What If Parents Had To Get Licenses to Have Kids? Interview with Author Kristen Tsetsi

Happy New Year!

It’s been a while since I’ve written here but I’m returning to share a conversation I’ve been having with Kristen Tsetsi, author of The Age of the Child, a novel that got me off to a thoughtful start for the year. In her novel, Tsetsi asks a provocative question: what if those of us who want to be parents had to get a license to do it?

Tsetsi’s novel takes place in a near-enough future to recognize many of the conditions that prevail today with a few key differences. She’s given herself freedom to imagine first what would happen if all forms of contraception were illegal and then to explore the natural response to the challenges that follow. What makes the story compelling, though, is how Tsetsi leads us through this world first through a mother, and then through her daughter so that we see how they struggle to live with themselves and each other within the confines of their world. The most poignant moments are the moments of connection and missed connection between each other but also with others. Tsetsi’s spare, skillful prose lets them struggle in front of us so that we become like people behind a two-way mirror. We can see what is happening, why it is happening, and, hearts rising to our throats, want to call out to these people. But they can’t hear us.

When we are through, though, we are thinking hard about things we’ve heard many say and things we’ve thought or said ourselves about children or parenting. We’re tempted into a conversation that we’ve not had with spouses, friends, or acquaintances. This is a book for those who like to dig into a good story but also to be challenged by “what if” questions that evoke a future that may be closer than we imagine. Perfect for book clubs. If you’d like to invite her to join you and your fellow readers, email her here: kris@kristenjtsetsi.com. If you’d like to enter to win a free, signed copy of The Age of the Child, I’ll be drawing a winner from current and new newsletter subscribers. To subscribe, all you have to do is go here: subscribe.

Here is a recent interview I had with Kristen Tsetsi about her novel, her writing process, and her dog Lenny who inspired the name for one of the characters and who inspires me to smile daily on Instagram. Kristen is smart, insightful, and witty as her followers of her blog, Facebook page, and Instagram can testify. She loves doing book clubs. Learn more about her, The Age of the Child, and more of her work at https://kristenjtsetsi.com/.

Q: You’ve mentioned in your blog that the seed for this novel came from a common phrase uttered whenever we encounter a parents we think are making mistakes or violate social norms, “think of the children.” I confess, versions of this has crossed my mind at times. What is it about this that compelled you to write about a world in which the government actually regulates who can become parents and who can’t?

A: Well, it’s hard not to imagine that world when we’re in a world right now in which many people want the government to regulate the choice to not parent. The idea of abortion—and in some cases, hormonal birth control—is so abhorrent to them that it feels perfectly legitimate to create a tiered system of rights: first rights to the unborn. The personal bodily rights of anyone with a uterus come second. It makes sense to them, because they’re “thinking of the children.”

“But there’s a flip side to “thinking of the children,” and it’s the one that concerns itself with walking, talking, breathing young people.”

Obviously banning birth control and criminalizing abortion pose no problem for those who welcome the choice to have oodles of children, but it’s horrifying for someone like The Age of the Child’s Katherine, who discovers that the clinic where she had an appointment for an abortion, one of the last remaining, has been forced by law to close.

But there’s a flip side to “thinking of the children,” and it’s the one that concerns itself with walking, talking, breathing young people.

This is where we as a society are lacking.

Not only do we accept without question that having kids is “just what people do,” but there’s also a lot of pressure out there to conceive (and then to conceive again).

Take, for one of many examples, Kathleen Parker’s Washington Post opinion piece, On Pleasure and Parenthood, in which she writes, “Parenting surely isn’t for everyone, and those who choose to be child-free probably have made the right decision. Then again, it’s hard to know for certain that one doesn’t want children. Many don’t, until they do.” (My response.)

This implication: “All women should want children. If they think they don’t, they should have one so they know for sure.”

As if inviting millions of strangers to bring innocent, vulnerable, helpless human beings into conditions unknown carries the consequent weight of, “You have to try that hot pepper. Oh my god, it’s crazy hot. Try it!”

In my opinion, that doesn’t reflect much thought for the children.

I wondered, “What would it look like to put the quality of life of children first, before the biological needs and baby longings of adults?”

