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“Gay Like Me” is a guidebook for the LGBTQIA journey

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Richie Jackson and  his son Jackson. (Photo provided by author)

When I think of my childhood growing up in a small town near Fresno, CA as a young Gay Latino and son of a cop, I can’t help but think of how easier it would have been, especially in the 80’s, if someone had handed me a “Gay Bible” to help me navigate becoming an adult as a young Gay man. Something to warn me about rough times ahead but also about the beauty that lied ahead and the exciting adventures that were in my future as part of this special and loving LGBTQ+ community.

Richie Jackson has provided his son, Jackson, just that – a short book of advice, Gay Like Me, that every Gay man should read at any age and also our straight allies, some of whom are now parents to Gay adolescents about to embark on the world and find their own special place within the LGBTQ+ community.

When I first stumbled onto this book about to be published, the notion of a father providing this to his son seemed so foreign to me, especially being the son of a macho Latino cop who had his own struggle of raising his youngest son, a feminine young boy who was constantly teased thru out his childhood. I was constantly told, “run like a boy”, “don’t always hang out with the girls” and “be a man”.  My first thought after learning of this book was how lucky Richie’s son was to have this “Gay” light steering him at such a young age.

 

Speaking with Richie the other day, it is clear why it was so important for him to provide his son with this unique tool, having realizing those crucial experiences in his own young adult life that shaped who he has become. ” Everything in my own life has led me to write the book I so desperately needed when I was young, that our son now needs and that so many of us are hungry for,” he expressed.

All you have to do is listen to Richie for a few minutes and you can feel the immense love he has for his son. It fuels him. It’s part of his purpose in life that is not lost on him.

In fact, he almost lost him and did lose Jackson’s twin brother at birth, something I have a little insight on as I too was a twin, who died when we were born, as we were also premature like Richie’s twin boys. It’s evident that his love for Jackson and need to protect him started on that fateful day in which Jackson “came out” early the day he was born.

Only a few years apart, I enjoyed reading these all too familiar experiences Richie details in the book such as living in a world before dating apps when we had to go to bars or cruise-y places in order to meet someone and hook up or engage in that “3 second” stare as you are walking down the street and turning around to see if there was mutual interest and then if you were lucky could find yourself in a more compromising position in the middle of the day – something today’s youth can easily miss as they are glued to their mobile devices walking down the street and fueled by technology.

I pointed out to Richie that I see so many young Gay men now who don’t feel compelled to break away from their straight friends after high school as being Gay is so much more accepted now, so a typical Friday night can include them hanging out in a straight bar, something I never really enjoyed. I embraced the Gay spaces. I embraced a sense of community and creating a “tribe” of other young Gay men who I could learn from, swap stories with and have each other’s backs no matter what. This book reminds you of why these things are important in discovering your identity and place in the world and within the LGBTQ+ community.

Richie has seen his book explode onto the scene being embraced from all sub- communities within the LGBTQ+ community and notable figures and celebs like Arianna Huffington and Queer Eye’s Antoni Porowski., both of whom recently hosted events celebrating the release. While that he enjoys all of the praise and support within the community there is another sector who’s love for the book is giving him particularly great pleasure – parents of young Gay males.

” I have been getting a lot of great reactions from parents, who thank me for helping them understand the Gay experience, and who almost see it as a contemporary parenting book”, explained Jackson.

 

And while the praise from adults is greatly appreciated, it is most clear that the feedback he loves the most is that from young Gay men who were his targeted audience as he strived to illustrate their importance to society and promote self love and confidence within themselves. ” I’ve enjoyed hearing from young Gay men who see this book as almost a permission slip to be who they are. Part of why I wrote this was to put out something for young Gay men to hear that they are a marvel, to hear that they have been chosen to live this extraordinary life and that being Gay is truly a gift,” expressed Jackson.

We certainly agreed on this. We both love the fact that we were born Gay and that we’ve been given this “gift” in life. Another great gift? Gay Like Me – order your copy now.

