Thoughts and Inspiration for Creative Writers

-from Chrysalis Editorial

Review of The Bricks That Built the Houses by Kate Tempest

Posted on | August 23, 2016 | No Comments

Molasses-slow backstories trip up an otherwise entertaining tale of love, ambition, and millennials in modern-day London.

I love Kate Tempest’s name. I love her look, too, for its Joplin-esque qualities. And I especially love some of Tempest’s craftsmanship in her debut novel, The Bricks That Built the Houses. Tempest’s work is worth reading if only for the poetry of her writing and its so-called urban edginess. It’s also worth experiencing for a peek into the lives of England’s twenty-somethings, many of them as misguided and uncertain as America’s millennials.

In the first seven pages, we meet Harry (female), Leon, and Becky, who are leaving town — perhaps running away? “They’re driving past the streets, the shops, the corners where they made themselves. Every ghost is out there, staring. Bad skin and sunken eyes, grinning madly at them from the past. It’s in their bones. Bread and booze and concrete. The beauty of it. All the tiny moments blazing. Preachers, parents, workers. Empty-eyed romantics going nowhere. Street lights and traffic and bodies to bury and babies to make. A job. Just a job…People are killing for gods again. Money is killing us all. They live under a loneliness so total it has become the fabric of their friendships. Their days are spent staring at things. They exist in the mass and feel part of the picture. They trust nothing but trends.”

This dark, unflinching look at life — presented from an omniscient point-of-view — here and elsewhere often feels as if the reader is encountering the author’s perspective.

The next chapter takes readers back one year. We discover how Becky and Harry, the two characters who captivate the reader most, were drawn to each other at a party. This chapter is also filled with Tempest’s keen observations of characters, who, judging from Tempest’s age, might be considered her peers. They appear to be filled with an overly self-confident swagger one minute, and defeatist, confused self-loathing the next. Nor does she hesitate to poke fun at them.

Main character Becky, an aspiring dancer, finds herself in a “part of town full of professional creatives with dreams of simpler living — radical, secret aspirations for cottages and nuclear families.” On entering a party in a “fashionable bar,” she describes it this way: “Everybody’s talking about themselves. I’m doing this…It’s going great. And have you heard about this that I do, and this other thing as well…Questioning postures and emphatic responses. The air is heavy with cocaine sweat, hidden fragility and the prospect of good PR.”

Meanwhile, Harry, a local drug dealer, is making her way to the same party, but encounters a friend from the past, Reggie, a somewhat pitiful petty criminal (dealer of various popular drugs). The two are contrasted this way: “[Harry] moves in confident strides…She is all London: cocksure, alert to danger, charming, and it flows through her. Reggie’s face repeats on all the strangers she passes and her eyes prickle and she blinks hard. She sees a homeless woman sat with her head on her knees.” Harry has a heart, but she’s also tough.

And then there’s Harry’s partner in crime, Leon: “The agreement is that Harry handles (drug) sales, Leon handles everything else. Both partners know their roles and respect each other’s talents. For the most part, they love their jobs.”

And so, after the initial encounter between Becky and Harry, we are drawn into Becky’s love affair with Pete, who, in this novel’s maze of relationships, turns out to be Harry’s brother. The story moves from Pete’s aimless, unhappy life (and difficulties with Becky) to Harry and Leon’s drug deals.

Here, the author skillfully delves into the underbelly of drug dealing and criminals in London. Eventually, over a dinner where the central characters come together both accidentally and explosively, Becky and Harry meet again. And fall in love. Love and loyalty of various sorts abounds in this novel. Betrayal and disappointment are also around every corner.

Unfortunately, the book is divided between the present-day story of the main characters (in their 20s) and the backstories of their parents and grandparents. This is where I had trouble. I loved the present-day story but felt ambivalent at best about the lengthy, lecture-like backstories of the main characters’ families, most of whom seemed doomed to an impoverished, down-trodden existence. The “system” was to blame in each case, and while often I felt sympathetic to what appears to be Tempest’s perspective, at times it seemed a little too predictable and too pessimistic.

