Big Wonderful Thing – A History of Texas: My Review

Many of you will be familiar with author John Steinbeck’s statement, Texas is a state of mind, something felt rather than articulated, which certainly applies to my feelings about the place I’ve called home for fifty-four years… 1966-2020. Moreover, should you count my years as an adolescent living in San Antonio from 1952-1960 (I was three when my Dad got assigned to Headquarters, 4th U.S. Army, and I attended school at Fort Sam Houston, Texas from kindergarten through the fifth grade) it adds up to sixty-two years that I’ve claimed the Lone Star State as my own.

Big Woderful Thing Book CoverBecause of my inability to adequately explain what it is about Texas that I love, I find myself periodically reading books by authors far more gifted than I at expressing their observations and thoughts on the mystique that separates Texas from all other states. For example, it was almost on this exact same date two years ago that I wrote a review of the book God Save Texas by Lawrence Wright (see my previous blog post dated Jul 5, 2018) which was actually being researched and written at the same time that Stephen Harrigan was compiling his history of Texas, Big Wonderful Thing. The two men happen to be friends and visited some of the same historical sites together.

However, Harrigan’s book is encyclopedic compared to Wright’s; at 925 pages (829 if you exclude the Acknowledgements, Notes, Bibliography, and Index) it is massive in scope, yet surprisingly readable. History is often nothing more than dates, historical figures and events; dry and boring. Harrigan blends these same elements of history with great storytelling, so the only real issue I had with the book was the difficulty I had holding it up to read!

Meticulously researched, Big Wonderful Thing is informative, educational, and entertaining. It spans the years 1528 to the present, but rather than a strict chronological record it uses anecdotal information and individual stories of people and events – not just those that are well known, but obscure men and women and their involvement in moments that shaped the progression and evolution of Texas.

The portrayal goes well beyond the myths about Texas that as a child I learned in school. The reality is far more complex, and Harrigan deftly blends factual material with his abilities as a novelist to engage readers in the small details and stories that give context to the larger picture. Some author bias is inevitable in the telling of these stories, but on the whole it is a notable literary achievement.

The title of the book comes from a quote by the American artist Georgia O’Keeffe: I couldn’t believe Texas was real… the same big wonderful thing that oceans and the highest mountains are. 

Certainly Texas, with all of its faults, complexities, and contradictions has achieved singular elevated status (for better or worse) among the fifty states that comprise our Union, and Stephen Harrigan has given us a worthy rendering of its history that compares favorably and even exceeds that previously attempted by other historians and authors. It is the type of history book that you can literally open to any chapter and find enjoyment in learning something new about Texas or adding to the knowledge that you already had.

I highly recommend Big Wonderful Thing.

 

All Things Left Wild: Lone Star Book Blog Tour – Review

ALL THINGS LEFT WILD
by
James Wade

Genre: Adventure / Rural Fiction / Coming of Age
Publisher: Blackstone Publishing
Publication Date: June 16, 2020
Number of Pages: 304 pages

Scroll down for the giveaway!

After an attempted horse theft goes tragically wrong, sixteen-year-old Caleb Bentley is on the run with his mean-spirited older brother across the American Southwest at the turn of the twentieth century. Caleb’s moral compass and inner courage will be tested as they travel the harsh terrain and encounter those who have carved out a life there, for good or ill. 

Wealthy and bookish Randall Dawson, out of place in this rugged and violent country, is begrudgingly chasing after the Bentley brothers. With little sense of how to survive, much less how to take his revenge, Randall meets Charlotte, a woman experienced in the deadly ways of life in the West. Together they navigate the murky values of vigilante justice.


Powerful and atmospheric, lyrical and fast-paced, All Things Left Wild is a coming-of-age for one man, a midlife odyssey for the other, and an illustration of the violence and corruption prevalent in our fast-expanding country. It artfully sketches the magnificence of the American West as mirrored in the human soul.