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New book explores impact of family secrets

Her father was hiding his sexual orientation

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(Book cover image courtesy HarperOne)

‘The Family Outing: A Memoir’
By Jessi Hempel
c. 2022, HarperOne
$27.99/320 pages

Don’t tell the children.

For most families in America in the last century, that was the maxim to live by: the kids are on a need-to-know basis and since they’re kids, they don’t need to know. And so what did you miss? Did you know about familial philanthropy, rebellion, embarrassment, poverty? As in the new memoir, “The Family Outing” by Jessi Hempel, did secrets between parent and child run both ways?

“What happened to me?”

That’s the big question Jessi Hampel had after many therapy sessions to rid herself of a recurring nightmare. She had plenty of good memories. Her recollection of growing up in a secure family with two siblings was sharp, wasn’t it?

She thought so – until she started what she called “The Project.”

With permission from her parents and siblings, Hempel set up Skype and Zoom sessions and did one-on-one interviews with her family, to try to understand why her parents divorced, why her brother kept mostly to himself, how the family dynamics went awry, why her sister kept her distance, and how secrets messed everything up.

Hempel’s father had an inkling as a young man that he was gay, but his own father counseled him to hide it. When he met the woman who would eventually be his wife, he was delighted to become a husband and father, as long as he could sustain it.

Years before, Hempel’s mother was your typical 1960s teenager with a job at a local store, a crush on a slightly older co-worker and, coincidentally, a serial killer loose near her Michigan neighborhood. Just after the killer was caught, she realized that the co-worker she’d innocently flirted with might’ve been the killer’s accomplice.

For nearly the rest of her life, she watched her back.

One secret, one we-don’t-discuss-it, and a young-adult Hempel was holding something close herself. What else didn’t she know? Why did she and her siblings feel the need for distance? She was trying to figure things out when the family imploded.

Ever had a dream that won’t stop visiting every night? That’s where author Jessi Hempel starts this memoir, and it’s the perfect launching point for “The Family Outing.”

Just prepare yourself. The next step has Hempel telling her mother’s tale for which, at the risk of being a spoiler, you’ll want to leave the lights on. This account will leave readers good and well hooked, and ready for the rest of what turns out to be quite a detective story.

And yet, it’s a ways away from the Sherlockian. Readers know what’s ahead, we know the score before we get there, but the entwining of five separate lives in a fact-finding mission makes this book feel as though it has a surprise at every turn.

Sometimes, it’s a good surprise. Sometimes, it’s a bad one.

A happily minimized amount of profanity and a total lack of overtness make “The Family Outing” a book you can share with almost anyone, adult, or ally. Read it, and you’ll be wanting to tell everyone.

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Memoir reveals gay writer’s struggle with homelessness, rape

‘Place Called Home’ a powerful indictment of foster care system

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(Book cover image courtesy Legacy Lit/Hachette)

‘A Place Called Home: A Memoir’
By David Ambroz
c. 2022, Legacy Lit/Hachette
$30/384 pages

For David Ambroz, 42, author of the stunning new memoir “A Place Called Home,” one of his childhood recollections is of himself and his siblings walking with Mary, their mother, on a freezing Christmas morning in New York City.

Today, Ambroz, who is gay and a foster parent, is a poverty and child welfare expert and the head of Community Engagement (West) for Amazon.

But, on that morning, Ambroz remembers, when he was five, he and his seven-year-old sister Jessica and six-year-old brother Alex were freezing. Mary, their mother was severely mentally ill. They were homeless.

Ambroz draws you into his searing memoir with his first sentence. “I’m hungry,” he writes in the simple, frightened, perceptive voice of a malnourished, shivering little boy.

As it got dark and colder, Ambroz recalls, he walked with his family, wearing “clownishly large” sneakers “plucked from the trash.” 

Five-year-old Ambroz remembers that the night before his family got lucky. They had dinner (mac and cheese) at a church “with a sermon on the side.”  

“We heard the story of the three kings bringing gifts to the baby Jesus,” Ambroz writes.

But the next day they’re still homeless and hungry. Talk about no room at the inn.

Young Ambroz doesn’t know the word “death,” but he (literally) worries that he and his family will die. Frozen, hungry and invisible to uncaring passersby.