This reader had to re-read these pages in an attempt to remember who was who, who was connected to whom, and how they figured into the story. These grinding, packed-with-fact mini-biographies are in such contrast to the magnificent prose littering the rest of Tempest’s dramatic pages that I kept wondering: Where’s the editor in all this? Why didn’t he or she advise Tempest to cut these, or properly weave them in, or use dramatic storytelling for these boring backstories if, in fact, their entirety is so important?

If you can skim these lengthy passages and get to the more compelling pages of The Bricks That Built the Houses, I think you’ll be glad you read this debut novel from a woman who is described as having “gained acclaim as a poet, playwright, rapper, and recording artist.” I hope we haven’t read the last from Kate Tempest. I’m sure we haven’t.

Novel Listicles: What do you think about them?

Posted on | August 9, 2016 | No Comments

First, I supposFullSizeRender (3)e I should ask, have you heard of the word listicles? I had not until I read Ann Leary’s The Children, a novel in which one of the characters refers to articles that include lists, which seems to be an increasingly popular trend, a way to entice people to read on. Like: 10 Cutest Puppies…Ever, 15 Ways to Improve Sex (tell me more!), 12 Ways to Calm Down When Your Children Are Doing Crazy Things. I imagine you are now sufficiently familiar with the term listicles…

So, to the topic at hand. I frequently receive emails with lists of books: 100 Novels to Read Before You Die. Top 10 All-Time Favorites. 25 Classic Novels for Your Bookshelf. Then there are the lists of finalists for various literary prizes, as in the PEN/Faulkner, Pulitzer, Man Booker, Nobel Prize for literature, and so on. You catch my drift.

The other day I received a list titled: “12 Contemporary British Novels We Can’t Live Without” (by Caitlin Kleinschmidt, published in the Huffington Post). This caught my eye. Why? Because I have always loved British writers and their novels, have at times (dare I put this in print?) even considered them superior to us American novelists, a tribe I can now include myself in, though even as I write this, I do so humbly and in lower case. Back to the subject. On seeing the title of this particular list, I wondered which 12 contemporary British novels would they include and are they the same ones that I cannot live without?

The author of the piece suggests that her choices are “some of the most exciting contemporary novelists across the pond that every self-respecting Anglophile should read.” Hmm, I thought, really? But with considerable hope and enthusiasm I scanned the list quickly.

Here it is:
White Teeth by Zadie Smith
The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters
The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman
Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
Life After Life by Kate Atkinson
Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
In a Dark, Dark Wood by Ruth Ware
The Girl Next Door by Ruth Rendell
Me Before You by Jojo Moyes
Atonement by Ian McEwan
The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes
Little Bee by Chris Cleave

Since this doesn’t appear to be an alphabetical list, I will assume the author meant the list to be in order of her favorite first, and so on. I won’t address this, because I would most certainly disagree, but rather will divide the list of books into several categories:
1) novels I’ve read;
2) authors I’ve read, but not the listed novel;
3) novels I’ve never heard of;
4) authors I’ve heard of but have not read; and
5) novels based on the brief description offered by the author that will go on my Goodreads’ “want to read” shelf.

So, for category 1 (books I’ve read): I’ve read one-third of the books on this list. For those of you who are not math whizzes, that’s four. These include the ones by Zadie Smith (White Teeth), Hilary Mantel (Wolf Hall), Ian McEwan (Atonement) and Julian Barnes (The Sense of an Ending). Of those, I would definitely include The Sense of an Ending in my top 20 British novels, and possibly also Atonement. I enjoyed the novel by Zadie Smith, but didn’t love it, and I imagine I am in a smallish group of people who did not like/was not able to appreciate Wolf Hall. (There’s so much more I could say about this, but that’s not what this blog post is about…though I would love to hear from those of you who either loved or hated this novel.)

Okay, category 2 (authors I’ve read, but not the listed novel): this includes David Mitchell and Kate Atkinson. I enjoyed immensely both authors’ novels (including David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet and The Bone Clocks; and an earlier novel of Atkinson’s, titled Case Histories). Hence, I would willingly add the two listed titles to my “ want to read” shelf.

