thriller, teenage girls and young women who may have hitchhiked on a deserted country road, which is frequently used by truck drivers, go missing. Stephens does a good job of scaring us with the highway description as well as the whole setting in this logging-town. I felt empathy for the girl who lost her father whom she was extremely close to since her mother had passed. Now a 17-year-old orphan, she goes to live with her aunt and uncle where life there is intolerable for her. She runs away and becomes another missing female. Other main characters are the sister of the girl who was murdered and found on the dreaded highway from hell. She comes to town searching for answers. There is also a young man in the storyline who seems to be thrown into the tale so there is a love interest. As an older woman, I am guessing his character is there for young female readers.

Then the story morphs into a violent, kidnapping tale with characters that appear to be Wonder Woman-like. I say this because in between the horrendous torture that the two women experience they still manage to have cheeky comeback dialogue.  This didn’t feel believable considering all the mental and physical anguish they went through.  I get what the author was aiming for—empowered females. But the writing comes off as if the message is ‘serial killers should never mess with kickass young women’. This is the real reason for my not being keen on the full novel. Still, I did appreciate the book’s message that needs to be told, and that the novel is based on a true story. Stephens even gives the reader phone numbers and websites with information on women who have gone missing and never found. Still, this novel simply wasn’t for me.  However, it may be for you.

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“Unspoken” by Rebecca Chianese

Genre: Women’s FictionUnspoken
Publisher: Eifrig Publishing
Pub. Date: April 25, 2021

Sexual abuse is a challenging subject to write about in fiction. “Unspoken” is an empowering story about breaking the silence of the assault on girls and women without making it too hard for the reader to digest. I never felt that I needed to skim paragraphs even while reading the darker moments.  Still, the author makes sure that the reader sees the unhealthy results of when victims do not tell of the abuse and/or represses their memories.  Chianese manages this feat by also giving the reader a plotline that is not only about sexual abuse.  The story is also about the strength of female friendship and just how powerful ordinary women can be. The reader meets four women who develop an unlikely friendship. Their friendship is improbable because they are all very different from one another. At the beginning of the story, motherhood and their book club are the only connections that they have to each other.

The women’s differences are written in a witty manner that lets me see each character clearly in my head.  One is a mother whose house is always in a chaotic state.  She refers to her mudroom as her kid’s ‘fight club.’ What mom cannot relate to that? This woman is a bit quirky and is involved with pagan witchcraft.  However, her practice will make the reader chuckle more than make us wonder about her religious sanity. She prays to a goddess that is both Greek and Jewish, as she is, to give her the grace and patience to get through another book club night without too much eye-rolling.

Then another woman is a perfectionist.  Her home is pristine, color coordinated and expensively furnished. Everything inside her home, as well as herself, is designed for guests to oh and ah over.  Of course, on the night she hosts the book club food and drink are selected to coordinate with the book the ladies will be discussing.  Yet, she too is an endearing character.  Don’t we all try to impress others on our social media posts?  Don’t we all want our lives to present just a bit nicer than it is?

Another book club friend once worked as a school librarian. She made serious rules for the club that scared away possible members. Another lighthearted moment for the reader. But, have no fear for boring discussions, wine is also one of the rules. Lastly, there is a divorced woman who is co-parenting with her ex and his new wife. By chance, the new wife happens to be her lawyer. I thought that was too much to be believed.  Women’s fiction is not a favorite genre of mine. I find that it can get too close to chick-lit for my taste. And, the ending is almost always wrapped up in a bow. But, this is how the author masterly sets her stage to incorporate abuse and female friendship dynamics into the storyline.  Yes, the dialogue between the different personalities creates amusing banter and works as a buffer in between reading the novel’s more difficult sections. Still, the women are inspirationally fierce when all four bond together to understand why one of their daughters has been acting out. They are blind-sighted to learn the reason and then they fight like hell for her.

The author nails all the confusing emotions that sexually abused children experience.  Such as, how a thirteen-year-old girl may believe she enjoys the sex with an adult male. Think “Lolita”. Or how a girl can be mentally traumatized by witnessing a friend’s dark secret and keeping it to herself. In a way, “Unspoken” is also a coming-of-age story that does a good job in showing us how trauma causes toxic dissociation, and all the turmoil that comes with it. Her story also shows us the steps to take that can lead to healing from the assault/s. It takes a talented author to write on such an uncomfortable subject that can still make the reader laugh in between tears of shock, rage, and pain.

