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55 Classics Review #15 – Middlemarch By George Eliot


I have put off writing this review for some time now. It took me about a year to complete the book, but I just found out that it was originally published in 8 volumes over the span of a year, so I was apparently reading it on schedule. I wanted to take some time to process it in retrospect before I jumped into discussing it here. I am still finding it hard to describe most of my reactions to the text, but at this point I don’t think it will get much easier.

It would be difficult to give a reader of this blog any succinct description of the both intimate and voluminous Middlemarch. I’m certain that any quick descriptive attempt could be easily torn apart under another fan’s scrutiny, but I will be so bold as to attempt to give some passing impressions about the nature of the book. Middlemarch is the story of life for many intertwined characters and families, written around 1870 as historical fiction on provincial English life in the early 1830s. At heart, it is plotted to be a romance novel (or a handful of intermingled romance novels), but one that carries throughout a wide array of story arcs, romantic and non. It constantly emphasizes the psychology and environmental motivations of the characters.

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Here are some examples of the high opinions of the book from throughout its history.

– Henry James praised the book for it’s psychological depth and evolution of intimate relationships

– Nietzsche praised it for it’s role of revealing the anxieties and motivations at play underneath the common social constraints of the time.

– Virginia Woolf described the novel in 1919 as “the magnificent book that, with all its imperfections, is one of the few English novels written for grown-up people.”

– Emily Dickenson responded to the question… “What do I think of ‘Middlemarch’?” What do I think of glory – except that in a few instances this “mortal has already put on immortality.” George Eliot was one. The mysteries of human nature surpass the “mysteries of redemption,” for the infinite we only suppose, while we see the finite.”

– F.R. Leavis said “The necessary part of great intellectual powers in such a success as Middlemarch is obvious […] the sheer informedness about society, its mechanisms, the ways in which people of different classes live […] a novelist whose genius manifests itself in a profound analysis of the individual.”

– V.S. Pritchett wrote, “No Victorian novel approaches Middlemarch in its width of reference, its intellectual power, or the imperturbable spaciousness of its narrative […] I doubt if any Victorian novelist has as much to teach the modern novelists as George Eliot […] No writer has ever represented the ambiguities of moral choice so fully.”

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Personally, I was continually shocked to recognize that one author could be so capable of interpreting the diverse perspectives of so many characters as to explain the logic and faith behind their actions. The reader is given insight into everyone’s most inner perspectives, and rarely could you find such a large and diverse cast of characters anywhere apart from a real neighborhood.

The plots are many, and among come falls from grace, tragically mistaken marriages, love at first sight, religious and spiritual struggles, kindly benefactors helping along the youths around them, falls into addictions, sudden wealth, sudden poverty, political turmoil, class struggle, and questions of work ethic. You have sympathetic characters who become embroiled in undeserved scandal, characters whom you despise but are gradually made to understand (if not appreciate) through the author’s constant insights, and overall the book is so life-like as to keep you from being certain of what outcomes would be best.

Perhaps that is the highest praise I can give Middlemarch. It is so life like that the characters you love feel as complex as real siblings. The characters you hate you grow accustom to and eventually possibly sympathetic toward, and the events are so realistically mundane and cumulatively riveting that you don’t always know where things are headed or even where you want them to go.

The first hundred pages or so of Middlemarch were a constant battle for me. I had to continually convince myself that the uphill battle would pay off with sweeping vistas in the end. I wasn’t disappointed in the least. As I came upon the last hundred pages or so, I consciously felt myself slowing down, bracing for the inevitability of the end. A couple of suspenseful plots were still hanging in the balance, urging my forward, but I was afraid to finish. I was afraid to have to leave the characters that had become more like real friends. The story spans a few years in Middlemarch and, when I closed the book, I couldn’t help but feel like the story continued on without me somewhere.