Category 3: novels I’ve never heard of includes In a Dark, Dark Wood, The Girl Next Door, and Me Before You. Quite frankly, this shocks me. I consider myself well read and tuned in to the latest authors. I read tons of books, frequently get pinged by Amazon (if you liked XX, you’ll love XX), read book reviews quite frequently, etc. Apparently, I’m not as well read as I thought! So of these novels, based on their brief descriptions:
Dark, Dark Wood: “this gripping, suspenseful, and darkly twisted literary debut” (this one sounds fantastic and is right up my alley);
Me Before You: “opposites-attract love” story … that will make you laugh and weep and want to re-read it… is enough to make me want to read this by Jojo Moyes;
The Girl Next Door: “discovery of human remains in a long-forgotten tin box sends shockwaves across a group of longtime friends in a psychologically explosive story” definitely appeals to me.

So, oh, dear I’ve just added five (!) novels to my “want to read” shelf.

Category 4: authors/novels I’ve heard of, but haven’t read: The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters, The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman and Little Bee by Chris Cleave. The first one I believe I tried but wasn’t drawn into, though possibly I’d try it again; the second doesn’t appeal to me at all, and the third is at the top of my “must read” list. The reason for this centers around the fact that in my own next novel (the one I’m currently writing) there is a Nigerian whose family fled their country and moved to England and faced the usual immigrant hardships. I would be reading it as a form of research for background on my own character.

Category 5: (see above description) turns out I didn’t need this category after all since I’ve now added 6, possibly 7, novels to my bookshelf!

Note to self: must read more. Must find way of extending the day. (Sleep less?)

Update: Already bought Little Bee and reading it! Totally into it. If I didn’t have to write my novel now, I’d be reading it instead!

Final update: At the bottom of the article there were several more listicles! The audacity! Here’s one:
“10 Cross-Cultural Novels that Illuminate the World We Live In”
Really? Really!

Wow! A Two-Book Deal…And Then…

Posted on | July 28, 2016 | No Comments

IMG_3182When you first receive word that you have a two-book deal with a publisher, you feel elated. Wow, not just one but two novels will be published. Then you realize you have to sit down and write the second one! When you signed that deal, you had no idea what the second novel would be about, you just knew it could NOT be a sequel to the first, something you’d considered and had already begun writing. So, set that one aside.

The pressure is on. On two fronts: 1) what’s this one going to be about? And 2) can I finish it on deadline? Okay, #2 first: Not only did I agree to have the second novel done during the same month as the release date of my first – yikes! – but what was I thinking since it took me three or four years to finish the first? True, the draft had only taken nine months, but then several re-writes took lots more time. True, I’d also been doing lots of other paid work. But now only a couple of months before the release date, and I’ve got less than half of novel #2 finished.

The good news: Answer to the first question: I have a solid handle on the plot trajectory of this novel. My characters are pretty firmly in place and the story seems to be flowing. What’s it about, you may ask. All Fall Down (working title) is about a woman (i.e., strong female character) who reaches the pinnacle of her career – well, almost – only to have it turn to dust, after someone accuses her of having been complicit in a murder.  Not only that, but her husband goes to Syria to find a missing grad student at a dig in Syria. Charlotte is a human rights activist and Russ is an archaeologist. Not long after he arrives in the Middle East, he disappears too. Without that high level job, the one that suddenly became elusive – Charlotte has time to chase down her husband. Of course, in the meantime we’ve gotten caught up in her past, a highly adventurous past, which includes falling in love with a Nigerian artist during her year abroad at Oxford, and then a Sandinista commander in Nicaragua. The latter being the one she’s accused of having been involved in murdering. That’s all the plot I’ll reveal for now!

Some tips for coming up with ideas for your next novel:

  • Read newspapers and magazines (my inspiration for writing Saving Phoebe Murrow came from a magazine and newspaper article) and keep a file with news clips that you can peruse when the ink runs dry.
  • Eavesdrop on people in restaurants, on the subway, in an airport.
  • Keep a story ideas folder on your computer’s desktop.
  • Other people’s crazy messed up lives…juicy possibilities I’m sure.
  • Check online about how to generate story ideas.
  • Last but definitely not least, think about your own life, it’s rich with possibility. If only you’d done this or that; well, in a novel you can—or perhaps you can create an alternate reality or change the ending to an event that you wish had happened differently.

