The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

The Underground Railroad
by
Colson Whitehead

Rating:

Cora is a young slave on the Randall cotton plantation in antebellum Georgia when Caesar approaches her with a plan to escape. He tells her she will be his good luck charm, but he’s picked her because he knows she can make it. Cora’s strong and determined personality will help them escape the brutal treatment they can no longer endure. And as a young woman, she is now defenseless against Terrance Randall’s abuse. Cora’s mother, Mabel ran for her own freedom when Cora was a girl. Now Cora is an outcast living on the plantation’s “hob,” a place where slaves are banished by other slaves.

Shortly after they run, they are chased by a group of slave catchers and Cora kills a boy who attacks her. Via the Underground Railroad, they find their way to safety in South Carolina. But something isn’t right and Cora is soon on the run again. And she’s being pursued by a slave catcher named Ridgeway whose reputation is at stake. Ridgeway failed to capture Mabel when she ran. Now he’s determined to succeed and restore Terrance’s confidence in him.

In Whitehead’s interpretation, station agents from a real underground railroad system, built by blacks and white supporters of freedom, help Cora move from state to state. The risks are great for Cora and those who help her and some will pay with their lives.

What do I say about a book like this, read at a time like this? Though Whitehead’s depiction of slavery and oppression is from a grim time in American history where slavery in the south was accepted, his characters’ messages continue to ring true. Cora’s story is a reflection of innumerable stories of how poorly blacks have been treated in this country.

What makes this book excellent is how Whitehead’s characters represent complicated and nuanced views of slavery and oppression.

For example, Colson offers a keen insight into Ridgeway’s belief in what his own father taught him about a Great Spirit. He tells Cora, “All these years later, I prefer the American spirit, the one that called us from the Old World to the New to conquer and build and civilize. And destroy that what needs to be destroyed. To lift up the lesser races. If not lift up, subjugate. And if not subjugate, exterminate. Our destiny by divine prescription—the American imperative.” That’s a scary quote, but these are the shameful words that others throughout history and in present day have spoken.

Cora’s fight for her own freedom is the most central to the story because it represents an imperative for basic human rights. The people who help her, blacks and whites, have varied reasons for helping and for me, offer hope as I relate her story to present time. White shop and saloon owners who live above railroad stations, station agents, and citizens offer help. In particular, Martin Wells, a white station manager in North Carolina, risks his family’s life to hide runaways in his attic, despite his wife’s opposition. His wife, though, is terrified and has her own complicated story. Elijah Lander is a biracial and outspoken abolitionist, who grew up in privilege and uses his stature to make speeches and distribute pamphlets.

One complicated and realistic character is Mingo, a former slave who purchased his own freedom and believes blacks should disassociate themselves from weaker blacks. For Mingo, his cause is his own and his view is narrow.

But the character who tugs at my conscience is John Valentine, a light-skinned Ethiopian who marries a black woman and buys her freedom. He starts a farm in Indiana to help runaways. Valentine explains,

I didn’t grow up the way you did. My mother never feared for my safety. No trader was going to snatch me in the night and sell me South. The whites saw the color of my skin, and that sufficed to let me be. I told myself I was doing nothing wrong, but I conducted myself in ignorance all my days.”

Something in the front of my mind.

Thanks for reading.

 

Book Review: A Hero of France by Alan Furst

A Hero of France
by
Alan Furst

Rating:

If you’re looking for an excellent spy thriller, check out A Hero of France, published in 2016. It’s the first book by Alan Furst I’ve read, but he has written many. Furst is considered the master of historical spy novels and I can see why. In A Hero of France, a man known as Mathieu leads an important cell in the French Resistance. They are helping downed RAF pilots escape occupied France, so that the men can get back in the air and beat the Germans.

There’s nothing complicated about their goal. It’s both practical and patriotic. But no life can be more complex, and dangerous, than the secretive life of a Resistance leader. Set in Paris, in 1941, Mathieu has collected a group of loyal resisters, including an arms dealer/nightclub owner, a teenage girl who works as a bicycle messenger, a wealthy woman of the upper class, a Jewish teacher and a young female aristocrat. On another floor of the abandoned Saint-Yves hotel where Mathieu is based lives Joëlle, who has fallen in love with her mysterious neighbor.

