Interview with Emma Claire Sweeney, author of Owl Song at Dawn

Today I’m delighted to be welcoming the talented Emma Claire Sweeney to my blog as the final stop on the Owl Song at Dawn blog tour. Owl Song at Dawn is Emma’s debut novel and was inspired by her sister who has cerebral palsy and autism. The novel was published on the 1st July by Legend Press.

My review follows the interview.

Owl Song Cover

Welcome, Emma! Thanks for coming by to talk with us today about your novel.

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photo  taken by Rosalind Hobley

Firstly, could you please describe the story for readers?

Maeve Maloney is a force to be reckoned with. Despite nearing eighty, she keeps Sea View Lodge just as her parents did during Morecambe’s 1950s heyday. But now only her employees and regular guests recognise the tenderness and heartbreak hidden beneath her spikiness.

Until, that is, Vincent shows up. Vincent is the last person Maeve wants to see. He is the only man alive to have known her twin sister, Edie. The nightingale to Maeve’s crow, the dawn to Maeve’s dusk, Edie would have set her sights on the stage all things being equal. But, from birth, things never were.

If only Maeve could confront the secret past she shares with Vincent, she might finally see what it means to love and be loved, a lesson that her exuberant yet inexplicable twin may have been trying to teach her all along.

What is it that makes this story unique?

Owl Song at Dawn explores the UK’s hidden history of learning disability from the 1930s to the present day – a subject very close to my heart since my sister has cerebral palsy and autism. Few novels enter this territory, and, those that do, tend to perpetuate the myth that learning disability leads irrevocably to family breakdown.

What motivated you to write this novel?

I have yet to come across a novel that offers a place for my kind of family: one that has largely succeeded in lovingly accommodating learning disability. And yet, such families are – and always have been – typical.

Novels, I believe, can subvert misconceptions. I wanted to challenge the assumption that a sibling must inevitably resent her sister or brother with learning disabilities; that the life of someone with learning disabilities must be overwhelmingly bleak; that families who raise their disabled child at home are somehow saintly in their powers of endurance. I wanted to celebrate people of all sorts of abilities and call into question what our society tends to value. 

When did this story begin, for you as the writer?

Inspired by William Horwood’s wonderful novel, Skallagrigg, my first ever secondary school creative writing assignment was about a girl trying to decipher a phrase that her sister kept repeating indistinctly.

Over a decade later, when I was studying on the University of East Anglia’s MA course, I found myself gravitating again to this subject during timed creative writing exercises even though I was working on a novel about an entirely unrelated subject.    

Keenly aware that I was in the early days of studying my craft and alert to the importance of a sensitive representation of learning disability, throughout my twenties I wrote about other subjects. And yet, I never doubted that my pen would one day return to this.

What challenges did you encounter while writing the novel?

I wanted Edie, the twin who is diagnosed back in the 1930s as ‘severely subnormal’ to narrate in the first-person, answering back stereotypes with candour, authenticity and verve. And this is where I came unstuck. Initially, I imposed certain limitations on myself – Edie’s voice would only be in the present tense, for instance – in my attempts to capture her apparent inarticulacy on the page.

Although early readers praised the energy of such excerpts, I knew deep down that there was a falsehood at their heart. The rules I imposed on myself threatened to alert the reader to the artifice of Edie’s voice rather than providing the intimate empathetic experience I’d so confidently set out to offer. What’s more, there was a childishness to these sections that undermined my desire to subvert the persistent popular perception of people with learning disabilities as infantile.

How could I convey a certain type of inarticulacy, distinct from the language (or lack of it) in early childhood that would nonetheless demonstrate full access to emotion and the experience of being human?

The answer was close to home. I began transcribing all the things my sister said to me during our nightly phone-calls. In my revised novel, I have attempted to capture something of Lou’s inventive phrases and melodic use of language in the voice of Edie, my character with learning disabilities. Of course, I have simultaneously adapted it for the character who was born in the 1930s in Morecambe and whose seminal life experiences are radically different from Lou’s.

One of my favourite things about this novel is that it not only features disabled characters, but it contains a number of them—in fact, the story is reliant on them, as are the other ‘able’ characters. Could you talk a little about what went into your decision to create a positive story with disability at its centre?

