Monthly Archives: May 2014

The Day of the Triffids, On Writing, Slammerkin

A bit of old-fashioned science fiction, some writing advice and an 18th century story – what do they have in common? Nothing really, other than the fact that I’ve read them because I wanted a break from the fairy tales and if I don’t put them all into one post instead of three, I may never catch up on my reviews.

The Day of the Triffids The Day of the Triffids – John Wyndham

It’s no surprise I never heard of this book as I’m not a science fiction fan, but when it came up at my book club I thought it would be fun to read. Plus, the words “post-apocalyptic” have always held a sort of magic spell over me. It turns out my instinct was right. It was a fun and enjoyable book to read, which may be an odd choice of words considering I was reading a story in which the world was turned upside down in one night due to a meteorite shower and the people who watched it lost their eyesight as a result. It’s similar to the movie Blindness based on the novel by José Saramago, but with triffids – plants who have invaded the world and whose deadly stings can kill instantly.
The story is told from the point of view of William Masen, a Londoner, who wakes up after an eye surgery to find out the world he knew was no more. As one of the few people who still retained his eyesight, he set out to find out what caused this, and forms a partnership with Josella, a girl who was saved from blindness by a most terrible hangover which had her spend the previous night sleeping and thus oblivious to the meteorite shower. Together they navigate the perilous paths into this new world, complete with frequent visits to various pubs for a drink or two, being captured by blind people and used as guides, and having to survive the ever-adapting triffids.
The book has a very British feel to it which I enjoyed, like this paragraph which describes William waking up in the hospital the day the world went blind:

“No one, it seemed, was interested in bells. I began to get as much sore as worried. It’s humiliating to be dependent, anyway, but it’s a still poorer pass to have no one to depend on. My patience was whittling down. Something, I decided, had got to be done about it.”

Another paragraph is an echo of the world we live in today, which is most interesting, considering the book was written in 1951:

“The world we lived in was wide, and most of it was open to us with little trouble. Roads, railways, and shipping lines laced it, ready to carry one thousands of miles safely and in comfort. If we wanted to travel more swiftly still, and could afford it, we traveled by airplane. There was no need for anyone to take weapons or even precautions in those days. You could go just as you were to wherever you wished, with nothing to hinder you – other than a lot of forms and regulations. A world so tamed sounds utopian now. Nevertheless, it was so over five sixths of the globe – though the remaining sixth was something different again.”

The story gives ample details about the origins of the triffids, William’s life, as well as various philosophical musings like this one:

“The human spirit continued much as before – 95 per cent of it wanting to live in peace, and the other 5 per cent considering its chances if it should risk starting anything. It was chiefly because no one’s chances looked too good that the lull continued.”

While this is a gloomy story, there’s a pervasive feeling of hope, as the two protagonists build a life together in the new world. It has an “everything happens for a reason” feel, and a good ending.

My Rating: 3/5 stars

On Writing On Writing – Stephen King

It’s the second time I’ve read this book and found it just as good as the first time. Some parts I remembered, especially the ones about King’s childhood and his accident in 1999. Others I was happy to discover yet again.
The book is divided into sections – the first,C.V., covers details about King’s life and how daily things influenced his writing. There’s also a section with advice for new writers, starting with the tools you need in order to write, discussing whether writing classes are really necessary, how to find an agent, and fragments of edited work with explanations. At the back there’s a list of recommended books and I was happy to see a few of my favorites among them: The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver, Drood by Dan Simmons, The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters and A Widow for One Year by John Irving. That list made me curious about writers I haven’t read yet: Pat Barker, Don DeLillo, Roberto Bolaño and Donna Tartt.

This is a book based on years of experience – you can see it in the tone, helpful, honest and to the point. It feels like a conversation with a friend, but I may be biased in my judgment, as I see most of his books that way. There were so many good passages – some have been used as quotes for years since this book was first published in 2000. And because there were so many and I wanted to be able to find them easily, I did what I rarely if ever, do with a book – underline favorite sentences of even whole paragraphs. Here are some of my favorites:

“If you write (or paint or dance or sculpt or sing, I suppose), someone will try to make you feel lousy about it, that’s all.”

“Writing is a lonely job. Having someone who believes in you makes a lot of difference. They don’t have to make speeches. Just believing is usually enough.”