This fast-paced story starts with one successful crossing and progresses into more complex arrangements involving an ace Polish pilot who needs to get back in the war. Mathieu must depend on instinct and nerve to make the right decisions about the contacts he makes. Some are ruthless and some can’t be trusted, including those who say they want to get in the game and a British connection with another agenda. Soon a German investigator is sent to their Paris office, charged with hunting down resisters.

Furst gives readers a good look at Paris during the German occupation, at a time before the United States entered the war. Curfews, blacked out windows, dangerous streets and more dangerous skies set the way of life for all Parisians.

I thoroughly enjoyed this historical story. It’s a quick read and is both entertaining and educational and I recommend it to readers who like historical fiction and stories about spies and intrigue.

I look forward to reading more books by Alan Furst.

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Book Review: A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

A Gentleman in Moscow
by
Amor Towles

Rating:

In 1922, Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov appears before Russia’s Emergency Committee of the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs. It’s all because of a 1913 revolutionary poem published in Rostov’s name, deeming him a threat to the country. Instead of execution or a trip to Siberia, the Committee orders the Count to serve the rest of his days under house arrest at the famous Metropol Hotel in Moscow, where the new Bolshevik regime has taken over the second floor.

Rostov has lived in luxury at the hotel for four years, but his new chambers are in the hotel’s crowded attic and he must abandon most of his belongings. And so begins the Count’s new life within the walls of the hotel.

Rostov may be accustomed to riches, but that hasn’t made him soft. He knows that “if a man does not master his circumstances then he is bound to be mastered by them.”

In a terrific story that spans over thirty years, Rostov redefines his “citizenship” at the hotel, which is the center of Russian history, culture, politics and international travel. And just as the Metropol is the hub of activity, the Count becomes central to many relationships, both personal and political.

From a charming nine-year-old girl, Nina, to a moody chef, an exacting maître d’, a seamstress, a famous actress, politicians, businessmen, an old friend and many others, these relationships expose Rostov to the country’s great social and political upheaval and the Western world’s reaction to it. Insulated from hardship and persecution, the Count may just be “the luckiest man in all of Russia.”

In 1938, Nina returns to the hotel and asks Rostov a great favor, and this is when the Count’s life’s purpose begins. Story lines and relationships take on new meanings as Rostov, now an older man, plans for the future.

I loved every word of this book because it includes all the things I value in a great story: historical setting, passage of time, strong relationships, loss, big themes, and an interconnected plot that comes together by equal amounts of planning and chance.

What a feat for Towles to create such a relatable character as Rostov. Although the Count’s aristocratic life has made him into one man, it’s his ability to adapt and his empathy for people that makes him so endearing. Towles mixes that in with a proper man’s honor, a sentimental soft spot and adventuresome wile, making Rostov’s character one I will think about for years to come.

I highly recommend A Gentleman in Moscow. I was a little late to the party in reading it, but I’m in good company. It made Bill Gates’s top reads of 2019 (see the list here and read his Goodreads review here).

Have you read A Gentleman in Moscow? What did you think?

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Book Club Mom’s great reads of 2019

I read some great books this year. Here’s a list of my favorites!


Before the Fall by Noah Hawley

Is it good luck to survive a plane crash over the Atlantic? Most would think yes, but Scott Burroughs, after a heroic swim to safety, with four-year-old JJ Bateman clinging to his neck, may wonder. Because he will soon find himself caught between competing government agencies searching for a cause and the media’s ruthless pursuit of a story, any story, even if it’s unfounded. Winner of the 2017 Edgar Award for Best Novel and the 2017 International Thriller Writers Award for Best Novel.


In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

Fantastic nonfiction novel, the first of its kind and considered Truman Capote’s masterpiece. The chilling depiction of a senseless 1959 murder of a Kansas family. Capote and his childhood friend, Harper Lee, went to Kansas to research the story and compiled over 8000 pages of notes. They were granted numerous interviews with the murderers, who by then, had confessed and were in jail awaiting trial. They moved to death row after their convictions, where Capote continued to interview them until their hangings. He became particularly attached to Perry Smith and related to his unhappy childhood.