People with learning disabilities and those who love them often know lots of other people with learning disabilities too. I felt that an authentic representation would explore this sense of identity.

When I moved to the town where I now live, it took me a while to feel at home. My first real sense of community came when I was awarded an Arts Council sponsored writing residency at Sunnyside Rural Trust – a social enterprise that offers work experience to adults with autism and learning disabilities. The people there welcomed me into their world with such generosity and warmth that I was struck by the inadequacy of the term ‘disability’. Here were a group of people with all sorts of abilities that demand to be celebrated.    

There are very few characters like Edie, Len and Steph in literature. Why do you think this is and what can be done to remedy it?

I’ll be candid! I suspect that publishers shy away from acquiring books about people with learning disabilities – especially those novels that question misconceptions. We have a problem in the UK with the literary industry showing little faith in readers.

Publishing is chronically undiverse – white, middle-class, Oxbridge, metropolitan – and the gatekeepers are often subconsciously attracted to characters and scenarios that are close to home. But I think that readers are far cannier: we want to read about all sorts of people and enter into all sorts of new worlds – whether they be refreshingly new or reassuringly familiar.    

Your novel not only includes a rich cast of disabled characters, but also features characters who are elderly. Both of these groups are often neglected in mainstream fiction. What advice would you give to writers who wish to expand their character range to include more diverse characters?

Just do it! If the world you are representing would contain all sorts of different characters, then it is only right to render this on the page. But you must do it with authenticity. Work out both the stereotypes and the overly politically correct versions and then try to avoid either extreme. Immerse yourself in the worlds about which you write.

Edie, and those like Edie, aren’t always able to communicate their experiences in the same way as others. Unfortunately, because of the society we live in, this means that they are often excluded. In your opinion, what can be done to create a more inclusive and welcoming society, and what can individuals do to help foster a culture of positivity towards difference?

We need to start focusing on what people can do and less on what they can’t. If we really began to value a wider range of skills, we could increase the shameful rates of paid employment among people with learning disability in the UK (currently 6.6%) and we would see a much-needed fall in rates of disability hate crime (which rose by 41% last year).

I hugely admire my sister’s capacity for happiness – a skill far beyond the reaches of most classrooms. At parties, she is always the first on the dancefloor, giving the rest of us permission to shed our inhibitions by dragging us in her wake. The best way to foster inclusivity is to discard any anxiety or embarrassment and interact with people of all sorts of abilities, learning to value all they have to give. 

Could you talk us through your journey to publication? Was it difficult to find a publisher for the novel, given its themes and characters?

The journey to publication began with relative ease when I was signed by Veronique Baxter at David Higham Associates. I had long admired her, since she represents Emma Henderson (Grace Williams Says It Loud) and Edward Hogan (The Hunger Trace) – two authors whose representations of disability I hold in extremely high regard. Early readers likened Owl Song at Dawn to novels by Maggie O’Farrell, and I was hugely complimented by the comparison. Naively, I assumed that publishers were hungry for books like this that bridge the literary/commercial divide. But editor after editor came back to us saying that they could not work out how to market this book.

I think they were put off by the combination of a cast of characters with disabilities, the northern setting, and the elderly protagonist. Ironically, if I had written a high literary novel, representing a bleaker narrative of disability, it might have been easier to get it published. Certainly, a more commercial novel that repeated well-worn stereotypes would have fared better.

I did work on the novel with an editor from one of the big publishers but she ended up getting cold feet. But this redraft meant that the novel was pretty much ready to print when my tenacious agent sent it to the wonderfully risk-taking team at independent publisher, Legend Press.

Can we expect another novel from you?

So long as I can get it published! I’ve completed the research for The Sister Who Throws Scissors – a novel that will bring together both my fascination with female novelists and my interest in disability. I discovered that the sister of one of my favourite authors was diagnosed with ‘imbecility’ and written out of the family history. The Sister Who Throws Scissors will be narrated by her. 

Is there anything else you’d like readers to know about you or your writing?