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Further Reading

Bill Watterson Makes A Case For Art

The Railway Children By Edith Nesbit

Neil Gaiman On The Value Of The Library

William Landor

A Poem By Landor, Revised


While reading through The Razor’s Edge by W. Somerset Maugham, I came across a reference to this short poetic work.

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I strove with none, for none was worth my strife.
Nature I loved and, next to Nature, Art:
I warm’d both hands before the fire of life;
It sinks, and I am ready to depart.

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I loved it immediately and, after thinking on it a few minutes, decided that I would have only changed it slightly to find it perfect.

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I strove with none, my strife found aim at none.
Nature I loved and, next to Nature, Art:
I warm’d both hands before the fire of life;
It sinks, and I am ready to depart.

A Revision Of Landor, by M. Landers
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Further Reading

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How To Raise Life-Long Learners.


All things considered, my educational experience was a good one marked by privilege. I can look back now and wish that I had been given stronger theory by more passionate educators in some arenas, but overall I had the world handed to me. The most regrettable aspect of my formal education was my own perspective on its purpose. To me, paying attention in school was always more of an obligation, part daily work day grind and part proving my own capability or normalcy amongst my peers. Rarely was I ever self-motivated toward the ideas or subjects to which I was being introduced. It took leaving college and spending a year or two without any kind of spoon-fed, intentional learning before I began to become a self-motivated learning. Now I’m constantly on the learning offensive, looking out for new ideas to readily devour.

Why is it that learning is such a touchy cultivation? There are a thousand factors at hand in growing as a person who wants to understand. For many of us the education we are handed forever dims any idea that we would actually pursue learning of our own accord. An education system involves all sorts of standardization, enforced subject matters, and comparison, both in grading and in social interactions. As someone who didn’t care then and loves learning now, I have an immense passion to pass on to my own children the internal fire and confidence needed to find their places through self-motivated learning.

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My Process

Step 1: Get to know your child personally so well that you understand what they are passionate about and why.

– It’s easy to know what they love, but a life time can be devoted to understanding why it excites them. It’s never to early to start this.

Step 2: Get them more of what they love.

– Books, relevant experiences, games, tutors. Don’t put all of your energy into diversifying their interests, focus on new ways for them to experience what they love.

Step 3: Repeat Step 1.

– Emphasis on learning their passions in the context of the new experiences.

Step 4: Repeat Step 2.

– Diversify and stretch your imagination and theirs concerning how they perceive what they are comprehending. Let them establish a launching pad and give them vision for directions they can take things.

Step 5: Ad Infinitum, Phasing Yourself Out Over Time.

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Obviously, this isn’t to say that people who don’t like math shouldn’t learn to add or multiply. There are certain skill sets that are universally useful, regardless of your tastes or trade, and learning to push through to understand things that are of little personal interest is also a valuable skill in and of itself.

My end game goal is to have children who are confident in who they are and capable of seeking out and processing information. They would never had a capacity for all available information and to attempt to cram it in them would only snuff out their own desires. Don’t beat yourself and your kids up about reaching outside standards if the experience at hand indicates they are learning and flourishing.

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Further Reading

Mary Berry’s Thoughts On Her Father’s Lasting Legacy

C.S. Lewis On Modern Education Theory

Masanobu Fukuoka On The Philosophy Fueling Our Science

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Book Review: George MacDonald and His Wife, by Greville MacDonald


It is an uncomfortable and disquieting thing to read an intimate, posthumous biography. One learns quickly of the experiences, perspectives, reactions, and pursuits of some previous individual and, despite the conclusions reached, is alarmed and jolted by the sudden ending or slow, spiral decay of the once thinking, reacting, dynamic subject of the text. For myself at least, death seems alway too close at hand to lose its freshness.

George MacDonald was a Scottish poet, author, and lecturer who wrote many novels, religious texts, and books of poetry. His most lasting impressions include The Princess and The Goblins, At The Back Of The North Wind, Phantastes, and Lilith. He directly influenced Lewis Carroll’s writing and publishing of Alice In Wonderland and C.S. Lewis would one day claim that Phantastes provided a baptism for his imagination.

