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Great 2017 Nonfiction

By 49thShelf
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49thShelf Editor Kerry celebrates some of the best nonfiction she read in 2017 and some of the books still on her to-be-read list. Read on!
Your Heart Is the Size of Your Fist

Your Heart Is the Size of Your Fist

A Doctor Reflects on Ten Years at a Refugee Clinic
also available: eBook

An absorbing and touching read, this collection of true stories is the first book by a Canadian doctor on the topic of refugee health.

Your Heart Is the Size of Your Fist draws readers into the complicated, poignant, and often-overlooked daily happenings of a busy urban medical clinic for refugees.

An Iraqi journalist whose son has been been murdered develops post-traumatic stress disorder and mourns his loss of vocation. A Congolese woman refuses antiretroviral treatment for her new HIV diagnosis …

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Euclid's Orchard and Other Essays

Euclid's Orchard and Other Essays


In her new collection of essays Kishkan unravels an intricately patterned algorithm of cross-species madrigal, horticulture and love. Opening with ‘Herakleitos on the Yalakom,’ a turbulent homage to her father, and ending in ‘Euclid’s Orchard,’ amidst bees and coyotes, her touchstones of natural history and family mythology are re-aligned and mortared with metaphysics and math. Along the way her signature lyricism of place and home sings us from her grandparents’ first homestead near …

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My Conversations With Canadians

My Conversations With Canadians

also available: Paperback

My Conversations With Canadians is the book that "Canada150" needs.

Harkening back to her first book tour at the age of 26 (for the autobiographical novel Bobbi Lee: Indian Rebel), and touching down upon a multitude of experiences she's had as a Canadian, a First Nations leader, a woman and mother and grandmother over the course of her life, Lee Maracle's My Conversations with Canadians presents a tour de force exploration into the writer's own history and a re-imagining of the future of our nati …

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A Canadian Food History
also available: eBook

"Snacks" is a history of Canadian snack foods, of the independent producers and workers who make them, and of the consumers who can’t put them down.

Janis Thiessen profiles several iconic Canadian snack food companies, including Old Dutch Potato Chips, Hawkins Cheezies, and chocolate maker Ganong. These companies have developed in distinctive ways, reflecting the unique stories of their founders and their intense connection to specific locations.

These stories of salty or sweet confections als …

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Recipes and Stories from a Canadian Road Trip
tagged : canadian

Two friends. Five months. One car. Ten provinces. Three territories. Seven islands. Eight ferries. Two flights. One 48-hour train ride. And only one call to CAA. The result: over 100 incredible Canadian recipes from coast to coast and the Great White North.

In the midst of a camping trip in Squamish, British Columbia, Lindsay Anderson and Dana VanVeller decided that the summer of 2013 might be the right time for an adventure. And they knew what they wanted that adventure to be: a road trip acros …

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A Year in the Water
also available: Paperback

Longlisted for the 2018 Frank Hegyi Award for Emerging Authors
“Jessica J. Lee is a writer of rare and exhilarating grace. In Turning, she sounds the depths of lakes and her own life, never flinching from darkness, surfacing to fresh understandings of her place in the welter of natural and human history. A beautiful, moody, bracing debut.” —Kate Harris, award-winning author of Lands of Lost Borders
Through the heat of summer to the frozen depths of winter, Lee traces her journey swimming …