Review of Wool 1, 2, and 3 by Hugh Howey

Posted on | February 18, 2016 | No Comments

20877555By far this novel is the best self-published sci-fi I’ve ever read. Oh, wait, it’s actually one of the best sci-fi/dystopian novels I’ve ever read (self-published or not), and I’ve read quite a few: Everything from Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series and his Robot series, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game and the two sequels, Dan Simmon’s Hyperion and sequels – the latter author introduced to me by a fellow subway traveler, thank you very much! – and many more. So I think I’m a pretty good judge. Wool reminds me most, perhaps, of Cormac McCarthy’s bestseller The Road (2006).

 

But don’t believe me. There are thousands of people who have purchased Hugh Howey’s novel to the point that he’s making a killing off of his Wool ebooks, the rights to which he refused to cede to Simon & Schuster (Way to go, Hugh!), though he did give them the print version rights. (Their distribution channels are bit better than his.) Anyway, if you haven’t read Wool (1, 2, or 3)*, and you like dystopian fiction, or sci-fi, then start reading. You won’t be able to put it down. Howey creates an amazing and unforgettable world, most of it underground, where the air is cleansed of toxins that have poisoned earth’s air. Need I say more? His characters will draw you in, though be warned, you’ll lose a few of your favorites. Or at least I did. I just bought Wool 4, also known as The Unraveling. I can hardly wait. I am taking it with me to Hawaii and will report back.

 

P.S.*The title…or rather the 1,2,3 part…refers to the fact that as an ebook you can purchase each one separately…there are three parts that constitute one finished novel. That’s how I bought them, individually. Not sure if they are now available as one purchase or not, but in any case they are very affordable. And even in paperback, you can buy the complete book for as little as $9.51 new and even less used. I know you can purchase it from Amazon, but don’t forget your indie book sellers. Give them your business and tell them I sent you!

The Song of Hartgrove Hall

Posted on | February 2, 2016 | No Comments

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A complicated tale of sibling rivalry set against the backdrop of a once-grand English manor.

This novel is the perfect mid-winter read, especially if you’re a “Downton Abbey” fan. Curled up in front of a fire, you won’t want to stop turning the pages once you begin, so time your read carefully.

Bestselling author Natasha Solomons has delivered yet another enthralling tale that takes place in the English countryside, this time in and around Hartgrove Hall, a manor once beautiful and stately. After World War II, however, when the family reconvenes, the place is falling apart. The three brothers — the eldest being the presumed heir — vow to save and restore it while their rather cantankerous father, the General, is adamantly opposed to the idea but gives them a limited period of time to prove him wrong.

However, even among the brothers all does not proceed without conflict, internal and external. The Song of Hartgrove Hall is a complicated story of sibling rivalry, not the least of which is a triangular romance that’s anything but predictable. Solomons seems to have a wealth of knowledge when it comes to music, because this story is also about the art in a variety of forms, including a man in search of unrecorded English folk songs, a child piano prodigy and a woman who was England’s musical muse during the war.

Read Herta’s full review on the Washington Independent Review of Books.

The Truth About Setting

Posted on | March 30, 2015 | No Comments

Herta in Snow By Herta Feely
This winter has taught us Easterners, especially New Englanders, a lot about snow and about the very pleasurable peaceful feeling one gets as we watch the “snow falling on cedars,” barren trees and the landscape in general. For me, at least, it replaces the drab and dreary with a kind of heavenly beauty. And then when the blue sky and sun emerge, it’s like being kissed by your favorite grandparent and told to go play outside – sledding, skating, etc.

But describing those feelings, which is at the heart of settings, can be a more complicated thing. How do you translate the peacefulness of snowfall into the scene of a novel or memoir? You want to avoid being overly sentimental, and yet true to the emotion and beauty of it.

This brings to mind two novels in which snow played a significant role and from which we can learn a lot about setting: Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson and Snow by Orhan Pamuk. I highly recommend reading them, not just for setting but other reasons too. These two authors, one in the state of Washington and the other in Turkey, use snow to great effect. Pamuk’s character contemplates the snowfall and gets the same sense of peacefulness that I do when watching it. And in Guterson’s novel snow casts a veil of mystery around events. Of course! Snow is a veil, isn’t it? In reality, but also metaphorically.

