From Page to Stage by Betsy Graziani Fasbinder

Everyone expects that writers will do a bit of public speaking—book tours for the most successful writers and at least one or two local events for those in the midlist. Authors of books for children are expected to do school visits, speaking to the most demanding audience of all. But in the social media era, opportunities for authors to speak have exploded. Authors are supposed to seek out chances to be on podcasts and Zoom with book clubs and post to their Instagram stories. Staying home and writing just isn’t enough anymore.

Never mind that most authors are introverts who dislike the spotlight. Readers assume that authors who are interesting and dynamic on the page will be equally engaging in real life, even though holding a pen and holding the stage are completely different skillsets.

Fear of public speaking is real, but it’s a lot less scary with FROM PAGE TO STAGE as a guide. Fasbinder is a public speaking coach who specializes in writers, so she has tips tailored to our specific needs. She understands how hard it is to talk about our novels and memoirs, when really, we just want people to read them.

Fasbinder begins by calming writers’ nerves, reminding us that there are lots of rewards for speaking in public. She then provides all the tools necessary, from the blueprint of a perfect talk, to how to stand, how to remain composed, and even how to handle those annoying people who have “more of a comment than a question.” She has tips for using Powerpoint slides, and tips for doing a live reading. She even discusses things like podcast interviews or how to talk about your book one-on-one in casual conversation.

There are exercises at the end of every chapter, although I don’t think they’re necessary. Most of them consist of Fasbinder recommending a TED talk, but watching TED talks doesn’t teach you anything about how to give one. It would have been nice to have some exercises about posture or a practice Q and A. Instead, I figured out what to practice on my own from the excellent information and examples in the book.

FROM PAGE TO STAGE is a gift to authors. It’s filled with concrete advice and actionable steps a writer can take to get better at public speaking. It’s the book we need for the skill that we all need to develop.

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FROM PAGE TO STAGE can be found here.

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Rating: 4 stars

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I recommend this book

Bonus blog: Editing Services

Hello friends,

Here’s something you might not know about me: I’m a professional editor with over a decade of experience editing for small presses and private clients.

I have not advertised this fact until now because I didn’t need to. In the before-times, my clients found me via word of mouth, and my inbox was always full. However, the entire economy slowed down last year, and I slowed down along with it.

But that’s good news for you! I have openings now, so if you’ve been looking for a freelance editor for your novel or memoir, I might be a good fit for you. If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you know that I am passionate about helping writers. That passion extends to my editing work, as I strive to help writers bring better books into the world.

You can find out more information at my other site: AlexKourvo.com.

I’ll be back on the 1st with my regular book review. Until then, happy writing!

Alex K.

A Writer Prepares by Lawrence Block

Lawrence Block wasn’t always Lawrence Block. I mean that figuratively and literally. He wasn’t always a Grand Master of the mystery genre, and he wrote an incredible number of novels under secret pen names before ever putting his own name on a book. A WRITER PREPARES is a memoir of Block’s start, from his earliest writing attempts in high school and college up to the publication of the first novel under his own name.

In the late 1950s, while he was still in college, Block had a job writing rejection letters for the Scott Meredith Agency. It was a fee-charging agency that was very bad for writers but kind of great for Block, since it got him connected to his next job, which was writing short erotic novels. He had contracts with two publishers to deliver a book a month, for which he was paid a flat fee, and he continued doing that for a decade, during which time he got married and had two daughters. He took day jobs here and there, but still wrote erotica on the side until 1966, when he finally started writing crime novels in earnest, starting with The Thief Who Couldn’t Sleep.

A WRITER PREPARES is incredibly smooth reading, written in Block’s conversational style. It’s also funny. I kept stopping to read parts of it out loud to my family, because they wanted to know why I was giggling my way through a memoir. Even the parts that were horrifying, such as the terrible treatment of writers by the Scott Meredith Agency, were hilarious in that whole “laugh so I don’t cry” way. Block puts a light spin on everything, reminding us that writing truly is the best job in the world.

A WRITER PREPARES might seem like an odd choice for this blog. I’m all about how-to books after all. But Block is a natural teacher, and he’s always giving writing lessons, whether he means to or not. I learned so much from this book—more than I can put in a review—but here’s a small taste.

Agents don’t care about writers or writers’ careers. They care about their own bottom line. The Scott Meredith Agency was particularly scammy, charging authors a reading fee, never sending work out, and lying to authors about their submissions. But are modern agents much better? To agents, writers are interchangeable. It’s not worth going to bat for one writer when there are plenty of others to fleece represent.