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A swimmer can sense the turning of the lake. There’s a moment in the season when the water changes. It isn’t something you can see, it’s something you can feel. In spring, the winter ice melts, and the warm and cold of the lake intermingle, flowing together. In summer, as the lake grows warm, a green froth of algae caps the surface of the water, and when it cools again in autumn, the green disappears. The air thins. The leaves flash red and gold. And the water ‘turns’.
     You come to know the  consistent  cool  of  spring  and the stagnant warmth at the top of a summer lake. When the water clears in the autumn, you can feel it: the lake feels cleaner on your arms, less like velvet and more like cut glass. And then winter comes, sharper than ever. Swimming year-round means greeting the lake’s changes.
     There is an English expression for the lake’s changes: the ‘breaking of the meres’. It describes the point in late summer  when  shallow  lakes  –  meres  –  turn  a  turbid blue-green, algae breaking atop the surface like yeast froths on beer. The Germans also have a word for the green of summer: umkippen. It describes the point when the water has turned to slick green, fizzling with iridescent algae.
     But the breaking of the meres and umkippen capture only that single moment of algal rupture, the death of the lake from too much algae and too little oxygen. We tend to notice the obvious thing – the emerging sheen of an algal bloom – and reduce a word’s meaning to that tiny moment, that fleck of green on the surface.
     The lake’s turning – ‘lake stratification’ and ‘overturn’ – runs deeper, taking in an entire year’s worth of changes in the water. Turning is perpetual. It points to the wider transformations in the water, as layers below billow and rearrange themselves beneath the surface. Even in winter, the lake is alive beneath the ice.
     I long for the ice. The sharp cut of freezing water on my feet. The immeasurable black of the lake at its coldest. Swimming then means cold, and pain, and elation.
When I was twenty-eight, almost as if by accident, I was sent to Berlin on a five-month research placement. I moved into a second-floor Altbau flat, one of the crumbling, enormous apartments that looks straight out of a Stasi spy drama. And from this old place with an old cellar that had once been used for escape tunnels, I set out into a world of pine and silken water, of craggy cobbles and peeling paint.
     Berlin resembled the other places I’ve called home – Canada, Britain – but only in glimpses: in the way the skeletal pines would edge the lake, in how the old stones would grow thick with moss. Pain, brightness, loss and renewal were layered in the landscape: in the lush shade of Tiergarten, which in my grandfather’s days was barren, razed and desperately carved up for allotments, and in the crooked edges of concrete that had slowly been dismantled as kids my age grew up. I was three when the Berlin Wall came down. I don’t remember it, but I came to know it in my own way.
     The footprint of the Wall was turned into a hiking trail. Pavements stopped you in your tracks, Stolpersteine, brass stumbling stones marking the lost. Roads radiated out like a dial, a stretched palm pressed on to the city. I thought the roads here had to be so wide, if only to hold the ghosts.
     Half a year later, as I was retreating from the deep end of depression, I surfaced with the bizarre notion that the solution to my problems lay in swimming. I felt furious that I had succumbed to the dark vacancy of my moods, as though it were my fault. My heart was broken. Above all, I thought that swimming might help me find some new place in the world in a year in which I’d changed address five times. A place in a city that wasn’t mine, and that held layered in its streets a century of change and grief, ghosts in the landscape. Naively, perhaps, I believed that if I could find that place in the middle of the lake where every feeling slipped away, I might undo the hurt.
     I’d moved again – this time into a stark white room with ceilings thrice my height – but spent only a few moments unpacking and settling in before turning my eyes to the map. The city at its centre, cut through by a fan of broad avenues and the rivers, the sudden countryside at its edges. Hundreds of spots of blue multiplied exponentially as the city lines crept into the surrounding land. These lakes and rivers – their intricate weave of water laid on to the flat North German Plain by retreating glaciers in the last ice age – had worked a tiny hook into my heart, and I could do nothing for it but swim.
     Perhaps it was a drastic response. In depression, I had become someone I hadn’t wanted to be, emptied and hardened. I felt that I had to respond to it in kind, as if lake water might blast away my sadness and fear. So I decided to swim for a year, in the hope of finding some reserve of joy and courage in myself. It was a means of greeting the ghosts – mine and others – as they appeared around unknown corners. I knew there was no untouched landscape here: there is hurt that cannot be undone. I wanted to find a way to negotiate it, to live with it.
     Of all the lakes near to the city, I planned to swim in fifty-two, a whole year’s worth, stretching my swims out through each season. Prone to rules, I kept the parameters simple: no cars, no wetsuits. I could take friends from time to time. My daily life would continue as normal. I was in the final year of my doctorate, finalising and refining a dissertation in environmental history. I was living an ocean away from family and home. There was pressure to hold things together. Swimming would be a way of staying with my fears, a way of staying in place. Above all, I sought to find some balance in it.
     The summer in Berlin began coolly and then arrived fully formed, hot. Bright swathes of sunlight stretched over the cobbles, and the sky painted itself cornflower blue. The temperature rose and the air thickened only slightly as a hot, dry June settled on the city.
     I looked at the map, traced my fingers over the lakes I knew – Krumme Lanke, Weißer See, Liepnitzsee, Bötzsee, Mühlenbecker See – and decided, as if by habit, to start at the beginning. Krumme Lanke, my first German lake.

