Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Writers and Readers both

If you're a UK Kindle user then here's a great group on Goodreads:

UK Amazon Kindle Forum

Unlike facebook groups or Amazon threads, you can be sure that it's a spam-free zone.

I'm a member of a lot of Goodreads and LibraryThing groups (not to mention facebook) and I have to say that I enjoy my anonymity and can indulge the reader side of Ruby on the reader-oriented platforms.


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Saturday, 19 November 2011

Not just any boy

A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I became really wrapped in Vikram Seth's family saga and had to get it finished before my holiday as this tome is just toooo big to carry around at 1478 pages .

At the start it was a bit challenging with so many characters rushing on-stage. I had differentiating them all from each other as they seemed to be a big bag of sons (successful or ne'er-do-well), daughters (married or unmarriagable, matriarchs and patriarchs. But something dragged me in and held me there. Perhaops it was the atmosphere of post-colonial India just coming to terms with its own societal complexities and the very effective tickling of my senses by Seth's settings.

The year or so covered by this gargantuan novel isn't exactly a day-by-day account, as there are several concurrent threads, but after three hundred pages or so (the size of a regular novel) I had a firm handle on who was doing what and how the threads were likely to intersect. I think this book just wouldn't have worked as anything less than a thousand pages.

Vikram Seth manages to avoid dramatic temptation, working very much on the personalities and their interaction. There are some events of major consequence in the final quarter but no spoilers from this reviewer. I was thrown out of the flow just once or twice, particularly when two chapters ended with a similar homo-suggestive hook that turned out to be a red herring.

A Suitable Boy was been my breakfast companion for six months. I recommend this book to anyone who has the appetite and stamina for heavy reading.


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Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Peer Review; The Blind Leading The Blind?

I'm delighted to have been asked to write a guest post on a new website called (link at end, please read on). It's aimed at short fiction writers (although no height limit is specified, haha, joke) and runs competitions. I'm not known as a flash fiction / short story writer myself, but a couple of my blog posts provoked the site owners into contacting me. They'd also read and enjoyed Peril and gave me some coverage (hopefully I'll get the same for The Baptist!)

Multi-story looks like a very interesting site for those in shorts, offering respectable prizes, judging by professionals, low entry fee and a very comprehensive list of resources on the links page.

The chosen guest subject was one close to my heart - the trials and tribulations of writers that cut their teeth in the ether of peer review writing websites. I was that soldier. Delighted to say that one elephant joke was allowed. Here's the article...

Except for the lucky few, we’ve all been there: typed the closing lines of our first completed work of fiction; sighed with contentment; packaged the manuscript in a glossy folder depicting dolphins or kittens; anointed the query letter with a dab of perfume and presented Mrs Murphy at the Post Office with half a dozen packets of literary heaven.

‘Yes, Mrs Murphy, all this time, living in your midst, like a normal person. I am a writer!’ (Adopts mincing stride and a flourish of the hand).

Next day’s walk to work is on air, knowing that there won’t be many more such mundane days because the agent, publisher and film producer are in a bare-knuckle fight over who will make the most money from that blockbusting masterpiece now winging its way to the literary world.

A few celebratory bottles of wine and several days later the self-satisfaction of the perfectly packaged bundles is wearing off. A couple of weeks and you decide to redecorate walls of your study with all the rejection slips that begin to flood through the letterbox like Hogwarts invitations arriving at the Dursleys’. Clearly the agents and publishers you selected weren’t selected carefully enough. Might the action adventure of a philandering power generation engineer’s international swashbuckling be a little out of their genre? Writers and Artists Year Book in hand, you print another batch of submissions, make a mad dash to the stationers and endure sweaty tussles with other anguished authors over the last remaining large Jiffy bag. Another few weeks and a second wall of the study gets papered with the next wave of responses.

The logical next step presents itself. Consult an expert. Hand over a tidy sum of money to a professional third party in return for a critique of the manuscript, to try and understand why the rejections keep coming. A nice little man, with a peculiar talent for acidity, points out that characters, plot, pace & structure, use of language, narrative voice (what’s that?), dialogue, settings and theme are all awry. But the query letter is nicely fragrant. A discussion of these results with family and friends reveals that any number of them would have happily given you a similar kick in the privates for much less money than you paid to a stranger.