“Books are a uniquely portable magic.”

“…while to write adverbs is human, to write he said or she said is divine.”

My rating: 5/5 stars

Slammerkin Slammerkin – Emma Donoghue

Slammerkin, noun, eighteenth century, of unknown origin. 1. A loose gown. 2. A loose woman.

Slammerkin is the fourth novel by Emma Donoghue. I have heard of her famous “Room” but after reading from it at the bookstore, I decided that an 18th century tale would be a better choice for me.

Mary Saunders is a poor girl living with her family in London in 1752. She is five years old. That year her father dies in prison and eleven years later Mary is there as well, although the reason is not revealed until the end.
May is ambitious and determined that one day she will walk around the city wearing the finest clothes. It is her desire for fine fabrics and bright colors that would lead her to a life of prostitution and ultimately to leave the city as her life is in danger. There’s a pivotal point in the novel where Mary decides she’d had enough of life on the streets and decides to go back to her mother’s village and find her mother’s childhood friend, Mrs. Jones, and ask for her help.
This is a time that Mary enjoys for the most part as she becomes one of the family. The Joneses are nice people and they treat her well. Mrs Jones takes her on as a helper in her dressmaking business and once again Mary’s hunger for beautiful fine clothes is beginning to threaten the new life she has fought so hard for.

This historical inspired novel shows a rough side of London. There is little hope for the poor, and school is not deemed particularly useful, especially for girls. There’s never enough food, it’s cold, and the gap between the wealthy and the poor is as wide as ever.
The book is peppered with short clothes-related rhymes like these which give the story an almost playful tone:

Ribbon brown, ribbon rose
Count your friends and your foes

and

Ribbon green, ribbon red
The tale’s not told till you’re dead

Mary is not a particularly likeable character. I did sympathize with her at first – growing up with a stepfather and an overwrought mother who’s only too happy to get rid of her when the girl makes a mistake, but after deciding to change her life, Mary takes one bad step after another. The ending is shocking to say the least. I had hoped for some crumb of happiness for the poor girl but it was not to be. Her fault lay in wanting too much and too fast and she is punished for it. But perhaps I’m expecting too much from a sixteen-year-old heroine. It was a fun book to read but the only thing I’ll probably remember from it is the image of a young prostitute in a beautiful dress with a red ribbon in her hair.

My rating: 3/5 stars

Read in April-May, 2014






Posted in The Book on The Nightstand | 8 Comments

Dreams & Shadows – C. Robert Cargill

“Do you believe in fairies?… If you believe, clap your hands!”
J.M. Barrie

onceup8200 small The seventh book I’ve read for the Once Upon a Time Challenge was Dreams and Shadows by C. Robert Cargill, a story in which fairies play an important part. After reading about djinni, golems and angels it’s the fairies’ turn, which, when I think about, I see Tinkerbell – fragile, tiny and mischievous.
The fairies in this book however, come in different shapes and sizes and they are far from being fragile and cute (some are, but not all). They live in Limestone Kingdom, a realm accessible only to their kind, and to those human children they have abducted. Ewan is such a child. Taken from his human parents from infancy, he grows up among the fairies, under the protection of Dithers, a monstrous creature whose job is to take care of the boy. In his place Dithers leaves a changeling, Knocks, an equally monstrous creature that can take the appearance of baby Ewan, and whose true nature is only visible to Ewan’s mother.

The boy Ewan and the changeling Knocks meet later on in Limestone Kingdom. A third boy, Colby, enters the story with the help of a djinn whom he meets while playing not far from his house. The djinn does what all djinn do, he gives the boy a wish and Colby wants nothing more than to see magical creatures. This way, the triangle is complete – Colby and Ewan become friends, while Knocks is the enemy, their paths crossing quite often, even after Colby leaves Limestone Kingdom and comes back to the human world. But the fairies have wanted Ewan for a very special reason, and unless Colby intervenes, the boy’s fate is sealed. The story follows all three of them into adulthood while Ewan becomes a rock star, Colby is haunted by his experience among the fairies, and Knocks just wants revenge.