Lab Girl by Hope Jahren

Fantastic memoir about Hope Jahren’s experiences as a scientist. Jahren’s field is plants, especially trees, and her interest in them is contagious. She explains the fascinating way in which they grow, reproduce and adapt. Jahren writes beautifully about her profession, its challenges and about her lonely childhood in Minnesota, college life and early years trying to make it as a scientist.


Less by Andrew Sean Greer

Arthur Less is turning 50 and he’s at the edge of a crisis: his writing career has stalled and his former lover is getting married. To guarantee he’ll be out of the country on the day of the wedding, Less accepts a string of unusual writerly engagements that take him around the world. His goal? Forget lost love and rework the novel his publisher has taken a pass on. In a comedic series of travel mishaps, Less bumbles through this symbolic journey in search of happiness. Winner of the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.


Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan

Set in New York during the Depression and World War II, the story begins with Anna Kerrigan as a young girl whose father has ties to organized crime. She accompanies her father on an errand and meets a mysterious man with powerful connections and won’t fully understand the impact until years later. I highly recommend Manhattan Beach to readers who like historical fiction and big stories with strong female characters.


Notes from a Public Typewriter – edited by Michael Gustafson and Oliver Uberti

Guaranteed to put you in a good mood, about the Literati Bookstore in Ann Arbor, Michigan, owned by Gustafson and his wife, Hilary. When they set up the store in 2013, they put out a typewriter, with paper, for anyone to use. It wasn’t long before customers began to type random, sometimes whimsical and often heartfelt messages for all to see. This book is the combined story of these messages.


Refugee by Alan Gratz

Terrific Young Adult historical novel about three refugee children, caught in different periods of conflict, who flee their countries in search of safety and a better life. In alternating stories, the children face unpredictable danger as they desperately try to keep their families together. Each discovers that, by being invisible, they escape many dangers, but miss chances for others to help them. Published in 2017 Refugee is now included in many middle and high school curriculums. A New York Times Notable Book, an Amazon Best Book of the Year, and both Kirkus Reviews and Publishers Weekly Best Books of the Year.


Sounds Like Titanic by Jessica Chiccehitto Hindman

Great memoir about a woman who is hired to play violin in a prestigious touring orchestra, only to discover that the microphones are turned off. What’s turned on is a $14.95 CD player from Walmart, playing a recorded version of a composer’s music, performed by other musicians. The music sounds suspiciously like, but a strategic note or two different from, the score of the popular 1997 film, Titanic.


Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens

Kya Clark is six years old when her mother walks out of their shack, a place hidden in the marshes of North Carolina, where racial tension and small-town prejudices are firmly in place in the nearby coastal town of Barkley Cove. Soon her father’s abusive rages drive Kya’s older siblings away, leaving only Kya and her father. Then one day it’s just Kya, known in town and shunned as the wild Marsh Girl. The story begins in 1952 and jumps to 1969, when a young man has died. In alternating chapters, readers learn Kya’s story of survival and how she becomes part of the investigation into his death.


What books were your favorites in 2019? Leave a comment and share your best!

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Book Club Mom’s top 20 historical fiction books

Image: Pixabay

Historical fiction is one of my favorite reading genres, and I know I’m not alone! Here’s a list of my top 20 historical fiction books:

A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson
A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr


The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín
Burial Rites by Hannah Kent


Days Without End by Sebastian Barry
Fever 1793 by Laurie Halse Anderson
Girl with a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier


The Hours Count by Jillian Cantor
Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck


Life After Life by Kate Atkinson
The Light Between Oceans by M. L. Stedman
Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan


Mary Coin by Marisa Silver
Refugee by Alan Gratz
The Swans of Fifth Avenue by Melanie Benjamin


To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy


Some definitions of historical fiction state that the book needs to be set 25-50 years prior to when it is published and that most of the novel’s concept and background should be based on the author’s research of the time period. There is some debate over certain books, like To Kill a Mockingbird, which was published 24 years after the time period and The Grapes of Wrath, in which the characters represent “nameless thousands.” I have always considered both historical fiction. What do you think? Are there any books on my list that don’t fit the definition? Check out the links below for further discussion.

bookriot.com
study.com on To Kill a Mockingbird
study.com on The Grapes of Wrath
wikipedia.org
What is historical fiction and does it have to be totally accurate?

