S.J.A. Turney's Books & More

Reviews, news and inside the world of books.

New books!

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Grab your wallet/purse and make space on your bookshelves. Here are some recent and upcoming books you won’t want to miss:

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Well, I have to start with my own, don’t I. Commodus is released next Thursday (13th June). The second book of the Damned Emperors series is published by Orion and will be released in hardback, audio and ebook format that day.

“Rome is enjoying a period of stability and prosperity. The Empire’s borders are growing, and there are two sons in the imperial succession for the first time in Rome’s history. But all is not as it appears. Cracks are beginning to show. Two decades of war have taken their toll, and there are whispers of a sickness in the East. The Empire stands on the brink of true disaster, an age of gold giving way to one of iron and rust, a time of reason and strength sliding into hunger and pain.

The decline may yet be halted, though. One man tries to hold the fracturing empire together. To Rome, he is their emperor, their Hercules, their Commodus.

But Commodus is breaking up himself, and when the darkness grips, only one woman can hold him together. To Rome she was nothing. The plaything of the emperor. To Commodus, she was everything. She was Marcia.”

Pre-order Commodus here

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And my good friend and partner in crime Gordon Doherty has the first book of his new epic series Empires of Bronze out on that very same day. Son of Ishtar rolls out in paperback and ebook format on Thursday 13th of June. I’ve read it, too. It’s ace.

“Four sons. One throne. A world on the precipice.

1315 BC: Tensions soar between the great powers of the Late Bronze Age. The Hittites stand toe-to-toe with Egypt, Assyria and Mycenaean Ahhiyawa, and war seems inevitable. More, the fierce Kaskan tribes – age-old enemies of the Hittites – amass at the northern borders.

When Prince Hattu is born, it should be a rare joyous moment for all the Hittite people. But when the Goddess Ishtar comes to King Mursili in a dream, she warns that the boy is no blessing, telling of a dark future where he will stain Mursili’s throne with blood and bring destruction upon the world.

Thus, Hattu endures a solitary boyhood in the shadow of his siblings, spurned by his father and shunned by the Hittite people. But when the Kaskans invade, Hattu is drawn into the fray. It is a savage journey in which he strives to show his worth and valour. Yet with his every step, the shadow of Ishtar’s prophecy darkens…”

Pre-order Son of Ishtar here

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Another friend and comrade, Alex Gough, has just seen his first book in a new series released too. Book 1 of the Imperial Assassin series, The Emperor’s Sword, was released by Canelo yesterday, the 6th June in ebook format thus far. Once again, I had the chance to read this before release and lovers of Roman military fiction will really enjoy this.

“A desolate wasteland. A mission gone wrong. An impossible goal. A gripping new series of Ancient Rome

Roman scout Silus is deep behind enemy lines in Caledonia. As he spies on a raiding party, he is abruptly discovered by an enemy chief and his son.

Mounting a one man ambush, everything quickly goes wrong. Silus must run for his life, the head of the enemy leader in his hands. Little does he know the price he will pay…

As Silus is inducted into the Arcani, an elite faction of assassins and spies, he must return to Caledonia, back into the wilderness, and risk everything in the service of his Caesar. The odds don’t look good.

Failure is not an option.”

Buy the book here

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I would say that if you’re a historical fiction reader and you haven’t come across Ruth Downie’s Ruso books, then you must have been hiding in a cave for the past decade. While we wait for book 9 in the series, Ruth has treated us to a 150 page novella, which will be release in paperback and ebook format on July 9th.

“It’s AD 123 and the sun is shining on southern Gaul. Ex-military medic Ruso and his British wife Tilla are back after a long absence – but it’s not the reunion anyone had hoped for.

Ruso’s brother has left him in charge of a farm he has no idea how to manage, a chronic debt problem and a gaggle of accident-prone small children. Meanwhile his sister Flora has run away to rescue her boyfriend, who’s accused of murdering a wealthy guest at a party.

Can Ruso and Tilla save the boyfriend from the murder charge – or should they be saving Flora from the boyfriend? Will any of the guests tell the truth about the fatal party before it’s too late? And meanwhile, how long can Ruso continue to lie about what’s inside the bath house?”

Pre-order the book here

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And last but not least, fans of Robert Low will probably have already read his fab recent Roman epic ‘Beasts beyond the wall’. Well the second book in the series, The Red Serpent, is out on July 5th.

“At the edge of the empire, the hunters become the hunted…
They’re back – Drust, Kag, Ugo, Sib and some new faces – as dirt-ridden and downbeat as ever.