After many years of trying it one way, the government in The Age of the Child decides, having seen the results of their legislation, there must be a better way. The only way, as they see it, is licensing.

Which is no problem at all for those who don’t want children (or any more children than they already have), but Millie happens to exist in this time, and it’s a terrible time for someone like her to want to be pregnant. 

Q: I’m sure there are as many situations as there are parents. As you developed your characters and their dilemmas, did you draw on parents or people you’ve observed? Did you find yourself having long thoughtful conversations with friends or friends of friends that yielded insights you ended up incorporating into your novel? How much of yourself and your own experience is in this novel? 

A: Two friends I’ve had for years are parents, and I’ve been lucky to hear them talk to me about their amazing kids from the time they were very young until now (one brother and sister are in their early twenties and the other brother and sister are in their late teens).

One of those friends, I’ll call her Helen, told me a story about a work acquaintance she visited one day after work. While there, Helen witnessed the treatment of her co-worker’s son. The father didn’t feed their son food – he fed him candy fruit snacks. Regularly, as meals. The father, when asked by his wife why he hadn’t made their son a sandwich while she was at work, said he hadn’t felt like it and, frankly, didn’t see why anything about his life or his schedule should have to change just because they had a child.

You’ll probably recognize the Age of the Child character that family inspired.

While writing, I had long conversations with the other friend, Danielle (named in the dedication), about pregnancy, childbirth, and the little things babies do that are unique to their personalities. If I got stuck on a spot while I was in the middle of a scene about a pregnant Katherine, I’d send her a text. I couldn’t have written Katherine’s pregnancy, post-childbirth, or baby-tending without her. Or the book itself, really.

I’ve also been someone’s child but not a mother, which might make it a little easier to imagine (or remember having) a child’s perspective, because it’s free from the filter of parenthood. And as someone who’s never wanted children, I had intimate insight into Katherine’s feelings about becoming a parent.

Q: An author takes risks when writing about controversial subjects or a big idea — the ability to balance the subject or idea with all the elements that make a good story is really important. Luckily, you have found a way to marry both — did you find yourself struggling with this at all during the writing of Age of the Child? Did you ever find yourself considering choices that might serve the idea at the expense of the story or vice versa? 

A: Thank you for saying that!

I think consciously thinking about an issue while trying to write a story could make it too tempting to get hung up on everyone’s political or moral arguments. The preaching from all sides would take over and the characters would get lost. I like to keep whatever the issue is – whether “thinking of the children” or, as in Pretty Much True, trying to put a spotlight on an under-explored wartime experience – in the background of my mind and in the background of the story, too, and to concentrate only on the lives being affected. “This is the situation. What would people do, how might they behave, how would they be personally impacted, in this situation?” That’s all I think about.

“This is the situation. What would people do, how might they behave, how would they be personally impacted, in this situation?” That’s all I think about.’

Q: Speaking as a person who became a parent quite young, I shudder when I think of the possibility that an outside entity could have legally regulated my ability to bear and raise my child. As many mistakes as I’m sure I made – and there are many — I still think I did as well if not better than most. But would I have met the licensing criteria in your novel? I’m far from sure. Have you spoken with readers who find themselves thinking about their parents or their children or their decisions in new ways after reading Age of the Child?

A: Because The Age of the Child only released in November, I haven’t received much in-person feedback, yet, but one reader said it generated a conversation with her husband while they were out for a walk. “We make people get licenses for almost everything else,” her husband said…

“Would you have passed? Only the evaluators know…”

There are so many factors considered for licensing…

Q: The mother-daughter relationships in Age of the Child are fraught. I’m struck by the decision of Katherine, the mother we meet in the first half of the book, to remain emotionally distant from the child she feels forced to have and how that impacts her daughter as she takes on the key role in the second half of the novel. I found myself thinking about the legacy we receive from our mothers and how it is rooted in things that we as children will never understand. Can you share a little of how the four main women in this book were born as characters and how they developed? Did they ever surprise you? 

A: This is a hard question. I love it.

