Book Reviews

The Quick by Lauren Owen

At the very beginning of Lauren Owen’s debut novel, The Quick, the reader is introduced to a very secretive and mysterious men’s club called the Aegolius. The number of initiates is kept to a minimum and a story is told than even when the Prince of Wales requested membership, he was turned away because the number had already been reached.

It’s the latter part of the nineteenth century and James, a young man right out of university, goes to London to try his hand at writing a play. He becomes roommates and later intimates with another previous acquaintance from Oxford. When the two men go out for a walk one night, dastardly misfortunes befall them and when James goes missing, his sister, Charlotte, arrives from Yorkshire to find her brother, which leads her to the doors of the enigmatic Aegolius club.

the quick

What initially drew me to The Quick was promise of a Gothic inspired novel set in the seedy corners of Victorian London. The book does begin this way and even has elements of such novels as it includes diary entries and other similar epistles.

However, about halfway through, something inexplicable happens–the novel becomes dreadfully dull and doesn’t pick up at all. Once James disappears, a never-ending slew of new characters are introduced. At first, I tried to keep them straight and then realized that none of them was particularly important. The narrative is thick and slow; every movement of every character is detailed for pages. If I never read about a character sitting down and sipping tea again, that day would be too soon.

I fear that Owen’s editors let her down immensely. The only conciliation is that her publisher masterfully worked up a publicity frenzy by not revealing a key plot point and adding a sense of “plot twist” around it. They also mustered up some top notch writers to blurb it. Sadly, about half of readers have ingested the proverbial Kool-Aid and rave about it on Goodreads, while the other half have the good sense to agree with me.

The writing is solid and decent. Yet, the author builds no discernible mood or landscape. This has been a huge reading letdown, which has added to my sparse posts here as this book was long and took up far too much of my time. Normally, I would’ve put the book down, but I was certain something would be a saving grace. Sadly, this was just a complete bomb.

The Poisoning Angel by Jean Teulé

the poisoning angel

During the first half of the nineteenth century in Brittany, a household cook went on a decades’ long killing spree. She poisoned men, women, and children, opting to lace cakes and soup with arsenic. Her victims would swell and be in immense discomfort before they finally expired. The cook killed dozens of people.

It all sounds quite gruesome (and it is, of course), but with time dividing us and a closer examination of Hélène Jégado’s spree, one can’t help but think how preposterous it all is. She had no clear reasoning for it. Hélène was not explicitly after money or other possessions, she just liked offing people. If she was accused of a petty crime like stealing a sheet or book, the accuser was done for. She left so many bodies piling behind her that the villagers outwardly yelled obscenities at her in the streets.

In The Poisoning Angel, Hélène Jégado’s life and crimes have been fictionalized by author Jean Teulé as he portrays the dastardly affairs in a dark comedy vein. As a child, Hélène is taught different folklore including one about the Ankou, the Breton myth of death. She takes on this personification and makes it her life’s work, so to speak, to dispatch everyone in her wake.

The majority of the novel is concerned with the various households Hélène Jégado joins throughout the years. With every new master of the house or suspicious domestic servant, the reader looks through one open eye as her fatal soups and cakes are served one after another. Afterward, this did become a bit repetitive; there wasn’t much variety in each new household. Moments that did stick out were when Hélène’s new position was in a venue different from the others. It was particularly engaging when she takes up as the cook of a brothel, both cooking her fare and providing comfort to the gaggle of soldiers that find their way there. The rapidity of their dispatches is downright farcical.

Beginning each chapter is a simple map of Brittany with points notating Hélène’s movements as she absconds from each residence. At some point, the path criss-crosses adding to that aforementioned preposterous feeling and the addition of a couple of groupie wigmakers, who clip the recently deceased’s hair for their own uses, make me wonder if this story wouldn’t be better suited for a stage play.

The Poisoning Angel is translated from its original French by Melanie Florence. She took a particularly interesting approach as she included some of the Breton language that was surely in the original novel. Hélène comes from Brittany, an area of France that is continually designated as other. This further outcasts her throughout the book.

For further reading, I suggest Contemporary Perspectives on Serial Murder, where I read an excerpt about the real Hélène Jégado, which is available for free here.

The Poisoning Angel will be published on July 14th by Gallic Books.