Drawn to the edge of the Roman world and the blasted deserts of the Syrian frontier, they are presented with a mysterious riddle from their old companions, Dog and Manius. In the scorching heat, plots and rumours breed like flies on a corpse.

To survive, Drust and the others must face all challengers along with Mother Nature’s rage. Sometimes they’ll stand and fight; sometimes they’ll run as fast as they can and pray to the Gods. For it is a mad and violent world, and they must be equal to it…”

Pre-order it here

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Richard the Lionheart and Robin Hood

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So I started reading this book:

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And I started reading it, sadly, just a few short months after I finished writing my novel set in 1204, including odd events mentioned in this text. But that being said, I did confirm that what I had written conforms with Bartlett’s accounts (mainly of post-Byzantine Cyprus). So that’s my background to the book. And unusually, I’m going to review two books at once, and you’ll understand why half way through.

Why read any bio of this famous/infamous king of England? And why read this one in particular? Well, not just for the names, although Conan the Duke, Count Vulgrin and Grimaldo Grimaldi certainly draw the eye and make it sound like a work of fantasy. Why? Because Richard is probably England’s most famous king, and I reckon that if you ask the average person in the street, they wouldn’t be able to tell you why. That’s why. And why this one? well because, I reckon, it’s a great all-round and accessible work.

And this is the thing. Biographies can sometimes focus so much on the individual that it becomes meaningless, lacking context. This book does not. In fact, it is a biography of a dynasty more than a man. And even broader: of an age as much as a family. With kings being such a force at the centre of national, religious and military policy, any biography of the king should by rights include something of a general history. This book does that.

It covers every major flashpoint of which I have been aware in the history of the Angevins: the murder of Thomas Beckett, the battle of Horns of Hattin, the Jews of York, Acre, Jaffa and Chalus among others. And in doing so, it ties it all to Richard and his Angevin family, a dynasty that it turns out is as riven and troubled as any imperial Roman one.

I will state here my only two gripes. One is that the book could really have done with a family tree to which to refer, and I had to find one online to help me at times. The other was the author’s use of the phrase ‘both orders had been decimated at Hattin’, which niggles me as a Roman historian, for decimation specifically relates to the execution of one man in ten, and is frequently misused in place of obliteration.

The book is set out in a reassuringly chronological manner, covering the subject in stages: Early life, the politics of family, coronation and consolidation, the rise of the crusade, and then its fall, capture and imprisonment, John’s betrayal and release, war with France and finally demise and its impact. The treatment of John is also very fair, I think, which is unusual in a world in which he is uniformly villainised without adequate explanation. Parts of the tale, which reads often like a general history, are boosted by anecdotal asides, which is nice.

Several things occurred to me and were noted down during my read:

  • I’d never considered how much impact the death of Barbarossa had on the crusade
  • The collapse of the bridge at Gisors under Phillip mirrors the collapse of the Milvian Bridge under the emperor Maxentius, about which I’ve written. An odd symmetry.
  • The only assessment possible of Richard (like Marcus Aurelius) is only possible against a background of constant war, and we have no idea what kind of a peacetime king he would have been.
  • I’d forgotten how cool the Blondel and captivity story was.

The book ends in a summing up and what effects Richard had on history. All in all, this was a cracking read and one of the better biographies I have read. I highly recommend it. And to give you a taste, here’s a lovely quote:

“Only one son stood by his deathbed and he, ironically, was illegitimate […] Henry reportedly said of him that he was his only true son; it was the others who were bastards.”

My favourite line in the book. And during the closing parts of the book, unsurprisingly there is a short nod to the legend of Robin Hood and Richard’s part in it. And that’s the interesting thing. I’ve also just finished a ‘biography’ of Robin Hood, which I received ahead of publication and was planning to review, and this just seems to be kismet, the two being so aligned. So I now also give you:

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Now in fairness, I fully expected to hate this and to poo-poo it. I’m too rooted in historical record to give great credence to legends. That being said, there is an element of truth to all legends, and so, like King Arthur, or Achilles, or Troy, or Springheeled Jack, I occasionally indulge to see what other people think. I did so here.

It is a brave, and interesting, premise to launch your book treating Robin as a historical figure and then looking into the historiography of it, trying to ascertain how valid it is. And that warmed me to it. For Matthews is not stating that Robin was definitely real, lived in Privet Drive with his aunt Flo and worked for the water board. He presents evidence and himself treats it with suspicion as well as fascination. So my initial scepticism was gradually worn away.

The first thing the book did, and its first quarter is devoted to this, is to examine the earliest surviving ballads. Here, I encountered a tale that was at one and the same time the old, familiar Robin Hood of legend, but also a new and surprising take. I find myself even now wondering why no author or filmmaker has ever tried to turn this original medieval tale into a movie or book. It would surely be a new angle, despite being also the earliest. Robin comes across a lot more brutal and wily here.

