Round Up of the Best of the Year

Before you all start to dissolve in left-over mince pies and get cracking on those racy New Year parties, we thought we would follow the good old End of Year Tradition and do a round up of 2009 and our best reads.

We are also announcing our favourite author of the year, our best book of the year, and the best cover of the year.

So here we go. In no particular order – as these are all books that we considered good enough to get the (as you can see!) extremely rare five star accolade from Speak Its Name. Well done everyone. ETA: I should add that these aren’t the BEST books released this year – merely the best of the ones we reviewed.

Erastes

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Review: An Improper Holiday by K A Mitchell

As second son to an earl, Ian Stanton has always done the proper thing. Obeyed his elders, studied diligently, and dutifully accepted the commission his father purchased for him in the Fifty-Second Infantry Division. The one glaring, shameful, marvelous exception: Nicholas Chatham, heir to the Marquess of Carleigh.

Before Ian took his position in His Majesty’s army, he and Nicky consummated two years of physical and emotional discovery. Their inexperience created painful consequences that led Ian to the conviction that their unnatural desires were never meant to be indulged.

Five years later, wounded in body and plagued by memories of what happened between them, Ian is sent to carry out his older brother’s plans for a political alliance with Nicky’s father. Their sister Charlotte is the bargaining piece.

Nicky never believed that what he and Ian felt for each other was wrong and he has a plan to make things right. Getting Ian to Carleigh is but the first step. Now Nicky has only twelve nights to convince Ian that happiness is not the price of honor and duty, but its reward.

Review by Erastes

At last–a Regency that reads like a Regency!  K A Mitchell was not an author known to me, so I was pleasantly surprised to be drawn in immediately with dialogue that was perfectly formal and with a real sense of time and place.

It’s quite nicely researched, and I wish I had that to say more often.  Usage of the word “marquisate” for example which is entirely correct, a journey by carriage to Derbyshire over vile, rutted roads which took days–and extended further because of the inconvenience of Ian’s sister–rather than hours.  It’s touches like this which really bring a book to life. (See my recent rant on horses!!)

It’s good too, to see an disabled hero.  So many books have entirely whole officers returning from the war, and dealing with an amputee is realistic and refreshing in this genre.  In fact Ian is quite a delight, having:

gone from reading classics in his purple robes to the buff and scarlet of a second lieutenant, with no time at all to learn how to converse with a lady. What did one say in such a case?

I love the way he fills in the backstory between himself and Nicholas in deft, episodic touches which pull the reader along like Scheredzhade did with her murderous husband, so we never feel we are being dumped with the backstory, or pulled out of the present narrative with a break in the action, as if often the case with “Parted Lover” stories.

The language is perfectly apt for the period, not so olde -worlde as to be inaccessible, but a great balance of formal narrative and speech and some really lush description, so well painted that you can really see exactly what’s being described, like this section which makes me feel very sorry for the poor servants.

Lacy clumps of snow still fell, yet slowly enough that the cobblestone path was well-cleared by servants wielding stable brooms. Hundreds of candles in the chapel threw enough light to gild the small drifts with a gold luster. Such a view coupled with the light scent of horses from the brooms made Ian fancy the sight and smells recaptured the Nativity.

He’s emo, yes, but it works very well, and that surprised me, as so many times I find an emo protag to be annoying as hell. But Ian is not whining; he’s realistic and fatalistic.  He thinks he’s seeing it clearly. Nicholas has responsibilities now he’s the Marquess, and their youthful love affair, however torrid, cannot possibility resume, however much Ian would want it to.

This is just the tip of the iceberg, and there’s much more to the plot, and more character involved–all beautifully fleshed out, and none of them just wallpaper, than the blurb or my clumsy review shows. But I’m not going to spoil it for you, and if you enjoy a regency with a strong flavour of the time, well-researched history that layers itself onto the page without you even noticing it’s there and a protagonists that you will be crossing your fingers for–hoping that they will get their well-deserved happiness, then you are going to love this.

The cover is quite silly, of course, but you can’t have everything.

Author’s website

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Review: Hidden Conflict (various)

Hidden Conflict presents four novellas that tell the experiences of gay military men, their families and friends, during times of conflict and war. Each story presents a unique voice at a distinct time in history.