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The Weekend Effect

The Weekend Effect

The Life-Changing Benefits of Taking Time Off and Challenging the Cult of Overwork
tagged : happiness

A well-lived weekend is the gateway to a well-lived life. The Weekend Effect shows us how by saving the weekend we can save ourselves.

The weekend—the once-sacred forty-eight hours of leisure—has been lost to overbooked schedules, pinging devices and encroaching work demands. Many of us are working more hours than we did a decade ago, and worse, we allow those hours to slide over seven days a week, giving us no respite to tune out and recharge.

We don’t need the research to tell us that this …

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Gutenberg’s Fingerprint

Gutenberg’s Fingerprint

Paper, Pixels and the Lasting Impression of Books

An intimate narrative exploring the past, present, and future of books

Four seismic shifts have rocked human communication: the invention of writing, the alphabet, mechanical type and the printing press, and digitization. Poised over this fourth transition, e-reader in one hand, perfect-bound book in the other, Merilyn Simonds — author, literary maven, and early adopter — asks herself: what is lost and what is gained as paper turns to pixel?

Gutenberg’s Fingerprint trolls the past, present, …

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Hugh, Me and the Book


The project is Hugh’s idea. He sends me an email: “I hope you can see all the trouble your writing has caused.”

He wants to publish the stories I’ve been calling The Paradise Project. The pieces are slight. Whimsical. I don’t know where they come from, and I don’t ask.

I’m touched that these stories have got their hooks into Hugh, although I don’t quite believe it. I feel like a teenager invited to a party by the most popular boy in class, a boy who can’t possibly like me. I suspect a mistake. Or worse, a trick.

Hugh Barclay introduced himself to me more than a dozen years ago, which sounds very civilized, a calling card on a silver salver. Not the correct impression at all. He showed up at my book launch for The Convict Lover, which took place in the Penitentiary Museum that occupies the old Warden’s House across the road from Kingston Penitentiary, then home to sex offenders and stool pigeons. Canada’s Alcatraz, although the architects clearly forgot that Lake Ontario freezes over in winter, a slippery expressway to the United States for anyone who could scale the high stone walls.

On the day of the launch, the museum is packed. The entire village of Portsmouth has turned out, it seems, and half of Kingston, too. During the eight years of writing The Convict Lover, I was convinced no one would want to read it. The story was too old-fashioned. Too odd. But here I am, standing at a limestone plinth chiselled by convicts, signing book after book, the room crowded with people bursting with stories of their own: the old man who had a convict as a nanny before he went to school (his father was chief keeper); a woman who, as a girl, passed peaches to the convicts as they marched through the village on their way to the quarry to break stone. The lineup is so long and discombobulating that when my sister hands me her book, I pause over the page, simulating a cough, as I try to remember her name.

I notice Hugh right away. Or rather, I notice his black beret. He’s short—something peculiar about the curve of his spine—but his rakish beret keeps bobbing into view until it is right beside me.

“Here!” he says, shoving a green bookmark under my nose. “I’m Hugh Barclay! This is my wife, Verla!” The man doesn’t speak, he proclaims.

“We made this!” Hugh taps the length of thick paper. It is the colour of mashed peas. “We have a printing press. Thee Hellbox Press.”

I make noises of gratitude and prepare to add the bookmark to the stack of photos and mementoes others have given me.

“You see. You see,” he says, tugging the bookmark back to the centre of the plinth, tapping it more insistently now. “You see? The C and T at the end of ‘Convict’? The bit that connects them? That’s called a ligature. We chose the type especially. It’s like the letters are handcuffed together.”

He is chuckling. So is Verla. They both stare up at me, delighted. Expectant. I look again, more intently, at the bookmark.