And the thing that really struck me is that despite the traditional treatments I’ve seen and read, the Robin of earliest legend may not have been born during the time of Richard the Lion heart and King John. In fact, in the quoted text, there is reference to King Edward, making it likely Edward I or II, at the end of the 13th century, not the 12th! I was astounded. For this alone, the book was worthwhile.

Another interesting assertion is that Robbinhood might be a now-lost medieval term for an outlaw. That would make tracking the legend down nigh-on impossible, of course, so Matthews continues to examine any historical Robins. What he presents, based on the works of medieval tale-tellers, is more than one plausible historical Robin Hood, or the basis for them. This fascinated me.

The book then moves into investigations into possible pre-Medieval origins for the Robin legend, connecting ancient mythology, Saxon legend and more with the tale. For me, the book got a little bogged down at this point. The depth of the mythological work was impressive and probably deserves a book in its own right, but at times it seemed to me somewhat peripheral or tangential to the purpose of the book. I may be being unfair here, and will leave that to other readers to decide for themselves.

We then go on to examine the potential historical background of the other characters in the tale, being Marian and the ‘Merry Men’. This, again, fascinated me, and made it worthwhile.

What did surprise me was that half the book turned out to be recounted ballads of Robin Hood, the last 120 pages given over to these appendices. I felt that this was somewhat unnecessary and lacked the focus on the subject that I saw in the early chapters, since without Matthews’ commentary on it, it became little more than source material.

The upshot? A brave attacking of a tricky subject. Despite a couple of negatives, one of which being the brevity of the actual work, it threw my preconceived notions aside and provided me with fascinating new nuggets of information that I treasure.

I enjoyed it. If you have an interest in the subject, you probably will, too.

So there you go. Two books in one post, the first out now the second in May. Fascinating reading, for sure.

Written by SJAT

April 23, 2019 at 9:00 am

The Huntress by Kate Quinn

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To be honest, this review isn’t going to be long and in-depth. It doesn’t need to be. I’ll start by saying ‘Buy this book. Don’t ****ing argue, just do it.’ Anyone who’s already a fan of Kate Quinn’s work will need no encouragement anyway. Anyone who isn’t just hasn’t read it yet.

Kate cut her teeth on Roman and Renaissance novels, and only in the last couple of years has she moved into 20th century novels, interestingly at roughly the same time as Manda Scott did the same thing on this side of the Atlantic. And yet, like Manda, Kate has risen to be one of the preeminent novelists writing in the genre. Her first novel in the era, ‘The Alice Network’ was an immediate and huge hit with me, and the esteem in which I held it was borne out as it achieved accolade after accolade and hit the bit time in a way most of us writers of fiction can only dream.

Guess what? The Huntress is better. Second novels in a series (and yes, I know this isn’t strictly a series, but you know what I mean) are usually something of a minor dip. If the first novel is a big hit, it’s very hard to match it. Few writers come close, often returning to form with the third. And given how good Kate’s last book was, I felt nervous for her. No need. It’s a step up yet again.

I can only see big things for The Huntress. I have simply run out of hyperbole.

Buy it.

Buy it.

BUY IT!

Get it here.

Written by SJAT

February 26, 2019 at 8:36 pm

Eventful times

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me

Ever wanted to hear why I write what I write? How it came about? My inspiration for certain things? Ever want to ask questions or just chat or perhaps buy books or get them signed? Well there’s a few opportunities coming up this year, and I thought I’d blog just to keep you all up to date.

The first one’s coming up in March.

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So it costs £15 to become a Friend, which you can do HERE. For your 15 pounds you not only get to help support a volunteer run library, which is worthy on its own, but you get to come to this and other events, and at this one you get all this:

  • Beer from the keg, with the first drink free
  • Sausages from a local excellent manufacturer
  • A talk from yours truly, in costume, as well as a Q&A
  • A short dramatization of part of Caligula, performed by local actors
  • Music
  • A raffle with some great prizes
  • A Roman fun quiz
  • Signed books
  • The opportunity to pop out for a beer with me afterwards and talk books and history

I highly recommend becoming a friends, as other events are worthwhile too. Last year they had the wonderful Imogen Robertson. Bedale, North Yorkshire, just off the A1 on Weds 6th March. Hope to see you there. It’ll be a great night.

Then after Bedale, there’s Selby Library in May, in which I’m doing an evening alongside Sharon Bennett Connolly.

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Just £5 for two talks, refreshments and a book signing. And perhaps Sharon and I can answer a few questions for you too.