Unfortunately, unlike in this novel parents are not always receptive to believing their children.  Some mothers live in a world of denial thereby preventing them from intervening to protect their child or children. On the back cover of the book, there is the websitewww.hopesdoorny.org for an agency that advocates for survivors of sexual assault. Shouldn’t all of us do something to end violence against girls and women? Even in this #MeToo era, we still need a reminder that it is all our jobs to keep our children safe.

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“The Midnight Library” by Matt Haig

The Midnight Library

Genre: Literary/Women’s Fiction
Publisher: Penguin Random House
Pub. Date: Feb. 11, 2021

For someone who loves to read in the wee hours of the morning, how could I not want to read a book with the title, “The Midnight Library?” The novel did not disappoint. It reminded me of the film, “It’s a Wonderful Life.” The book is marketed as literary/women’s fiction.  This reviewer did not think it was either. It is more of a fantasy and feel-good read. The fact that this is a heartwarming tale is interesting because the novel begins with a young woman who has just overdosed on purpose. She wakes up to find herself not in heaven or hell but an immensely large magical library.  Did I mention that she is an avid reader and spent most of her childhood in a library?  Yes, there is a connection. It turns out that this library is the place people go when they find themselves dangling between life and death and not entirely sure about which way to go. I get that a religious person would take issue with this concept. However, if you believe in quantum physics and that we live in multiple universes at the same time you will be thrilled to know that there are other believers out there.  There is even mention of Schrödinger’s cat. It is okay if you never heard of the cat it will be explained to you.

In this magical library, our protagonist meets a kindly librarian who shows her her very own “book of regrets.” We all have them. Now here comes the fantasy. She jumps into each life where she could make a different choice than she did before and that would lead her to a happier existence. In one life, she is a rock star, in another, she is an Olympic Swimmer. In yet another, she is a happily married wife and mother. Still, she doesn’t care to live any of these better lives because it becomes clear that she doesn’t know what she wants. At first reading her alternate lives were fun. Who hasn’t wished they could jump into another life? But, after a while, it becomes tedious to read one after another. I would have been happier with fewer lives. Still, the author manages to keep the story fun because when entering a new life she knows nothing of this life. But, everyone knows her.  She must look for herself online, read her social media accounts, to know who she exactly is in this particular life, which creates humorous dialogue as we observe her winging it.

The author seems to be saying that the universe is full of infinite possibilities, but the story here remains tightly focused on the life of a single woman and all her might-have-been lives. Once you finish the book, or probably before, the moral of the story becomes obvious.  “Oh, Auntie Em – there’s no place like home!” My only real issue in this tale was thinking about people who lost someone to suicide.  How painful it could be reading this fantasy and wishing that their loved one could have also time-traveled to come back to life. Overall, it is clear that Haig pushes her readers to ponder his or her own book of regrets, and make us wonder what we can do to keep from making the same mistakes again. He gets his point across very well.

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“The Drowning Kind” by Jennifer McMahon

Genre: Mystery & ThrillerThe Drowning Kind
Publisher: Gallery Books
Pub. Date: April 6, 2021

Itsy-Bitsy Review

The book’s genre is marketed as mystery and thriller. It is much more a supernatural tale with a creepy and atmospheric feel. However, the plot is farcical at best. Plus, the novel’s entire story is pretty much told in the blurb. Furthermore, it is easy to figure out how the characters in the 1929-1930s are connected to the characters in the present.  This is why I was surprised that I finished the novel.  What kept my interest is that I was intrigued on how the author changes a haunted house story into a haunted body of water tale. Although I didn’t care for this novel, I may try the author again.

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“This Aint No Normal Fire!” by Gerry Stanek

Fire Cover

Genre: Short Story Collection
Publisher: Bituminous Press
Pub. Date: March 29, 2021

“This Ain’t No Normal Fire!,” is a collection of short stories set in the 20th century. The shorts all revolve around a fictional Pennsylvania coal mining town named Plattsville. This book is the second in a series although it can be read as a stand-alone collection. When I received this Advanced Review Copy (ARC), I saw that the author, Gerry Stanek, received praise on his first Plattsville stories from the respected author, Peter Orner. I was expecting stories that would be similar to Jennifer Haigh’s, “Heat and Light” and “Baker Towers.” Novels that I enjoyed, which are also about America’s industrial coal mining past in Pennsylvania.  Is this a good comparison? It is and it isn’t.