What are your favorite historical fiction books?

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Refugee by Alan Gratz

Refugee
by
Alan Gratz

Rating:

I don’t know where to begin in gushing about this Young Adult historical novel about three refugee children, caught in different periods of conflict, who flee their countries in search of safety and a better life.

Josef is twelve years old in 1938, living in Berlin, Germany. Hitler is driving Jewish families like his out of the country. To escape, he and his family leave their home and board the St. Louis for Cuba, where they hope to find safety.

Isabel is eleven in Havana, Cuba when her family climbs into a makeshift boat and heads for Miami, Florida. Extreme poverty and dangerous riots have left them no choice. The year is 1994 and Fidel Castro has just announced that anyone who wants to leave is free to go. But will they be welcomed in Miami?

Mahmoud is twelve, living in Aleppo, Syria. It is 2015 and his home has just been destroyed, the result of an ongoing vicious civil war. He and his family take what they can and depart for Turkey, the first of many stops, hoping to make their way to safety in Germany.

In alternating stories, Josef, Isabel and Mahmoud face unpredictable danger and catastrophe as they desperately try to keep their families together. They learn hard lessons on how to choose between being visible and invisible. Each discovers that, by being invisible, they escape many dangers, but miss chances for others to help them. Not knowing when to hide and when to speak out, Mahmoud realizes, “good and bad things happened either way.”

All three children are forced to act as leaders, when family members are hurt or weakened. Gratz describes these heartbreaking transformations in which each understands that they must choose, often quickly, and act on their new-adult instincts in order to save their loved ones.

Although the children are from different times, Gratz has connected their stories through the shared experiences and emotions of leaving their homelands and traveling by boat and foot. Surprise connections make this story even more meaningful.

Refugee was published in 2017 and has gained momentum to be included in many middle and high school curriculums. It is a New York Times Notable Book, an Amazon Best Book of the Year, and both Kirkus Reviews and Publishers Weekly Best Books of the Year. Although it is a Young Adult book, I highly recommend it for all readers because it shows, for all of us, the importance of understanding the desperate plights that refugees have suffered.

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We Are All Good People Here by Susan Rebecca White

We Are All Good People Here
by
Susan Rebecca White

Rating:

What’s the best way to make things right? From within the system or something more drastic? This story about friendship and social change begins in 1962 when Daniella Gold and Eve Whalen become roommates at Belmont College in Roanoke, Virginia. Eve, a future debutante, is from a wealthy family in Atlanta and at home with the established southern ways. Daniella is half-Jewish and from a middle class family in Washington, D.C. Despite their differences, they become fast friends.

The girls begin their journey down widening paths when they learn about their dormitory maid’s hours and living conditions. Eve, despite having a black maid at home, is appalled and feels she must act immediately. Daniella, a careful thinker, thinks there are better ways to help. This is the first of many moments with surprise results that cause friction in the young women’s friendship.

We Are All Good People Here spans thirty years of ups and downs. Set in Virginia, New York and Atlanta, during a period of protests about racial inequality and the Vietnam War, Eve and Daniella both believe they can make a difference. While Daniella prefers to work through the system, Eve hooks up with groups that are ready to take action, and as time passes, becomes more radical in her beliefs as she aligns with violent revolutionaries.

Chasms widen and are then bridged as Eve and Daniella become mothers. Good times are peppered with tragedy and loss, with new pressures on their friendship. Throughout, White’s characters suffer, rebound and emerge in different ways.

While I enjoyed reading this historical novel, I felt the characters were flat and stereotyped, playing second fiddle to the author’s attempt at including as many historical references as she could. That said, I learned a few new things about this time period. I just felt it could have been better balanced.