And then thirdly, in June there is Eboracum festival

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That’s in York, from Friday 31st May to Sunday 2nd June. A weekend of Roman reenacment and parades, events and more, which will include a number of authors including yours truly in an author marquee to sell and sign books and talk the hind leg off a donkey. If you want to stay in York for the weekend’s festivities, get onto booking accommodation early, as it fills up and gets expensive really quickly.

So there you go. Three different events to come see  me at, and I’d love to see you at them all.

Written by SJAT

February 18, 2019 at 10:49 pm

Pharaoh’s Treasure

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Fancy a fascinating dip into some non-fiction history? Here’s a subject you might not have sought out, but one that might capture your fascination. I read the title and the description and simply decided I wanted to know more. It’s not a text I need for research, but like so many good books, it is one that when read will inform everything I ever look at hereafter. It is the history of paper, and with it the written word.

It’s a subject that’s always hovered on the edge of what I do, since the day I wrote about Caesar’s ‘paperwork’ and then panicked about the fact that the Romans didn’t have paper. But did they? Now that’s a question that this book will address. It is informative and interesting, yet despite everything for me the most important value it has is that it has defined the word ‘paper’ and I will cite it forever in my author notes for books.

The book begins with ancient Egypt, as you might guess from the title. The Pharaoh’s Treasure? *Said in a worryingly Rolf Harris voice*: ‘Can you guess what it is yet?’ Well, without wanting to spoil the book for you, said treasure is the oldest paper ever found, in a box, in a tomb. We move from there to the first written record. No surprises that this is also Egypt, the records of one of the pharaoh Khufu’s administrators. Typical of humanity that the earliest writing found was not left by a playwright or a comedian, but a bureaucrat, eh? Still, an astounding discovery.

There is a lot of focus on the importance of the written word. In Egypt this means the book of the dead and all the burial texts. The Eighteenth to Twentieth centuries unearthed ever increasing numbers of important texts in Egypt. The vital part paper had in the Egyptian world is clear, and the book moves from there into the Judeo-Christian world and the same value that is applied to paper and written records there.

There is some fairly in-depth discussion of the manufacture of papyrus (yes, we get the word paper from it, as the book reminds us), and on its production, which reached an almost industrial scale in later Egypt. We move on from there into Greece and particularly Rome. This is, of course, my specialist subject. Anyone who studies Rome will know that their culture were the first to become almost obsessively bureaucratic, and Rome moves the written word to the next level. Apparently (according to Pliny who lists the different grades of Roman paper) there was even a type of Roman packing paper!

The book then moves on to examine the new value of paper and the written word for fiction, text books, theatre, and on to libraries, the vast trade in writing, in ink, in pens and so forth. The existence of the Great Library. We move on into the Byzantine world, where bureaucracy reaches a peak perhaps unseen in the history of man, and then to the Roman Church, where it’s value and use is blindingly clear.

Then there was something that brought a massive surprise to me. Something that probably made more impact than anything else in the book. The history of paper and the written word changed immeasurably, following the events of a specific battle in the 8th century. I’m not going to spoil that one for you, and I’m not even going to mention the battle or its long-reaching effect. You’ll have to read the book for that.

There is some final rounding up of the data and conclusions, but that’s it. And if you don’t read the book for anything else, I hope you’re intrigued enough about the battle to go for it. It’s a very specifically-aimed book and will be of little direct actual use to most folk, but as a fascinating piece of historical research with some startling conclusions, it is well worth the time. Recommended.

Written by SJAT

February 7, 2019 at 11:41 pm

A Grave Hobby

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One of my more out-there hobbies is gravestones. I really do rather like wandering churchyards and looking at the stones. Some can be really informative, some can be humorous, some can be poignant, but almost every churchyard has something worth seeing. Some of my faves are the pyramid grave of Charles Piazzi Smyth, Scottish astronomer royal and Egyptologist in Sharow churchyard, the ‘fisherman’s gravestone’ in Ripon cathedral graveyard, the stone built into the wall of West Tanfield church of what must have been the oldest man in the world, and the grave of a man’s leg in Strata Florida churchyard. See? Always something.

Today was our annual family trip to Whitby for the nephew’s birthday and once we had climbed the 199 steps (I count them every year and always come out at 198 myself) the family went to look at the Christmas tree competition/display in the church. Having seen it twice, this time I mooched around the graveyard while I waited for the others. This is just a small selection of stones I came across.