Write to market. Block learned this lesson early and well. He wrote his school compositions based on what he thought his teachers wanted, and won an eighth-grade essay contest by extolling the virtues of “Americanism” because he knew the judges were patriotic. His erotic novels were always the exact length and heat level the publisher wanted. He read every back issue of Manhunt he could find to understand what the editor was looking for when he sent them stories. When Block had the idea for The Thief Who Couldn’t Sleep, he sat on it until he was sure he had all the elements for a complete story that would appeal to mystery readers. There is nothing wrong with having original ideas that are wild and fun, but keeping the audience in mind is how a writer gets read.

Practice is never wasted. Block happily admits that he spent his twenties writing crap. All of it was under pen names for low-budget publishers and most of the time, he never saw a copy. But this served as a risk-free apprenticeship that made him the writer he is today. It allowed him to experiment, to pick up new skills, and to practice writing to a deadline. Writing a whole lot of bad fiction is a great way for a writer to learn to write good fiction.

Treat it like a job. Block may have written terrible fiction when he was just starting out, but he wrote a lot of it. He wrote while taking college classes, he wrote while editing the college newspaper, he wrote while working full time at a literary agency. Before he ever sold a word of fiction, he still wrote every day while rejection letters piled up. When he had to quit school and move back home for a semester, he wrote in his childhood bedroom. Block wasn’t a professional. He wasn’t getting paid. He wrote anyway.

Community is important. Block did his best work when surrounded by writers and publishing people. In New York, Block hung out with Donald Westlake, Hal Dresner and Robert Silverberg, and their shoptalk was vital to his success. At one point, Block moved his family to Buffalo to be near his aging mother, and his writing suffered. Pre-internet, a writer had to either live near other writers or write a whole lot of letters. Block tried the latter, but was happier with the former, and moved back to New York as soon as he could.

The book world has changed a lot since the 1950s. Or has it? There are still plenty of very bad literary agents out there, and new writers are strung along by empty promises every day. Writing erotica is different now, but with Kindle Unlimited, there are once again authors serving apprenticeships by publishing a short erotic novel each month. Writing to market is still important, as is not holding too tightly to early work. And no matter what, surrounding yourself with like-minded writers is still the best path to happiness and success.

Reading a writer’s memoir is always inspirational, but A WRITER PREPARES is both inspiring and instructive. It’s a delightful look back in time filled with lessons for the present day.

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A WRITER PREPARES releases on June 24 and can be pre-ordered here

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Rating: 4 stars

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This book is best for: all writers

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I recommend this book

Craft in the Real World by Matthew Salesses

Korean-born novelist Salesses has a lot of questions about the traditional writing workshop. Who is it for? Who does it benefit? Is there any way to teach writing that doesn’t perpetuate unequal power structures? And why is most literary fiction so gosh-darned bland, as if all the interesting edges have been sanded off? But CRAFT IN THE REAL WORLD isn’t just for teachers or MFA students. It’s essential reading for anyone writing fiction today.

College writing workshops were created for upper-class, white, straight male writers, and many of the rules of fiction writing comes from them. What we consider high-quality writing is always seen through this lens. We like to pretend that craft is pure in some way, without bias, but that’s simply because the bias is invisible. Whose stores are told, whose stories have value, which plot structures are acceptable, and even which details are included are all based on an assumed reader, and that reader only comes in one flavor. Everything else is called “experimental” or “women’s fiction” or “diverse.” And in the rare occasions that other modes of expression are taught, it’s in contrast to the dominant form of fiction. Instead of asking why writing rules exist, we treat those who “break” the rules as exceptions. If a writer arrives with a different set of cultural expectations, she’ll be pressured to silence her own voice in order to conform to the norms of the group.

Salesses closely examines the typical subjects of writing craft books, asking why they always use realist fiction by dead white men as models. These are the hero’s journey stories we’re all taught, where the world bends to the hero’s will, and any problems in his life can be overcome through hard work and self-improvement. This is very much a Western, male view of the world and not one that everyone shares. In chapters on plot, conflict, tone, characterization, pacing, setting, and story structure, Salesses opens readers’ minds to new ways of thinking and writing. We don’t all write to the same market, and fiction doesn’t have to please a wide audience. It only has to please the right audience.

The last part of the book discusses practical ways to run a writing workshop that centers the author rather than those giving the critique. These methods are more labor-intensive for instructors (which is why most won’t use them). These new methods will empower writers so they can go on to revise their own stories even after they’ve left school. Working writers reading CRAFT IN THE REAL WORLD will find helpful tips to make their writing more inclusive, more interesting, and just better.