Some stories were what I expected. The author gives us an intimate view of individual marriages, dramas, and violence that play out against the backdrop of a gritty coal-mining town.  I also found something that I was not expecting. This collection had me thinking of the unconventional, often experimental writer, George Saunders. The first story, or possibly it is a prologue, is entitled “Fire.” There are no characters, nor a setting.  The writing seems to be philosophical thoughts written in a stream of consciousness. It gives the reader a hint of the stories’ themes—love, life, survival, and death. 

Next comes, “1922,” which doesn’t seem to have anything to do with mining but still captures the underbelly of some mining workers’ culture, complete with men who like beer, whisky, and partake in wife beating. The main character is an unnamed priest who has a crush, really a sexual obsession, on the beautiful Mrs. Dietrich. She is a parishioner who happens to be married to a brute. It is an interesting story that hits a nerve regarding how we can all be vulnerable without being aware of it. I was surprised that it left me with strong emotions of empathy for the priest.

In “Union Supporter,” we meet John Sokol who will appear along with his eldest son, Joseph, in interconnected stories throughout the book.  In “Supporter,” I hit upon the sort of tale that I have always appreciated: fictional yet filled with facts that were previously unknown to me. We learn that John was concerned about Ku Klux Klan meetings that were happening near his town. The author makes John endearing to the reader by letting us know that naïve John admits that he didn’t know much about the KKK. He only knew that they were troublemakers who hated Catholics. We get a good feel into what makes this character tick. John was born in Poland and found work in the Pennsylvania mines. In the great flu of 1918, John loses his wife leaving him with four young boys. In a search for a mother for his existing brood, he goes to a church social. There he meets his second wife. They have a baby daughter but the father of the baby is questionable. With threadbare writing (the opposite of “Fire”), the author makes sure your sympathies are with John and not with his second wife.

In “Union Riot,” John’s son, Joseph is a young adult.  He helps put out a fire on the lawn of an Italian church that was started by the KKK. “Riot” is not a long short story. Still, it is an expository piece that gets under your skin with limited pages. The author writes on Joesph’s calloused hands fighting the coppers, who were using their billy clubs on those who were trying to put out the fire. He talks of the sort of bravery that can lead young men to an early death. He uses the word ‘fire’ as a metaphor to talk about the abject poverty where people are living in wood shanties without fire for heat or cooking meals. Stanek puts you intimately inside the oppressive Tammany Hall-like politics that took place in the old coal mining towns.

We find the book’s title, “This Ain’t No Normal Fire,” in the story “Gratification.” Here Joseph is at the Polish Legion for a dinner where the attendees are young single Catholics. The event reminded me of the wedding scene in the movie, “The Deer Hunter.” There is a strong flavor of the ethnic background of the guests. Everyone is working class, a bit drunk, and hoping to dance with someone cute. Here we see a darker side of Joseph. Patty, who is a pretty girl at the dinner, catches his eye. Joe is on his best behavior and is a complete gentleman with her. However, when they go to a Halloween party he drinks too much, which brings out his self-doubt, depression, and anger regarding the circumstances of his lifestyle. He thinks about heat, oxygen, and fuel, which is the face of the fire that he cannot escape.  Just as he can never be rid of the black coal dust embedded underneath his fingernails or in his lungs.

Besides coal, the author brings into his damp and dark stories the immigrant experience, religious bigotry, betrayal, love, hate, goodness, evil, and sometimes a bittersweet sort of hope.  I get the feeling that the author is saying that his characters believe that it is better to quietly survive, even if it’s on the bare minimum, than to give up.  For instance, John makes the best of his loveless marriage. I had a hard time reviewing this short story collection. It is well written and reads a bit offbeat. It frequently allows symbolism to tell its tales and is sometimes written in poetic prose.  However, I am someone who enjoys uncomplicated storytelling. What immediately comes to my mind is the classic “How Green Was My Valley,” which was also about a coal mining family. Of course, not everyone can write a future classic. So another example of the type that I enjoy can be found in the memoir and film, “The Coal Miners Daughter.”  So, this book was not a good fit for me. However, this is Stanek’s third novel. I am sure he will find his audience.