My next book will be a non-fiction book on female literary friendship, which I am co-writing with my own writer friend, Emily Midorikawa. A Secret Sisterhood: the hidden friendships of Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot and Virginia Woolf will come out in autumn 2017 with Aurum Press in the UK and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in the USA.  

Thanks so much for coming by to talk with us today! Best of luck with Owl Song at Dawn and with all your writing!

Readers can obtain Owl Song at Dawn from Amazon UK: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Song-Dawn-Emma-Claire-Sweeney/dp/1785079670/

Amazon US: https://www.amazon.com/Song-Dawn-Emma-Claire-Sweeney-ebook/dp/B015H5RQZY/

Owl Song at Dawn has been selected for Books etc. book club, so, until the end of July, the paperback is half price through them: http://www.booksetc.co.uk/features/view/1676-the-books-etc-club-july

Visit Emma’s blog: www.emmaclairesweeney.com

Follow her on Twitter: @emmacsweeney

Catch up with her on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/emmaclairesweeney/

My review of Owl Song at Dawn

I want to tell him that I need you to sit beside me in the pew, your head resting on my shoulder, the scent of Pears soap on your skin.

Vince Roper and Maeve Maloney’s shared youth frames the budding romance of their twilight years. But, while light-hearted in places, this is not your typical romance novel. Instead, it’s a novel about love—the love we seek, the love we share and the different forms this love may take, or not take, depending on the individual and their circumstances. Set against the once-glamorous backdrop of Morecambe in its heyday, Sweeney skilfully compares Morecambe’s glory days to Maeve’s own.

For Vince and Maeve, it was their shared love of Maeve’s twin, Edie, which brought them together. Edie was an enigma to Maeve. While similar in some ways, in others they couldn’t have been more different. While Maeve expected to obtain a degree, to travel, to marry and to have children, Edie’s life would never contain these pleasurable pursuits due to what her unhelpful physicians termed her ‘severe sub normality,’ and a society which seemed to be set against her unique abilities from the start. In modern-day terms, Edie was affected by  cerebral palsy with associated epilepsy resulting in frequent grand mal seizures, which sometimes put her life at risk. She was also autistic.

Their parents, already living under the constant fear that their beloved daughter might be taken from them, decide against medical treatment and instead choose to raise Edie at home (the story takes place in the 1930s, when the forced extermination of the disabled was taking place in Germany and eugenics was popular in Britain and America). This decision results in a close bond amongst the family and especially between Maeve and Edie, who is particularly loving and affectionate.

With not a word out of place, Sweeney tells her story with poetry (quite literally in the scenes where Edie speaks), poignancy, grace and an uplifting humour. Her characters make for a refreshing change as many of them are learning disabled. But Sweeney doesn’t make the mistake of treating her characters as poor, defenceless victims worthy of pity who sit helplessly on the side-lines while the other ‘real’ characters get on with the action. Instead, her disabled characters are central to the story. For without Maeve’s sister Edie, there would be no story. Without the help and companionship of Len and Steph (both of whom are learning disabled and who help to run Sea View Lodge), Maeve Maloney’s life would be joyless and she would not be able to keep up with her work. Sweeney’s novel demonstrates the importance of diversity and the pleasure which can be achieved when we embrace and celebrate our differences.

Owl Song at Dawn is a novel unlike any other I’ve ever read. Striking in its subtlety, nuance and depth, this is a novel to cherish. I shall look forward to re-reading this for years to come and uncovering new layers with each reading. I strongly encourage you to read this for yourself and see what you make of this ground-breaking new title.

Owl Song at Dawn blog tour

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Interview with Denise Ersalahi Erguler, author of children’s fantasy novel The Adventures of Shifting Jack

 

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I’m delighted to be welcoming the talented Cypriot children’s author Denise Ersalahi Erguler to the blog today to talk about her novel, The Adventures of Shifting Jack, which is released today as an ebook. My review follows the interview.

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credit: Olkan Erguler

Welcome, Denise!

Firstly, could you please describe the story for readers?

Yes with pleasure, it is about a family of bird shifters that have been in hiding moving from country to country

What’s the inspiration behind The Adventures of Shifting Jack?