So, now you’ve been battered about the head with what is wrong with the masterwork, how do you put it right? A formal creative writing course is out of the question because you’re broke / agoraphobic / living in the middle of nowhere / in a foreign country / in custody. A bit of internet research reveals that you are not alone. There are global communities of aspiring writers posting their work online, critiquing each other’s efforts and striving to rise above the hoi polloi. Free-to-join websites run by reputable folk. Prizes of professional critique by editors from the big publishing houses. Success stories of authors that have been discovered and offered seven figure publishing contracts. You sign up, format your manuscript for online consumption and prepare for greatness. You are officially in a writers’ group. Happy days.

What happens next depends upon the architecture of the peer review website. In any case, a burst of compulsive activity is likely. You are a newbie and, unless you are somehow familiar with online communities and forums, all those beginners’ mistakes await you. Strangers will offer friendship. Strangers will crawl all over your literary masterpiece and tear the flesh from its bones. Internet trolls await, running out to engage you in flame wars of words if you should clop too loudly across their bridge.

You begin to gather feedback on the pages that you posted for virtual consumption. This involves a reciprocal arrangement with other writers, either in a structured one-for-one review system or through social networking. All of a sudden you’re not just a writer, you’re also a reader, a reviewer, a critic. Folk expect you to be able to constructively critique their work. You make mistakes, go with trends like less is more, show not tell, and where to stick your Oxford commas. You exchange writer jokes on message boards e.g. Marriage isn’t a word, it’s a sentence. LOL. Other acronyms such as POV and IMHO start to become part of your parlance. It’s likely that you will regurgitate criticism, either acknowledging learning from the reviews that you’ve received or biting back at viewpoints and opinions that seem uninformed or spiteful.

Month three of online peer review and there aren’t enough hours in the day, enough days in the week, to do enough reviews, to earn enough credits for reviews of your own work, to network friends, to climb the mountain of the charts and attain that Holy Grail of a pro-crit. Waves of self-doubt wash across your frontal lobe as your chart ranking fluctuates. Newbie reviewers play havoc with your scores as they deliver novice critique of your work. You start to frequent the discussion forum and find solace in the company of other authors, your seniority growing. Is first person, post-modernist narrative voice passé? Should you rewrite in a less florid or less minimalist style to elicit more favourable reviews from the peer group? There seems to be a hard-core clique that know the secrets to all this, the mechanism of the charts and how to spam to the top without being seen to spam. It’s a tough time, you’re not getting anything written except reviews of other people’s work and you’re neglecting the ironing.
Month six and you’ve become a firm member of the old guard. Respected by veterans, dissed by paranoid newbies, considered a part of that alleged clique. Your revised work is doing well and it’s on final ascent to the summit of the charts. Your extended social network is brought into play, posting support requests on Facebook, Twitter and every form of social media known to authors and readers. The last day of the month approaches, there’s a photo finish, a Steward’s appeal and yes, you’re a winner! High fives all round, virtual back-slapping and emoticons aplenty on the forum.

The long wait begins. Will the professional critique confirm your writing skill, honed by crash-course experience in the intense editing and critiquing world of online peers? In the interim, you arse about on the forum, see off a few trolls and grace a few newbies with gratis reviews and critiques. Just for fun you designate a particular aspect of creative writing as your special focus area for the day, using Mittelmark & Newman’s How Not to Write a Novel as your bible.

On Mondays you severely and mercilessly critique a piece, soundly and resolutely thrashing it for excessive use of adverbs.

Tuesdays are an attack on two-dimensional characters, asking that they be fleshed out so that they leap from the page.

Wednesdays you add a little extra, advising the writer to titillate the senses by making sure that all settings are a tasteful olfactory, tactile, audiovisual experience.

Thursdays are the day to attack any speech tag other than ‘said’.

Friday is for fish and you go angling for inadvertent red herrings that mislead the reader.

Saturday deals with the identity parade syndrome, taking down an author or two that uses a mirror or other blatant device to give a photo-fit description of characters with big dark eyes, silken hair, a matching twin set in cornflower blue and average size breasts.