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“Sisters” by Daisy Johnson

Sisters

Genre: Gothic fiction
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group 
Pub. Date: August 13, 2020

Mini-Review

The cover suggests a story about mental illness, which it is.   However, it is also has a gothic plot, and I do love my gothic reads. Still, I think will I need a break from twisted plots for a while. One can suggest that the novel is part horror and part mystical. A mother and her two teenage daughters are fleeing their home because of an unspecified tragedy that happened while the girls were at school. They move from Oxford to a broken-down house on the Moors.  The sort of house that gothic reads are made of, “The empty house, owned by the girls’ aunt, is ramshackle, and not in a charming way: It sags and bulges, “squatting” in a mess of broken roof tiles, old scaffolding, thorn bushes, and sheep excrement.”  I found the writing style a nice surprise. Because this is a dark read, I was not expecting the writing to often be filled with stream-of-conciseness verses. “Sleep is heavy, without corners, dreamless…My throat is dry like sand. I swallow and swallow. Peel myself up.”  “Sisters” is a hard read filled with domestic abuse between the sisters. If you can get through that, you will be able to enjoy the ending’s “shocking” twist.  I did guess it when the girls lose their virginity, but I was never sure until I finished the book. If you do read this one, let me know if you too guessed correctly.

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“The Truth About Melody Browne” by Lisa Jewell

Genre: Domestic Fiction SuspenseThe Truth about Melody
Publisher: Gallery Books
Pub. Jan. 26, 2021

Mini-Review

This novel had me until it lost me. The story revolves around Melody Browne.  At the age of nine years old, her house burns down. The fire not only took her home but all of her childhood memories. The story goes back and forth in time.  In the present, Melody is in her early thirties. She is a single mom living with her almost 18-year old son.   Before his birthday, she begins to get flashbacks of her youth, which are filled with Dickson-like tragedy.  She is very confused by these flashbacks.  She is anxious to understand what is going on. The author’s writing makes the reader also eager to fill in the gaps of Melody’s past that have as many holes as a slice of Swiss cheese.  There are some good twists in those holes as Melody, in bits and pieces, regains her memory. Nevertheless, once I reached the end of the novel, the story-line lost me.  The author wraps her tale up with a bow.  Worse, the novel begins to have a chick-lit rather than suspense feel. The ending needed much more meat on its bones to be fulfilling. A friend wanted to know my thoughts on this novel.  I would say that I am glad that I read the book because Melody’s life is a moving story of a child who needed to disassociate her past to keep her sanity.

“The Truth About Melody Browne” by Lisa Jewell

Genre: Domestic Fiction Suspense

Publisher: Gallery Books

Pub. Jan. 26, 20

Mini-Review

This novel had me until it lost me. The story revolves around Melody Browne.  At the age of nine years old, her house burns down. The fire not only took her home but all of her childhood memories. The story goes back and forth in time.  In the present, Melody is in her early thirties. She is a single mom living with her almost 18-year old son.   Before his birthday, she begins to get flashbacks of her youth, which are filled with Dickson-like tragedy.  She is very confused by these flashbacks.  She is anxious to understand what is going on. The author’s writing makes the reader also eager to fill in the gaps of Melody’s past that have as many holes as a slice of Swiss cheese.  There are some good twists in those holes as Melody, in bits and pieces, regains her memory. Nevertheless, once I reached the end of the novel, the story-line lost me.  The author wraps her tale up with a bow.  Worse, the novel begins to have a chick-lit rather than suspense feel. The ending needed much more meat on its bones to be fulfilling. A friend wanted to know my thoughts on this book.  I would say that I am glad that I read the book because Melody’s life is a moving story of a child who needed to disassociate her past to keep her sanity. Still, the book could have used some editing, which would have made for a better read.

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“The Push” by Claire McGowan

Genre: Mystery & ThrillersThe Push
Publisher:  Amazon UK
Pub. Date: Nov. 12, 2020

Itsy Bitsy Review

Four women and their partners meet for prenatal meetings.  The characters are all different and interesting. Some you will like and some you will not care for in a big way.  Would you want to hang out with a racist, a homophobic, an ageist, an enabler, or a classist? I promise they are all not like that. Some will break your heart. After the babies are born there is a reunion at an over the top mansion of the richest in the group. Someone is pushed over a balcony and dies. Does the plot sound familiar—yup for me. This novel is a “Big Little Lies,” wannabe. If you ignore all the isims it can read as a good thriller but I have already read this story just with a different name. The ‘woman’ investigator, again like “Lies” is having problems conceiving, which influences her judgment on the suspects.  Okay, a nice touch, and there are twists (not too hard to guess) but I still think this is a wannabe novel.