One thing I want to point out first is that Katherine’s husband, Graham, isn’t innocent when it comes to the shaping of their daughter. I won’t say much more than that—I just want to clarify that his influence is more than ancillary. I made a point of including Graham and Ernie (the fathers) and their respective involvement in order to present them as just as impactful as mothers in their roles as parents. We put a lot on mothers and dismiss the fathers, in many ways, as a society, but that’s a different, bigger conversation.

I’m fascinated by the different perceptions adults and children have of their connections (or lack thereof). One forgettable hour to an adult —hell, one minute of an overheard conversation—can become an indelible memory to a child. An adult going about his or her life without a thought can unwittingly communicate a very clear, very powerful message to a child. I explored that dynamic in both families’ parent-child relationships, with one taking a negative turn and one going in a more positive direction (Lenny and her mother, as I see them, are very close!).

The characters developed out a desire to challenge stereotypes: I wanted a compassionate woman who didn’t want kids, and a selfish woman who did. I also wanted characters who adored their children and everything about parenthood, as well as characters who never “come around” to parenthood, whatever the circumstances. (“You’ll change your mind” is very big with some people, but only if you don’t want children. If you think you do want them, you’re trusted to know what you want.)

You also asked if any of the characters surprised me. I think Millie did. I wasn’t expecting to have such strong feelings for her adult character. Now and then I just want to hug her.

Q: When I meet with book clubs, I’m often asked about my writing process – do I outline the book or sit down and see what comes? How does a book come together for you? Do you write every day? Do you try not to write until you know exactly where you are going? How, if it all, has your process changed since first beginning to write? (And by the way, do are you available to meet with book clubs either in person on via Skype?

A: I try to write every day, but if I wake up one morning and feel nothing but dread at the thought of it, then I won’t. I see no reason to punch my meager amount of confidence in the face with awful writing. Instead, I’ll do the thinking part of writing, which is usually safe, or I’ll pull weeds or clean the house.

I should probably be working on outlines instead of pulling weeds, but I’ve never been great at outlining. I’ll do it in pieces, usually when I’m so lost in the story details that I can’t seem to remember how to move forward. Writing down a basic “this, then that, then that,” gets me back on track, and some details about plot points will get sloppy notes on a random notebook page, but otherwise I’m usually pretty disorganized.

However, The Age of the Child, while lacking a coherent outline, did get 25 little sticky tabs dividing writing journal notes on things like crime and punishment, licensing guidelines, the state of the country in this near-future time, arguments politicians would have, etc. Anything and everything the public could and would react to or be affected by.

And, yes! I am available to meet with book clubs via Skype. I would love to. How fun would that be?

Q: Finally, I want to know how Lenny, an uncommonly intelligent dog with the most expressive ears in all fifty states —  contributed to this piece. Was Murphy the dog based in any way on Lenny? Is she a good writing partner? Was she wounded when she discovered you had not dedicated the book to her? 

Murphy has a tiny bit of Lenny in her, and no, Lenny is not a good writing partner. She’s the worst. If I try to write on the couch, she sits next to me—on my cushion—and puts her nose between my face and the monitor. If I sit at the dining room table, she stands at my feet like a little hippo and stares at me with her ears. She’s very distracting, which is why I’ve become one of those annoying people writing in a Starbucks. But I only get four hours. The afternoon and evening belong to Lenny, who is the best impulse dog adoption ever, our three spectacular cats, and my husband Ian.

Lenny wasn’t too hurt about the dedication. I told her, “Look. You can have a character named after you, or you can get a dedication. What’s it gonna be?”

Q: What is the question you wished someone would ask that, somehow, no one has?

There’s no way anyone could know to ask this, so I don’t blame them for never having asked: “What do you wish you’d done for a writer that you didn’t do?”

While visiting New York City last winter, Ian and I went to the New York Public Library. There was a man sitting outside in a little metal chair, and (I can only assume) his books were stacked on a folding table in front of him. No one was stopping to talk to him or buy his books.

“You should go over there and talk to him about his book,” Ian said.

I hate small talk and will always try to avoid it, so of course I didn’t go over there. But now I wish I had. One person being enthusiastic about what you’re offering can make up for hours of people walking by without even a glance, and it would have been so easy to do. It would have cost nothing but a minute of feeling awkward and the price of a book.

Which is not to say he needed me to do that. I’m sure he’s fine. But, you know. You want to give to someone what you think you’d like, yourself.