PRAISE for All Things Left Wild:
“A debut full of atmosphere and awe. Wade gives emotional depth to his dust-covered characters and creates an image of the American West that is harsh and unforgiving, but — like All Things Left Wild — not without hope.” — Texas Literary Hall of Fame member Sarah Bird, Daughter of a Daughter of a Queen

“James Wade has delivered a McCarthy-esque odyssey with an Elmore Leonard ear for dialogue. All Things Left Wild moves like a coyote across this cracked-earth landscape—relentlessly paced and ambitiously hungry.” — Edgar Award finalist David Joy, When These Mountains Burn

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Review
Five-Stars
     
     All Things Left Wild is a remarkable debut novel by a very gifted author. Written in a style reminiscent of Cormac McCarthy, it deals with issues of life and death in a world where people endure rather than prevail, where morality doesn’t exist, and where violent acts are so horrific that innocence is forever lost and salvation beyond reach.
     The story is set in Arizona, New Mexico, and on both sides of the Rio Grande in Mexico and Texas. It is a vast, rugged, treacherous, yet sublimely beautiful landscape. James Wade writes for visual impact and his descriptions of this part of the world conjure indelible breathtaking images of a pristine unchanging land corrupted only by the lawlessness and cruelty of man.
     There are but two natures, one is man’s – human nature – and the other is nature itself from which we have separated ourselves.
     Caleb Bentley and Randal Dawson are the two main characters in this exploration of men’s souls. Both are tragically linked by the death of Dawson’s twelve year old son. In a botched horse theft, Caleb accidentally kills the boy and now desperately seeks forgiveness and redemption as he flees across the American Southwest. If he can escape, he hopes to… never give another thought to all these things left wild.
     Randall is in pursuit, out for vengeance to somehow prove his manhood, but ill-prepared for the journey over unforgiving terrain or the lawlessness and violence that he encounters along the way that will change him into that which he loathes.
     He would become all things that he hated and thus grow to hate himself, and in that hate he would find the only solace left to him. He would let it fester and rot until every trace of his humanity became consumed by blackness. If the world was full of monsters, he would
become one.
     James Wade’s personal and direct style of writing, his passionate voice, elaborate dialogue, poetic language, and unapologetic graphic depictions of pure evil are hypnotic. There are passages with so much lyricism in them that I found myself reading and re-reading them over and over again.
     The novel doesn’t neatly fit into any particular genre or category. Though it takes place in the west, it is not your typical western. Set against the backdrop of the Mexican Revolution, it is not your usual action-adventure. Describing the loss of innocence, it is not your normal coming of age book. It is at once a beautiful elegy to the land and a profound look into our existence and our mortality.
     The world is of itself and nothing else, and it will be as it is and as it always was. There is no changing for the world, only for the man.
     Deeply fatalistic; evil is an inexplicable reality and death is inescapable, All Things Left Wild belongs in a category all to itself. In a word, it is extraordinary!
     I received an advance copy of this book in exchange for my review.

 

James Wade lives and writes in Austin, Texas, with his wife and daughter. He has had twenty short stories published in various literary magazines and journals. He is the winner of the Writers’ League of Texas Manuscript Contest and a finalist of the Tethered by Letters Short Fiction Contest. All Things Left Wild is his debut novel.
  Website ║ Facebook Blog 
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6/24/20
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The Cemetery of Lost Books

Book SalesI recently came across an obituary notice for the world renown Spanish novelist, Carlos Ruiz Zafón. I was saddened by his passing but reminded that in one of his greatest works, Shadow of the Wind, he wrote about a library of obscure book titles and the importance of each. To paraphrase his comments on writing and reading, he stated that every book, every volume in that library had a soul. “The soul of the person who wrote it and those that read it and lived and dreamed with it.”

Today, it is estimated that over one million books get published annually. Few become an overnight success. Less than 2% of those sell more than a few copies. Readers are drawn to new releases by well known authors, with many of their works becoming best sellers even before their release to the general public. So, while self-publishing has made it easier to become a writer, it has become harder than ever to be noticed. This is one of the reasons I try to promote books by new or local authors and occasionally use this platform to reach out and elicit comments or conversation related to my own works.