Review by Vashtan

I’ve been in a reviewing funk over the question how to review and to what end. While I still believe that honest reviews require the occasional lashing, I concur with a friend who holds that reviewers should offer advice to authors as well as readers. Now, that requires a slightly different approach, and makes this a bit more difficult.

Not only would a reviewer have to express an opinion on something as intangible as moods and one’s personal reflections (easier thought than written), but also find the perceived “fatal flaw” in the writing and point it out so it can be fixed. This approach actually places a reviewer in the camp of the editor. What I then review is not just that author’s command of the craft, but the editor’s ability or inability to spot and fix issues. A weak book would then be not only the fault of an author, but the flaw of an editor in not fixing it, and the publisher for acquiring the text and contracting it. I will have to do more thinking about it.

Thankfully, “Hidden Conflict” is, by and large, an easy vote. I really enjoyed it. One word of warning. This is not a collection of romances. Only one text fits the bill and provides a happily ever after (at least we can hope that), while the other texts explore loss, suffering, social stigma, “fitting in with the boys” and barely-verbalised or expressed desire. This is also not the book for steamy sex scenes, so I would place this firmly in the camp of “gay historical writing”. What this book gives you is four intense,
emotional journeys, each one firmly grounded in history and fact. We see Native Americans counting coup, experience the mind-numbing shelling of WWI and the terrible wastelands of mud and rain, and the loss of families and boyfriends knowing their loved died “somewhere across the ocean”. Alienation, shell-shock, and the terror of war. In this, the authors explore the mind of the fighting man; the comradery,
the emotional bonds forged on the battlefield, looking out for one’s fellow man. As a historian with a strong bent towards military history, I’m always astonished at how war brings out the best and worst in humanity; both our bestial natures and our utterly selfless ability to sacrifice and preserve, and to value life most in the destruction of it. I felt the authors all grappled with those questions, so this is not a book for those who fancy men in uniforms getting it on. It’s so much more than that, which makes it difficult
to review.

All of the stories are well-written and carefully edited; the cover expresses the essence of the book well as a collection of four different voices. “Romance” as in romantic attachment, the possibility to love, the desire to love and hold features in the anthology, of course. It can be a love story against all odds and society as in “Blessed Isle” by Alex Beecroft, a (possibly) unrequited love and uncanny, ambivalent, maybe brotherly love as in “Not to Reason Why” by Mark Probst, or the potential of love that was sadly cut short like so many lives during WWI in “No Darkness”, and, with a different slant in “Our One and Only” by E.N. Holland, which focuses on the survivors and their ability – or inability – to move on after loss. But the setting is very real, too, and I found no major flaw with the research in terms of military and gay history. A different reviewer pointed out issues of military protocol in some of the stories, but as a civilian, I didn’t spot them.

Now comes the part where I have to choose a favourite, I guess, and the vote is clearly on “Blessed Isle” by Alex Beecroft. I read her “False Colors” and it blew me away, and she did it again, with less words. Minor craft issues I had with “False Colors” (focusing on viewpoint, voice, and pacing) are gone in “Blessed Isle”. Beecroft continues to astound and amaze, and this story went down like very old, accomplished Bordeaux wine, served just exactly right. It’s not a story that you can “just read”, you have to savour it. The language was pitch-perfect, and I recommend taking your time to work out the nuances and let them resonate. Sometimes, prose is so well-made that it becomes a rush and a pleasure all by itself. The story Beecroft tells and the exploration of the characters just heighten the pleasure, but it’s always her prose that gets me first. Were “Blessed Isle” on it’s own, it would be a rare five stars.

The reason why the others aren’t my favourites (I hope that sentence makes sense) are minor. Each story would rate highly on its own (in the 4-star range), but I have minor quibbles with each one. “Not to Reason Why” by Mark Probst is emotionally honest (and I love authors facing those emotions – it takes a special kind of bravery), but I
didn’t fully warm with the main character, Brett Price. While it was painful to see him stumble through the battlefield and tell us all about the horrors of the massacre (well-done, gruesome writing), I didn’t quite warm with him. He appeared through much of this as a love-struck puppy, and I kept wanting to tell him to “man up” and stop
pining. But then, how many of us do manage to do that when our friends tell us? Exactly.