 And, just because this is my blog and I can post whatever I want to, here’s another shot of Kristen’s editor, Lenny and her marvelous ears:

Sunday Sentence: Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

“It brought to him a disorienting strangeness, because his mind had not changed at the same pace as his life, and he felt a hollow space between himself and the person he was supposed to be.” – From Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

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I love reading them, so now I’ve joined the #SundaySentence party started by David Abrams over at the Quivering Pen and on Twitter. It’s not a review. It’s not a story. It’s just one sentence I read this week, presented “out of context and without comment” that hit me where I live. Do with it what you will.

Homecoming for me and books for you

As you read this, I will be back in the springtime embrace of my old homes. All of them. I’m bringing Casualties to the places and people who launched me as a writer and fed my writing , my dreams, and the story itself — sometimes in surprising ways. I’ll be writing about that when it all has a chance to sink in.

As we enter the eleventh week of Casualties‘ time in this world, I wanted to share a bit of my excitement about how it’s all been going by offering two signed copies over on Goodreads. To enter,  just click here: GOODREADS GIVEAWAY

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This is the first of regular giveaways not only of my novel, but of books by authors I have long loved and new writers I have discovered.

I’ll always be mentioning any giveaways for Casualties here, but if you are interested in books by others, please sign up for my newsletter by going here NEWSLETTER SIGNUP. That way I’ll be able to let folks know what books are up and they can let me know if they are interested in them.  Here, for example, are advance review copies five books that are not even published yet by some wonderful authors you will recognize and some you may not.  I’m looking forward to this!

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For You: A February Fiction Fest

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I’ve been looking forward to this all month. After all the support you have given me, I get to offer a very special giveaway to a lucky reader. Beginning Monday, February 22, you can enter a drawing to win not one, but FIVE novels.

Think about the alliterative possibilities here: Fine February Fiction From Five …Authors, okay, ran out of “F’s.” But we are all delighted to band together to give you enough reading material to get you through to spring.  All you have to do is go to the link below and enter the drawing which is run by Rafflecopter. The giveaway will run through February 29 — a great way to go out on a leap year. Then the winner will receive all five books FREE.

To Enter click: FEBRUARY FICTION GIVEAWAY

Or click here: FEBRUARY FICTION GIVEAWAY TOO

I’ve bought all four of my fellow writers’ novels and can’t wait to dig in. Here are what readers are saying about these books:

Casualties by Elizabeth Marro:  “… this powerful first novel will leave the reader reflecting for days.- Library Journal

One More Day by Kelly Simmons: “Beautifully dark, totally devastating and so riveting you might find yourself gripping the pages,” Caroline Leavitt, New York Times best selling author of Is This Tomorrow and Pictures of You.

Girl Through Glass by Sari Wilson: “Powerful. Gripping. Incandescent.” Jean Kwok, New York Times best selling author of Girl In Translation. 

The Forgetting Time by Sharon Guskin: “When I wasn’t reading The Forgetting Time, I was itching to return to it. And when I was reading it, my mind was exploding with questions about what’s possible, what’s probable, and how our lives are caught between the two. Provocative, evocative, and fresh, Guskin’s book is an explosive debut.”
—Jodi Picoult, #1 New York Times bestselling author of Leaving Time

In Another Life by Julie Christine Johnson (already in its second printing!): …”grabs you from page one and doesn’t let go. The story is intriguing, weaving past and present in an ever-tightening braid. Very highly recommended.” – Nicole Evelina, Historical Novels Review

Here’s that photo again, nice and big so you can enjoy all the beautiful covers. Thank you for everything and let me know if you have any questions!!!

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Sunday Sentence: A Hard and Heavy Thing by Matthew Hefti

 

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I love reading them, so I’m joining the #SundaySentence party started by David Abrams over at the Quivering Pen and on Twitter. It’s not a review. It’s not a story. It’s just one sentence I read this week, presented “out of context and without commentary.

This week, I had to grab more than one sentence from Matthew Hefti’s A Hard and Heavy Thing. This bit of conversation near the end of the story goes to the heart of the struggle about what it means to live on.