Bookstore closures are the norm during these difficult times. Independent bookstores that showcase new or local talent are largely shuttered or only offer curbside service, and in-store events with authors are either cancelled or postponed indefinitely, as are book fairs, literary festivals, and trade shows.

Online availability helps, but the reality of the marketplace is that books do not reach readers for free. Discovery comes at a price. Major online retailers rely on advertising money which may be beyond the means of authors who do not have the financial backing of mainstay publishing houses.

As with any endeavor, writing and success as an author demands persistence as well as talent, and part of that persistence is reaching out to readers requesting their assistance with spreading the word about a book they’ve read. I’ve commented previously about the importance of getting written reviews or comments, but equally important is word of mouth. Vocal support not only spreads the word about a story you’ve enjoyed, found compelling or informative, but also helps to expand awareness about an author who might otherwise be unknown or yet to be discovered. Author recognition is just as important as remembering the title of a book. In fact it is essential in this oversaturated market.

Be sure to explore works by new and local authors. For information about myself or to familiarize yourself with any of the books that I’ve written go to Amazon or Goodreads.

 

 

 

 

Sunday, June 14th

In the midst of our national anguish over systemic racism, the coronavirus, and record unemployment our focus has justifiably been on police accountability and reform, the rising numbers of COVID-19 cases, and finding a balance between reopening the economy and the need for social distancing. The Black Lives Matter protests, the pandemic, and financial hardship not seen since the Great Depression are our daily reality, all extensively covered by the media, the subject of conversations between family members  and friends, as well as factors in our decision making and activities.

We are certainly witnessing a historical confluence of events in this country and throughout the world, yet it is also important for Americans to acknowledge Flag Day and the Army’s 245th birthday. Both occurred yesterday (Sunday, June 14th) yet largely went by without notice or observance.

It was on this day in 1775 that the First Continental Congress authorized enlistment of soldiers to fight the British in what became known as the Continental Army (before the United States was even established as a country.) After the Revolutionary War and our independence, it would be re-designated as the U.S. Army on June 3, 1784.

Also on this day in 1777 the Second Continental Congress officially adopted the Stars and Stripes as our National flag. In 1916 President Woodrow Wilson would recognize the date as Flag Day, but it wouldn’t be until August 3, 1949 that President Harry S. Truman officially established June 14th as a day to pay tribute to this symbol of national unity.

Though this nation is far from united, and we have yet to achieve equal justice under the law for all our citizens regardless of race, I proudly fly the American flag 365 days a year. For me it is a symbol of hope, of what we aspire to be as a nation. It still stands for freedom and embodies the words penned by Thomas Jefferson and contained in our Declaration of Independence… “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”

I also take great pride in the United States Army as an institution that protects those freedoms. In the oath of enlistment and oath for commissioned officers are the words “I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I will obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. So help me God.” It is an oath not taken lightly. Among its many provisions, the Constitution guarantees freedom of speech, the right to peaceably assemble, the right to vote, and the right to petition the government for redress of grievances. I took and upheld this oath during the twenty-four years that I wore the uniform as did the enlisted and officers with whom I had the privilege to serve. I hold them in the highest regard as I do the men and women of today’s Army.

Though Flag Day and the Army’s birthday have passed, Americans are encouraged to fly the flag all this week and it is always appropriate to express appreciation to our veterans and the men and women currently serving in the Armed Forces. Even amidst the uncertainty and turmoil of today some observances are worth our effort.

Finally I pray that in 2020 we also finally acknowledge systemic racism and institute meaningful and long overdue change, that we successfully develop a vaccine to fight and defeat this infectious disease, and that we return to economic prosperity not for just for the few, but for everyone.

Sword Song: My Review

Sword Song Book CoverSet in the year 885, this is the continuing story of Uhtred of Bebbanburg and the Saxon Tales. Like its predecessors this fourth entry into the series offers vivid and dramatic battle scenes, but the violence (while true to this period in history) does not overshadow well drawn characters – both historical and fictional – that add depth and human interest to the origins of modern day England.