I had an idea for an adult fantasy novel rattling in my mind for a while, so I decided to write my book called The Essence. It’s about a planet called Nageena. Fiona, an interior designer, is kidnapped by  aliens who are hoping Fiona can help them with the civil war that is killing their planet. They picked up on Fiona’s unique brain waves – she has empathic abilities – but it doesn’t help the civil war as they have a problem with the planet’s defence system. Fiona meets the man of her dreams, literally. She has been dreaming of a man since she was a little girl. In her dreams they grew up together, and now she meets him in the flesh. However, she doesn’t feel anything for him. Even worse it looks like he hates her!

The Denizens of planet Nageena are shape shifters, they host a symbiant entity called The Essence, which allows them to shift into various animals.

My son wanted to know what I had written about, so I told him the clean version. His face lit up when I told him about shifting, so I thought I would write a shifting story for children.

Jack and his father, Militis, are shape shifters—half breeds. What appealed to you about shapeshifters and, for those who don’t know what a shapeshifter is, could you please describe one?

A shape shifter is being that can change their body into another shape like a human into a bear, or bird.

One of the things I took away from my reading of the book is the value of respecting nature and being kind to animals, and each other. This is a very important message, especially for young children. Did you consciously weave this lesson, and others, into the book?

Yes, Mother Nature needs to be looked after better. It’s always easier to start with children of a young age, you would be surprised what they pick up on.

How long did it take you to write the story and what obstacles did you encounter along the way?

It’s been three years since I wrote my first word. The biggest obstacle we came across was when I was diagnosed with a rare form of brain cancer. Since then I have been focusing on getting better–my writing has taken the back seat for now.

Once your first draft was written, did you have a lot of rewriting to do? Could you talk readers through your writing process?

First I wrote a basic outline, then I expanded that into chapters. Once it was finished I passed it on to Anne Hamilton to edit. Once I had her feedback I changed one scene and added other scenes and events.

The story is written in close third-person, from nine-year-old Jack’s perspective. Did you find it difficult to write from a child’s viewpoint, and what challenges did you come across as a result?

I didn’t find it difficult to write as a nine-year old, as I have a nine-year old boy myself.

How did you come to writing? Have you always enjoyed storytelling?

 I’m a dreamer, sometimes I think I’m away with the fairies more than I am on earth. I lived in The Essence story for over a year. It was hard to end the book.

Are there any future novels in the works?

Yes, I’ve just started to plan out the second Shifting Jack of the series.

Thank you for the interview and a big congratulations on the publication of The Adventures of Shifting Jack!

Readers can obtain The Adventures of Shifting Jack from: http://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B01I5GAMNA

You can follow Denise on Twitter at: @Denise_Jack16

Catch up with her on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/Denise-Erguler-Author

My review of The Adventures of Shifting Jack

Nine-year-old Jack and eight-year-old Lily move with their parents, Linda and Militis, to Turkish Cyprus, uncertain of what to expect from their new school and home. The family has already moved numerous times for Militis’s work. Jack and Lily have become used to switching schools and not having friends. As a result, Lily is shy and withdrawn and Jack feels it’s his duty to look out for her; Lily is all he has in terms of a playmate. Linda worries about them and wishes they could stay put for once.

When Linda takes the kids to their new school, she’s impressed. The staff and students are welcoming and friendly, far more so than those at the previous schools they attended. Lily makes a friend almost immediately—Bahar—whose mother also reaches out to Linda. Before they realise it both families have become close.

As the kids are playing on the playground one afternoon, a small earthquake hits. Jack reaches out to try and help Lily escape from a falling swing-set when something remarkable happens—his hand turns into a claw and grows feathers. When it changes back again, he thinks he must have imagined it.  But Militis confesses to Jack that they’re shifters—creatures who are both human and bird. Jack knows he’s finally figured out why his family have always seemed different to him.

Unfortunately, Bahar’s father, Ali, is a hunter—an activity which Jack’s family is firmly opposed to. When it comes to light that Ali isn’t only a hunter but is also being blackmailed by foreign poachers, Jack and Militis decide to get involved by using their shifting powers to help. But will they be too late? And will Jack ever master his shifting, or will he end up getting himself, and his family, into trouble?

The Adventures of Shifting Jack is a delightfully imaginative fable for middle-grade children whose fresh and different perspective will also appeal to their parents.