“Does the blood mark him? Ostracize him? … Is he grateful? Or does he live with guilt because he lives and flies and roosts? While the other bird lies limp, broken, dead? Does he ever cry for no reason?”

“Or,” she asked him, “does he savor every moment? Every taste of worm,  every ray of sunshine, every gust that lifts his wings and allows him to coast upon the breeze? Does he savor every touch?”

 

 

 

 

Gifts For and From the Dead

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You may see the usual Halloween suspects on Halloween night – zombies, witches, the cast of characters from Game of Thrones. I’m betting you won’t see anyone dressed up as Eric Hill. Or Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Never mind Peter Matthieson, Maya Angelou, Walter Dean Myers, Daniel Keyes or Joan Rivers.

Well, maybe Joan Rivers.

No matter, I saw them all today in the Ocean Beach branch of the San Diego Public Library artfully arranged among food, drink, paper flowers, candles, and skulls. They were honored in an imaginative ofrenda put together by one of our librarians, Jan Kregers.  She’d put it together to honor authors who died this year, evoking the Mexican tradition of honoring the dead on Dia de Muertos or Day of the Dead. On that day, family members — ancestors — are honored, remembered, offered their favorite foods. Each offering has a meaning. For a brief time those who still live and those who are gone reach across the divide for a while in memory, stories, lessons learned, laughter shared.

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Seeing these writers together brought their passing home to me in a way that was both sad and joyful. There was a sense of discovery when I learned that Eric Hill was behind all those “Spot” books. When I looked at the photograph of Daniel Keyes, I remembered the first time I read Flowers for Algernon” years ago and how the story and sadness stayed with me for days and how I went back and read it again. Gabriel Garcia Marquez is one of my favorite writers of all time as is Nadine Gordimer. There they both were, their faces framed in magenta, yellow, and lime green paper petals. It was kind of magical, really. And joyful because as sad as losing them was, they each left so much behind: memories, stories, lessons, laughter — and we can enjoy all them any day just by picking up one of their books.

If you were to do your own writer’s ofrenda, which authors would be on it?

Here are some more views of the ofrenda assembled by Jan Kreger:

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Real Food For Thought

photo 1Max Watman’s new book brought me back to fifth grade when my friend Debbie gave me half her chicken sandwich and I found a vein in it.

“What’s this?” I asked her when I saw the tiny purple tube protruding from the chicken meat nestled between two pieces of her mother’s homemade bread. She shook her head even though she was no longer surprised at all the things a transplant from the suburbs of Connecticut to the White Mountains of New Hampshire didn’t know, and she explained.

It was the first time I connected chicken with a formerly live animal, probably one I’d seen clucking around in her mother’s coop the week before when I helped Debbie collect eggs. Until then, I associated poultry with what came sealed in plastic wrap at the meat counter when my mother took me shopping. I wanted to put the sandwich down but I was hungry and embarrassed, so I pulled out the vein, closed my eyes and chomped. I don’t remember if it tasted much different from a “store-bought” chicken but I finished it.

In the decades since moving from northern New Hampshire, I’ve consumed flocks of chicken but few have had any remaining veins and most have come from places that sickened me when I saw them exposed on movies like Food Inc.

In his book Harvest, Field Notes From a Far-Flung Pursuit of Real Food, Max Watman writes of his efforts to to get as close to his food supply as he can without being a farmer. I started it because it was a gift from The Distiller who is his friend. I finished it because it made me laugh, wince, and begin to see a way to make friends with food again.

I am in the middle of a crisis when it comes to my relationship with food. The erosion of my faith in the food industry has converged with some health issues and lately I analyze benefits versus risk every time I take a bite of something I used to love unreservedly. Tomatoes. Eggplant (nightshade vegetables with inflammatory properties) Fresh peaches (pesticides). Fried peppers and provolone on crusty Italian semolina bread (nightshade, dairy and wheat gluten). Chicken, hamburgers or, increasingly, any meat at all (raised in inhumane conditions and unresolved issues about eating animals when I could thrive on alternatives).

My mental gyrations are those of a privileged person — one who has never known hunger or been deprived of basic sustenance by factors outside my control. I am grateful which gives rise to shame when I get lost in the dilemma of what to eat. This doesn’t make the food go down any easier.