Following the defeat of the Viking Guthrum, Alfred the Great is looking to consolidate his rule over all the kingdoms (not just Wessex but Mercia, East Anglia, and Northumbria) and bring Christianity to the whole country. To do so he must protect his borders from further Viking raids and Uhtred is sworn to aid him in this effort.

When Sigefrid and Erik Thurgilson capture and occupy London, Alfred’s control of the Thames River is threatened. Now Uhtred must weigh his oath to Alfred against his own ambitions. A mixture of both Saxon and Dane, Uhtred has divided loyalties that will be tested by predictions that he will be king of Mercia if he allies himself with the Vikings.

Bernard Cornwell engages the reader in the narrative of shifting allegiances and power struggles. Alfred’s treacherous nephew, Aethelwold, covets the throne upon which Alfred sits and schemes with the Danes to lure Uhtred away from his oath to the king. News of a risen dead man foretells Uhtred’s kingship in the kingdom of Mercia. However, the vain and abusive Aethelred, married to Alfred’s eldest daughter, has already been promised the kingdom. His cruelty endangers his wife Ethelflaed, while his vanity and lack of leadership jeopardizes the campaign to recapture London. Uhtred must find a way to protect Ethelflaed from Aethelred, reveal Aetholwold’s treachery, and recapture London to fulfill his pledge to Alfred.

Sword Song is an apt title for the book as Uhtred again wields his sword Serpent-Breath in the battle for London. For anyone unfamiliar with Uhtred’s previous adventures please refer to my reviews of the three earlier books in the series: The Last Kingdom, Dec 7 2018; The Pale Horsemen, Jul 5, 2019; and The Lords of the North, Feb 26, 2020.  

A united England in the ninth century is still just a dream, and there are many more adventures yet to be told. In total, Bernard Cornwell has written twelve books in this ongoing series with more to come! Some readers may find this disconcerting, but whenever I’m in the mood for rousing descriptions of battle and a rich history of the northward expansion that resulted in the realization of Alfred the Great’s dream, I find myself returning to the Saxon Tales.

Next up for me, somewhere down the road… The Burning Land.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Mermaid and the Bear: My Review

In 1597 in Aberdeen, Scotland several individuals were executed for alleged witchcraft or sorcery. The majority of those accused were women, many of them midwives or healers whose abilities were thought to be satanic powers derived from devil worship. Confessions of said diabolical activity were obtained by various forms of torture or physical abuse, after which the “guilty” were usually burned at the stake. This is the historical background for Ailish Sinclair’s debut novel The Mermaid and the Bear.

The story focuses on a young woman named Isobel who flees to Scotland to avoid an arranged marriage to a cruel and wicked man. Although she is educated and comes from a well to do English family, she finds employment (as well as refuge, friendship, and love) working as a kitchen maid in the household of a Scottish laird. Her idyllic life is shattered, however, when envy and jealousy lead to accusations that she and two other women at the castle practice the dark arts.

The book is written in two parts each starkly different in tone and style:

The first part is the love story, the setting and dialogue evoking a land of ancient stones, fairytale castles, and misty lochs where a maiden is mistaken for a mermaid and the castle laird a bear. The descriptive passages in these chapters are so atmospheric and the language so lyrical that 16th century Scotland seems the perfect setting for this unlikely romance.

Then the narrative abruptly changes to the horrors of the Aberdeen witch trials. The author doesn’t spare the reader from the graphic and brutal treatment of the accused and some may find the transition jarring.

I read The Mermaid and the Bear precisely because of my interest in Scottish history and my curiosity about the Scottish Witchcraft Act of 1563 and specifically the Aberdeen witchcraft trials. In all, some 400 people were executed in Scotland during this period including Bessie Thom and Christen Michell, both of whom are actual historical figures featured within the novel. Ailish Sinclair does a wonderful job of fleshing out these two characters and making them an integral part of this fictional work.