Added to The International Reading List

Lost for Words by Edward St. Aubyn

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What better way to celebrate Kafka’s birthday than with a book that delightfully skewers the absurdity of literary prizes? Edward St. Aubyn’s newest, Lost for Words, is a clear satire of the brouhaha surrounding the 2011 Man Booker Prize. Even for those unaware of the uproar surrounding that year’s award, one can still find wicked pleasure in the work St. Aubyn has written. After my last reading dud, I was ecstatic and addicted to Lost for Words.

The fictitious Elysian Prize for Literature is at the center of the novel with a dozen or so characters, all keenly portrayed with whip smart precision resulting in hilarity. There are obvious lines drawn between the real Man Booker Prize and literature in general. The awards committee is made up of a handful of judges, their literary credentials range from professor to a former civil servant who writes mediocre espionage thrillers with the help of writing software named Ghost Writer designed to slip in tired similes and cringeworthy metaphors to spruce up the action. There are a gaggle of writers who are in someway connected through professional threads or tangled personal relationships (which is ever so true about any writing community).

A really marvelous aspect of the novel is when St. Aubyn serves up some of the titles of the books in consideration and their subsequent passages. I found myself relishing in them the same way I’ve always loved the fictional films in Seinfeld (ahem: Rochelle, Rochelle, Sack Lunch, Prognosis Negative). One of the books “excerpted” by St. Aubyn is wot u starin at, a clear takeoff on the novels by Irvine Welsh written in a particular vernacular. Other books bear the titles, The Mulberry ElephantThe Frozen Torrent, The Enigma Conundrum, The Greasy Pole and All the World’s a Stage, the latter being a historical novel set during the time of Shakespeare,

“Why, ’tis in my codpiece,” said William, “for a man is a fool who keeps not a poem in his codpiece, and a codpiece that hath no poem in it is indeed a foolish codpiece.”

Everything becomes even more harebrained when a wrong book is submitted for nomination consideration. In the place of an actual work of literature, the publisher sends along a cookbook, which makes it all the way to the short list. Only one judge can see that this is clearly not literature, but the remaining cabal describes it as some kind of post-modern meta examination of culture through the structure of the easy navigable cookbook recipe or some such hogwash (this plot point is also reminiscent of the madness of the 2011 Man Booker Prize, when many believed the committee had the wrong book, choosing to consider a Russian spy thriller by AD Miller instead of a heavily lauded and awarded novel by Andrew Miller; the committee denied any mistake).

There was never a dull moment and St. Aubyn’s writing was spot on. It was one of those novels where I wondered, Why can’t I write such a book?! I have never read a previous novel by the author, but his series of Patrick Melrose books are quite popular. I know the subject matter and general air are much different from his newest, but I’m curious if anyone has read his previous works.

Mr. Mercedes by Stephen King

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Stephen King’s newest novel departs from his expected universe of supernatural Maine and plops the reader down into the depressed Midwest as unemployed people seeking a reprieve from their current situations line up during the early hours in hopes of finding something better at a huge job fair. As the queue grows with more and more people, the sad calm is broken by a madman — complete in clown mask reminiscent of the evil Pennywise from It – running them down with a stolen Mercedes.

The crime goes unsolved and it appears as if the perpetrator is entirely out of reach. That is, of course, until a recently retired police detective, who spends his days holding a handgun and considering whether he would look better without his cranium intact, receives a long and boisterous letter purporting to be from the insane driver. The novel continues with back and forth sections between the detective and the unhinged killer, who takes a playing card from the Norman Bates deck and then goes way beyond.

Mr. Mercedes is advertised as a game of cat and mouse rolling forward just as fast as that Mercedes at the commencement of the novel. Yet, if I hadn’t been determined to find out the ending and write about the novel as part of my more highly anticipated summer reads, I would have put it down and moved on. The novel felt sloppy and awkward. None of the characters were particularly appealing and the dialogue between them felt so completely forced, it was cringe worthy. There were parts that I liked: the beginning was indeed intriguing as the initial crime is laid out along with the potential for a new maniacal villain and the final chapters sped up as both sides were attempting to get what they wanted, but there was a huge chunk of the middle (and this being a Stephen King novel, a chunk is hundreds of pages) that floundered. I couldn’t help but think that this book would have been much better if an editor went in a cut out about half of it.