Sunday you weed out the clichés from a newbie’s work and leave them with the bare bones of a plot that then magically takes on the tone a Scandinavian detective drama.

You’ve discovered the power to weave straw into gold. Your username is by now well known on the site and has a well-earned reputation for being firm but fair. Empowered by the journey, it’s time to launch new forum discussion threads about the fine differences between similes and metaphors, the plausibility of hyperbole, and to draw attention to an outbreak of anthropomorphism in the newbie writings you have come across. Wikipedia serves you particularly well in the formulation of your position on these matters.

At last the professional critique of your novel opening chapters arrives online. Some jumped-up junior editor from a big publishing house has totally panned your labour of love. Two-dimensional characters. The plot premise is unbelievable. Stilted dialogue. Over-described, over-told, indefinite genre, unmarketable. It has to be a mistake. The reviewer must have read a different book to the one that tens, hundred of people have voted for with their virtual feet. You followed their suggestions to the letter, those experienced online authors with knowledge of narrative voice, point of view, story arcs, prologues, scene, sequels, antagonists, conflict, protagonist, sensory perception. The result was almost edible and some young know-nothing has regurgitated it in your face, in public, for thousands of peers to see. Well, she’s obviously wrong. To hell with the dead-tree publishers. You go straight to Kindle Direct Publishing and begin to upload your novel as an independent e-book. That’ll show them.

I’ll finish with a parable. Six blind men were asked to describe an elephant by touching its body. One felt the tail and said that the elephant was like a hairy rope. Another grasped a leg and said that it resembled a tree. A third handled the ear and was sure that it was a great flying bat. The fourth was snuffled by the trunk and said that an elephant was a mighty snake, bigger than a python. The tusk was touched by another who claimed that it was surely a unicorn. The sixth found its huge eye and knew that it must be a giant squid. None of them could describe the hole. [sic] is a new website aimed at short fiction writers. It has some very interesting content and an excellent links page.

No authors were hurt in the making of this post.


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Monday, 14 November 2011

Any resemblance is purely coincidental

When I launched Peril (original title The Rise and Fall of Ger Mayes - catchy huh?), a few early readers asked if there was an element of autobiography in the book. They were mostly people that knew me.

Of course there's an autobiographical element in most fiction. It doesn't mean that a thriller writer is a murderer (although it doesn't preclude it either!) but the author does have to have a mind that can conceive the murder. So, am I the philandering, hapless, conscience-free anti-hero Ger Mayes in Peril? If you've read the book then maybe we can meet up for a coffee, go for a few beers, get in a fight, visit a dodgy nightclub. A regular night out in Kilkenny. Then I'll let you be the judge and jury.

A little overseas incident came to mind this weekend and I thought I'd share it. Peril readers might recognise the behavioural traits.

About fifteen years ago I was working as export sales manager for a burglar alarm company in Rochdale, Lancashire. The boss was a millionaire megalomanic who made us park our green company BMWs with the bonnets facing out so he could drool over his fleet. Now, he was probably more Ger Mayes than I am.

Anyhow, I was secretly waiting on work permission for another job in Switzerland and tried to wangle some german language lessons out of my boss on the strength of needing to boost our sales there. He, being the smart business cookie that he was, did a spot analysis of export markets and concluded that I needed to improve my french instead of my german. So I found myself at the lovely Isabelle's language school and we happily conjugated together for a few blissful weeks.

The boss endured this as long as he could and then registered me for a local Chamber of Commerce business trip to France. It was all in modest northern style - take the train through the Chunnel, stay in a budget hotel, visit as many potential business partners as possible and bring back the wonga. My compatriots in the Chamber posse tolerated me as a young upstart, not quite fitting into the group profile. I didn't come from old merchant money (or any money, in fact), spoke with a slightly posh accent, didn't smoke and had all my own hair.

On the day of the adventure I woke up early to a sharp frost. The windows of my car were thick with ice so I let the engine run to warm up and defrost. After three minutes of scraping the outside of the car I heard a click. The doors had locked themselves, the key still in the ignition, engine warming up nicely. I didn't have a spare key.