“No Darkness” by Jordan Taylor sets out on a very difficult task—to tell a story with two men in a cellar, fearing impending death, and growing close by telling their stories. The story is heavy on dialogue, and attempts to draw the characters by dialogue, a task that
it didn’t quite accomplish for me. While I can believe that hysteria and stress (one is wounded) can make people sound more cheerful than I would expect them to sound under such circumstances, there were moments in the dialogue where I thought that the characters were on the verge of being self-indulgent, telling all those anecdotes while
quite literally fighting for their lives. I’d expect more of the raw stress and fear to come out, so I would have tightened up the dialogue quite a bit more than was done. The strongest parts of the story, I felt, were those where the characters don’t talk.

The last story, “Our One and Only” by E.N. Holland explores the loss of a loved one, a life lost in battle during WWII, from the viewpoint of his lover. I struggled a bit with this story; while I understand that many struggle to move on after a loss, I felt forty years of
mourning was excessive, especially since the surviving boyfriend never had any other relationships and has never fallen in love. Instead of romantic, I felt “what a waste of one’s life”, but maybe I’m too cynical. The story explores the surviving boyfriend’s life, his
inability to let go, how he is part of the family of his beloved Edward, taking Edward’s position, while keeping his mourning mostly silent, “lover” becomes “good friend”. Nevertheless, I felt the story dragged and would benefit from some well-placed strategic cuts.

As diverse as these stories are, there is one for everyone, and I believe nobody can read this without being profoundly moved by the writing and the depth of emotion the authors explore. Bravo.

Cheyenne Publishing (print)  Bristlecone Pine Press (Ebook)

Review: Common Sons: Common threads in the life by Ronald L. Donaghe

Set in a small town in the middle of nowhere in the mid-1960s, Common Sons not only anticipates the coming gay revolution, but delineates its fields of battle in churches, schools and society, pitting fathers against sons, straight teens against gay teens, and self-hatred against self-respect.

From the opening scene (where a reckless bout of drinking at a dance ends in a very public kiss between two teenage boys), the citizens of the small town of Common, New Mexico, become aware of the homosexuality in their midst.

The two boys are unable to deal with their struggle in private as the story of their public kiss spreads through the small town. Some seek to destroy the relationship between the two boys, while others seek to destroy the two boys themselves.

Common Sons is a moving tale of self-discovery, love and finding the courage to come out and come to grips with truth in the face of hatred and adversity.

Review by Gerry Burnie

Common Sons is the first of the “Common threads in the life” series set in the fictional town of Common, New Mexico, and for those not acquainted with this series it is the recommended place to start.

It is a tale of two teenage boys, Joel and Tom, growing up in the small, dusty town of Common, New Mexico. They do the usual things like cruising the main street in Joel’s pickup, and eating hamburgers at the A & W, but there are some fundamental differences between them. Joel is a farmer’s son with a pragmatic way of looking at things, and Tom is a Baptist minister’s son with only a biblical view of reality. They are also in love with one another although, at first neither one of them realizes this.

Donaghe has also done a superb job of emphasizing the oppressive atmosphere in which their love is destined to bloom, i.e., the burdensome heat, the howling sand storms, and the relentless boredom of Common itself. Add to this a cast of narrow-minded bigots, sneering bimbos, and Tom’s fire-and-brimstone breathing father, and the stage is set for an adventure in human endurance.

The catalyst is an ill-advised, but quite innocent kiss between the two boys at a Saturday night dance—read ‘a typical coming together of teenage testosterone and beer.’ Joel and Tom also get around to the main event in the pick-up truck, the first such experience for both of them, and in the cold light of dawn they each reflect on it from their different perspectives.

Being the more pragmatic of the two, Joel soon decides that it is Tom he wants; however, Tom has a more difficult time of it. For one thing his preacher father rules him and the household with a fundamentalist zeal that is absolute, and Tom lives in fear of his father’s wrath. Tom is also well steeped in the usual fundamentalist jargon, i.e. “Sins of the flesh,” “reprobate mind,” and “unnatural lusts.” Upon meeting Joel, however, he begins to question his father, the Bible, and his own self-doubts. Also, Joel teaches him the true meaning of love, self-respect, and friendship.