I rarely make such bold recommendations as this, but skip it. Skip it if you’re a fan of Stephen King; skip it if you’re just looking for an entertaining summer read. I’m glad I didn’t take it along with me as I travel this summer, because it would have immediately been chucked and a new full price book would’ve been purchased at an airport gift shop.

I don’t often read reviews of books before I read them, so when I went in search of what the critics had to say, I was baffled by the overwhelmingly positive reviews. I couldn’t help but wonder if we’re reading the same novel. Now that I have finished this 400+ page dud, I can move onto the growing pile of TBR books that I’ve had my eye on for the past weeks.

Bellweather Rhapsody by Kate Racculia

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In 1982, a grim incident occurs at the Bellweather Hotel in upstate New York: a young bride murders her husband and then goes on to hang herself in her hotel room on their wedding day. The violence leaves witnesses and a heavy scar on the once grand hotel. It’s fifteen years later and high school musicians are descending upon it for the annual Statewide festival…oh, and there is dreadful blizzard looming off-stage ready to snow in all of the pubescent musicians and their chaperons.

The above synopsis may appear heavy and brooding (à la The Shining), which it is, but Kate Racculia also completely turns the premise upside down, running many moments of humor and suspense into each other. Most of the chapters focus on a particular character at a time–delving into their backgrounds and anxieties of hidden secrets and the festival itself.

Jumping fifteen years ahead to the same day in 1997, Alice and Rabbit Hatmaker–a pair of twins–are both invited to the festival for their talents in voice and bassoon, respectively. Alice is assigned to share a hotel room–the hotel room–with fellow participant and daughter of the Statewide’s interim director (herself a wickedly crafted character). When Alice momentarily leaves the room only to return to the other girl hanging from the same type of cord in the same exact room, everything starts to unravel. Alice leaves to retrieve help, only to return to a room where there is no body. No sign of a body. Nada. Was there a murder? A suicide? A cruel joke? Or something else?

This is an ensemble cast and I can’t help but have favorites (I assume this is a similar feeling that regular soap opera viewers have to their choice characters). For me, Rabbit Hatmaker, the seventeen year old twin brother of Alice who is struggling with personal identity and his upcoming future post-high school life, was who I clung to from the beginning. The rest of the cast, however, was robust and filled with difficult personalities that transcend the stereotypes we can think of for participants of a “band camp.” Their chaperon, who at first appears to be a meek shadow of woman, is brimming with secret history; the arrogant Scottish conductor is a former piano virtuoso, but is now sporting a hand with fewer than five fingers; that wicked interim festival director is way more wicked than we’re initially led to believe. The cast goes on, but why ruin it.

This novel is more about the characters. It’s a slight of hand that the author produces. Yes, the hotel’s background and the possible 1997 suicide/murder of Alice’s roommate are indeed intriguing, but the strength of Bellweather Rhapsody lies with Racculia’s approach to the characters. The narrative voice is close to each of them and even during this trying weekend, the voice never falters when producing quick-witted and droll chapters.  I hate to compare the novel to other works, but I couldn’t help but feel delight as the book played with the idea of a snow stranded house with a deadly past all the while producing characters that were akin to those found in Agatha Christie or Clue.

Bellweather Rhapsody was recently released by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Summertime Books to Read

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It’s been a little quiet over here the past few weeks. I’ve just been a little unfocused, but I do have an ever-growing pile of books to read. I figured it is about that time when everyone is getting antsy about their vacation reads and I’m not ashamed to jump on the list bandwagon. My summer reading list was jump-started by the phenomenal The Fever by Megan Abbott, which I recently reviewed.

So, here are eight selections of galleys that are piling up as I type.* Do you have any summer choices you’re hot to crack open?

1. The Supernatural Enhancements “What begins as a clever, gothic ghost story soon evolves into a wickedly twisted treasure hunt in…Edgar Cantero’s wholly original, modern-day adventure.”

2. Shirley “A fictional young couple spends a year at Bennington in 1964 with novelist Shirley Jackson and her husband in this captivating psychological thriller.”

3. Bellweather Rhapsody “Fifteen years ago, a murder/suicide in room 712 rocked the grand old Bellweather Hotel… Now hundreds of high school musicians, including quiet bassoonist Rabbit Hatmaker…have gathered in its cavernous, crumbling halls for the annual Statewide festival.”