Verla’s wheelchair has cleared a space like a stage around the three of us. The room and the milling crowd fall away, and it is just the three of us, gazing down at this unexpected chunk of raw, ragged paper, visibly dented with words, letters joined by a curving line defined by a term I’ve never heard before.

“Amazing,” I say. And before I know it, I’m chuckling, too.


Hugh is a fixture about town. His beret, tilted at a dapper angle, can be seen at every literary gathering: book launches, readings, festival performances. He’s almost always pushing Verla’s chair. And then he isn’t.

Hugh is not young, although I can’t guess his age. Over sixty. Under eighty. His body is misshapen, as if wracked by some extended, torturing condition, yet there is something child-like about his face. Not innocence: the wisdom in his eyes is hard-earned. Delight, yes. Wonder, perhaps. Optimism, for sure. It’s his enthusiasm, I decide, that makes him seem so young. A frank and forthright zeal that cares nothing for propriety or convention, the accepted rules of adult intercourse.

I find myself watching for him at public events, edging over for a chat, craving a shot of his fervour, his wit unstained by irony, unmarred by the faintest glint of condescension or cruelty.

“You know, don’t you, that you haven’t really made it until you’ve been published by Thee Hellbox Press,” he says to me at a gathering of the Kingston Arts & Letters Club. My husband, Wayne, and I have just presented a talk on the art of collaboration, based on our experience writing a travel memoir together, Breakfast at the Exit Café.

“You should send me something,” Hugh says.

“I don’t have anything.” It’s a bit of a lie. I’m not a prolific writer, and it’s true that I don’t have stacks of unpublished manuscripts stuffed in a bottom drawer. But I do have a thin pile of stories, stories I can’t yet imagine releasing to the world.


The Convict Lover was my first literary book. Over the next fifteen years, I launched six more: a book of stories, a novel, a travel memoir, a book of essays, two anthologies. When Hugh sent me that email calling me a troublemaker, I was working on another novel, a long, slow exploration of solitude and refuge. From time to time, as I wrote the novel, bizarre short fictions would flash onto the page. The same thing happened when I wrote The Convict Lover, stories that I eventually gathered up and published as The Lion in the Room Next Door.

These new stories are different. Shorter. Stranger. Leftovers, of a sort. Like remnants of a dream that interrupts my consciousness long after I stir awake. For years, I had been writing about my garden. Not just my garden: gardens. My novel The Holding began as an exploration of the nature of control and the control of nature. When Alyson and Margaret work their plots, are they trying to make nature do what they want, or are they trying to sidle up closer to it, bring it into their too-concrete lives? A New Leaf carried on that conversation within the borders of my own gardens at The Leaf, the patch of woods and cleared land where we lived in Eastern Ontario. It was a gardener, I came to realize, who changed the course of human history, plucking a seed and planting it where she wanted it to grow instead of where it randomly fell. A gardener who made farming possible, and cities, and trips to the moon.

Neither the novel nor the essays contained anything like the lyric fantasies that were erupting now. I had never written anything like them. When I was writer-in-residence at the University of British Columbia, I tacked a few to the end of a reading.

“I don’t know what these are,” I said by way of introduction.

“They’re poems,” a friend said afterwards. She is a poet and a teacher; she brought her entire class to the reading. The students vigorously nodded their heads.

“They can’t be poems,” I protested. “I’m not a poet.”

Some were clearly stories—very short stories of a few hundred words or less. Others were lyrical: sixteen words, three lines, a single sentence that trailed down one page and onto a second.

I called them flash fictions and titled each one for an element in a garden—stone, leaf, petal, vine.

“Stone” was the first. It came out whole, each of its 265 words irrevocably attached to the next in ways I could not unlock, could only separate with commas, hitching a clump together here and there, setting a few on a line all their own.

A friend who was an editor at the Antigonish Review published “Stone” and a selection of others. More were collected in a special Canadian edition of Literature and Arts of the Americas. Both journals were sufficiently distant from me geographically that if critics threw rotten tomatoes, I wasn’t likely to know. I needn’t have worried: the reviews were kind. Maybe there was something in these stories after all. My youngest son, Erik, is a book designer, and we’d been tossing around the idea of self-publishing some of my out-of-print work as ebooks—and maybe these stories, too. When Queen’s Quarterly, the magazine of the local university, asked if I had anything they might publish, I emailed a selection of the flash fictions and, in a fit of confidence, copied them to Hugh.