At the same time Joel and Tom must cope with the peculiar form of homophobia that inhabits small places like Common—especially in the 1960s—and Kenneth Stroud in particular. He is the town’s redneck bad boy who has had bad blood for Joel since they were children. Another bigot is Paul Romaine, one of the church’s disciples with latent homosexual leanings of his own, and together these two set out to publicly humiliate and destroy Joel and Tom.

The rest of the plot I will leave for readers to discover for themselves; however I will comment on some of the admirable points that the author has incorporated into the story.

For example, the author has approached the topic of ‘coming out’ with sensitivity, insight, and a remarkable degree of realism. Those of us who came out in the 1960s, especially in insular communities like Common—or Pefferlaw, Ontario, for that matter—can attest to how well he has captured the alienation that Joel and Tom experience when they realize that they are ‘different.’ We can also attest to the delight that others took in pointing this out to us.

Donaghe has also given us an insight into the dark ages of psychology, i.e. when homosexuality was considered a mental illness or a ‘deviation,’ at best. The greater part of society would now regard this as “quackery,” but it did exist along with fundamentalist, religious dogma.

Unfortunately Religious fundamentalism still exists, in spite of the ‘defrocking’ of many of its outspoken proponents, but it is hoped that fewer people are listening.

Having said all that Common Sons is an inspirational read, and highly recommended for anyone coming out—young or old.

Author’s website

Amazon UK Amazon USA

Review: Checkmate by Nicki Bennett and Ariel Tachna

When sword for hire Teodoro Ciéza de Vivar accepts a commission to “rescue” Lord Christian Blackwood from unsuitable influences, he has no idea he’s landed himself in the middle of a plot to assassinate King Philip IV of Spain and blame the English ambassador for the deed. Nor does he expect the spoiled child he’s sent to retrieve to be a handsome, engaging young man. As Teodoro and Christian face down enemies at every turn, they fall more and more in love, an emotion they can’t safely indulge with the threat of the Inquisition looming over them. It will take all their combined guile and influence to outmaneuver the powerful men who would see them separated… or even killed.

Review by Erastes

Wow.  Just look at that cover.  I’m not generally a fan of Ann Cain’s hand drawn covers, but I’ve probably only seen the more yaoi ones.  This is utterly brilliant and has everything that a gay historical needs.  Yes, there’s flesh but it’s not representative of “men shagging” it’s more relevant to the story. It has depth. Bloody brilliant and standing ovation from me.  My top cover of the year.

Although I did enjoy the story as a whole, the main thing that stopped this book getting a much higher mark–which with a hard edit it would have deserved–was the head hopping.  I can usually bear it (although I know most readers dislike it intensely) with two people, but this hopped between however many where on the page, which was often 3 people and caused my head to hurt at times, and made for some really difficult reading.

Christian realized he had not brought his valise into the room with him. Sighing against the inevitable, he wrapped the cloth more tightly around his waist and opened the door. He hesitated when he saw Teodoro and Esteban standing there, but there was no help for it. He needed his clothes. Without speaking, he crossed to his bag and rummaged through it for a clean shirt and breeches.

His already hard cock throbbed against Teodoro’s  breeches when Blackwood entered the room clad only in a bath sheet, his bare chest and limbs even more alluring than the Spaniard had imagined them.

As you can see, the head-hopping here causes definite confusion!

It also made it very difficult to get to know the characters–it’s hard to get inside the head of someone when they only have one paragraph, one reaction and then you are whizzing over to everyone else in the scene.  To be honest it made the book almost unreadable, as the POV even broke away from Teodoro in the middle of an exciting sword fight,  completely spoiling the scene,  to leap into Christian’s head who was elsewhere at the time.

The mercenary’s conscience surprised me – I wouldn’t have thought he’d have cared whether his client’s story was true or not – he was being handsomely paid.  I would have thought that a hired sword would have one loyalty – the the highest bidder.  Granted he was attracted to Christian from the first but not enough to immediately feel guilt that he was kidnapping Christian, not saving him from unnatural practices.