Greville MacDonald’s biography of his father (and mother) is extensive. It is a step-by-step look at every turn of events leading to and throughout their lives, and it’s really a good read for anyone with a knack for history in general. It also provides great insights not only to MacDonald’s faith and perspectives, but as to the hard artist’s lifestyle that he chose and which sometimes seems to have chosen him. He was a starving artist most of his life, even with friends like Twain, Ruskin, Carroll, and Tennyson and a pension from the Queen.

Unlike most artists, he raised about a dozen kids, along with and occasional orphan or street urchin. MacDonald’s family life was his world, and one into which he and his wife brought dozens of lifelong friends, who play heavily throughout the text.

The obvious flaw of the text is that the author inundates the reader with a sacred defense for nearly every questionable or confusing action his father ever took, whether personal, theological, or artistic. He tells us why his father’s ideas on all subjects were the best available at the time, even when his father’s own demeanor in his texts and letters implies that he questioned his own judgement. While it can make for grating reading, it’s worth recognizing that a son’s undying devotion is a pretty great legacy, perhaps the one of which MacDonald would be most proud.

Luckily, the book is heavy laden with text from many personal letters, both to an from MacDonald, so that the bias opinions of Greville MacDonald can be easily seen around to get the fuller picture, often from MacDonald Sr. himself. He deals often with poverty, often with death close at hand, often with disabling sickness, and often with misunderstanding of his work. Yet always he maintains an otherworldly self-possession, a capacity at least toward outward insistence on the rejuvenation of all things through the cleansing of death that brings new life.

As I read this book, I couldn’t help marveling at how much I could use a MacDonald in my daily life, coaching me on through my trials, my misgivings, and my fear of death. This book may hit close to home.

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Futher Reading

C.S. Lewis On Good Reading Materials For Children

Thomas Merton On The Fear Of Suffering

Bill Watterson On Creativity

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David Foster Wallace On Empathy


“A huge percentage of the stuff that I tend to be automatically certain of is, it turns out, totally wrong and deluded. Here’s one example of the utter wrongness of something I tend to be automatically sure of: Everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute center of the universe, the realest, most vivid and important person in existence. We rarely talk about this sort of natural, basic self- centeredness, because it’s so socially repulsive, but it’s pretty much the same for all of us, deep down. It is our default-setting, hard-wired into our boards at birth. Think about it: There is no experience you’ve had that you were not at the absolute center of. The world as you experience it is right there in front of you, or behind you, to the left or right of you, on your TV, or your monitor, or whatever. Other people’s thoughts and feelings have to be communicated to you somehow, but your own are so immediate, urgent, real — you get the idea.”

– David Foster Wallace, excerpt from The Is Water

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Occasionally, I’ll read a claim here or there that we learn empathy from reading fiction. While I love reading fiction and I think that most people will agree that there is something of understanding gained through reading about and relating to diverse personalities, I also think we can easily deceive ourselves about how well this serves us. More often than not, it can delude us about our practical capacity for compassion.

If I don’t know how to relate to my downstairs neighbors, is this thing I call empathy valuable? Is assuming I can fully understand someone else’s life experiences respectful of them? Is understanding and comprehension really the goal?

David Foster Wallace goes on to claim that learning to consider others and serve them mentally is the point of higher education, what he describes as being well-adjusted. I have a difficult time knowing what to think here, because I find myself wanting to agree with him and also feeling that empathy, or perceived comprehension of another’s circumstance, is perhaps not the best resource for learning to care for them. Perhaps intellectual assent is useful, but is it the most genuine and natural route to caring?

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Further Reading

Mary Berry Reflects On Her Heritage

Want to change the world? Shake Someone’s Hand!