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Many of the stones are sandstone and like the abbey beside them have been carved out by the wind over the past few centuries. This one is unreadable, but the pattern and the look of the stone is simply beautiful, and to me warranted the photo anyway,

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Here’s an interesting segue between style and content. Fascinates me how the weather has obliterated much of the text above a specific line, below which has hardly been touched. This is a gravestone existing in two worlds. And just to add some multicultural content, this appears to be 1864, and one of the interred appears to have died in somewhere called Geelong in Australia. Since transportation ended there in 1868, one must assume he was some kind of official or soldier to be shipped home?

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What I love about the Mewburns’ gravestone is the increased sense of urgency as one reads down. It is (and has long been) common practice for a person to be buried and their inscription added to the stone. Then a second body will be added to the family plot, and another load of carving added. In this case, the Mewburns seem to have crammed as much in as possible, with being verbose, clearly. I love how the ‘font’ gets smaller and smaller.

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This is clearly the unlucky corner of the graveyard. 3 stones here in clear view. Examine them at your leisure, but here’s the killer, so to speak: rear – “Ann their daughter who died in infancy”, front left – “boy” can just be made out lower right next to the destroyed area, front right – “who died in his infancy”. Don’t hang around with these families…. that’s all I’m saying.

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Oh, and I reckon about 1 in 6 stones in the churchyard are either ‘Master Mariner’ or ‘drowned at sea’… John Ward here, was just such a mariner who drowned at sea.

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The Reverend George Young was certainly an accomplished and respected individual…

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Sometimes a grave stone is interesting only from the imagery. I like to call this style ‘Peek-a-boo’. Creepy little sh*t, isn’t it?

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The Beikers clearly had land. Look at that coat of arms. Unusual I think on a late 18th century stone in a small parish churchyard. And just for fun, two creepy peek-a-boo cherubs accompany it.

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So that ends my brief sojourn through the stones of Whitby St. Mary’s. At that moment my phone went and the family had finished viewing a hundred Christmas trees and were ready to hit the sweetshops and amusements. Perhaps next time I will find the other interesting stones within.

🙂

Happy holidays everyone.

Si

Written by SJAT

December 28, 2018 at 10:40 pm

Posted in Travel

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Colossus: Stone and Steel by David Blixt

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Every now and then you discover a book that has somehow completely passed you by. I generally like to think I’m aware of the better releases in the Roman genre. I write in it, so I keep my eye on it, of course. I became aware of Blixt and his books through mututal connection. I write books with the historical fiction collective known as H360. So does David. We’ve not worked on a project together yet, but there is that connection, and I discovered in looking at his Verona series that he also has a Roman series.

Now the H360 team don’t take on bad writers, so my interest was truly piqued. I opened the book not knowing what to expect. Sometimes I will read a book purely on the author’s name, sometimes on the title and sometimes (yes I know they say you shouldn’t) on the cover., without reading even a basic blurb. Consequently I had no idea what Colossus: Stone and Steel was about other than it was Roman and written by David Blixt.

Pleasant surprise time. Stone and steel drew me in and kept me reading at any given opportunity until I hit the end and wished I had time to start the next book. Stone and Steel was simply an excellent book.

We start with excitement and atmosphere in first century Judea. The characters are fictional but very realistic and strong, and I was being quickly drawn in when I read a name, made instant connections and realised we were reading about the writer Josephus, one of my fave personalities in ancient Rome. In fact, I had toyed with writing the story of Flavius Josephus myself, and it was a project in a shelf somewhere. Glad I never tried, because I couldn’t do him the justice Blixt does.

You know why? Because this book is partially about Vespasian and the Flavian family, and Rome and its pernickety emperors and implacable consuls. But it is more about the Jewish people in Roman Judea and their struggles against sometimes Rome but more often each other. And while I know imperial Rome quite well, my familiarity with ancient Israel is less than fragmentary. So this book really struck me perfectly. It was at once familiar and strange, Roman and Jewish, imperial and rebellious. Blixt shows a deep understanding of the time and culture and displays a most impressive ability to portray this in fiction.

So now you know this is about the Flavians and Josephus and the Jewish War. And for those who  know the history I will also add the name Jotopata. This is the tale of brothers and friends and family on both sides in a war that no one really thinks can do any good. This is a tale of internecine warfare, of the unstoppable war machine and the uncrushable Jewish spirit. It is the story of a brutal siege and of cultures clashing.

Essentially, Stone and Steel is well-written, beautifully researched, clever, informative, atmospheric and a must read for every fan of the genre. The characters are fully fleshed-out, the action exciting, the history accurate. The book ranks up easily along with the very cream of Roman fiction. I heartily recommend it.

Read Blixt’s book. You won’t regret it.

Written by SJAT

December 24, 2018 at 11:41 pm