Obviously, not everyone greets snow with the same enthusiasm (as me!), for some it’s a curse. I imagine that many people in large cities see it in exactly the opposite way. For them, snow signifies hardship: everything from the difficulty of finding parking, to having to shovel or plow the snow from sidewalks and streets, to the layers of clothing required to stay warm. (Have you ever tried to push a baby buggy down an icy, snow-covered sidewalk or street?)

In any case, experiencing what you want to describe can assist you in your writing of settings. Sitting quietly and letting the experience wash over you might help when you face the computer and begin composing the scene in which your character exists. Close your eyes and remember. Better yet, as the snow falls write down your impressions. Don’t worry about making your prose perfect or beautiful or flowing. Just write down the visuals, the feelings, a few metaphors, and then when it’s time to write that scene turn back to your journal and crib a few lines.

And if you’ve recorded the event with some photos, pull them up on your computer or smart phone or out of your drawer and experience that moment again by closing your eyes and remembering…

Staff Picks: Feminist Books

Posted on | November 4, 2014 | No Comments

THE BELL JAR BY SYLVIA PLATH 

Favorite Line: “I knew that’s what marriage was like, because cook and clean and wash was just what Buddy Willard’s mother did from morning till night…and I knew in spite of all the roses and kisses and restaurant dinners a man showered on a woman before he married her, what he secretly wanted when the wedding service ended was for her to flatten out  underneath his feet like Mrs. Willard’s kitchen mat”(85).

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The Bell Jar is something everyone, and especially every woman, needs to read. While Plath’s semi-autobiographical novel touches upon mental illness, it is truly the story of a young woman struggling to find her place in 1950’s America. Esther Greenwood is disenchanted with the confining expectations for women, yet simultaneously, she’s dangerously unsure of what path she wants her life to take. Women from any generation can empathize with Esther’s uncertainty, as well as the pressure she feels to succumb to the cult of domesticity. —Rachel Ehrenberg

THE HANDMAID’S TALE BY MARGARET ATWOOD

Favorite Line: “Don’t let the bastards grind you down.”

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While dystopian fiction is very much “in vogue” at the moment, Atwood pushes the genre past the more-recent post-apocalyptic plot lines, drawing on extreme religious beliefs to create a strange, misogynistic environment. In the world of Atwood’s dystopia, written in 19XX, women cannot read, write, or do much else aside from bearing children. Their value comes from the quality of their ovaries. Births are experienced by all and insubordination is combatted with public hangings. It’s horrifying in a way that The Hunger Games could never be because it doesn’t seem that far-fetched. —Emily Holland

THE WOMAN DESTROYED BY SIMONE DE BEAUVOIR

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Favorite Line: “…me so vital alive a burning flame and him stuffy middle-class cold hearted prick like limp macaroni.”

Simone’s narrative draws upon the feminist theories in her famous philosophical text, The Second SexThe Woman Destroyed is divided into three parts, each from the perspective of a woman experiencing troubles relating to age, her husband’s mistress, the loss of passion, and other intertwined mostly female issues. The book not only depicts the lives of the three women, but also reveals their deepest thoughts with an honesty that, at times, is brutal to read.  —Morgan Day

WASHINGTON SQUARE BY HENRY JAMES

Favorite Line: “Poor Catherine’s dignity was not aggressive; it never sat in state; but if you pushed far enough you could find it. Her father had pushed very far.”

Washington-Square-by-Henry-James-194x300

While Washington Square is certainly not a feel-good, warm fuzzy read, it does leave the reader incredibly satisfied and vindicated. Catherine Sloper, initially the epitome of a Plain-Jane, is viewed as undesirable for marriage with the exception of her sizable trust fund. Morris Townsend, a slimy, opportunistic man views Catherine as a vulnerable target and begins to court her, much to the chagrin of her equally repugnant father. Both men attempt to use Catherine for their own ends, however they vastly underestimate her. Catherine is the most unlikely heroine, yet her small victories over the manipulative men in her life make her one of the most endearing protagonists. —Cherylann Pasha

 

“Who in the heck is Patrick Modiano?” Who Do We Think We Are?