It took a bit of pacing around the car for me to realise that there was only one option. I bunched my fist and gave the rear quarter-light window a sharp karate punch. There was a crack, but not of glass, of knuckle. My arm felt numb from finger to elbow. I picked up a rock from the flower bed and smashed the window with it, using my other hand. There wasn't too much blood.

The train journey went smoothly, thanks to a few cans of beer and some painkillers. I kept my swelling hand under a newspaper, read a book and made small talk when necessary. The guy next to me spent the entire time playing with some kind of gadget that he called a Nintendo.

'I've never read a book in my life,' he said in between games. 'I can't concentrate long enough.'

We hurtled down to the south of England and through the newly built tunnel that linked Blighty with the old foe. It was a strange feeling, travelling through a tunnel under the sea. The thought of terrorist attack or some kind of accident was never far from our minds.

Lille was our end destination and the hotel lived up to expectations. Greyish linen, small hard soaps and a breakfast to cry for. But at least the weather was like home - a constant, driving rain. I put up my British brolly and ran around the corner to the car hire place from which my boss had rented me a nice little Clio, the cheapest thing on the menu.

At that time there were no toll roads in the UK and the idea of paying to drive on a motorway was anathema to me (ergo my boss too). I drove up to the entry barriers in my entry-level Clio and pondered the situation in the ongoing downpour. My breath was steaming up the windscreen so I played with the air controls until it cleared.

There, at the side of the last, unmanned booth, was a narrow gap between some bollards. It looked small, too small for my BMW, but I managed to squeeze the tiny Clio through without scraping the bodywork. The road opened out in front of me, the sky cleared and I was free to ride the highways. All the way up to the next city where my first business meeting awaited.

At the required exit I came to another booth. This time there was no gap to sneak through.

'Billet, s'il vous plait,' the monsieur said.

Isabelle, help me now, I thought.

'Je n'ai pas le billet,' I said, hopefully, naively and then desperately.

'Impossible! Impossible!' the excited cashier shouted.

So, the company credit card was charged with the entire length of the Autoroute from wherever to wherever. I resolved to wear my gumshield and groin protector for the debrief with the boss back home.

The meetings went off okay that day and the next. I chattered animatedly, wanting to impress with my grasp of language and panicked by my lack of comprehension when my would-be business partners started to respond in their native tongue.

On the second night the entire Chamber posse got hopelessly drunk and I told my Autoroute toll story with great embellishment (unlike here, which is the bare bones).

We rose the next morning to find that a French lorry had caught fire in the Chunnel, blocking our exit from the country. Twenty-three hours wait for a place on a delayed ferry in choppy seas, then the slow train to London and on to Manchester.

These days I approach the Irish motorway toll booths with trepidation. I have a barely controllable urge to find an illegal way through. If I see a car parked with its engine running I have a strong urge to break the window with the nearest rock. And I've never been back in the Chunnel.

So, yes. I guess I am Ger Mayes, in parts. I've often found myself in some kind of peril.

But I'm definitely not The Baptist!


