Aspergers, autism, mother's love, thriller

The Silent Blogger

Frustration

Okay.

Anyone who has even halfway followed my blog knows I am terrible at it – blogging, that is. I’ve resisted the social media surge that precedes the publication of a novel, have tortured my PR guys with my adamant and (stupid) refusal to cooperate with well-intentioned plans to sell, disseminate, conjure interesting online articles and advice segments for new writers – I’ve done everything wrong. Something happened to me after writing my first two novels. I became aware of a horrible thing.

I had lost my creativity. When I used to walk into my studio, a magical feeling would come over me. No, I didn’t first kill a chicken, wear a red cape or play the mystical chants of monks in Iberia. All it took for me to go into myself and find the words that spilled themselves out onto the page was for me to sit down. Turn on the computer. Look at the blank page. And then a fugue would come over me and the words, ideas, crazy characters, thrilling plot twists, would all pour out and onto the page. Okay, so maybe not all of those things happened at once. But the feeling was that it was happening. Or would happen very, very soon.

But a strange and horrible phenomenon came over me after the second novel came out. I had done so many interviews, read so many warranted or unwarranted critics slam into my books and find me wanting, was so struck by the attendant responsibilities that seemed to accompany the fact that I was – finally – a published author – that I truly lost my compass. How could or should I proceed? Why was I paralyzed?

It took me months to realize that my passion had become a job. I fell into a deep, inconsolable depression, derived primarily from total confusion about my future. Where the hell do you go from there? And, when I finally realized that my greatest passion had become work, the mystery and muse deserted me. It became clear, however irrational, that my forced contact with the outside world, no matter how often I conversed with my wonderful readers, had somehow contributed to the dreaded writer’s block, to my ability to just sit down and write.

Annie Dillard (who has no social media presence as she wants her work to speak for itself) wrote a wonderful book, which I will quote ad nauseum until I die. It contains pithy words of wisdom for fools such as I, writers who face the desired conundrum of being published, yet want to remain true to their voice and chosen vocation. I have spent the last fruitless months clueless as to why I could not just sit down, go into my typical writer zone, and just, damn it, well…write. It isn’t that I didn’t want to, God knows I did. Ask my husband. When I’m not writing, I’m a horrible wretch to live with. Those of us who must use the written word to define and give meaning to their lives, when incapacitated, are miserable excuses for humans. Yet he persevered in his boundless faith that I would recover. Myself. My work. My sanity.

So. I procrastinated about doing anything worthwhile, as any seasoned writer worth her salt will do in such malodorous times, reading everything I could get my hands on about writer’s block (which I had previously derided as sheer and utter bullshit), moaning about all the forces of nature that were preventing me from writing, citing climate change, menopause, a health crisis long passed, the state of my dogs’ teeth – you name it, I claimed it. Which was all bullshit.

So. After reading everything about other writers who waxed rhapsodic about what prevented them from doing a damned thing (Hemingway’s drinking and suicide, authors who actually had something to bitch about, even cancer or failing parents, rheumatoid arthritis in their hands that crippled them to the extent that they could no longer even reach the computer keys), I slapped myself in the face. I had become one of those…whiners.

There is nothing so unattractive as a writer who has been successfully published complaining about the negative effects of being published. I had become such a creature. Shame on me!

The other truth:  I hate social media. Sorry, guys, but I don’t get it and don’t want to get it. I’m too damned old. And I resent, truly and fully, having to sell myself in micro-bites, expressing anything worth a shit in 120 characters, re-tweeting other authors I’ve never heard of because they’ve re-tweeted me. Not that I even honestly did this, which would have been, to me, bad enough. No, I had a PR firm carry my water because I flat-out didn’t know what to do about the whole social media platform. And they did it extremely well.

But here’s the hitch. It killed my soul. I felt like a total sell-out. Every morning I felt obligated to post something in keeping with my website on FB or Twitter or write a searingly interesting blog. Well, I’m not searingly interesting most days or even once a month. Funny, witty, sarcastic – yes, I can pull that off quite often.  But to be under the gun to do it for my own self-aggrandizement just felt…wrong. (And I don’t care what anyone tells you about social media as an author.  You’re there to sell books. That’s simply how it’s done now, although Amazon is now threatening even that.)