I also thought the cover was misleading. I enjoyed the optical illusion and was attracted to the book right away, but I did not see how the image, which seems very modern, related to the story.

We Are All Good People is a fast read and highlights an important period of American history and social change.

Want more reviews? Here’s one reader who loved it and one who felt the same as I did. Check them out!

“An extraordinary book that spans generations, explores momentous times in American history, and gives readers a in-depth look into complex family relationships.” We Are All Good People Here by Susan Rebecca White @SimonSchusterCA #HistoricalFiction #Review #BookBlogger

We Are All Good People Here By Susan Rebecca White Demonstrates Her Spectacular Historical Research… But What Happened To The Story? ARC Review- Released 8/6

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Book Club Mom’s summer recommendations – grab a book and some fresh air!

Image: Pixabay

Summer reads have a certain feel about them and grabbing the right book can take you back to when you had long lazy days stretching out in front of you. Now, for many of us, it’s more a matter of creating the mood of an endless summer. So steal an hour, find a nice place in a park, in your yard or even at home with the windows open, and dig into a book that will grab you right away. Here are some recommendations to help you choose:


Dig Right In

The American Heiress by Daisy Goodwin – light, entertaining historical fiction during the late 1800s when billionaire American families match their daughters with cash-poor dukes and princes in need of American money.

The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells by Andrew Sean Greer – set in Greenwich Village, NY, Greta discovers her 1985 self living in two other time periods, one in 1918 and one in 1941.

The Swans of Fifth Avenue by Melanie Benjamin – historical fiction and fascinating portrait of Truman Capote and his distinct sides, as both pet and confidante to the New York upper class, and serious writer.

Things We Set on Fire by Deborah Reed – great story about a mother who believes she is doing the right thing, but can’t see its impact until decades later.


Family Dramas

A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler – a complicated family from Baltimore, full of secrets and an unacknowledged division between its members.

Commonwealth by Ann Patchett – great family saga that begins in the 1960s with six kids from two different families, thrown together because of an affair, a divorce and then a marriage.

The Vacationers by Emma Straub – light beach read about a dysfunctional family on a trip from Manhattan to Spain for some forced family vacation fun.

When I Found You by Catherine Ryan Hyde – a man goes duck hunting and finds an abandoned baby boy in the woods, changing his life in unimaginable ways.


Historical Fiction

Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín – classic tale about post-war immigration from Ireland to America.

The Hours Count by Jillian Cantor – set in NY in 1950 during the Red Scare, the story of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, arrested for spying for the Russians.

Miss Emily by Nuala O’Connor – biographical novel about Emily Dickinson and a fictional coming-of-age story about her young Irish maid.

The Paris Wife by Paula McLain – a look at Ernest Hemingway’s first wife, Elizabeth Hadley Richardson and their six-year marriage, spent mostly in Paris.


Secrets and Suspense

The Dry by Jane Harper – atmospheric thriller set on the edge of the Australia’s bushland during a devastating drought.

Elizabeth Is Missing by Emma Healey – an old woman on the edge of dementia falls into a confused world of memories and suspicions, certain that her friend Elizabeth is missing.

The Flight Attendant by Chris Bohjalian – a flight attendant wakes up after a night of heavy drinking and discovers she is in bed with a man who has been brutally murdered.

We Were Liars by E. Lockhart – Young Adult story about mysterious events of one summer, forcing a family through painful changes.


I hope you find a good place to escape for a bit. What will you read?

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A Duty to the Dead by Charles Todd

A Duty to the Dead
by
Charles Todd

Rating:

If you’re looking for an entertaining historical mystery, you’ll enjoy A Duty to the Dead, a story set in England during World War I. This is the first book of the Bess Crawford Mysteries, written by a mother-son duo, who introduce Bess as a highly skilled young nurse aboard the doomed HMHS Britannic. Bess narrowly escapes death when the ship hits a mine and soon an unfulfilled promise to a soldier on an earlier ship assignment nags her. Arthur Graham, a dying English soldier, begged her to deliver a curious message: “Tell Jonathan that I lied. I did it for Mother’s sake. But it has to be set right.”