Ambroz’s mom, a nurse, is occasionally employed and able to house her family in dilapidated apartments. But she’s soon ensnared by her mental illness, unable to work. Then, her family is homeless again.

Until, he was 12, Ambroz and his siblings were abused and neglected by their mother.

Ambroz doesn’t know as a young boy that he’s gay. But, he can tell he’s different. Instead of playing street games with the other kids, Ambroz likes to play “doctor” with another boy in the neighborhood.

Mary tells him being gay is sinful and that you’ll die from AIDS if you’re queer.

His mother, having decided that he’s Jewish, makes Ambroz undergo a badly botched circumcision. At one point, she beats him so badly that he falls down a flight of stairs.

At 12, Ambroz reports this abuse to the authorities and he’s placed into the foster care system.

If you think this country’s foster care system is a safe haven for our nation’s 450,000 kids in foster care, Ambroz will swiftly cut through that misperception.

From ages 12 to 17, Ambroz is ricocheted through a series of abusive, homophobic foster placements.

One set of foster parents try to make him more “macho,” rent him out to work for free for their friends and withhold food from him. At another placement, a counselor watches and does nothing as other kids beat him while hurling gay slurs.

Thankfully, Ambroz meets Holly and Steve who become fabulous foster parents. Ambroz has been abused and hungry for so long he finds it hard to understand that he can eat whatever he wants at their home.

Through grit, hard work and his intelligence, Ambroz earned a bachelor’s degree from Vassar College, was an intern at the White House and graduated from the UCLA School of Law. Before obtaining his position at Amazon, he led Corporate Social Responsibility for Walt Disney Television.

But none of this came easily for him. Coming out was hard for many LGBTQ people in the 1990s. It was particularly difficult for Ambroz.

In college, Ambroz is deeply closeted. He’s ashamed to reveal anything about his past (growing up homeless and in foster care) and his sexuality. 

At one point, he’s watching TV, along with other appalled students, as the news comes on about Matthew Shepard being murdered because he was gay. Ambroz can see that everyone is enraged and terrified by this hate crime. Yet, he’s too ashamed to reveal anything of his sexuality.

Over Christmas vacation, Ambroz decides it’s time to explore his sexuality.

Telling no one, Ambroz takes a train to Miami. There, he goes home with a man (who he meets on a bus) who rapes him.

“I run in no particular direction just away from this monster,” he recalls. “When I get back to my hotel room, I’m bleeding…I order food delivered but can’t eat any of it.”

“A Place Called Home” has the power of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” and Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring.”

Ambroz’s writing becomes less powerful when he delves into the weeds of policy. But this is a minor quibble.

Ambroz is a superb storyteller. Unless you lack a heartbeat, you can’t read “A Place Called Home” without wanting to do something to change our foster care system. 

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Queer film fans will love ‘Hollywood: The Oral History’

‘The most cruel, most despicable town in the world’

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(Book cover image courtesy Harper)

‘Hollywood: The Oral History’
By Jeanine Basinger and Sam Wasson
c. 2022, Harper
$30/741 pages

Whether you adore old Hollywood, are fascinated by 1970s new Hollywood, intrigued by digital filmmaking or love to hate on Tinsel Town, you’re in luck this holiday season.

Hollywood is “The most cruel, most despicable town in the world,” assistant director Ridgeway Callow says, in “Hollywood: The Oral History,” by Jeanine Basinger and Sam Wasson, a compendium of 100 years of gossip, reminiscences, and historical tidbits about Tinsel Town. At nearly 800 pages, it’s an intriguing, diverting doorstopper of a book.

Hollywood aficionados, especially Tinsel Town’s queer fans, will find it hard to resist this book. 

It’s often been said that there would be no Hollywood without us queer folk. “Hollywood: The Oral History” doesn’t explicitly mention Tinsel Town’s queer quotient. But you’ll find tantalizing hints of it, if you have queer radar.

If you believe that compiling a comprehensive history of Hollywood is a frivolous endeavor, you may well want to think again. 