4. Jackaby “Newly arrived in New Fiddleham, New England, 1892, and in need of a job, Abigail Rook meets R. F. Jackaby, an investigator of the unexplained with a keen eye for the extraordinary.”

5. After the People Lights Have Gone Off “This collection of fifteen stories taps into the horrors and fears of the supernatural as well as the everyday.”

6. Lost for Words “The judges on the panel of the Elysian Prize for Literature must get through hundreds of submissions to find the best book of the year…[a] satire that cuts to the quick of some of the deepest questions about the place of art in our celebrity-obsessed culture”

7. The Murder Farm “An unconventional detective story, [it] is an exciting blend of eyewitness account, third-person narrative, pious diatribes, and incomplete case file.”

8. Mr Mercedes “[A] mega-stakes, high-suspense race against time, three of the most unlikely and winning heroes Stephen King has ever created try to stop a lone killer from blowing up thousands.”

 

*I do not have a copy of The Murder Farm yet, but I am looking forward to it, nonetheless. This book is hugely successful in Germany (original title: Tannöd). The first-time writer was rejected several times and only given a 1,000 euro advance by a small publisher. Now, it’s required reading and was adapted into a film.

**Synopses provided by publishers.

The Fever by Megan Abbott

I don’t normally start reviews with being so blunt, but I must say, that I absolutely loved The Fever by Megan Abbott. Honestly, I was addicted and it was a whirlwind of a novel that tossed me out of a recent slump with novels TBR.

the fever

The novel is bundled together between the three distinct narratives of the Nash family–Deenie, her older brother Eli, and their father, Tom, who is also a teacher at their high school. Although, each of the three has their own third person sections, I find myself rallying behind Deenie as the main character; we’re with her the most. Her brother Eli is a handsome hockey player for the high school team and so irresistible to the girls at the school that all he really needs to do to get their attention is wake up in the morning (if that).

In the small town of Dryden, Deenie is a sophomore who is dealing with what high schoolers deal with–old friends, new friends, nemeses, that weird and uncomfortable liminal space between being a kid and being an adult (although, as someone counted amongst adults myself, I rarely feel like a grown up!). The opening chapter is strange and uncomfortable. The girls are waiting for some mysterious procedure that doesn’t become clear until later in the book when everyone is in a state of panic.

One morning at school, Deenie’s best friend Lise begins to have a fit. She seizes and falls out of her desk to the floor, knocking her forehead on the ground before she is taken away to the hospital. It is a frightful sight, one that understandably unnerves Deenie and as Lise remains unconscious in the hospital, everyone is trying to uncover what caused it. But then something odd begins to happen. Other girls in the school begin to have similar fits filled with jerking head motions and then their entire bodies seizing before being carted off to the hospital. The small town is in a panic and with every new day, unsubstantiated culprits are fingered–the HPV vaccine, environmental factors, drugs, contagious disease. When common threads are found, something is right there to devalue the theories.

Right from the start, the story rushes forward. The sentences are clipped and urgent making the reader feel completely off-kilter just like the characters. Mysteries are held back and often purposefully muddled with gossip, urban legend, and mass hysteria. Although, told in the third person, Deenie’s section, at times, feels like an unreliable narrator in the way that only a partial representation of previous events are being shown until the very end when pertinent revelations are revealed.

One aspect I particularly liked (which is also infuriating) is this modern sense of “I play a doctor on the internet.” Of course, mistakes are made even by the most seasoned of professionals, but I am always terribly baffled by people who think they know better after some light Wikipedia perusing. During a highly tense school meeting with parents and teachers, Abbott writes:

“Tom sighed. There was no use talking epidemiology with Dave Hurwich, who always knew more about law than lawyers, more about cars than mechanics.”

The plot of The Fever felt really familiar and when I did some cursory Googling, Megan Abbott’s author website points to the New York Times article that I remembered reading a few years ago that clearly triggered inspiration. I’d recommend that those who didn’t read all the news articles about the school in upstate New York should avoid doing so till finishing the novel. I think it would be an even more mysterious tale.