I loved the first part of the book. The background story of Jared and Tiffany who fell in love, married and had baby Ewan, seemed like something out of a fairy tale. After their baby is abducted and the changeling left in its place, the author gives a detailed explanation of the creature who performed the exchange, a Bendith Y Mamau called Dithers, whose ugliness is matched by his ability to play incredibly beautiful music. Such breaks from the original story come here and there in the form of explanations of one Dr. Thaddeus Ray, Ph.D., whose excerpts from several of his books give details about the creatures of the Limestone Kingdom.

The story however, did not hold its magic sway over me. I found none of the main characters (the boys) particularly interesting and was a bit bothered by the way the female side was represented, either as innocent looking but actually evil, or as self-sacrificing mothers and lovers. This is definitely “a boys’ book” and it made me feel somehow left out, as if I was peering through a glass door instead of being invested in the story.
It did not help that the blurb at the back proclaimed it as “…definitely going to attract readers of contemporary fantasy, particular those who enjoy Neil Gaiman’s adult books.” Now I do love Gaiman’s work (not all, though) and while I do see a hint of Neverwhere in it – parallel worlds, the ability of some of the characters to cross from one world to another – the similarities end here.

My favorite parts where those excerpts by Thaddeus Ray I mentioned earlier, which goes to show I liked the background information more than the story itself.
Bonus point for the cover, which is really nice, and it reminds me of Shadow Show, which was what attracted me to the book in the first place. Or it may have been the word shadow in the title. A goodreads.com search revealed this is only the first book in a series and the second one is called Queen of the Dark Things – an intriguing title but I’m not sure if I’ll add that to my TBR stack just yet.

My rating: 3/5 stars

Read in May, 2014

Dreams & Shadows Shadow Show - cover






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My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me – FORTY NEW FAIRY TALES edited by Kate Bernheimer

onceup8200 small I first saw this book on someone’s blog but unfortunately I have a bad habit of not writing these things down and I can’t remember the name of the blog. When I saw it at the bookstore days later, I grabbed it to read for the Once Upon a Time Challenge. Forty new fairy tales, and the list on the front cover gave the names of Aimee Bender, Neil Gaiman, Joyce Carol Oates, Joy Williams, and Francine Prose, to name just a few. Oh, the sweet anticipation such a book can bring! I looked at it lovingly, relishing in knowing I had more than five hundred pages filled with magical stories.

I should probably state right now I enjoyed most of the stories in the book but not all. A couple of them I didn’t finish. There was something about the setting, or in some cases the wording, that just didn’t resonate with me. Some authors blended fairy tales with present day reality and in some cases I found the result awkward. Others succeeded in creating that seamless fantastical story that stemmed from something old and grew into something interesting. And on some of the stories I may have missed out simply because I wasn’t familiar with the fairy tale and felt like this was an impediment in enjoying the story.
What I liked were the explanations written by the authors at the end of each story – what fairy tale their story was based on and what inspired them to write it the way they did.
The stories I did like, however, were truly beautiful, and here are the best:

My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me

Baba Yaga and the Pelican Child, by Joy Williams

This was quite interesting, because I’ve come across a few Baba Yaga tales not long ago, in the Penguin Classics “Russian Magic Tales from Pushkin to Platonov”, and while I didn’t finish that book, I read enough variants of it to make the whole story familiar. This version describes the house in the woods where Baba Yaga, her pelican child, a cat and a dog live together peacefully, until one day a stranger arrives and changes everything. He brings them sorrow, but fear not, the story doesn’t slide all the way into gloom; it also has a funny side and a more philosophical one. I loved it for the lesson it teaches and for this passage:

After this, Baba Yaga continued to fly through the skies in her mortar, navigating with her pestle. But instead of a broom, she carried the lamp that illuminated the things people did not know or were reluctant or refused to understand. And she would lower the lamp over a person and they would see how extraordinary were the birds and the beasts of the world, and that they should be valued for their bright and beautiful and mysterious selves and not willfully harmed for they were more precious than castles or the golden rocks dug out from the earth.