It was a whim. An act of sharing, one literary weirdo to another. I have pressed Send a thousand, a million times. How was I to know that this time it would change my life?




“This should definitely be in a book,” Hugh says when I finally give in to his urging to visit him at his print shop.

Without saying a word to me, he has set the type for “Stone.”

“Super stuff,” he’d said in response to my email with the poem/story. “It starts movies running in my mind and takes me back to my childhood spent exploring stone hedgerow fences, expecting to find some great treasure hidden in a crevasse.”

The test proof he hands me is beautiful. Dark red ink on paper so creamy and thick it might be birchbark or a peeling of sandstone. I run my fingers over it, feel the physical texture of my words pressed into the page. I’m used to the feel of them in my mouth, invisible objects that force my lips into taut circles, a flattened gap, my tongue pressing up against my palate, stroking the inside of my teeth, humping at the back of my throat. But never this.

Hugh has given my words substance.

He takes the page from me and holds it flat, at eye level. Instead of reading the words, I look across the terrain of paper, shaped now into hills and valleys, pools of commas, fjords of t’s and f’s, rushing rivulets of s’s.

“Words make an impression,” he says.


Hugh’s print shop is attached to his house—almost. The house itself was designed and built specifically for Hugh and Verla, with wheelchair access and a courtyard plan that has every room opening through a large doorway to a central hall. The building that houses the print shop looks like a garage jutting towards the street, connected to the house by a wooden deck.

The shop is a mess. Hugh ushers me in past a counter heaped with paper. The walls are plastered with print projects. One shows a bank of words—Saffron. Fireflies. Baffle. Truffle—the lowercase f’s in scarlet ink. When I ask what this means, Hugh gets a little irritated.

“Mean? It doesn’t mean anything. It’s just a gorgeous ligature.”

There’s a block print of a dancing figure, various quotes, some handwritten, some set in type: Fragile as I am, I am strong.

I’m a quick study. I don’t ask where the quotes are from.

Once, this shop was hung was prosthetic body parts. Back then, Hugh was into orthotics. He was also writing poetry. In the early 1970s, he met a man named Bill Poole who taught at the Ontario College of Art. He sent Bill his first poem.

“Bill got back to me and said, ‘I solved your problem.’ I didn’t know I had a problem. ‘I bought a press so now I can publish your poem,’ he said. I told him I’d rather do a book.”

A New Respect, Hugh’s one and only book of poems was published by Poole Hall Press in 1972. He helped set the type and run the press.

“That’s how I got ink in my veins,” he says. He means it metaphorically, but it strikes me as literally true. I imagine the watershed of his body flowing red, yellow, blue. His fingers are perpetually smudged as if ink is leaking out through his skin.

Through the next couple of years, he and Bill produced a magazine called Symbiosis.

“People could only pay in kind, and we refused to say what it was worth.” Hugh is chuckling again. He seems to be perpetually chuckling, as if life is one big joke. A joke on him. A joke on all of us.

“We had fifty to seventy-five subscribers. We got sent wine, hand-knit mitts and socks. A woman in Newfoundland sent us cod and brewis. One fellow wrote a song about us, ‘The Press Gang Blues.’”

As he talks, I lean to look into the other room. The print shop is divided in two: the back room where Hugh does his typesetting and printing and this other room, which is tidier—one long table stacked with various sizes and colours of paper, each in its own neat pile.

Hugh is tapping the test proof of “Stone.”

“This should be a book,” he says.

I came to Hugh’s shop intending to dampen his fire, but I find myself nodding as if what he says makes perfect sense. Yes, these stories should be between covers. When there are enough, my saner brain says. When I hone them to something I understand.

“I mean now.”

“But I only have a dozen.” Printed on paper, the book would be so thin it would hardly qualify for the name.

“That’s plenty! It will be a handmade book.”

I imagine readers paying for the book with macramé hangers, out-of-date pesos, their children’s first drawings.

My saner brain tells me I should be appalled. I barely hear it for the chuckling.