Well, I had to come to a decision. It’s taken me almost a year to figure out who and what I am as a writer, as someone who just wants to speak in my voice and damn the consequences. I’ve backed off from everything but the writing. And writing, unbeknownst to those of us who don’t feel compelled to do it every day to stay sane, requires untold hours of thinking, feeling, scribbling, scrabbling and fucking around with creative ruses to call the muses. (I like that one.)

I have to force myself into my studio and do whatever crazy-ass thing it takes to get me into the book, the characters, the zone, the insanity where my most sane self lives. And that I intended to do.

And it’s working. For those of you who are still kind enough to care, the sequel to SAVING MAX, called FINDING MARIANNE, is now off to the races.

Damn the torpedoes. Full speed ahead.

P.S.  I promise to blog more than once a year. Apologies to those who have come to the website expecting to hear something from me. I am going to do better.  Without you guys and your feedback, what is already a lonely pursuit is fairly intolerable! Many thanks for your patience.

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Anatomy of a Great Radio Interview

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I had the great fortune recently to be interviewed by Bob Edwards of NPR fame. To say that he is one of the very best is an understatement. I have had many radio interviews and have listened to a few in my day, but I’m no expert, you might say. No, but I know when I’ve had a fabulous interview and I know why – and it isn’t because of me!

So I asked myself:  What makes a great interview? The interviewer. No question. And what makes a great interviewer? Here are a few ideas.

1. Preparation.

And more preparation.

If you’ve written a novel and the host hasn’t read it (or has obviously just skimmed the back jacket and, worse, regurgitates the book club discussion questions), you’re in deep, well…trouble.

Those are the interviews that you know if you were on the other side of the radio, you’d flip the channel and wouldn’t think twice about buying the book. Anyone who has listened to Bob Edwards knows that he is always prepared. When you’re on the other side of the mike, that makes you immediately relax. You don’t have to worry about educating the interviewer or, worse, correcting him on air.

2. Genuine Curiosity.

Sometimes when I’m getting interviewed, I have the distinct impression that the host is reviewing copy for the next victim, is making the slash sign across his or her throat to get rid of me early, or has a rousing case of Montezuma’s revenge.

A good radio host really wants to know what is behind, below and under your book. Who you are, why you write what you do, what this book means to you and the reader. Bob Edwards asked probing and intelligent questions about my Dutch parents’ life and role in the underground during the Second World War. He was curious about my life experience as an admiralty lawyer and how I came to write, about my autistic children and the effect they had on my first novel. Cyrus Webb, who also interviewed me recently, is also on the way to becoming one of the greats. He wasn’t afraid to pursue unanticipated avenues of interest, always honestly curious about the writing process and the genesis of the work. He’s also extraordinarily intelligent and funny, which doesn’t hurt.

3. It’s a real conversation.

Here’s what Edwards said about his show:

“Now I can interview someone for up to an hour. So it’s a freer, more open, more relaxed and enjoyable conversation. The program’s really about conversation.”

He’s absolutely right. I felt, even sitting at KUT’s public radio station in Austin, Texas, that I was across from him with a cup of coffee having a really remarkable conversation before the show began. I had a similar experience with Susan Wingate, who provides a terrific radio forum for authors to talk about their work. I felt as if she and I were in her living room eating food that was extremely bad for us, chatting and commiserating, writer-to-writer.

4. Listening.

I grew up in that horrible era where the phrase “active listening” was in vogue. What does that mean, anyway? I think what a truly great radio host does is really listen. Unlike me, who chattered away like Alvin the chipmunk during the entire interview, Bob Edwards knew when to ask and when to listen. And while listening, to formulate what would turn out to be the next unexpected question.