Posted on | October 17, 2014 | No Comments

2014-nobel-prize-winner-for-literature-patrick-modiano

“Why You Haven’t Heard of Patrick Modiano, Winner of the Nobel in Literature”(Time)

“The Nobel goes to Whom? We investigate an obscure author” (Chicago Tribune)

“Why nobody knows what to think about    Patrick Modiano winning the Nobel Prize for Literature”(NewStatesmen)

Guest Blogger: Frankie Rubio

With article titles like this (in the American media, that is), it’s clear to see that Modiano’s win came as a shock. Surprised reactions, however, do not mean that Modiano’s work is unimpressive, uninteresting, or undeserving, but simply that Modiano is relatively unknown to American audiences

Articles pouring in from the UK were more flattering. They introduced Modiano as an accomplished laureate who writes about compelling themes such as memory, time, and identity. Funny how these themes run through American attitudes toward his win: no one remembers his name because they never knew it, too much time has passed since he got that award in his thirties (1978), and he is a Frenchman no one has ever heard of.

Few of his works have been translated into English, so we can be forgiven a little but the tone of the article is reminiscent a high school phrase: he can’t sit at the cool kids’ table. Nowhere in the articles overseas does one find the “you can’t sit with us” attitude. Even the provocative nature of the American headlines reflects our arrogant attitude…as a reader it’s reassuring that not even Time Magazine knew who this Patrick guy was. (Who is he again?)

The bottom line is this: American egocentrism doesn’t just show how upset we get when we don’t win Miss Universe, but also exposes our ignorance of the world, literary and otherwise. The question is not “who in the world is this French guy, and what is he doing with our crown?” but “who do we think we are?” to be so elitist about perceiving Modiano, well, as a nobody. It seems that American journalists feel we need to know who he is for his accomplishments to count.

“How Straight Spouses Cope When Their Partners Come Out”

Posted on | October 10, 2014 | 2 Comments

You’re straight, your spouse is gay: now what? Christine Grimaldi, a Chrysalis Editorial freelance reader and Washington, D.C.-based writer, examines this question through interviews with “straight spouses” who have followed their gay partners out of the closet. As wrenching as that process may be for everyone involved, there is life on the other side of the closet door.

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Illustration: Aaron Tilley

After 16 years of marriage to a woman who would eventually come out as lesbian, Tom Teague made a promise to himself on a balmy October night in 2003: He would dance with every straight woman at the bar. Given the particularities of that evening, the odds were in his favor.

Teague, a reserved software development manager with a mop of white hair and a salt-and-pepper beard, was one of anywhere between 80 and 100 attendees at the annual beachside gathering in Florida for members of the Straight Spouse Network. He had arrived fresh from the memorial service for his mother, who had died of pancreatic cancer days earlier. But he sought solace from more than just her death. SSN had been his lifeline since his wife came out as a lesbian that January. More than ever, he needed to be with people who could understand him.

Click here to read more at Slate.

Review of Losing Touch

Posted on | September 2, 2014 | 3 Comments

Losing Touch by Sandra Hunter
Review by Herta Feely
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Much of what kept me turning the pages of Losing Touch was Sandra Hunter’s clever prose and deft touch in describing her various characters’ vulnerabilities, foibles, desires, and often awkward behaviors. Here is one such passage from character Sunila’s point-of-view (of her husband and daughter): “They are so alike…They even use their hands the same way when they speak. When they argue it’s like watching two mad, rival conductors swiping and slashing the air between them.”

The story focused mostly on Arjun, father and husband, who I found by turns frustrating because of his selfish behavior, and then touching because of his unfulfilled desires and growing illness. Sandra’s keen insight into the life of immigrant families, in this case Indian, recently settled in a foreign country, England, leaves one pondering their plight, and how it affects each generation so differently.

As an immigrant myself, I can relate to the complex emotions one experiences on being an outsider in a country that questions whether it wants you at all. I can hardly wait for Sandra Hunter’s next book.

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