Hollywood has been, and still is, (despite some progress) sexist, racist, homophobic, and transphobic. Not to mention its distortion of body image. And, that’s just a sampling of its sins.

Yet, Hollywood is everywhere. Whether you love movies (Old Hollywood films or the newest digital offerings), or loathe even the mention of the word “celluloid,” your life has been shaped by Hollywood.

Tinsel Town is in our DNA: from the words of endearment we whisper when we’re in love to the shade we throw during break-ups to the clothes we wear to our gestures of affection or rage.

In 1969, the American Film Institute held the first of a series of “intimate conversations” between AFI conservatory students and Hollywood professionals, Basinger and Wasson write in the introduction to “Hollywood: the Oral History.”

These conversations were named the Harold Lloyd Master Seminars “in honor of their very first guest,” Basinger and Wasson report.

During the past half century everyone from actors (including Meryl Streep, Dustin Hoffman, Greta Garbo, Katharine Hepburn, and, thankfully, Bette Davis) to directors (including George Cukor who directed Hepburn and Garbo), to costume designers (including Oscar-winning Edith Head) to producers as well as stunt men and women have talked about Hollywood.

“They speak with the attitudes of their own time,” Basinger and Wasson write, “but they speak with authority.”

Wasson and Basinger were given “unprecedented access” to the Harold Lloyd seminars, oral histories and complete archives. The more than 300 interviews for this remarkable book were culled from more than 3,000 seminar guest speakers and nearly 10,000 hours of conversation, the authors write.

The people speaking in this entertaining history aren’t actually hanging out – being interviewed together. Yet, it feels as if we’re a fly on the wall at a Tinsel Town pool party, as stars and their director/producer Hollywood pals sip martinis and gossip.

“The press did everything in the world to see that Joan Crawford and I had a big fight,” Bette Davis says.

“Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?” was made in three weeks, Davis says. There was no time for a feud, she adds. But, who knows what would have happened if “Baby” had taken three months to make, Davis asks.

This is just one of the many fun quotes in the fascinating interviews in “Hollywood: The Oral History.”

A caveat: Wasson, author of six books on film, including “Fifth Avenue, 5 A.M.,” “Audrey Hepburn, Breakfast at Tiffany’s” and the “Dawn of the Modern Woman,” and Basinger, a trustee of the AFI and distinguished film scholar, offer scant context on the interviews in the book. There is, for example, little comment on the racism in “The Birth of a Nation” and “Gone with the Wind” or on homophobia in Hollywood. It’s understandable that the authors wanted the interviewees to speak for themselves (as part of their time). Yet, some historical context would have been welcome.

If you read “Hollywood: the Oral History” from beginning to end, you’ll likely feel that the party is going on too long. But if you read it in short bursts or dip in and out of it, you’ll find it a delicious treat.

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Geena Davis kicked ass onscreen long before she did in real life

Iconic actress revisits her ‘Polite’ life in new memoir

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(Book cover courtesy Harper One)

‘Dying of Politeness: A Memoir’
By Geena Davis
c.2022, Harper One
$28.99/288 pages

Years ago, a colleague videotaped me as I apologized for bumping into a desk. “I’m sorry,” I said to this inanimate object, “I hope I didn’t hurt your feelings.” 

If you’re terminally polite, love kick-ass movies and worship bad-asses, you’ll lap up “Dying of Politeness: A Memoir” by badass, feminist, Academy-Award-winning actor and activist Geena Davis.

In the memoir (Davis’s debut as an author), Davis, 66, tells  entertaining,  sometimes moving, stories about her wide-ranging life: from her childhood (her parents were more polite than Emily Post ever dreamt of) to her acting career to finishing in 24th place in archery in the 2000 Summer Olympics trials.    

Davis, a queer and feminist icon, has been in many movies. Her awards include an Oscar for best supporting actress for her portrayal of dog trainer Muriel Prichett in “The Accidental Tourist,” the adaptation of the Anne Tyler novel of the same name. Davis watched her boyfriend (Jeff Goldblum) turn into an insect in “The Fly” and played Barbara in the comedy-horror picture “Beetlejuice.”