Wendell Berry On His Children

WatershipDown

55 Classics Review # 14 – Watership Downs by Richard Adams


Watership Downs. I was about two-thirds of the way through it when my family moved cross country a few months ago. It stands along side Thomas Merton’s The Seven Story Mountain as the only two books I can visualize reading in my favorite chair in both living rooms. With both these, I rested on a period, move everything a thousand miles across the map, then took up the armchair and the books once more.

Watership Downs was a surprising experience for me. Like The Phantom Tollbooth, the root concept was something I had never imagined before and therefore it was all the more exciting to take in. While The Phantom Tollbooth only had a handful of passages with which I felt a deep personal connection (the orchestrating of the colors of the day was moving and masterfully written), I was fully engaged by most of Watership Downs, especially as the book began to come to a climax.

Watership Downs is a mystical book. It is the tale of two brothers, Hazel and Fiver. Fiver is a generally weak and distracted rabbit who has a tendency toward hallucinatory dreams of a prophetically accurate nature. The book follows Hazel’s development as the unlikely de facto leader of a rag-tag group of rabbits, who flee through the wild after Fiver senses that their largely peaceful home warren is in danger. Throughout the text they meet adversaries of every sort imaginable to a real group of rabbits who have no holes to protect them, while also making encounters with the alien cultures among other rabbit warrens. The events of the book are frequently broken up by chapter-length stories told amongst the rabbits, passing oral tradition down in a manner Joseph Campbell would be proud of. The rabbits, bolstered often by heroic tales of the clever forebear to the rabbit race, must time and again gather their wits and fight against their biological makeup to exercise sound judgement when their instincts pressure them to fly in blind fear.

The uniqueness of Richard Adams’ concept here lies in the distinct form of his anthropomorphism and in the central nature of cultural mythologies. It has elsewhere been accepted that if we choose to write books on talking animals, they must naturally exist in a world so magically foreign that they walk upright, wear clothes tailored to our liking, and eat foods similar to our own preferences. The Wind In The Willows is a perfect example of this type of book (and also one of my all-time favorite titles). Watership Downs goes the extreme opposite route, unearthing animals in a world that is so much our own that at times I felt like I needed a veterinarian or wildlife expert at hand to verify the minute details of rabbit life presented in the text. The only thing Adams’ toys with in his rabbits’ nature is their capability to communicate verbally and their social capacity to rely on shared histories and plan for a future.

This book is great. It really does stand in its own realm. I think it would probably surprise most people one way or the other, enjoying it far more or less than they would assume from the outset. Richard Adams proves himself to be a student of both science and myth, a great respecter of both biology and the intangible that requires pure faith. The book feels a bit long at points, and these days I could see a publisher trying to force the book into multiple titles in a series, but I think it works well as it is, even if the momentum is a bit erratic at times. I will say that the last 150 pages or so are pure gold. In many ways the ebb and flow of the momentum works in the favor the reader’s identify with the rabbits all the more at the end. From the start you have an epic struggle that really brings you in, lulls a bit here and there in the midst of an uncertain middle, and then hits full force in the final stages.

Watership Downs is one part tribal survival saga, one part homage to oral tradition and sacred myths, and one part fanciful tale of the lives of the rabbits living just beyond the hedge. If you don’t think you would enjoy a book about talking rabbits, I challenge you that perhaps this is exactly what you should read next.

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Further Reading

Heavy Weather by P.G. Wodehouse

Norton Juster On The Agony Of Creating

Dave Eggers On Why Publishing Is Scary

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Mister Rogers And Parental Anger


“I received a letter from a parent who wrote:

‘Mister Rogers, how do you do it? I wish I were like you. I want to be patient and quiet and even-tempered, and always speak respectfully to my children. But that just isn’t my personality. I often lose my patience and even scream at my children. I want to change from an impatient person to a patient one, from an angry person into a gentle one.’