There were a couple of things that jarred, such as a horse travelling 400 miles in 5 days, and the mention of a Grand Tour which didn’t exist until after the Restoration, but other than that the history seemed pretty solid to me, so no complaints there.

Overall, it’s a good story with a tender romance, exciting moments, enough hurt/comfort to assuage the hardest heart – and if you can get past the confusion of the dizzying head hopping you’ll probably enjoy the book, but it makes it a not-read-again for me, I’m afraid.

Dreamspinner Press Amazon UK Amazon USA

Review: Sins of the Father by Anna O’Neill

The weight of the past could tear them apart…

In his first mission as a shinobi, Sora Sanada has more than its success riding on his shoulders. Every move he makes is a reflection on his clan’s honor. So when an unexpected scuffle leaves him injured and the mission in jeopardy, he’d rather be left behind—but his partner, the mysterious, masked Kaname, has other ideas.

Kaname breathes a silent sigh of relief when the younger, less-experienced Sora agrees to a plan to throw their enemies off their trail. As a member of the deposed Takeda clan, the last thing he needs is more disgrace heaped upon the family name should he lose the Sanada princeling.

His plan to disguise themselves as naked lovers is a rousing success in more ways than one. It sparks a bond that shakes them to the core—and the Shinano Province to its foundations…

Review by Erastes

Lovely cover, just beautiful.  More like this, please.

I don’t know if it was the author’s deliberate style to induce a feeling of “inscrutability” in this book but I found it a little heavy going. It’s only 40 or so pages, but it took me a couple of days – I kept going back to it over and again.  Usually I’d expect to read something like this is one hit.  The story flickered around a great deal flipping from the protagonists going on an killing raid then a scene in the town and I found it hard to concentrate on what was going on. I would have liked something to anchor me in time, too–because the Japanese culture was hidden from western eyes for so many years, I had no idea whether this was 12th century or 17th. The most I can say is “Japanese Warlord” era which is quite broad.

There were some concepts that I simply didn’t get, too.  I think it’s a case of the author knowing her subject too well–not at all a bad thing, of course, but sometimes I simply didn’t understand the references to the Japanese terms because often they weren’t explained in context.  I don’t really want to have to flick to Wikipedia to find out what things are – I’m lazy, I want to relax on the couch. I would have been more than happy to have another 30 pages and a bit more painting in of the details.

That being said, the writing is wonderful, full of lovely descriptive touches–there’s a kiss in the rain which pushed all of my buttons and made me melt into a puddle of goo.

The fact that they are men, not chicks with dicks, and more than that–warriors first is never forgotten.  They comport themselves like men in public (usually!) and it’s convincing and well done.  Sora is the privileged son of a high ranking family, and Kaname, despite being ten years older, so Sora has the higher rank in the shinobi task force, and Kaname the lower.  Part of the problem is–as the title suggests–that Kaname is suffering from a scandal caused by his father–and in this society, the sins of the father cause the entire family to be tainted.  It’s this taint that Kaname carries–very nobly and to his credit, actually–and the root of a mystery that leads Sora to a conclusion he wasn’t expecting.

I liked the way they talked to each other–it’s nicely masculine. Sentences left unfinished, misunderstandings, actions which are misinterpreted, Sora especially, struggling to make sense of Kaname’s actions and motivations and usually failing miserably.

All in all it’s a very interesting insight into an era I know very little about–and had the culture been a little bit more filled in I think I would have enjoyed it a great deal more.  I would certainly read another book by this author.

Anyone who has read and enjoyed “Ghosts” by Olivia Lorenz  or “Across the Nightingale Floor” by Lian Hearn will enjoy this immensely and anyone interested in this era will certainly be enthralled.

Buy at Samhain Publishing

Merry Christmas Everyone!

Thank you all so much for visiting daily and reading the posts by the authors.

This site would not have the profile and the impetus to go forward without you–the readers.

Thank you–the writers–for taking your time and energy and inspiration to make some of the most varied posts.  I think every day was so different it was like a real Advent Calendar as you never knew what was behind that door.