I found the love story between Isobel and the Scottish laird Thomas Manteith less compelling and somewhat contrived, but since I don’t usually read romance novels, others can decide for themselves whether it’s typical of the genre.

On the whole this debut novel by Ailish Sinclair is an engaging read that can be enjoyed for its beautiful description of Scotland, its romantic story, and/or its historical portrayal of Aberdeen. I look forward to her upcoming book Fireflies and Chocolate inspired by the children kidnapped in Aberdeen in the 18th century.

Temporary Inactivity

Since beginning Life is History in 2017 I’ve tried to write something at least weekly. However, sometimes unexpected life events happen that alter our priorities. This week my mother-in-law passed away and my wife and I are in route to North Carolina to attend her funeral. I’d like to express my appreciation to those of you who follow my weekly posts. I hope to resume them as soon as possible. Thank you for your understanding.

The First Emma: Lone Star Book Blog Tour – Author Video

THE FIRST EMMA
by
Camille Di Maio

Historical Fiction / Historical Romance / Women’s Fiction

Publisher: Wyatt-MacKenzie Publishing
Date of Publication: May 5, 2020
Number of Pages: 315

Scroll down for the giveaway!
 

 

The First Emma is the true story of Emma Koehler. Whose tycoon husband Otto was killed in a crime-of-the-century murder by one of his two mistresses – both also named Emma – and her unlikely rise as CEO of a brewing empire during Prohibition. When a chance to tell her story to a young teetotaler arises, a tale unfolds of love, war, beer, and the power of women.

 

PRAISE for The First Emma

“Di Maio’s take on a shocking American drama pleasantly blends romantic and historical fiction . . . a sweet memorialization of a real-life female business pioneer in San Antonio.” —Kirkus

“A beautifully crafted portrait of an intriguing woman. Mystery and romance are set against the backdrop of fascinating pieces of twentieth-century history, and a richly drawn setting leaves the reader feeling wholly immersed. Historical fiction fans will love this one!” —Chanel Cleeton, NYT bestselling author of Next Year in Havana


“Di Maio does a brilliant job of weaving together all the threads—from past to present—while unearthing a tale of blossoming love, the power of our chosen family, and the losses that make us whole again.” —Rochelle B. Weinstein, USA Today bestselling author of This Is Not How It Ends

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Author Video

Camille Di Maio, author of bestselling historical fiction, loves to illuminate the stories of women from the past. From the challenges they overcome to the loves they embrace, her characters – both real and fictional – have something to teach us in the present.

Join Camille as she introduces her books and invites her readers to keep in touch.

The First Emma

CLICK TO VIEW VIDEO:

Camille Di Maio always dreamed of being a writer, though she took a winding path of waitressing, temping, politicking, and real estate to get there. It all came to fruition with the publication of her bestselling debut, The Memory of Us, followed by Before the Rain Falls, The Way of Beauty, and The Beautiful Strangers. In addition to writing, she loves farmers’ markets, unashamedly belts out Broadway tunes when the mood strikes, and regularly faces her fear of flying to indulge her passion for travel. Married for twenty-three years, she home-schools their four children. (Though the first two are off at college now!) She is happy to live in Virginia near a beach. 
 

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The Land Beyond the Sea: My Review

The Land Beyond the Sea Book CoverThere is simply no other writer of medieval history that comes even close to the incomparable Sharon K. Penman. Her latest book The Land Beyond the Sea is the story of Outremer, the Kingdom of Jerusalem, and the struggles between Christian and Muslim rulers for the Holy Land.

Penman is known for her meticulous research covering both the history of the period and the rich array of characters that bring that history to life. In this case the story focuses on young King Baldwin IV’s courageous attempts to hold the Frankish kingdom together against both internal and external forces while also combating the debilitating effects of leprosy; Salah al-Din, the first sultan of Egypt and Syria, known to history as the great Muslim military and political leader Saladin; Lord Balian d’Ibelin, one of the few Christians respected by both Baldwin and Saladin, influential in maintaining the peace until Baldwin’s illness finally takes its toll and Guy de Lusignan, by right of marriage to Baldwin’s sister Sybilla, ascends to the throne; Gerard de Ridefort, the Templar Grand Master whose influence over the new king leads Guy to order his forces to venture out into the arid desert wasteland without sufficient water, resulting in his defeat at the battle of Hattin in 1187 and the Islamic reconquest of Jerusalem.