Just as it takes time for children to understand what real love is, it takes time for parents to understand that being always patient, quiet, even-tempered, and respectful isn’t necessarily what “good” parents are. In fact, parents help children by expressing a wide range of feelings–including appropriate anger. All children need to see that the adults in their lives can feel anger and not hurt themselves or anyone else when they feel that way.”

– Fred Rogers, excerpt from the text of The World According To Mister Rogers: Important Things To Remember

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Living in a world where parents are constantly placing themselves and one another under a microscope, it’s refreshing to think on these words from the greatest of child (and parent) advocates. The most valuable asset we can impart to our children is the first-hand impression of a vulnerable adult facing their own inadequacies and growing through all sorts of positive and negative experiences.

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Further Reading

Wanna Change The World?

Bill Watterson, Michelangelo, and the Importance Of Play

The Tragedy Of Having A Baby

How To Get Rid Of Faith

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Book Review: Sobriety by Daniel Maurer


Note: I recieved Sobriety for free through Speakeasy in exchange for an honest review. No opinions given have been suggested or coerced. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR,Part 255

Sobriety is a graphic novel following five diverse addicts who share their stories with one another from different stages of substance abuse recovery. It begins with and is occasionally broken up by sequences where the author and illustrator step into the plot as characters in a manipulable comic universe. They take opportinity to provide historic and exotic detours to explain the development and concepts of the 12 steps in AA and NA.

I wasn’t a huge fan of the illustration style used in Sobriety. I like a pretty wide variety of styles, everything from Jeff Lemire to Art Spiegelman, but this one left me feeling mostly uninspired. It seemed like a very difficult text to illustrate in many parts. The illustrations didn’t often further the plot in any way, and any time the writing content stalled on a point, the images didn’t really seem be able to keep up any momentum. I occasionally found myself skipping the illustrations just because the text didn’t seem to benefit from them.

The writing of Sobriety is good. Even for a non-fiction graphic novel, its really information heavy. It reminded me immensely of an episode of The Magic School Bus. A story (in this case a series of personal stories) is broken up by the quirky delivery of facts and details on related subject matter by a fun-loving and endearing narrator who can manipulate the universe for any metaphor or detailed explanation they desire. If they had ever made and episode of The Magic School Bus concerning the creation and details of the 12 Steps, this book would make the perfect script. I found the passages that followed character’s lives and the history flash-backs really engaging.

As someone who has not personally dealt with addiction, the format felt a bit too long to keep my attention. I think this may be the delineation point for the engagement quality among readers. Perhaps those interested in pursuing the 12 Steps and those already in recovery can appreciate and connect with the entire book more readily, while those who haven’t had such experiences might lose interest in certain passages.

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Further Reading

Review Of The Life And Remembrances Of Martha Toole by Jason Derr

Adaptations And Creative License

Bill Watterson, Michaelangelo, and The Importance Of Play

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George Orwell Reviews Hitler’s Mein Kampf


“Suppose that Hitler’s programme could be put into effect. What he envisages, a hundred years hence, is a continuous state if 250 million Germans with plenty of “living room” (i.e. stretching to Afhanistan or somewhere thereabouts), a horrible brainless empire in which, essentially, nothing ever happens except the training of young men for war and the endless breeding of fresh cannon-fodder. How was it that he was able to put this monstrous vision across? It is easy to say that at one stage of his career he was financed by the heavy industrialists, who saw in him the man who would smash the Socialists and Communists. They would not have backed him, however, if he had not talked a great movement into existence already. Again, the situation in Germany, with its seven million unemployed, was obviously favorable for demagogues. But Hitler could not have succeeded against his many rivals if it not been for the attraction of his own personality, which one can feel even in the clumsy writing of Mein Kampf, and which is no doubt overwhelming when one hears his speeches….The fact is that there is something deeply appealing about him. One feels it again when one sees his photograph–and I recommend especially the photograph at the beginning of the Hurst and Blackett’s edition, which shows Hitler in his early Brownshirt days. It is a pathetic, dog-like face, the face of a man suffering under intolerable wrongs. In a rather more manly way it reproduces the expression of innumerable pictures of Christ crucified, and there is little doubt that that is how Hitler sees himself. The initial, personal cause of his grievance against the universe can only be guessed at; but at any rate, the grievance is here. He is the martyr, the victim, Prometheus chained to the rock, the self-sacrificing hero who fights single-handed against impossible odds. If he were killing a mouse he would know how to make it seem like a dragon. One feels, as with Napoleon, that he is fighting against destiny, that he can’t win, and yet that he somehow deserves to. The attraction of such a pose is of course enormous; half the films that one sees turn upon some such theme.”