I’m Here, by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya

Olga is a woman over forty who feels emotionally abandoned by her family and friends. In her attempt to recover a semblance of usefulness, she goes back to the house of her landlady, where she used to live many years ago. What she finds there, and the dialogue that follows gives the impression that something very strange is going on. The interpretation of the ending is up to the reader – because reality and imagination go hand in hand, it’s a bit difficult to choose a straight answer. A bit like the movie “The Life of Pi” – what was real and what wasn’t?
I liked it for the unexpected twist and also for this:

‘Baba Anya, I came out here thinking this might be the last refuge for me.’
‘There’s no such refuge for anyone on earth’, Baba Anya said. ‘Every soul is its own last refuge.’

The Brother and the Bird, by Alissa Nutting

This is a truly creepy story of a weird family manipulated by an evil woman. There’s also a juniper tree, a murder and a disturbing dream. This is the story that gives the name to the book:

‘My mother, she killed me’, the voice sang. ‘My father, he ate me. My sister, she saved my bones….’

Hansel and Gretel, by Francine Prose

The way this story starts made me feel curious and repelled at the same time. Curiosity won, so I kept reading. Hansel and Gretel (or Polly and Nelson) are newly married and visiting one of Nelson’s friends, an Italian artist named Lucia. She’s the mother of his former girlfriend, “the love of his life”, whom Nelson hasn’t seen in years. This makes for some awkward conversation amplified by the out-of-place behavior between Nelson and Lucia. Years later, when Polly comes back to the place for a visit, she is reminded of the whole experience and gathers a new understanding of what it means to be young and foolish.

‘At that time, I often did things because they seemed like a good idea, and I often did very important things for lack of a reason not to.’

A Day in the Life of Half of Rumpelstiltskin, by Kevin Brockmeier

Told from the narrator’s point of view, this was one very unusual and entertaining story. Half of Rumpelstiltskin is just that, half of somebody, and the way the story unfolds, you’d think this is the most natural thing in the world. Half of Rumpelstiltskin also has a job, goes out just like everybody else and has to face comments regarding his appearance.

In the shower, Half of Rumpelstiltskin scours himself with a bar of marbled green soap, a washcloth, and – for the skin of his extremities, as stubborn and scabrous as bark – a horsehair scrub brush. He lathers. He rinses. He dries himself with a plush cotton towel, sousing the water from his pancreas and his ligaments and the spongy marrow in the cavity of his sternum. Half of Rumpelstiltskin is the only man he knows whose forearm is a hard-to-reach place.

The Color Master, by Aimee Bender

This is one lovely story which combines colors and textures into a beautiful re-telling of a fairy-tale in which a king wants to marry his own daughter. To celebrate the wedding, he asks for unusual clothes for the future bride – a dress the color of the moon, another, the color of the sun. These are not so easy to make, and the whole process is described – the selection of colors, the dying of the fabric, all supervised by the Color Master whose health is faltering. But there are other ingredients that go into these special clothes.

‘Remember, the Color Master said. She sat up, in bed. I keep forgetting, she said, but the King wants to Marry his Daughter, she said. Her voice pointed to each word, hard. That is not right, she said, okay? Got it? Put anger in the dress. Righteous anger. Do you hear me?’

Blue-bearded Lover, by Joyce Carol Oates

A very short but intense story, whose mystery pulled me in from the first sentence. There’s a poetry to the language, and a darkness in its words. Will the young wife open the door? Will she die like the others before her?

A Kiss to Wake the Sleeper, by Rabih Alameddine

A young girl on the brink of womanhood, sickness and sexuality are brought together in this story – a combination that works well to create a hybrid that serves not only to remind of the old fairy tale but to give it a twist that is truly modern and unexpected.

He seemed surprised at the lack of a response. I wanted to tell him that it was not his fault, that she had not wakened, had not moved, in a hundred years. I wanted only to save him time, to protect him from frustration. I wanted to tell him she was not the one for him, not at all. But he bent his golden torso and smelled her, inhaled deeply, and I almost fainted.

My rating: 3/5 stars

Read in April-May, 2014






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Angelology – Danielle Trussoni

onceup8200 small The Once Upon a Time Challenge continues and I’m enjoying it immensely. The fifth book I’ve read for the challenge is Angelology and even though it’s over six hundred pages it was a pleasure to get myself lost in the story.

A young nun with an interesting family heirloom – a golden lyre pendant, an angel whose wings are marred by decay, a young man with ambition in his heart, and a secret that will bring them together and change their lives.
The story begins in the winter of 1945, when a group of angelologists find a most unusual body in a cave in the mountains of Bulgaria. It is an angel, perfectly preserved, as if he had just lain down to sleep moments ago. How that is possible is not explained right away but towards the end of the book the mystery is revealed.