Reading CRAFT IN THE REAL WORLD wasn’t easy for me. I remembered my own college classes and community writing groups, thinking about the ways I was silenced, and the ways I unknowingly used my privilege to silence others. I found myself reading very slowly in order to truly absorb each point before moving on to the next. Some of the lessons were painful, some were embarrassing, but more than anything else, they were helpful. When you know better, you do better, and CRAFT IN THE REAL WORLD will help every single one of us become better writers.

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CRAFT IN THE REAL WORLD can be found here

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Rating: 5 stars

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This book is best for: intermediate and advanced writers

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I recommend this book

Dear Writer, it is Still 2020 by Becca Syme

During this pandemic, the running joke has been, “what is time?” The calendar may have turned, but the “2020ness” of it all is still with us. Vaccines are on the horizon and life is slowly returning to normal, so why are we still doomscrolling? Why are we unable to focus? Everything is just so much right now, and creativity has been forced into the backseat, while conversations with writer buddies always turn to laments about low productivity and lost opportunities.

If this is you, you’re not alone. That’s the biggest takeaway from DEAR WRITER, IT IS STILL 2020. You might see other authors gliding through the pandemic still writing, still publishing, still getting book deals and winning awards, and think, “What’s wrong with me?”

Nothing. Nothing’s wrong with you. But there is a whole hell of a lot wrong with the world, and the sooner you face that reality, the better off you’ll be. Syme explains that in many ways, 2020 has simply shone a spotlight on problems that had been bubbling under the surface for many years.

DEAR WRITER, IT IS STILL 2020 is an antidote to the gaslighting books that insist that if your books aren’t selling, it’s because you’re not trying hard enough, or you don’t believe in yourself enough, or your book isn’t written to market, or you aren’t spending enough on ads. Syme cuts through all that bullshit to give the real-world advice we need right now.

The book is divided into two halves: why you aren’t writing and why you aren’t selling. The first part covers three similar but distinct states: being stuck, being blocked, and being burned out. It’s important to not confuse these three, because each situation needs a different remedy. Syme is a coach with a ton of education and experience, and she knows what’s at the heart of most writers’ problems, and (thank goodness) she knows how to fix them.

The second half of the book covers sales (or lack of them). Syme explains why we ignore advice, why we don’t accept our limitations, and the problem of using old methods to solve new problems. She discusses the issues with pay-to-play ads and the traps writers fall into when they assume they’re outliers, or that “the market” doesn’t apply to them, or that they’re owed a certain level of sales simply because they achieved that level in the past. DEAR WRITER, IT IS STILL 2020 is aimed at self-published authors, but much of the advice can also apply to traditionally published authors, since much of the marketing falls on their shoulders, too. Syme’s mantra is to always “question the premise.” The way we sell books has changed in the last decade, and continues to change on a yearly—or even monthly—basis. If 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that situations always change, and we must change with them.

Taken as a package, DEAR WRITER, IT IS STILL 2020 is about more than just being a writer in the years 2020 and 2021. It’s about how to write whenever things get hard, when outside circumstances change, or when catastrophe hits. Which means it’s not just a book for our times, but a book for all times.

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DEAR WRITER, IT IS STILL 2020 can be found here

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Rating: 4 stars

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This book is best for: all writers

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I recommend this book

The Secrets of Story by Matt Bird

After a beginning writer learns the fundamentals of character and plot, there comes a long, frustrating period where she’s finishing novels, but they aren’t very good. And if they are good, they only get that way after many rounds of revision. It takes lots of practice to get to pro-level writing, but having good mentors and how-to books can help. THE SECRETS OF STORY is the perfect book for the writer who is ready to take the leap.

Bird is a screenwriter, but his lessons apply to novelists too. The chapter titles are exactly what I expected from a how-to book: character, plot, description, dialog, theme, and revision. However, the content of those chapters was not what I expected. On the surface, it seems like Bird is giving advice that goes against everything taught in more basic how-to books. But Bird doesn’t want to upend common wisdom. Instead, he’s inviting writers to go deeper, to expand on the knowledge they’ve already gained. In thirteen chapters, Bird lays down 122 “secrets” that are so good it feels he’s explaining the laws of physics rather than something as slippery and subjective as art.

For example, most how-to books tell you to make the protagonist “heroic,” but Bird says you should make your protagonist vulnerable. That’s where audience identification comes from, and audience identification is everything. And then, he thoroughly explains how to do it.