Interview with J.A. Corrigan, author of Falling Suns

Today I’m welcoming debut novelist J.A. Corrigan to my blog as part of the Falling Suns blog tour. Her psychological thriller, Falling Suns, is published by Accent Press and will be released on the 14th July. It is available to pre-order on Amazon now.

J.A. Corrigan is holding a book launch for Falling Suns on Thursday 21st July 2016 at Daunt Books, 158-164 Fulham Rd, London SW10 9PR. If any readers would like to pop in for a glass of wine, contact J.A. at jacorrigan.writer@btinternet.com

My review follows the interview.

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Welcome, J.A.! Thanks for coming by to talk with us today about your writing, especially your debut novel, Falling Suns.

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credit: Graham Keutenius

Firstly, could you describe the story for readers?

Thank you for having me on here, Kendra.

The story is essentially a tale centred on the themes of grief, guilt and revenge. Rachel Dune’s son is brutally murdered. She is devastated, and feels some guilt that in part she is somehow to blame. Rachel is an ex-detective; she is mentally strong, and possesses a vigorous sense of what she thinks ‘right.’ Being an ex-policewoman she is endowed with many of the necessary emotional and physical ‘tools’ to carry out her revenge.

However, as Rachel moves closer to her target and begins to remember her own past, reservations emerge about both her actions, and motivation.

Why did you choose to write this story? Your novel contains some very dark, distressing themes which I can imagine would not have been easy to write about!

The idea for this story arose from, I suppose, being a mother, and all the emotional turmoil that comes with being a mother; the real angst and worry that something tragic could happen to your child. How would you cope? Especially when the child is brutally murdered, and as is so often the case, murdered by someone known to the family, or within the family itself. I thought hard about Rachel’s decision and path to revenge. I even did straw polls of mothers! Only a few said that they could not contemplate revenge – that to lose a child would be so devastating that any thoughts of reprisal would be the last thing on their mind. But as I questioned more, more mothers agreed that given a chance, and if they were given the opportunity to do so, they would indeed think about revenge. 
I carried out a lot of research for this novel, and some of the events are based loosely on that research; but as we all know, fact can be a lot stranger than fiction. I also wanted to explore areas of criminal behavior that are less well-documented and discussed.
Parallel with the revenge theme, I set out to explore institutional corruption and the effect it can have on the patients within those institutions. And so the story of Rachel’s revenge became woven into the murderer’s own tale.

Did you carry out any research for the novel? If so, could you describe this for readers?

As I have mentioned in the previous question, I did carry out extensive research for the novel. I read non-fiction books about the United States’ penal system, and many of those books were written by psychiatrists who had spent their life working with inmates on Death Row. I also researched psychiatric hospitals in the UK – looking online at old news reports etc. I am very lucky to know a criminal lawyer, who after years representing many of the people who were subsequently sectioned and sent to one of these institutions, now works as a lawyer sitting on mental health tribunal panels.

I also did substantial research into Method acting, speaking at length with an actress who was great in answering my questions, and generally really helping me understand not only about Method, but acting in general. I researched Chinese Medicine too, although as with some of the medical scenes with Rachel, I did draw upon my own medical background – I am a qualified physiotherapist and have used Chinese acupuncture for pain relief with my patients.

What obstacles, if any, did you encounter when writing Falling Suns?

I think the main obstacles were firstly, achieving the balance with Rachel’s character – she has to be strong and quite hard-nosed, but also emotionally fragile. Secondly, I did find writing the more harrowing scenes difficult and often found it hard-going to write them. In the end I had to take myself away and pretend I was someone else (like an actor) and just write those scenes.

I understand that an early draft of Falling Suns was longlisted for the 2013 Mslexia Novel Competition. How did making the longlist affect you as a writer? Do you think that being longlisted helped you to achieve publication?

I think for any aspiring novelist, being longlisted (and definitely shortlisted) in a prestigious writing competition can only be a motivator. It did give me the impetus to carry on, and rework the novel. I think being longlisted in the Mslexia competition made me realise that with more work ­I might just make the grade! The bar is set high these days. The standard of writing is towering in these competitions, as there are so many authors out there with talent, and a desire to succeed.