Back in our days, we find out the story of Evangeline, a young girl growing up in Saint Rose Convent in New York. Her parents are dead, and she only has a lyre pendant and an old journal to remind her of them. She thinks her life will probably be spent among the nuns, but fate has other plans. In the convent library she finds mysterious letters, and when a young man named Verlaine comes to the convent and starts asking questions, things get interesting. Verlaine is working for Percival Grigori, heir to a famous angel family; Percival’s health is deteriorating and his once majestic wings are now reduced to stubs. He’s searching for a cure, a “celestial instrument” that is rumored to have the power to restore his magnificent wings back to their former glory. Celestine and Verlaine join forces, as it seems they have a common quest, but the discoveries they make threaten their lives and finally reveal the secret that Evangeline’s family had kept for a long time.

Angelology

This book is a beautiful lesson in angel lore. Detailed descriptions of these magnificent creatures appear throughout the book, as the story of how they came to live among the mortals is explained. Mythology and religion are also mixed in the story, going back to the days when the sons of God noticed the beauty of the daughters of men and decided to take wives from them. This act results in punishment, as the fallen angels are cast into a deep cave, there to await the day of retribution. But they are trying to escape, and their descendants, the Nephilim, have grown powerful. Their influence is linked to major events in human history – the rise and fall of dynasties, the birth of science, the promotion of materialism, all this done to manipulate in order to control the people. The angelologists are their enemies, trained to protect the human race from falling prey to these ambitious creatures. It is a good versus evil battle, and the discovery of the famous celestial instrument could tip the balance.

The amount of research gone into the construction of this story must have been substantial. References include the myth of Orpheus, Noah’s story, the Sator-Rotas Latin palindrome (“a square used in angelology to signify that a pattern is present”) and various other biblical and mythological stories. I was impressed by the seamless way they were incorporated in the story, and captivated by the details.
I always find the names fascinating in a story and often wonder at their meaning – in this novel it’s quite obvious they are chosen to fit in with the theme: Evangeline, Angela, Celestine, Gabriella, Seraphina, Raphael.
Woven in this otherwise academic tale there’s also a great love story whose consequences reach deep across generations and gives the whole thing a more human flavor. My only issue was with the ending – it seems a little forced, as if nearing the grand finale the author wanted to make sure the reader is hooked into buying the sequel. Until then I had no idea this was just the first novel but my curiosity overcame this little annoyance and I would very much like to read what happens in the second volume called Angelopolis, although I suspect it’s not going to be as good as this one.

Some of my favorite passages:

Of course, they have also done a marvelous job of separating the intellectuals from the religious. They have made sure that humanity will not have another Newton or Copernicus, thinkers who revere both Science and God. Atheism was their greatest invention. Darwin’s work, despite the man’s extreme dependence upon religion, was twisted and propagated by them. The Nephilim have succeeded in making people believe that humanity is self generated, self-sufficient, free of the divine, sui generis. It is an illusion that makes our work much more difficult and their detection nearly impossible.

*

Addressing the creatures, his voice became commanding, as if speaking to animals. ‘Devils,’ he said.
This drove one of the male creatures from his lethargy. He wrapped his white fingers around the bars of the cage and pulled himself to full height. ‘Angel and devil,’ he said. ‘One is but a shade of the other.’

*

Their bodies were exceedingly lovely, so sensuous that a shock of longing passed through her. Yet even through the haze of her desire, Evangeline found that everything about them – from the way they stood to the immense span of their wings – struck her as monstrous.

My rating: 4/5 stars

Read in April, 2014






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The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye – A.S. Byatt

onceup8200 small This is the fourth book I’ve read for the Once Upon a Time Challenge that is still running until the 21st of June. The first book was The Golem and the Djinni (and I liked it very much), and even though I don’t know much about jinni or djinni as Byatt calls it, coincidentally or not, here I am, reading a book that has this magical creature yet again withing its pages.

There are five short stories in this book. The first four are just that, short, but the last one which gives the name of this book is quite lengthy.