Most how-to books caution against making all the characters sound alike. So writers will give one character a lisp, one a catch phrase, and one bad grammar habits. That’s easy. It’s also terrible. However, Bird explains that what characters need is a preferred set of metaphors and a preferred argument style. This will distinguish characters from one another in a believable way. It also forces the writer to slow down and really get to know her characters instead of slapping a set of quirks on them.

There are hundreds of other little gems like this in THE SECRETS OF STORY, along with a huge helping of solid advice about storycraft. Bird provides checklists in the book and on his website, but warns writers against using them in a mechanical way. Writers need to internalize the reasons behind the rules, and then apply them in their own way. Bird is also an advocate for breaking the rules, even the very ones he sets down. He’s the first to admit that sometimes you have to mess with story structure or write the “wrong” kind of dialogue to make a better story.

But if a writer truly absorbs all the lesson in THE SECRETS OF STORY, she’ll have leveled up to a point where the rules simply make sense. And she’ll have all the tools she needs to write a solid novel that readers will love.

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THE SECRETS OF STORY can be found here

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Rating: 5 stars!

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This book is best for: intermediate writers

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I recommend this book

Bonus Blog: Valentine Giveaway

It’s almost Valentine’s Day! Who says couples get to have all the fun? Valentine’s day is about love in its many forms, and I love writers! I wish I could buy a gift for everyone who reads my blog. Since that’s not possible, I’ve done the next best thing. I’ve put together two gift boxes for two lovely readers.

Each gift box includes a how-to book along with other writerly goodies. This year, each box will also include a bar of artisan soap handmade by me! My soap is loaded with skin-loving ingredients and scented with amazing fragrances. (I also make unscented soap if that’s your jam.)

Michael W. Lucas has generously donated a copy of CASH FLOW FOR CREATORS, which is one of the most practical, useful books for writers I’ve ever read. This gift box also includes:

  • A blank journal
  • A magnet
  • A bar of artisan soap of your choice

The second box features the perfect book for our times. THE WRITER’S GUIDE TO PERSISTENCE by Jordan Rosenfeld is a book that every writer needs. This gift box also includes:

  • A blank notebook
  • A door hanger
  • A bar of artisan soap of your choice

Want to win a gift box? It’s easy to enter! Just leave a comment below telling me two things: which was your favorite how-to book this year, and a place I can contact you (Email, website, or Twitter).

I’ll draw two random names from the comments to this blog post on February 14, 2021 at 22:00 EST so be sure to comment before then!

You don’t have to subscribe to my blog or follow me on social media to enter, but I’d be pleased if you did. (I’m @ AlexKourvo on insta and twitter)

This giveaway is open to everyone but I can only mail stuff to US addresses. If you live outside the US and I draw your name, I’ll send you a $10 Amazon ecard instead.

Leave me a comment with a book recommendation, and I’ll announce the winners on Valentine’s Day.

xxoo,

Alex K.

Update: The winners of the giveaway are StephanieReads and Tess Grant! Congratulations to them and thank you to everyone who entered.

Hollywood vs. the Author by Stephen Jay Schwartz

Novelists are fascinated by Hollywood. It’s a dream of many to have our novels turned into movies–to see real people portray characters that once only lived in our heads and hear dialogue that we wrote. Places we dreamed up could appear in real life. If this seems cool to you? Read on.

Schwartz has collected essays from eighteen authors who wrote books that became movies and TV shows. Authors like Lawrence Block (Burglar), Tess Gerritsen (Rizzoli & Isles) and Michael Connelly (Bosch) give candid reflections on the experience in exacting and often gruesome detail. They tell of lies, misogyny, shady accounting, dirty deals, and more lies. Taking the collection as a whole, it becomes abundantly clear that the author is the least important and least respected member of the team. I read HOLLYWOOD VS. THE AUTHOR in sick awe. I knew some of this, but I never fully grasped just how awful Hollywood is for writers.

If it’s so bad, and writers know it’s bad, why do they do it? Money, mostly. There is money in Hollywood. Sometimes a lot of it. Jeff Parker (Laguna Heat) tells of a six-month movie option that was five times the advance for his novel. (An option is when a studio has an exclusive look at your work for a period of time.) Many an author has bought a house with movie money. But just as often, a writer loses money on the deal.

There are two ways an author can lose money in Hollywood. The first is when the novelist is hired to write the screenplay. That’s a sucker’s bet. No matter what script is turned in, the studio will demand multiple drafts and ultimately reject it so they can hire their own people. In the meantime, the author has lost a year or more that she could have been writing more novels.