The Fever will be released on June 17 by Little, Brown and Company, which is part of the Hachette Book Group. If you haven’t read about it already, Hachette and Amazon are currently battling, so the availability of many titles are in limbo on Amazon’s site. If you aren’t able to get a copy from your local bookstore, it can be ordered through Book Depository.

“Coral-red” by Helen McClory

I’m not sure how popular flash fiction is (or micro fiction, short shorts, or whatever we’re calling them these days), but I’ve always been a fan along with vignettes. Small impressions can be quite powerful. Many writers find the constraint difficult, but often with these miniature stories, stronger tone and detail crafting come across with starker strokes than longer stories. I find the best flash fiction pieces try to unsettle the reader or take an idea, mix it up like puzzle pieces, and reassembles itself all within the span of about 500 words (I’m one of those who tend to not consider anything of 1000 words or more flash fiction).

dreamy building

I have always enjoyed the selections of Helen McClory’s work that I’ve been steered towards over the past few years. She has a new piece up on Literary Orphans, which I’ve read three times! I think with each new reading, I find something new or my focus is captivated with a different section of the story.

In “Coral-red,” we are introduced to Miriam’s house, which is often featured in stylish home magazines that reach readers all over the world. Yet, at the present moment the house is haunted. The children haunting the house are raucous and ever-present as they sing songs and walk between the walls.

Of course, when houses–especially, the haunted sort–are featured in fiction, there is usually a reason. What had once been introduced as a stylish home worthy enough to be photographed for magazines, has a deeper, more disturbing core. Houses in literature are structured to hold characters’ hidden histories, they are built to elicit fears and anxieties, and sometimes, they are crafted to hold the characters in from the rest of the world, leading them to brew inside without the infiltration of foreign touches. The house in “Coral-red” is not what we expect, nor, is Miriam.

“[S]he rarely leaves the house. In fact, she never leaves unless compelled. There is something terribly wrong with Miriam, and there has been for a long time, but she has no friends to gently tell her this, and the housekeeper Ofelia doesn’t see it’s any business of hers.”

McClory’s language is layered and pays special attention to the senses. She is able to entrance the surroundings by offering a mist of lulling prose to only lay out blunt more horrifying moments.

Lately, Helen has been writing about her consumption of horror shows and films, which no doubt are influencing her current writing. I hope to see more, because she is keenly able to capture gossamer places that keep the menacing tightly wound into it.

The  journal, Literary Orphans, has the story available for free. Besides, this story, take a look at the whole site. I’m pretty impressed by the entire scheme.

 

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Autobiography of a Corpse by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky

I first came across Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky in 2011 when The Letter Killers Club  was released by NYRB. It had a promising premise, but I think it came up short. But I still wanted to give Krzhizhanovsky’s short story collection a go when it was released this past fall.

autobiography of a corpse

It has taken me quite a while to write about this book, my copy always just right out of my side view. Based on the two books I’ve read of Krzhizhanovsky’s, I’ve concluded that I like his writing 50% of the time. For all of the weird and wonderful he has to offer, there is a whole mass of stodgy pseudo-philosophy and ruminations that exhausts me when trying to penetrate it (let me assure you that I do enjoy philosophical literature–I’m a big fan of Maurice Blanchot, for Pete’s sake). When I could get past this latter 50%, I enjoyed the strange tales that Krzhizhanovsky offers, which include the fingers of a concert pianist making their escape during a performance, a series of lovers who end up living in a young woman’s pupil, to the story I shall detail below about a man who is intent on biting his own elbow.

In the book’s introduction, Adam Thirwell details that there were three different efforts to have Krzhizhanovsky’s work published during his lifetime, which also shared years with the Soviet regime. He was not published until 1989 and now only recently translated into English. The stories that I was drawn to were the more fantastical and were crafted, as Thirwell writes, “based on the fact that language makes things possible that are not possible in reality.” In one of the stories, the narration concedes that “these jottings will work like that: sandwich — metaphysics — sandwich — metaphysics.” Krzhizhanovsky seems quite aware that he has a 50/50 split, yet, the metaphysics, as he puts it, doesn’t need to be so thick and unmoving. I’m curious if this is the translation or Krzhizhanovsky original language manifesting in this way.