The Djinn in the Nightingale's Eye The Glass Coffin is about a tailor who goes out into the world to find his luck. He meets a little grey man who gives him shelter for the night in exchange for helping with house chores. The tailor cooks, feeds the animals who also live in the house, and in return for his good work and kindness, gets to choose one gift out of the three the little grey man is offering.

“You have chosen not with prudence but with daring”, says the little grey man, and the tailor sets off on his way. His choice will make him face a difficult challenge, but guided by optimism and courage, the tailor will have to let go of his fear in order to fully experience the life-changing adventure. He sees a beautiful glass coffin, has to confront an evil magician, and dispel a terrible curse. It’s a nice little story, beautiful and quite straightforward.

Gode’s Story is also about a man, this time a young sailor, who’s in love with the miller’s daughter. It’s a complicated love story, full of symbolism that would be difficult to explain without giving away too much. It reminded me of “The French Lieutenant’s Woman”, because it takes place near the sea and it involves a lot of waiting. I’ve enjoyed this as well but not as much as the first story.

The Story of the Eldest Princess is about three sisters, princesses “in a kingdom between the sea and the mountains”. One by one, they go on a quest to bring back the blue color of the sky which had changed to other shades. The eldest princess meets a scorpion, a toad and a cockroach on her way; she helps them and they return the favor. This has echoes of “Little Red Riding Hood”, but is also a story within a story and by the end of it I felt trapped, not knowing what to believe. The abrupt ending left me confused.

Dragon’s Breath is about a family with three children, Harry, Jack, and Eva, who grow up on tales about dragons. Life in their village is boring for the three siblings and they all dream of more exciting things, of adventures and castles and riches within their walls. And one day adventure comes but not in the way they thought it would, and it changes their lives and their perspective on things.

“Such wonder, such amazement, are the opposite, the exact opposite, of boredom, and many people only know them after fear and loss. Once known, I believe, they cannot be completely forgotten; they cast flashes and floods of paradisal light in odd places and at odd times.”

The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye is the last story and it takes up more than half the book. I loved the first passage – a brilliant description of modern times told in a fairy tale way, one of those paragraphs that echoes in the mind for a long time after the story has ended. Its beauty spills into the rest of the story but somewhere along the thread of this tale I became bored and wished for something more exciting to happen. In a way I was like the three siblings in the previous story, impatient, wanting adventure, excitement. And just like them, I got my wish, but I had to wait a while.

This is the story of a woman narratologist, middle aged, successful in her career, who travels a few times a year to conferences where she meets like-minded academics and they listen to each other discourse on the history of fairy tales and legends and such. This is by far the most academic story in this collection – references and analysis of John Milton’s Paradise Lost, Shakespeare’s plays, Greek myths, the “Thousand and One Nights” and the origins of various fairy tales made the story quite interesting up to a point. There are plenty of details that help make the reader familiar with the heroine’s life, her feelings, her hopes. There are also a few stories woven into this tale, of Patient Griselda, of Gilgamesh, bits of history about Turkey, where the woman visits for one of her conferences, and where she buys, in a bazaar, a curiously shaped bottle which she will later discover, houses a djinn.
The bottle could be made from “nightingale’s eye”, a famous Turkish glass from the 19th century, she is told, and because she is a collector of glass paper weights, she buys it. That’s when the real adventure begins. Her first meeting with the djinn involves a funny little part about a tennis match, which was quite amusing to read, and also endless philosophical discussions.

Byatt’s prose is anything but simple and in this last story its construction is intricate, layered, there are vivid descriptions of colors and smells, of sensuality, and it pulls the reader right in from the first sentence. It is also the kind of prose that you have to work for to fully appreciate, but the reward is well worth it. The beginning was interesting, but I felt a little disappointed with the way things were progressing. The appearance of the djinn brought back the interesting element and it never slacked off until the end. This was my favorite story along with The Glass Coffin.

“Being inside a bottle has certain things – a few things – in common with being inside a woman – a certain pain that at times is indistinguishable from pleasure. We cannot die, but at the moment of becoming infinitesimal inside the neck of a flask, or jar, or a bottle – we can shiver with the apprehension of extinction – as humans speak of dying when they reach the height of bliss, in love.”

My rating: 4/5 stars
Read in March, 2014






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