5. Courteous.

This sounds strange, but if you’ve listened to a lot of interviews, you will find some hosts, whether on radio or television, who seem to have the need to “shock jock” their guests for their own aggrandizement or ratings. In my book, a respectful host doesn’t lie in wait for the zing or snarky retort. And Bob Edwards, above all, is a true gentleman.

Enough said!

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What do you mean you’re moving into your own apartment? My Asperger’s son goes out on his own!

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Okay, I’m a helicopter mom. I’m in recovery with other afflicted mothers and have actually been doing better. I don’t ask my son if he’s shaved or brushed his teeth EVERY time he comes home to visit. Or tell him how to make scrambled eggs. Unless he does it wrong. Or… let’s just say my recover is ongoing.

I’ve been doing really well lately because for the past few years he’s made incredible strides, we’re talking leaps and bounds here. Yes, okay – of COURSE the goal has been for him to live independently. Of COURSE I’m thrilled about it. But he’s lived in a residential community for a few years now and he’s been safe. I haven’t had to worry about someone breaking into an apartment, hurting or killing him, his leaving the door open, being followed home by some deviant. I’ve worried about other things, of course, but now I’m worrying about things normal moms worry about – and I’m in unchartered territory!

Proud? What an inadequate word. My son has worked as hard as a human ever has to develop the skills other guys his age have instinctively or learn easily, just to get out of there, to have his own apartment, his own job, his own life.

And he’s done it! He works full-time at a huge hospital. He gets his apartment in two months. He’s learned to cook, clean, do his own wash, get back and forth to work – you name it, he’s done it. And when you have learning disabilities and Asperger’s, that’s no mean feat, as those in the same boat know.

But doesn’t anybody understand that I’m still basically breastfeeding even though I’m 56? I remember when he was four months old and I had to stop because I got mastitis. (An infection that prevents you from breastfeeding, if you happen to be a guy reading this who doesn’t have kids.)

And I cried for days, devastated. “He’ll never need me again,” I moaned. “Not like that,” I groaned. “It’s over. The really special part is all over!”

Wrong. Wrong. Wrong.

 Just being a kid, and also a special needs guy, he needed me more than ever over the years. Sometimes I thought I’d blow my brains out, sometimes I had no clue where any of us would end up, sometimes he filled me with such joy that the fear for his future would dissipate for a few hours.

But, yipes! Now I’m sure I just felt it, that twinge in my left breast – yep! It’s got to be the same thing.

My baby boy is a grown man. And he’ll never need me in the same way again.

And I thank God, my husband, my ex, my other sons, the scores of people who helped him along the way, our friends, family, the dogs, the neighbors and, okay, the whole damned world.

And you, son. You most of all.

You DID it when everyone said it couldn’t be done.

What’s a little mastitis when next month I’ll watch you turn the key to the door of your new life!

Congratulations!

(Oh, by the way, I am getting a spare key, right?)

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The Dreaded, Beloved Pink Bathrobe

385px-PinkBathrobeI refuse to call it writer’s block.

That would be passé.

That would make me like any other writer and, of course, I’m special.

It’s just a pink bathrobe day.

You know, one of those gray, wet mornings when you haul yourself out of bed, stumble into the closet and stare, un-caffeinated, at your options.  And somehow you know there is only one.  The pink, fluffy, warm, size 3X Walmart Deluxe bathrobe.  You wrest it from the hanger and snuggle down into its folds, knowing your day is taking its inevitable course.

The great thing is that experience has taught you that this is a temporary malaise.  You give yourself permission to slouch around the house, avoid the dishes, and lie on the bed reading novels that have no chance of contributing to your current writing effort.  You surround yourself with dogs, let them up on the bed (they can wear pink robes if they have them, too).  It’s no big deal for my Yorkies to be on the bed, but when Phoebe the Great Dane gets to hop up, it’s a high holiday.  You put your laptop under the bed (in case you get the urge to blog or email) and watch cable movies, ones you wouldn’t be caught dead mentioning to anyone.  My penchant runs towards really crappy romantic comedies or old, depressing dramas (e.g. Gena Rowlands and Peter Falk in “A Woman Under the Influence.”)  Now that I think about it, movies about crazy people figure largely over the course of the 24-hour pink bathrobe day.