Personal animosities, ambitions, ignorance, greed, and stupidity all factored into the struggle for the Holy Land, and Penman captures all these influences in The Land Beyond the Sea. The conflict described in her 654 page narrative isn’t limited to Christian against Muslim. She describes the struggles for power within both religions, and it’s these divisions that played out in a series of conflicts over control of Jerusalem and the holy sites sacred to each faith that became known as the Crusades.

Readers who appreciate history will devour this book just as they have all of Penman’s previous books. They will also delight in the true circumstances regarding Balian d’Ibelin’s actions after the battle of Hattin that saved thousands of lives when Jerusalem fell to Saladin. The story has been told before in the blockbuster film The Kingdom of Heaven. However, while it’s a great movie, the facts regarding d’Ibelin’s lineage, his relationship to King Baldwin IV and his sister Sybilla, and his role in convincing Saladin to accept the peaceful surrender of Jerusalem make for a much more satisfying and riveting tale.

I highly recommend this novel!

 

 

 

 

Covey and Jay Jay Get Educated: Lone Star Book Blog Tour – Promo

COVEY AND JAYJAY
GET EDUCATED
Audio Book Tour
By Shelton L. Williams
Narrated by Kathy James
Covey Jencks Mysteries, Book 2
Genre: Murder Mystery / Social Thriller / Amateur Sleuth
Publisher: Audible
Length: 5 hours, 40 minutes
Publication Date: March 18, 2020

Scroll down for giveaway!

Amateur detectives Covey Jencks and JayJay Qualls are drawn into a triple murder on the campus of Baker College in West Waverly in the Texas Hill Country. Both end up taking positions at the college: Covey as an adjunct instructor and JayJay as a visiting actor. 

 

Initially they believe that money is the motive for the murders, but over time they learn that the college is a cauldron of political and social intrigue. The college’s new president and his beautiful wife, various staff members, a prominent trustee, and parties not associated with the college have the motives, opportunities, and wacky agendas that might implicate them in the murders. It turns out that a white nationalist group may be using a college house for its nefarious activities, but are they more talk than action? 
 
The West Waverly police are little to no help in the investigation, and Covey himself has to depart the college to deal with his father’s death. JayJay takes over and makes a critical breakthrough. Upon Covey’s return, the couple must rely on deception, a bit of luck, and martial arts skills to solve the crimes and to try to prevent a high-profile assassination.

Shelton L. Williams (Shelly) is founder and president of the Osgood Center for International Studies in Washington, DC. He holds a PhD from Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, and he taught for nearly forty years at Austin College in Sherman, Texas. He has served in the US Government on four occasions, and he has written books and articles on nuclear proliferation. In 2004 he began a new career of writing books on crime and society. Those books are Washed in the Blood, Summer of 66, and now the Covey Jencks series. All firmly prove that he is still a Texan at heart.

 

Kathy James. My first part time job while I was in high school was announcing at the local radio station, and I had fun being “on the air” and using my sarcastic sense of humor.  I worked in the radio business for more than twenty years. My favorite pastimes are teaching figure skating, getting lost in a great book, and watching movies.  I narrate and produce audio books in my home studio, and I truly enjoy bringing an author’s characters to life with an audio book. I currently reside in Minnesota with my slightly overweight cat and two childlike golden retrievers.  


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THREE WINNERS! 
FIRST PRIZE: Audio books of Covey Jencks, Covey and JayJay Get Educated, and Washed In the Blood
SECOND PRIZE: Both Covey Jencks books in Kindle editions
THIRD PRIZE: Covey and JayJay Get Educated in Kindle edition
MAY 7-16, 2020
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