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Monday, 7 November 2011

It's Tudor time - inside the head of Thomas Cromwell

Ruby's review of Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Wolf Hall won the Man Booker Prize for fiction in 2009 and caused quite a stir at the time for a couple of reasons. Mantel's book was derided by many as just another Tudor saga, nothing new, a docudrama of sorts. The other main objection was that it was unreadable. Some people cited the numerous characters named Thomas as causing confusion, others said that the overall cast was too broad. Together, these objections were enough to stop me rushing out and buying the book at the time. Then, two weeks ago, I happened across a copy and decided to put it to the test.
Now, I’ll be honest and say that I can’t get enough of the Tudor genre. Henry and his harem – divorced, beheaded, died – divorced, beheaded, survived. And the Reformation of the church in Britain remains a contentious topic, especially here in holy Catholic Ireland. In the last couple of years I’ve read and enjoyed a number of novels set in the period, including Dark Fire by C.J. Sansom and The Queen's Fool by Philippa Gregory. I might revisit my bookshelves and designate a Tudor shelf. Wolf Hall will sit proudly on it and I'm going to tell you why, but the novel has a flaw which loses one star from this reviewer. First, the good stuff.
Thomas Cromwell is the cornerstone of Mantel’s tome. Not the Roundhead fella that wreaked havoc around the place, de-feathering cavaliers, beheading kings and ruining a lot of perfectly good castles in Scotland, Ireland and Wales. That was Oliver. No, Thomas Cromwell was the guy that became Henry VIII’s right hand man.
Wolf Hall deals with the period leading up to the ecclesiastical schism between England and Rome. This might sound like dry stuff, administrative and diplomatic wranglings, but Mantel turns it into a story of relationships, everything revolving around Cromwell. She builds the fate of the country upon his character, a great structure of power rising from a man of pragmatic principles. There is violence and torture, there are executions, burnings, beheadings, but none of it is gratuitous. Physical relationships occur and are often outrageous but not explicit.
Mantel doesn’t titillate with bawdiness. She leads the reader through the same minefield (anachronism I know, but what’s the Tudor equivalent?) that Cromwell faced in order to deliver his king a divorce, a new wife and the wealth of the church. She does, however, titillate the senses with a sumptuous serving of Tudor sights, sounds, smells and tastes. To read Wolf Hall is to look through Thomas Cromwell’s eyes, to feel his frustrations and lust, to share his victories.
The narrative viewpoint is so firmly Cromwell’s that it’s almost a first person account. It took me a couple of hundred pages to realise that. Whenever Mantel refers to what ‘he’ is thinking or doing, the ‘he’ is almost invariably Cromwell, even if it is a room crowded with men. Therein lies my only negative mark for Wolf Hall. The second chapter almost had me giving up, so many male characters with similar voices in dialogue and the narrative describing what ‘he’ was thinking. I hadn’t realised that Cromwell was and would be the dominant viewpoint.
Wolf Hall left me with a lasting moral that pragmatism is the trail of breadcrumbs which leads us through the forest of life’s complexities. There was no more dangerous and confusing time in England’s history than the Reformation. Idealists found themselves turn torturer and then subsequently themselves bound to the stake as the wind of change turned and fanned the flames at their own feet. Of course, Cromwell didn’t outlive Henry and met his own sticky end, but that’s not in this book. This is a feel good story.
My parting word on Wolf Hall is that I think the title is an ingenious little device. To find out why that might be, you’ll have to read the book!


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Sunday, 6 November 2011

They've found Yani, under the floorboards

Those words caught me freeze frame. The game was up.

In her grief, my ex-girlfriend Brit had loved that dog too much. Typical girl.

I had inhaled Brit's last words from her mouth. It was sweet. I'll say that for her, my ex-love. She was always fresh and fragrant. In the way that some people are.

Scandinavian. Norwegian, to be exact. Alpine.

It was planned. I can't even remember why, just that it had been a typical exercise in Ruby Barnes attention to detail. The kicked-to-death dog, buried. The objecting, strangulated ex-girlfriend, buried with the dog. A few keepsakes, everything free of trace DNA. But, when I heard that they'd found Yani, something transpired that I hadn't exactly planned for.


No DNA or other modern TV methodology could entrap me. I'd made very sure of that. Encased in the concrete floor of a new apartment. A beautiful Danish woman, mid-thirties. Her toy poodle, aged whatever. Personal accoutrements in a time capsule. What I didn't account for was the guilt.

'They've found Yani,' my wife said.

The urge to confess was like a regurgitated breakfast.

How could I withstand the inevitable police interrogation?

My wife needed only to ask the questions:

Did you murder Brit and her dog? I knew you were having an affair but why did you kill her? And why the hell did you kill her pet dog? You bastard.

She had no idea how annoying a spoilt pet dog could be. Or a mistress who had, as friend and confidante, a spoilt pet dog.

And then the police. A perfectly planned murder with no trace evidence, except human guilt. I don't need to imagine Gene Hackman, Robert De Niro and pals, twisting the evidence. I am the piggy, waiting to squeal.

The moral of the story is that the planning of murder is not the weakest link. When you kill, carefully cleanse, formally lay to rest and move on, your psyche must follow suit.

I knew that the finding of Yani meant that they would find Brit in the next forty-eight hours. I knew that my wife's mention of Yani would lead to an inquisition that I could not withstand. Then a police investigation to follow. I was untrained in facial and body language denial.