Something gross for lunch, preferably laden with Vitamin G.  Then it’s time for a nap.  If you’re lucky, it’ll still be raining and the dogs will snore lightly.  This adds layers of meaning to an otherwise meaningless day.  When you wake up, beware.  This is the most dangerous part of the PB day.  You will feel the urge to do something… productive.  Fight it!  Make yourself a cup of tea (ignoring the dishes, the dirty wash, the fur balls in the corner) and go right upstairs with another book in keeping with the genre of the day (Sue Kaufman’s Diary of a Mad Housewife is an unerring choice) and invade your husband’s lair.  (He is long gone, bolted the minute he saw the pink bathrobe).  Reposition dogs on the couch and resume reading.

Back in bed for an evening of stultifying television and then early to bed.  Do NOT take off that robe.  It doubles as leisurewear and pajamas, a uniquely versatile ensemble.  Roll over and sleep for ten hours.

When you wake up, just the sight of that robe will make you slightly sick.  You roll it into a pink ball, stuff it into the back of the closet, jump in the shower, yank on your jeans and a sweatshirt and hit the keys.

Writer’s block cured!

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Writers as Recluse

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Is it possible for an author to achieve notoriety without prostituting themselves under the cloak of social media?

Has social media and internet ephemera made it harder for us as authors to focus and do what matters – write?

And I wonder, is it even possible for someone my age, getting into this game now, to achieve the notoriety of a Salinger or a Lee or a Pynchon, while still maintaining some degree of privacy?

Or am I doomed to force myself to blog a couple of times a week, to tweet a bon mot once or twice a day, so an over-stimulated audience doesn’t forget me?

Ms. Emily Dickinson: Didn’t leave her family compound for 20 years.

Salinger: “There is a marvelous peace in not publishing. It’s peaceful. Still. Publishing is a terrible invasion of my privacy. I like to write. I love to write. But I write just for myself and my own pleasure. I pay for this kind of attitude. I’m known as a strange, aloof kind of man.”

Pynchon: While you could argue that Pynchon is just as much of a recluse as Salinger was, there’s definitely more of a sense of humor and some showmanship behind his man of mystery act. To wit, he has made three animated appearances on The Simpsons, once with a bag over his head to blurb a novel written by Marge.

Harper Lee: It’s kind of funny that a writer who grew up as the best friend of Truman Capote would shy away from the limelight, but that’s just what Harper Lee did. Following the 1960 publication of To Kill A Mockingbird, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction the following year, Lee avoided interviews, public appearances, and to a certain degree writing for public consumption, outside of a few short essays and an incomplete second novel called The Long Goodbye. (There was also talk in the mid-80s of a non-fiction book about an Alabama serial murderer, but that was reportedly put aside as well.)

As she explained in a 1964 interview with author Roy Newquist:
“I never expected any sort of success with Mockingbird. I was hoping for a quick and merciful death at the hands of the reviewers but, at the same time, I sort of hoped someone would like it enough to give me encouragement. Public encouragement. I hoped for a little, as I said, but I got rather a whole lot, and in some ways this was just about as frightening as the quick, merciful death I’d expected.”

Most recently, Lee – who at 84, is still said to handwrite polite refusals for interview requests  – was accosted in Monroeville by a journalist from The Daily Mail bearing a box of chocolates. Her amazing response to the invasion of privacy: “We’re just going to feed the ducks, but call me the next time you are here. We have a lot of history here. You will enjoy it.”

Best polite screw you ever.

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How Living Abroad Changed My Life And My Writing

3quarter_globeWhen dinosaurs roamed the earth in 1974, I charged off to Europe the summer after high school armed with a passport, a Eurail pass, some travelers checks, and the addresses of some relatives I’d never heard of given to me by my Dutch parents. Back then you could travel around Europe, hitch, take the train, stay in hostels – and be fairly safe.