Bess knows it would have been her failure if she had died before trying to reach Arthur’s brother. And although her father, the retired Colonel Richard Crawford, is grateful she’s alive, he advises her, “But you have a responsibility not to put it off again. A duty to the dead is sacred. I needn’t tell you that.”

When Bess delivers the message, Jonathan Graham acts strangely. She’s fulfilled her duty, but she can’t let go. A medical emergency delays her departure and soon Bess is caught up in the Graham family affairs. Her nursing skills prove helpful, but her curiosity leads to hints of a chilling family secret. There’s only one person who can explain, but he’s locked in an asylum.

I enjoyed this mystery as much for the story as for its cast of characters. The Graham family has a lot to hide and although the people in the small town of Owlhurst can’t figure things out for themselves, they help Bess put the pieces together. And it becomes clear that her duty to the dead extends way beyond her promise to Arthur Graham. Interesting side stories enhance this mystery as the reader sorts out facts and events.

A Duty to the Dead is a fast and light read, but it also includes serious themes such as the damaging effects of war on both soldiers and families left behind, as well as the young men deemed unfit to serve. In addition, the author challenges the reader to think about responsibility for a crime. Does the blame lay on just one person, or do conspiracy and complicity make others just as guilty?

I liked how the author used this time period to show what people do during wartime and how their perceptions of danger change. Bess Crawford, barely out of her teens, has developed a courageous, confident and independent character, which serves her well as both a nurse and an amateur detective. I expect she will handle many challenges in the next books with the skills she shows in her first adventure. A Duty to the Dead was published in 2009 and there are eleven more for fans to enjoy. You can see the full list here.

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Book Club Mom’s March recap – a month of blog posts

Image: Pixabay

March powered through like a freight train on greased wheels and I’m happy to say I didn’t derail!

Spring has finally arrived and, for the first time since I planted bulbs, the bunnies haven’t chomped my flowers down to the nubs. That must be a sign of good things to come!

I had a busy blogging month. I read some good books, profiled two indie authors, brushed up on my vocabulary and grammar, wrote and shared some special posts and made a few YouTube videos.

Here’s a quick “ICYMI” summary of what went down in March at Book Club Mom. Click on the links to visit each post.


Book Reviews

Mar 3: The Widow by Fiona Barton
Mar 11: Transcription by Kate Atkinson
Mar 22: Bluebird, Bluebird by Attica Locke
Mar 24: What If? by Randall Munroe
Mar 30: How to Be a Good Creature by Sy Montgomery


Mar 6: Giselle Roeder
Mar 19: Gina Briganti

I love meeting indie authors and I’m always looking for new profiles to post. If you are interested in being featured, please email bvitelli2009@gmail for more information.


Grammar and Vocabulary

(Images: Pixabay)

I may have majored in English, but I make plenty of mistakes. These grammar and vocabulary posts are my way of staying fresh with the rules:

Mar 5: On vocabulary, words both big and small…
Mar 21: “Into” and “in to” – are you into it?
Mar 28: Using ellipses – are you doing it right?


Special Posts

I shared two posts written by my son, Austin Vitelli. The first is a book review and the second is a feature article that appeared in The Morning Call on March 26.

Mar 6: Sweetness by Jeff Pearlman – thoughts on NFL legend Walter Payton
Mar 26: How 3 former Lehigh football players and their friends started a record label


Guest Post on author Jill Weatherholt’s blog

I was excited to be featured on Jill’s blog, where I talk about my blogging experiences (and mistakes!) and tackle the tricky question of what to do when I don’t like a book.

Mar 29: Welcome Book Blogger Book Club Mom


I’m still learning the technical side of making videos, but I’m having a lot of fun along the way. I have some new ideas for April, so stay tuned!

Mar 7: Self-publishing – here’s how we did it!
Mar 13: Walking and listening to audiobooks
Mar 20: Audiobook update and general news!


I hope you had a great month too! Looking forward to more fun in April!

Image: Pixabay

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