Watman, on the other hand, is passionate about food. He comes from foodie roots; He was hooked on cooking at nine when he roasted a chicken for his ailing parents who were among the first “locavores.” He’s also a writer, which means he is curious and observant, not afraid to dig deep into a subject or look inward if his journey takes him there. He reads. He tries things.

The first half of “Harvest” takes us through his attempts to find “purity and quality, simplicity and grace” the elements that would make the food he serves friends and family better, to live, as he says later on, “as if I were on a farm but without the farm.” We meet Bubbles the steer he purchases and lets fatten on a Virgina farm while he introduces us to his chickens, “the girls,” his cheese-making efforts, the hunting, the fishing, and, of course, the garden.

Nothing quite goes as planned which, combined with the literature he’d absorbed without quite wanting to, brought him to a crisis in his neighborhood pizza joint. He stared at the familiar menu, utterly unable to think of a single thing he wanted to eat there and believed he had failed.

“When eating out, I had drifted into a weird indecisiveness…I was now well versed on the wretched conditions of our fisheries and the wretched conditions of the fish therein. Steak frites made me think of concentrated feedlots, and chicken in any form made me think of the slurry of filthy water through which the carcasses of the recently slaughtered birds are run to “clean” them and “cool” them.”

The crisis nearly becomes a writer’s crisis until Watman’s wife, Rachel, points out that amid the failures were successes, thriving like volunteer tomatoes amid his disappointments. It’s a good thing too because the moment in the pizza joint leads to a mouth-watering description of a pizza that he goes home and makes himself. He made fresh mozzarella, his own pizza dough — slowly fermented to help his wife digest the wheat — and heated sauce he’d made from tomatoes he’d grown.

These moments when Watman discovers what his search, and his book, are really about kept me turning the pages when I should have been writing, packing for a trip, and about a thousand other things that will hammer me at 3 a.m. tomorrow when I can’t sleep.

I’m not sorry though. How can I be sorry when I get much-needed perspective like this:

“It’s important — drastically so in this age — to approach a fish counter with knowledge of which oceanic fruits are better choices than others. It’s also important not to have a small-scale nervous breakdown every time you want to make chowder.”

Or insights not only to the making of bread but the art of looking:

“Once you begin looking at processes, once you begin thinking about ingredients and techniques, once you know how to look at one thing carefully, you are simply better at looking.”

Or the wisdom that foraging can teach (even when foraging is defined as coming upon black (grey at least) market caviar at a deli):

“I had thought of foraging as a specialty, a hobby for the gastro-fringe, but I came to see that to take up foraging in whatever manner, is to learn to travel in your own place.”

What the pursuit of real food comes down to, Watman shows us, is deciding how we will participate in bringing the food we eat to table. His well-told stories of his own experiences — and the meals along the way — show that even those of us who will never be farmers or hunters or fishermen can do more that we think, have fun doing it, and gain a little balance and wisdom in the process.

See how the Camembert cheese worked out at Max Watman’s Tumblr

And let me know if you’ve been reading any books that make you think differently about food!

 

 

 

 

Journeys and Thanks

Dear Fellow Travelers,

With my last post “A Journey to Now,” I wrapped up a month-long celebration of journeys and books. Each post  focused on a particular journey and the book that either took me or came along for the ride. Because this month also encompassed my birthday, always a milestone in life’s journey, I celebrated by sharing the books I mentioned. I put the names of all those who commented or “Liked” a post into a program at Random.org and drew names.

First, thank you to all for taking the time to read and let me know how you felt. I appreciate every single connection, old and new. Here are the winners of all three books.

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Matt Weiland and Sean Wilsey’s STATE BY STATE from Road Trip, One Page At A Time went to Camille at Wine and History Visited

This looks just like the cover of our copy of "Stranger"

This looks just like the cover of our copy of “Stranger”

Robert A. Heinlein’s STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND from Strangers in a Strange Land went to fellow blogger Fat Bottom Girl Said What?

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A signed copy of Katrina Kenison’s MAGICAL JOURNEY will go to Beth at I Didn’t Have My Glasses On.

Thanks everyone. Here’s to the journey we are all on, alone and together.