But the other way is worse. Movie studios steal work every single day. But good luck proving it. Tess Gerritsen wrote the novel that became the movie Gravity, as well as most of the screenplay. It was stolen by director Alfonso Cuaron, who put his own name on it. When Gerritsen tried to sue, in what should have been an iron-clad case, she ran up against two truths: Hollywood has deep pockets and local judges don’t rule against the movie industry because Hollywood is basically a company town. Fifty copyright infringement cases were filed in California’s Ninth circuit between 1990 and 2010, and the authors lost their cases every single time.

Even when the process of book adaptation goes well, the author is always disappointed in the movie and never feels like she was respected or listened to. Most often the best an author can hope for is that they don’t lie to her too much and they don’t screw up the book too badly.

Because Hollywood will screw up the book. Every time. Novels and movies are different mediums and there is no such thing as a faithful adaptation. But more than that, producers, directors, and screenwriters don’t want a faithful adaptation of the book. Most of the time, they haven’t even read it. What they’re buying is the idea—basically a one-sentence log line. Movie studios don’t care about an author’s carefully written characters, setting, dialogue and plot. They’d never let a mere book get in the way of their movie.

The second-happiest writers in HOLLYWOOD VS. THE AUTHOR are the ones who sold the rights to their books, took the money, and then turned their backs on the whole process, sometimes not even watching the movies that got made. The happiest writers are the ones who sold the rights to books that never got made into movies at all.

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HOLLYWOOD VS. THE AUTHOR can be found here

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Rating: 4 stars

This book is best for: all authors

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I recommend this book

Ten Minute Author by Kevin Partner

I don’t think you can finish a novel by writing only ten minutes a day. And despite the title of TEN MINUTE AUTHOR, Partner doesn’t think so either. But I can forgive the gimmicky title because if he’d called it something like How to Develop a Writing Habit, nobody would buy it.

Which is sad because an unshakable writing habit is crucial for writers, and it’s the one thing that separates career authors from wannabes. Writers write—as often as they can for as long as they can, and most full-time authors write every day.

The amount of time isn’t important. The habit is. Partner assumes that once the ten minutes is over, you will already be “in the zone” and will continue writing. But even if you stop after ten minutes, as long as you do it again the next day, and the next, the habit will begin to take form and writing sessions will naturally lengthen.

TEN MINUTE AUTHOR contains a smattering of neuroscience, a whole lot of cheerleading, and a massive dose of common sense. Partner goes into details of why the method works and how to implement it using environmental cues, sandwiching writing between two existing habits, setting a timer, and rewarding yourself after each writing session.

Even better, cutting writing sessions down to such a tiny size means there is literally no excuse not to get to the keyboard. Anyone who honestly can’t write for ten minutes a day should probably not be setting her sights on a writing career at this time.

But actually following through with an unbroken chain of daily writing sessions is a career in the making, and TEN MINUTE AUTHOR is an excellent step-by-step guide to getting it done.

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TEN MINUTE AUTHOR can be found here

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Rating: 4 stars

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This book is best for: intermediate writers

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I recommend this book

Rivet Your Readers with Deep Point of View by Jill Elizabeth Nelson

Deep point of view—getting into a character’s head and staying there—is a difficult skill for new writers, but it’s a vital skill to master. Small author intrusions add up, distancing the reader from the character page after page. While editing, those subtle intrusions are difficult to weed out, leaving some manuscripts a muddled mess of close and distant point of view.

However, Nelson is here to help with a guide that is straightforward, no-nonsense, and thorough. There is no fluff in RIVET YOUR READERS WITH DEEP POINT OF VIEW. In eight short chapters Nelson tells writers what they need to know and no more.

And what authors need to know is how to do it. Unlike many how-to books that diagnose problems without giving solutions, RIVET YOUR READERS WITH DEEP POINT OF VIEW is all about practical application. Nelson explains the principle, gives before-and-after examples, shows exactly why they work, then gives exercises for writers to try their own hand at applying what they’ve learned.

Nelson details how to capture character thoughts, how to show emotion, how to banish filter words like saw, felt, or wondered and how to make sure cause and effect are always in the right order. These are problems I often see in beginners’ novels, but once they are conquered, the manuscript improves immeasurably.

Nelson’s examples are serviceable but not stellar. They are all from her own work, and they get the job done, although they didn’t make want to rush out and buy her fiction.

Staying tightly in a character’s point of view is not easy. The good news is, once you understand depth in point of view, it’s not something you can ever unsee, and RIVET YOUR READERS WITH DEEP POINT OF VIEW will help you master this important writing skill.

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RIVET YOUR READERS WITH DEEP POINT OF VIEW can be found here

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Rating: 4 stars

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This book is best for: beginning writers

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I recommend this book