It took me three hours to extricate myself from this dream sequence, after waking.

While I struggled with reality, my family faced a real life challenge.


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Friday, 4 November 2011

Bunfight at the Breaffy House Hotel

The toaster was on go-slow at breakfast this morning in the Breaffy House Hotel, Castlebar, County Mayo. I looked at the queue, gauged the speed of the toaster and just knew that it was trouble waiting to happen. There was an apologetic ducking and diving in and out of the queue and I walked away with two slices of not quite toasted bread. This didn't drive me into an apoplectic fit. I guess that's just the sort of guy I am.

I took my anaemic slices, with some real butter and apricot jam, back to the family table and looked after myself. On the way I almost walked into a big, muscular chap with dreadlocks. He came bounding into the nearly empty breakfast room with a 'Here I am, yes, it's me, I shall select my own table' demeanour. Good for him.

The family joined together at our table from their various hunter gatherer ventures and began to eat silently. They took turns to look at me and then around the room. All very odd, as it's usually twenty questions from my ten year-old daughter or a spontaneous quiz from my seven year-old lad.

After a while my daughter said 'Will you tell him, Mum? Or shall I?'

What could it be? Had I forgotten to put on my trousers (again)? Had they sold some copies of Peril or The Baptist to the underpaid continental staff?

'You'll have to promise not to do anything about it,' my lady wife said.

I knew immediately that she had experienced a confrontation and my chivalrous tendencies, always resulting in disaster, were being manipulated. Any man who insults my wife can expect to feel the full fury of my chin on his fist. It always ends badly and the blood doesn't come off my shirt.

'Of course,' I said, slyly crossing my fingers under my toast.

'Well, we had an encounter at the toaster.'

'He had flat white hair,' my son said.

'Go on.'

I tried to follow the gaze of my son who was attempting to hint at the location of the provocateur. Unfortunately my son has a squint when not wearing glasses so there were several suspects. I turned round and glared at them all. One white haired man stared back angrily. He must be the one, I thought. I'll kick his stick away.

My daughter began to chatter. 'He stole my toast. He was upset because it took two goes to get it to toast properly. Then he took my toast, argues with Mum and told her to stop being rude and shut up!'

I looked at my wife and she nodded.

'I walked away,' she said. 'He was English,' she added by way of explanation.

She's Irish, I'm English, eight hundred years of oppression and all that.

'He had a round face,' my son said.

I looked round the room again. Perhaps if I made every man say 'castle' then I could identify the offender and mash his round face into his full Irish breakfast (FYI fried egg, baked beans, black pudding, white pudding, scrambled egg, potatoes, tomatoes, sausages, bacon rashers and toast).

'Too late, he's gone,' she said.

I didn't believe her and the rest of the meal was spent scowling at the remaining breakfasters and muttering revenge under my breath. I would ankle-tap the fella at the top of the stairs and then walk away, unseen. I would confront him face-to-face and demand an apology, treating his first invasion of my one metre personal space as an assault and then unleash Ruby the Kick Boxer (I would need to do half an hour stretching first).

To cool off we all went for a swim. Once in the pool, I isolated the kids and interrogated them, up close.

'He had black wiry hair and a brown face,' said my son.

Flat white hair and a round face. I didn't have my hearing aids in and had misheard at the breakfast table. The self-proclaiming egomaniac who almost made me drop my soggy toast. He was a big, muscled guy.

Over a glass of wine this evening my wife revealed more. The guy had been very aggressive to her and the kids, and she'd said she would tell her husband (that would be me, defender of her honour).

'And I'll take your husband out front and beat him up,' he had said.

Her discretion was the better part of my valour. Ankle-tap would have been the weapon of choice, or perhaps a bitch slap with an apricot jam smeared slice of toast.

I'll get him next time, when he least expects it. Ninja Ruby.


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Tuesday, 1 November 2011

He's here.

It's dark outside, the evenings are drawing in. You want to snuggle up with a loved one but they're away, out of reach. You open your kindle and decide to scare the hell out of yourself instead. Well, here's something fit for purpose. The Baptist has launched on Smashwords, and

More about The Baptist on the page up top.

Right, enough selling and back to the blog...

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