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“Leave the World Behind” by Rumaan Alam

Genre: Literary Fictions           Leave The World Behind
Publisher:  Harper
Pub.Date: Oct. 6, 2020

How does a reviewer review this very interesting but strange story? We meet a white, middle-class family who lives in Brooklyn. They are renting an AirB&B in the Hamptons for what they hope will be a dream vacation. I start the novel wondering, is this a beach read? They experience that familiar wish of hoping that the vacation will never end.  As the saying goes, “be careful what you wish for.” Halfway through their vacation, just when they get that feeling that the house is ‘their’ luxurious home, they hear a knock at the door. The intruders are an elderly black couple. They explain that this is their home.  They were staying in NYC but returned early since the city is having a major blackout.  They are hoping to live in their basement apartment until the renters’ lease ends. The white couple does not believe them and the wife is scared of them.  Okay, this must be a suspense story.  However, when the white wife thinks, “those people didn’t look like the sort to own such a beautiful house,” she reveals a glimpse of her white supremacy that she has no idea is a part of her.  Now my thoughts are that this will be a tale about confronting racism. Then the theme changes again.  Both couples begin to realize that the renters cannot go home until the lights are back on in the city. They recognize that they may be stuck living together for a while. Therefore, both couples are desperately trying to like one another, to gain trust, to become friends. You can feel the racial awkwardness between them. Now, the dialogue had me laughing out loud.  Okay, this is a comedy.   Sort of an edgy “Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner.”  

Although the author is very coy about mixing the genres there is one that finally emerges as dominant: the end of the world. The theme is actually an end of the world story.  This is a dystopian novel!  Here Alam is a master at building his character’s mild fears that grow into full-blown panic. There never was any cell phone reception at the Hampton house, but now they can’t get the TV or radio to work either.  They are desperate for some news that will explain what is going on.  When they can’t find an explanation their imaginations run wild. They become scared. The renting husband goes to the market to buy food, and to see if anyone knows anything.  However, there is no one in town other than a terrified woman who doesn’t speak English. Now in full panic mode, they begin to feel that this is a showdown between good and evil: very Stephen King-like. Both couples are not sure in which category they lay. Together they speculate that this is more than a blackout.  Is it a terrorist attack, or an alien invasion?  Are humanity’s centuries of abusing the planet finally catching up with us? Will we blow up in a million pieces?  I thought their panic jumped to terror too quickly, making it hard to believe the rest of the novel.  I am not sure if that was the author’s intention or not.  I am guessing that Alam was putting up a mirror to the face of America’s persistent insecurity regarding change. 

There is a similarity between this book and the 1959 movie, “On The Beach,” where after a global nuclear war all on earth know that they are about to die. However, oddly, this is a disaster novel without a disaster.  The best I can do is suggest that you think of the last episode of “The Sopranos.”  I was surprised to learn that “Leave the World Behind” was written before the COVID crisis.  Kind of weird how this weird novel taps brilliantly into the feeling of generalized panic that we have due to COVID, which pronounces our fears about climate change, financial inequality, government, and racism.   Overall, the author manages to bring humor into a story about shock and despair. This feat explains why the book won the 2020 National Book Award in fiction.  Going back to my genre confusion, I would say that this book is a literary apocalyptic novel that is confusing yet fascinating. If you don’t enjoy bizarre reads you might want to stay away from this one. However, I should also tell you that I am not a fan of bizarre but I still enjoyed this book.  Meaning you may want to give this novel a shot.

I received this Advance Review Copy (ARC) novel from the publisher at no cost in exchange for an honest review

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I received this Advance Review Copy (ARC) novel from the publisher at no cost in exchange for an honest review

Find all my book reviews at:

https://www.goodreads.com/review/list…https://books6259.wordpress.com/https://
http://www.barnesandnoble.co/review…https://www.facebook.com/martie.neesr…https://www.instagram.com/martie6947/
https://twitter.com/NeesRecord
https://www.amazon.com/
https://www.pinterest.com/martienreco…