What do you feel you’ve gained through the writing of your novel?

With Falling Suns I honed more my craft both as a writer, and to a large extent – I think – became a ‘nicer’ human being. Writing Falling Suns encouraged me to think a lot about life, and the emotions of grief, loss and anger. About what is important, and what is not so important.

On a more practical level, writing Falling Suns really did hone my skills in writing a coherent story – a story with a beginning, middle and end. I think the novel taught me how to build some tension in the story, which is so important, and something that has taken me years to be able to do … well, I hope I manage to do it!

You’ve chosen to publish under your initials. Why did you choose to do this and what went into this decision?

In many ways, I wanted to be genderless. I wanted the writing and the book to stand-alone ­– away from my name, and me. I also quite like J.A. Corrigan!

I understand that you’re also a published short story writer. Do you feel that writing a novel was a natural next step for you? How did you make the transition?

I started my writing ‘career’ with the short story form and I think many writers do begin this way. The discipline of making every word count is essential to the novelist. The trick is – not to write the bits that the reader skips over and I truly believe writing shorts assists the aspiring novelist in achieving this.

I decided to write a novel when I realised that each short story I wrote was in fact like a mini-synopsis for a novel! I think I was itching to write a longer length work, although at the time I had no conception of how difficult it would turn out to be, which in retrospect is probably a good thing …  

Are there any future novels in the works?

Yes, I am working on my next novel, which is another dark tale and the same genre as Falling Suns.

Many thanks for coming to speak with us today, and best of luck with the publication of Falling Suns!

Falling Suns is available from Amazon UK: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Falling-Suns-J-Corrigan/dp/1786152495

Amazon US: https://www.amazon.com/Falling-Suns-J-Corrigan-ebook/dp/B01FUI9NKY/

Falling Suns is also available from Waterstones: https://www.waterstones.com/book/falling-suns/julie-ann-corrigan/j-a-corrigan/9781786152497

The Guardian Bookshop: https://bookshop.theguardian.com/catalog/product/view/id/414323/

And WH Smith: http://www.whsmith.co.uk/products/falling-suns/9781786152497

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My review

Falling Suns is an emotionally intelligent, well-plotted thriller which explores the experience of being a mother, with its unwavering responsibilities and attachments which may not always be understood–or accepted—by others. Rachel and Liam Dune would appear to have a good life, when viewed from the outside. Rachel’s ever-helpful best friend, Charlotte, lives nearby as do her parents and aunt and uncle. Her husband, Liam, works from home as a renowned painter. So when Rachel eventually decides it’s time for her to go back to work as a detective it would seem that their son, seven year old Joe, will be well looked after in her absence.

Of course, appearances can be deceptive and sometimes what is hidden can be more dangerous than what we think we see. When Joe goes missing, his parents fear the worst. Rachel has worked on cases such as this herself, and understands more than she’d like to.  How will Rachel’s worst fears compare with the reality of what’s actually happened to Joe? When Joe is later found dead, and Rachel’s cousin Michael Hemmings admits to the crime, will her suffering give way to grief, or will it simply continue on, taking new and ever changing forms?

Four years after Michael Hemmings has been confined to a secure psychiatric unit, Rachel receives notification that he’s being moved to a less-secure unit in order to begin reintegrating him into society. Unable to bear the thought that Hemmings may one day be free, Rachel Dune decides to quit her job on the force in order to make sure that never happens. But to achieve her aim, she’ll have to cut ties with everyone, and everything, she thinks she knows.

Rachel’s character is the antithesis of the distraught, oppressed female heroine who silently suffers while the men in her life go out and right wrongs. Not only is Rachel a character to be reckoned with, but Corrigan does not shy away from showing readers the more disturbing elements of Rachel’s personality, thus turning female stereotypes on their head.

Corrigan explores the layers which make up families, friendship and society as a whole, and the ways in which relationships can go terribly wrong. Falling Suns raises interesting questions about the nature of the mental health institutions we have in place in modern-day Britain and how effective these are at both assisting individuals in need and in containing those few who really are a danger to others. Oh yes, and it’s a gripping read too.

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