I didn’t speak Dutch. My parents, who came over from the Netherlands after the war, were told not to teach us if they wanted us to be “real Americans.” At least that’s what my mother told me. So that first visit I smiled at my Dutch grandmother and relatives, they smiled back, nodding and pointing at tea or food and, after a few hours of doing the bobble head, I would be on my way to France, Germany, whatever came next. What can I say? It was a blast! On my own at last! No one telling me what to do or when to do it. Six weeks later, I dragged my dirty backpack home, grinning and completely smitten with international travel and what I was then determined would be my destiny. I was going back. I was getting out of Houston damned Texas, moving abroad and never coming back!

When you are the child of immigrants and all of your parents’ family lives “back home,” I believe you are even more drawn to that place and that past. You have no other way of knowing what made your parents who they were. I find it fascinating how “Dutch” I was raised – something I didn’t realize until I actually lived in the Netherlands years later – and yet how completely “American” my parents thought they were! Good God, I didn’t even eat rice until I went to college! Meat and potatoes meant dinner. Vegetables optional. Six p.m. sharp.

For me, my mother’s untimely death in 1978, the year I graduated from college, ripped my world apart, as it did everyone in my family. She was its epicenter. During the last year of her illness, I had applied for and gotten a grant to study the Dutch underground during the Second World War. Both she and my father had been in the Dutch resistance and had told me a few stories of that terribly difficult time. It was my way of trying to stay connected to my mother, to keep her with me. I lived in Amsterdam for two years (definitely a story for countless blogs), and the experience could not have affected me more if it had changed my skin color, gender or orientation.

Living abroad is a disconnect. When you open your eyes in the morning, nothing is the same. Just the sounds of a foreign city, the chatter in a different language, the food, the air – even you feel different, as if you have been transformed into a virtual self, the person you are in this world, having shed the skin of your native land. If you decide to live in one place, as I did, there is the “outsider looking in” phenomenon that never leaves. I actually studied Dutch at the University of Texas (go figure!), but could only speak haltingly and poorly – about the Second World War! – since that was all I had read about. Very funny. “Mussert had gained a stronger foothold in popularizing the Dutch Nazi party,” was easy. “Pass the salt” tripped more slowly from the tongue. Even after I spoke the language well, there was that vague period where I understand all that was being said, but could still not completely express myself. Passive language is far easier than expressive language.

Then one day I knew it had happened. I was as Dutch as I was ever going to be. I woke up and smiled. I had dreamt in Dutch! To me that was true integration.

And life went on. Relationships formed and fell apart, life intervened, I had to have a career. I went back to the States two years later, back to Austin and UT, this time to law school.

The first months were very hard. I was again on the outside looking in. Still dreaming in Dutch. Very homesick for my adopted country, but surrounded by Americans, whom I had studiously avoided in Holland because I was trying so hard to be Dutch! That first year was terrible. All I wanted to do was to go back. (Not to mention the joy of the first year of law school, somewhat akin to having your skin peeled off.)

But the wonderful part of my foreign experience stuck with me, had been ingrained into my heart and soul. I studied international law. Got a job with a New York firm and practiced admiralty and international law. Spent a week a year traveling in Europe and Scandinavia visiting clients. Represented foreign clients in the U.S. What can I say again? It was a blast!

After my career in law, I found myself with a second husband and three boys, two of whom had autism. I stopped practicing law and focused on raising children. That other life, for a decade, seemed far away, as did that girl who rode her bike up and down the canals in Amsterdam, certain she would change the world, make her mark. I began writing and the first book was about my son who has Asperger’s. But when it came time for the second novel, most of it took place in the Netherlands, much of the plot drawing upon the research I did in Amsterdam as a young girl. And writing it, I re-lived those feelings, the amazing events, the tremendous meaning my time there has always held for me.

And over the years, I still I find myself retracing my steps to Holland. The gray descent onto the Schiphol runway, the train into Amsterdam, the first blast of wet cold coming out of the station, the tramp down the cobblestone streets to the Dam. Yes, I’m a tourist now. Another dreaded American. An outsider again. My Dutch isn’t what it was, but it isn’t terrible. And the part of me that lived there never went away.