The story that most stood out was “The Unbitten Elbow.” When the Weekly Review sends out a questionnaire to all of their subscribers, they are perplexed by only one form amongst the thousands. The person, when asked what their Goal in Life is, wrote in “clear round letters, ‘To bite my elbow.'”  The form is forwarded to many departments within the Weekly Review before it is finally brought to the public’s attention. The man and his unbitten albow become a cause célèbre as he is recruited by a circus as their closing act where a “professional philosopher” sees the performance and catches “the elbow-eater’s metaphysical meaning right off the bat.” What ensues is an article titled, “The Principles of Unbitability” and a philosophy known as elbowism. Elbow biting even becomes so popular that clothing styles have changed to incorporate detachable elbow patches and the like.

The writing is quite funny and vivid, and this story alone puts Krzhizhanovsky right up there with the other Slavic and central European writers who flourish with this sort of writing. The absurdity reminded me so much of how we regard celebrity. If you flip through the television at any part of the day, there are people there yelling at each other and giving insincere “confessions” to cameras (why are these people on TV?!). The snowballing effect of the elbow biter is also so poignant when it comes to how news is delivered to us today and how we react to it. Regardless of all that, however, this story can still be enjoyed for what it is. In this instance, the above-mentioned incorporation of philosophical tendencies served Krzhizhanovsky well; often, as elbowism flourishes, new thinkers are trying to sort the endeavor and have “concluded that the elbow was, in theory, bitable.” I feel very much the same way about this collection. There was a lot of teeth gnashing on my part, but some of the struggle, although not completely pain-free, led to a few peculiar delights.

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Added to The International Reading List

Among the Thorns by Veronica Schanoes

among the thorns

A couple of months ago, I reviewed Veronica Schanoes’ novella, Burning Girls. She has a knack for reinventing folktales, giving them a fresh note while still retaining their centuries’ old roots. She does it again in her new short story, Among the Thorns. The story is a clear rebuttal to the Brothers Grimm’s most overwhelmingly antisemitic story, “The Jew in the Thorn” (Der Jude im Dorn).

As a child, Itte’s father never returns home. The family finds out that he has been murdered in the German village of Dornburg (this name literally means thorn castle in DE).

“They made my father dance in thorns before they killed him. I used to think that this was a metaphor, that they beat him with thorny vines, perhaps. But I was wrong about that. They made him dance.”

Itte, her family, and the rest of the Jews are persecuted now in their seventeenth century village just as the Jews have been in the past centuries as well. Ten years pass and with her mother dead and her brothers off, Itte decides to take revenge on Herr Geiger, the man who is responsible for her father’s death. Herr Geiger, like his name suggests, is a fiddler, whose instrument when played will make anyone dance, even until they are worn out; he also has the extraordinary ability to make people do what he wants. Itte’s father was made to dance in the thorns until he was bloodied. As Itte sets off on her quest, she is accompanied by the disembodied presence of Matronit to assist her with her travels and, finally, to “watch the fiddler’s last breath.”

Although rooted in sadness, I do love a good revenge tale. Itte is determined and plain-spoken. Her narration is direct, which I think works quite well for Schanoes, who is portraying both a developed character and a reference to an older story. She is reinterpreting the straightforward voice that is often used in old Märchen.* The imagery is strong in this story. An especially vivid moment is when Itte’s braided hair unravels, stretching out into giant thorn vines (see cover image above). It takes her whole body to exact revenge on Herr Geiger, something that Itte imagined would be the case, albeit, not entirely as she expected before she set out on her journey. We can read the Grimms’ tale in its historical context, but Schanoes’ new story is one to be relished in as each spiky thorn grows from Itte’s head.

Like Burning Girls, I found this story to be wholly gripping. Once you start, you better clear your schedule, because you’ll want to finish it in one sitting and then probably read it again for any details missed the first go around. I don’t know what Veronica Schanoes is up to, but I hope her plans include writing a fabulous collection of tales with stellar illustrations by Anna & Elena Balbusso.

Among the Thorns is available as a .99 cent ebook (with beautiful cover included) and at the publisher’s website. In honor of Burning Girls being nominated for a Nebula Award this year, the publisher has made the ebook available for free.

 

*I always find it hard to reference stories like the ones from the Brothers Grimm as “fairy tales.” They are often quite beastly and not at all whimsical like I imagine fairies to be.

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