Davis is loved by LGBTQ folk for her work in two 1990s classics.

In 1991, she was Thelma (Susan Sarandon was Louise) in “Thelma and Louise,” the classic film that made many women cheer and a lot of men squirm.

Just a year later, Davis was Dottie in the movie that’s still a fave of hetero and queer girls and women — “A League of Their Own.” Unlike the series with the same name recently released by Amazon Prime, the film has no explicitly queer characters. But with Madonna (Mae) and Rosie O’Donnell (Doris), the picture has a fab queer quotient.

You’d think, after watching Davis as Thelma and Dottie, that the Oscar-winning actor leapt from her mother’s womb as a badass.

But it’s clear from the get-go that it took more than a minute for Davis to emerge as her badass self. Davis could easily have titled not only the first chapter of her memoir, but the entire book, “My Journey to Badassery.”

“I kicked ass onscreen way before I did so in real life,” Davis writes.

But, “Dying of Politeness” is a more than apt title for the memoir. Her parents were loving, but polite to the point of absurdity.

They insisted that Davis say “no thank you, I’m not thirsty” “even if someone was handing me an already poured glass of ice water,” Davis writes.

One of Davis’s childhood memories was of the time her 99-year-old great-uncle drove her and her family to his house. The relative kept veering into the oncoming “if blessedly empty,” traffic lane, she recalls. Rather than saying anything, “my parents simply moved me to the spot between them on the back seat,” Davis writes, “thinking, I presume, that when the inevitable head-on collision occurred, I’d be killed a little less in the middle.”

The humor in this anecdote of a childhood brush with death is typical of the wit sprinkled throughout “Dying of Politeness.”

Davis, who grew up in Wareham, Mass., decided at age 3 that she wanted to be in the movies. After studying acting at Boston University, Davis left college and moved to New York. 

Davis may have been as she writes, “a cripplingly polite New Englander,” but she wasn’t lacking in chutzpah. 

In New York, Davis worked as a Lord and Taylor sales clerk. On a dare, she joined a group of mannequins in a café scene in the department store window. Soon, people lined up to watch her perform in street theater.

Davis got her first movie role in “Tootsie” after Sidney Pollack saw her pictures in the Victoria’s Secret catalogue. Dustin Hoffman, starring in the movie, mentored her. He told her not to sleep with her co-stars.

The memoir is more than entertaining. Davis writes of sexual harassment, her effort to create inclusion in Hollywood by founding the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media and how her dad cared for her mom when she had dementia.

It’s hard to think of a timelier book than “Dying of Politeness” in our current political climate. Badassery is needed now more than ever.

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‘Working Girls’ offers over-the-top advice on the workplace

Drag stars tell you how to get along with co-workers, ask for a raise

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(Book cover image courtesy Plume)

‘Working Girls: Trixie & Katya’s Guide to Professional Womanhood’
By Trixie Mattel and Katya Zamolodchikova
c.2022, Plume
$28/224 pages 

You want stuff.

A nice wardrobe, say. Decent dishes, nice lamps, food and drink. Somewhere to relax and a place to sleep. You want stuff, and a home to put that stuff in, but that generally takes money, honey, and it usually comes from a j-o-b. Fear not, though: help is on the way with “Working Girls: Trixie & Katya’s Guide to Professional Womanhood” by Trixie Mattel and Katya Zamolodchikova.

If you must work, at least you should find a job that fits you, right? So grab Trixie and Katya’s guide and start with the career aptitude test. You might be surprised – or you might “qualify for 0 percent APR financing.”

Next, think about what you really want to do with your life. How about a career of service as a cleaner who removes “the carnage of lowly grifters, criminals, and monsters”? You might rather hang out with kids as a nanny, or be a “tipped laborer.”

Remember, always tip the waitstaff.

You could work in publishing, “big tech,” financing, whatever you choose, always dress for the job. If that means drag, “grab a wig, some fabric, and two lashes… and poof!” You’re ready to hire.