I hope you enjoyed it!  And now the bit you’ve all been waiting for–the winners of the 24 daily prizes.  Some lucky people have won twice, but that’s because they were all chosen randomly (apart from the ones where input was required!)

How to claim your prize: Email me, Erastes, on erastes@erastes.com and I will pass your email onto the author concerned. DO NOT (unless you are comfortable doing so) put your address in your email to me – you can divulge that to your gift giver when you make contact.

1st – Erastes. The winner of a signed copy of Transgressions is JORDAN for coming up with the joke that made me laugh the longest.

2nd – Ken Craigside. The winners of Here and Always Have Been are CHARLIE COCHRANE and LISA

3rd - Louise Van Hine. The two winners of Louise’s giveaways are: TWILA and the runner up GEORGE ALLWYN

4th - Keta Diablo. The winner of Crossroads Showdown is: MINA

5th - E N Holland. The winner of an ecopy of Hidden Conflict is: K Z SNOW

6th – Stephanie Cowell. The winner of a copy of The Players is LISA S.C. (Stephanie wants me to let you all know that although the book is officially out of print, Amazon are selling used copies)

7th - Jordan Taylor. The winner of a gift certificate from Amazon is: ELLE BEA

8th - Syd McGingley. The winner of a choice of two books from Syd is: MOLLY CHURCH

9th – Aleksandr Voinov. The winner of Forbidden Love is: JOSH LANYON

10th – Josh Lanyon. The winner of a choice of a book from Josh’s back catalogue is SEMPRA.

11th – Jeanne Barrack. The winner of Jeanne’s perfume bottle is: JOLIE

12th – Kate Cotoner – The winner of Kate Cotoner’s draw for the DVD “A Frozen Flower” is JUST ANN NOW.

13th – Ava March. The winner of the choice of one of Ava’s books is: STEPHAN

14th – Hayden Thorne. The winner of their choice of Hayden’s historicals is: STEPHAN

15th – Alex Beecroft. The winner of Alex’s prize is MARA, who was the only one to correctly guess that she used ginger in her shrub.  Mara wins whichever of Alex’s books she chooses, in ebook form.

16th – Donald L Hardy. Two winners of Don’s book: ELLE BEA and SYLWIA

17th – Charlie Cochrane. The winner of their very own Cochrane story is GEORGE ALLWYNN

18th – Mark R Probst. The winner of a signed copy of The Filly is: KEN CRAIGSIDE

19th – Stevie Woods. The winner of their choice of Stevie’s historical ebooks is: J L MERROW

20th – Maggie Anton. The winner of Rashi’s Daughter: Book II Miriam is: NORSEMAGICK

21st – Lee Rowan. The winner of a copy of Sail Away or Walking Wounded is: JOAN

22nd – Alan Chin. The winner of a copy of The Lonely War is: JOAN

23rd – Ruth Sims. The winner of the print copy of The Phoenix is:  LISA S.C. And the ebook winner is: JORDAN

24th – Joanne Soper-Cook. The winner of Because you Despise Me is JEANNE

And the winner of the Grand Bumper Prize (consisting of at least two books, and sweets and anything else I can find to throw in the bag) is:

(DRUM ROLL)

BRUIN!

So – all the winners, email me and I’ll pass your details along. Don’t make me chase you!  :)


HAPPY HOLIDAYS, MERRY CHRISTMAS EVERYONE.

Charlie Cockrain and one to Lisam

The Death of Fear

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One Way to Lose a Hat

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The Lonely War

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Gift Exchange

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Medieval Attitudes

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Slabs of Stone, Wax Tablets…

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Happy Birthday, Speak Its Name

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A Christmas miscellany for jaded palates

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An Unexpected Christmas

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A Glass of Wine with You!

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Ode to Euterpe

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Favorite Things

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The Gosechi Dances

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Hanukah. Chanukah. Hanukkah. Chanakuh. or Potayto. Potahto. Latkes. Latkas.

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Understanding the Past

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It’s the people, stupid

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Making Pomanders (or a Mess)

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Writing What you (don’t) know

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The Players

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Delivering Bad News: Western Union

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Ten Things I Am Thankful For This Holiday Season (In No Particular Order)

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German Birthday Celebration and Advent

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Of Romance?

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Day One and we are off!

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