Hugh asks to see all the stories, and I send him everything: those that have been published, new pieces, unfinished fragments.

“I’ve just sat down and read the manuscript and it is amazing. A lot of new pieces, at least to me. Some brought a tear to my eye, but you need to know that my bladder is too close to my eyes.”

We agree to meet for dinner to discuss the book.

To my alarm, almost as soon as I sit down, Hugh bursts into tears. We are sitting in the city’s finest restaurant, a favourite, we discovered, of us both. The owner, Zal Yanovsky, was lead guitarist in the Lovin’ Spoonful, a ’60s band I danced to (on tabletops, if I remember correctly). The first time I met Zalman he was on roller skates, scooting around his dinner guests, stopping at my side to ask if I had a cigarette.

“Do I look like a smoker?” I laughed. I was being taken to dinner by James Lawrence, founder, publisher, and editor of Harrowsmith magazine, the back-to-the-land bible of the 1980s, a magazine that was about to get into book publishing. They wanted me to write their first book. None of them smoked anything but weed. I wanted to make a good impression—my Du Mauriers were well hidden—but Zal had sussed me out. I opened my purse and offered him a fag, tossing smiles around the table in penance. Who can resist a man on roller skates?

Now Zalman is dead and Hugh is crying and we are at the worst table in the restaurant, the one in the middle of the room, where every waiter and diner has to pass us by to get in, or out, or serve a dish of Mediterranean stew. We might as well be onstage.

I lean close to Hugh and put my hand on his arm. “You okay?”

He has been telling me about the school children. Immediately after he published his first book of poems, he went out and bought a letterpress. It was a whim, he says.

Hugh, I am about to discover, is a great follower of whims. He set up the press at his daughters’ elementary school and worked with students to print their own magazine.

“Those kids! They wrote the stories. They set the type. They did it all!”

He dabs at his eyes with a flowered serviette.

“Don’t worry,” he says, picking up his fork to attack his stew. “Stupid Hugh cries a lot.”

Stupid Hugh has all the bad habits. He forgets the comma in the first line of type and doesn’t notice until the whole page is set. He prints the wrong text over an image. He leaves his fingerprints behind. Until I met Hugh, I didn’t realize that I, too, have an incompetent, wastrel twin. Stupid Merilyn was the one handing out cigarettes and dancing on tables. These days, she spends most of her time inserting misplaced modifiers and splitting infinitives in my carefully composed text.

When Hugh points out a mistake in one of the stories, I know exactly what to say.

“Sorry, Hugh. You’ll have to forgive her. Stupid Merilyn never learned to spell.”

Both Merilyn and Stupid Merilyn have a lot to learn. Hugh will be our teacher. Over the next year, he will rock our world, upend everything we think we know about writing, about paper, words, ink, and presses, and how they come together to make a book.




My sons and I belong to the last two generations to grow up in an entirely paper world. The first words we read were pressed into paper. By the time I was thirty, I was writing on a computer; by the time my sons were adolescents, most of what they read was onscreen. But our first books, both theirs and mine, were printed much as Johannes Gutenberg printed books six centuries before.

When Hugh proposed publishing The Paradise Project, the process he had in mind would have been entirely familiar to Gutenberg: hand-set type impressed on handmade paper with a hand-operated press.

Meanwhile, Erik and I were discussing the production of the same manuscript as an ebook. His daughters were learning to read onscreen. The novels by my bed, as often as not, were ebooks.

We’re caught in a paradigm shift. Words are the constant, with paper on one shore, pixels on the other. My sons and I stand in the middle, a foot balanced on either side. My parents would never have believed that a world without paper was possible. My grandchildren will never fully grasp the extent to which paper served us all we wanted and needed to know. I have walled every room in my house with books; my granddaughters can hold more books than that in just one hand.


“So,” says Hugh, embracing his print shop with outstretched arms. “Will we do this?”

I feel as if I am being invited to enter Doctor Who’s TARDIS. I know what will happen if I refuse: my life will go on pretty much as it has—writing, reading, observing the world from the sidelines, surrounded by what I know.

Stepping inside Hugh’s world will change everything.

“Sure,” I say, not understanding a thing. “Why not?”

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