I’ve stopped trying to be Dutch.

I already am.

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Snapshots of World War 2: My Parent’s Documents

Document 5Document 1These documents are letters of commendation and praise by the Dutch government and the department of the Dutch Interior Forces given to both of my parents after the war, thanking them for their service to their country. My mother is identified as having been a courier, my father commended for his courage in the service of his country. When my father was trying to get into the United States in 1945, he used these letters to add to his dossier given to Immigration and also sent them out to possible future employers.

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My mother told me that while the war was the most horrible thing she had ever experienced, it was also the most exciting time in her life. I don’t believe she felt that way about anything else, like so many who survived World War II. When I was studying the Dutch Underground in college, she told me many stories of the boys she had known who were killed by the Nazis, Jewish friends who disappeared and how, in the last year of the war, she rode her bicycle on wooden wheels because there was no rubber. Every time she spoke of the friends she had lost, she cried. “What a waste,” she always said, shaking her head.

Document 4My father would simply not talk about the war – not what he did in it, not about his family or friends, nothing. I think it was too painful for him. He said it was over and done with and he didn’t want to ever think of it again. For the rest of his life, however, he read everything written on World War II. He never forgot.

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Today is the Day!

TheTulipEaters-3dLeft-808x1024As I sit here writing this, I still can’t believe that today has arrived! There is nothing like the feeling of pub date. Sending your baby off into the world, hoping your readers will fall into the story as you did when writing it. I am already so gratified that readers of SAVING MAX have contacted me and told me they can’t wait to read THE TULIP EATERS.

I know what I’ll be thinking about today. My husband, my first-line editor who has put up with every ridiculous moment of whining, complaining and, ultimately, joy. My agent, Al Zuckerman, who is brilliant and infallible when it comes to creating a work of fiction, my partner in crime. My children, who support me without reservation. My friends, who encourage me when I’m spitting nails. My life and how I ever managed to be so lucky, so blessed with family and friends. And most of all, I’ll think about writing. And how it is easier to stop breathing than to stop putting those words on the blank page.

Thank you all!

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Snapshots of World War 2: My Grandfather

My GrandfatherJohannes Hurkmans, my grandfather, was born in 1889, a tall man with piercing hazel eyes. As you can see from the document, he became a naturalized American citizen. He had a tough life, never getting beyond a sixth-grade education because he had to go to work to help support his family. He became a waiter and when The Netherlands went through its terrible depression in the 1930’s (1933-1936, following the U.S. stock market crash).

My grandfather somehow secured a position at the Waldorf Astoria and brought is pregnant wife to America with him. Unfortunately, he decided to go back to The Netherlands when the economy had become somewhat better – just in time for the German invasion into Holland in 1940! The war years were very difficult for him. He wasted away, first doing any work he could find for food, then going out into the country to scavenge potatoes, digging them up with his bare hands.

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Snapshots of World War 2: My Grandmother

My GrandmotherHere is a nice shot of my grandmother, Jacoba Stoltenkamp Hurkmans, leaning against the balcony. She was 41 when the war began. My aunt Netty (which is where my “Antoinette” comes from) was seven years younger than my mother and was sent away to the country for the better part of the war so she would be safe and would have at least some food to eat. The Netherlands was devastated after the war and after my parents settled in Houston, my grandparents and aunt emigrated to the U.S.

I don’t remember much about my Oma as she died when I was very young. I do know that my grandfather, in keeping with the men of his generation, did not want her to work so she and my mother devised a plan whereby they would pretend to go shopping on Saturday morning, not returning until after six o’clock. During that time, my grandmother worked in the glove department at Sakowitz, a very upscale department store in Houston. My mother, of course, always worked, no housewife she.

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Buy the Books

The Tulip Eaters

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Available from these retailers:

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Saving Max

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Available from these retailers:

  • harlequin
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Praise

“Antoinette van Heugten combines the tender, unshakable bond between mother and son with an action-packed, edge-of-your-seat thriller.” — Diane Chamberlain, bestselling author of THE LIES WE TOLD

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