– George Orwell, excerpt from his review of Mein Kampf, 1940

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While Mein Kampf is a dramatic representation of Hitler’s personal history, Orwell’s review has less to do with the merit of the text and more to do with Hitler’s faulty perspectives and the disfunctionality of the National Socialist ideal. Written sometime around the declaration of war by Britain, this article is mostly reflective in nature, making for a haunting read in light of the horrors of the War and the revelations of the Halocaust.

Orwell’s insight into Hitler’s appeal to a nation in Germany’s situation is perhaps one of the most clarifying responses to a question that would echo throughout the world in the decades following the War. We all shake our head and wonder simply, “How is this possible?” Orwell’s pre-war insight is the closest thing to an answer I’ve seen, and in reality it implies a thousand factors.

Charlie Chaplin’s film “The Great Dictator” came out around the same time that Orwell wrote this piece, and it too gives insight for modern generations to realize the troubling situations that many men foresaw. Chaplin himself said that if he had known the full extent of the lengths to which Hitler was going, he never would have made the iconic anti-Nazi film. I wonder what further insights Orwell would have added to his review a decade after its publication.

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Further Reading

Wendell Berry On The Cold War

What C.S. Lewis Knew Before WWII

We Are All War Memorials

Barren Tree Church Flyer and CD Template

Special Novella Review: “The Life and Remembrances of Martha Toole” by Jason Derr


I recently finished reading the short novella “The Life And Remembrances Of Martha Toole,” a story that explores our relation to our place and what we leave of ourselves behind us there. It follows the semi-dysfunctional (or at least thoroughly modern) Hammer family as they put up with, first, an extended visit from the elderly, hyper-critical Martha Toole, and eventually, a sort of ghost of the Martha Toole of the past, a youthful version that appears from the family land itself. Throughout their interactions, we see the elderly reflections on the past and the youthful thoughts a past generation might have concerning iPads and chain grocery stores. Nostalgia and the changes in a person over a lifetime are tinkered and toyed with throughout.

I love the idea of this story. It was a little eerie to me to read because, while I never had the idea for a story like this (I wish I had though!), it reads more like my own youthful writing style than anything else I’ve ever read. Perhaps that also makes me a bit more critical of the writing than I would normally be as well.

Martha Toole is too heavy on the vague philosophical components and too light on inspiring narrative. It would have been better as a much shorter short story or fleshed out in a different form as a much fuller novel. The characters and history are spelled out by the narrator rather than develop. There is littl dialogue and what there is feels flat.

Again, I’m especially hard on this story because it feels like something I would have written just a few years ago, when the only thing motivating my writing was the philosophical or emotional point I was trying to make with the story. There is little that feels creative in the style, though the subject matter it mostly enjoyable. There is a sequence when the younger Martha Toole goes out with her great-grandniece (or something like that) to visit a boy who torments her because he has a crush on her. When they arrive, Martha realizes she once knew the land where he lives, and personally knew his ancestors. She goes from a childish girl to talking family history with his astonished father. This sequence really shines through and touched me deeply, in a way I had hoped the entire story would. Sadly, most of the rest felt like a first draft.

Either way, I encourage you to give the story a read and let me know your thoughts!

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the author and/or publisher through the Speakeasy blogging book review network. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR,Part 255.