But wait. First, you’ll have to go through an interview, so think about the skills you want to showcase, then “reel them in” with thoughtful answers to those silly interview questions. Once you’ve got a job offer in hand, be forearmed with the handy guide to the types of coworkers you might encounter. Remember: work is not like college, where you can avoid “germs, viruses, and nonessential enzymes named Carol from Accounts Receivable.”

Know how to ask for a raise (do you even deserve one?). Be glad if they ask you to do a Zoom meeting from home. Know how to manage your time, know when it’s time to leave your job, and know how to be graceful if it wasn’t exactly your idea. Learn to recognize work scams. And then prepare for retirement. Yeah, you do deserve that.

It should be crystal-clear by merely looking at the cover of “Working Girls: Trixie & Katya’s Guide to Professional Womanhood” that this book pokes plenty of fun at the world of work. It’s funny, saucy, and over-the-top and it actually includes surprisingly decent advice, too.

Just be willing to read between the lines, although that shouldn’t be a problem. Readers who are old enough to handle the theme of this book should be smart enough to know when authors Trixie Mattel and Katya Zamolodchikova aren’t exactly trying for Dear Abby here; there’s an overload of snark and sarcasm in these pages, and it’s in neon. Still, the fact remains that there are usable nuggets inside this book – on working from home, on getting along with coworkers, on asking for more money, and on how to quit.

Bring your sense of humor when you tackle this book, but bring your resume, too. “Working Girls: Trixie & Katya’s Guide to Professional Womanhood” is funny and useful, and, well, you want it.

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Book about lesbian affair is steamy erotica with thin story

‘Mistakes Were Made’ delivers heat but the romance falls flat

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(Book cover image courtesy of St. Martin's Press)

‘Mistakes Were Made’
By Meryl Wilsner
c.2022, St. Martin’s Press
$16.99/346 pages 

It was so not cool.

And yet, you owned it because it was your error, there was no denying it, and you can’t go back in time and undo it. It wasn’t cool, but it happened. Then again, was it really such a misstep, or was there something good inside the something bad you did? As in the new novel, “Mistakes Were Made” by Meryl Wilsner, will it all turn out right in the end?

The bar wasn’t one she usually frequented, but it was as far from the dorm as Cassie Klein could possibly get. It was Family Weekend at college, she’d graduate soon, and the whole “family” thing was ridiculous. No, the bar was a better place to be and she was preparing to get drunk, until she started watching the older woman who was watching her.

She bought the woman a drink and one thing led to another, which led to the back seat of the woman’s car, the exchange of first names, and a semi-public one-night stand that Cassie was sure she’d never forget.

Erin Bennett had hoped being at Family Weekend might heal the broken bond she had with her daughter, Parker. She knew Parker was still angry that Erin had filed for divorce from Parker’s father, and Erin wished she could explain things but she wasn’t exactly sure herself why the divorce was important. She was mulling this over when Parker arrived at breakfast with one of her closest friends in tow – a friend that Erin had never officially met, but that she knew very well.

Intimately, in fact.

It was the woman she’d had sex with the night before.

Clearly, this was awkward and Parker could never find out what had happened. While the obvious thing to do was to put the brakes on, that was impossible – especially after Parker wouldn’t take “no” for an answer when she invited Cassie to her mother’s house for Christmas break. Being in the same home together was hard enough, but being in the same room, and in pajamas? How could anyone resist that?

There are really two basic ways to perceive “Mistakes Were Made.” It’s either an overly long, mostly-bare-bones story that contains some explicit bedroom scenes. Or it’s soft erotica with a tissue-thin story between steamy trysts.

Could it be better? Well, that, too, will depend on what you want in a novel.

Author Meryl Wilsner’s bedroom (kitchen, back seat, living room) scenes are hotter than a baked potato straight from the oven. They’re steam-your-glasses hot and there are enough of them to seize your interest and handcuff it to a bedpost – if that is, indeed, your interest. Come to this novel for a romance-y tale, though, and you could be bored because, while girl-meets-girl is all over this book, it’s frustratingly slow getting to it.

And so, know what you want before you pick up “Mistakes Were Made.” If erotica is your thing, stay for the heat. If you want a good story, though, it’ll leave you cold.

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