Book Review: The Clockmaker’s Daughter by Kate Morton (2018)

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Review #100

In the summer of 1862, a group of young artists led by the passionate and talented Edward Radcliffe descends upon Birchwood Manor on the banks of the Upper Thames. Their plan: to spend a secluded summer month in a haze of inspiration and creativity. But by the time their stay is over, one woman has been shot dead while another has disappeared; a priceless heirloom is missing; and Edward Radcliffe’s life is in ruins.

Kate Morton has been on my shortlist of favorite authors since I first discovered The Forgotten Garden way back in 2011. All of her novels merge historical fiction with mystery, often spanning decades and generations. Morton stays true to form with her latest novel, The Clockmaker’s Daughter, and manages to throw in a few surprises along the way.

Morton loves writing about crumbling English manor homes and her settings often serve as characters unto themselves. The majority of The Clockmaker’s Daughter takes place in isolated and empty Birchwood Manor, but far from the gloomy, neglected halls that characterized Morton’s The Distant Hours, Birchwood is haunted by a ghost of a different sort. The presence which roams the halls of Birchwood Manor is filled with curiosity and kindness for the occasional visitors that come to her home, which has been turned into a museum and historical site. When a new visitor by the name of Elodie Winslow turns up looking for answers that lead back to a long ago summer when a group of artists descended upon the manor, the spirit of Birchwood Manor realizes that secrets are about to be uncovered that have been buried for centuries.

The wonderful thing about Kate Morton’s writing is that it flows so smoothly from time period to time period. The bulk of the narrative follows a group of young artists who venture into the country for a summer of nature and inspiration. The technological and social changes that embody Victorian England are present here; it was interesting to read about the introduction of photography, which would bring about major changes to the art world as the popularity of portraiture faded.

The rest of the novel is set in the present day. It is partly narrated by Elodie, a young archivist who stumbles upon a sketchbook that has been hidden away for decades. The spirit of Birchwood Manor has its own voice as well, detailing the events that have occurred in the house in the long years since its arrival. This is the first novel by Morton to contain a solid supernatural element. There were whispers of fairies and magic in some of her previous works, but the ghost in The Clockmaker’s Daughter is a defined presence with real wishes and desires.

If I had a critique of this novel, it would be the title. While one of the main characters is the daughter of a clockmaker, that fact has no real bearing on the overall storyline. Too many novels are “The _____’s Daughter” or “The _____’s Wife”. It is often is used in fiction to give a different perspective on historical events; however, it is unnecessary in this case. Instead it serves to undermine a strong female character by forcing her to be named only under the title of a male who is not even terribly relevant to the plot. It just felt lazy.

Overall, this was another highly enjoyable novel by a woman who remains at the top of my list for favorite authors. My only disappointment is that I have to settle in for a long wait until her next novel.

My Rating: 4.5/5

You can find The Clockmaker’s Daughter here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

 

Book Review: Friend Request by Laura Marshall (2017)

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Review #96

When Louise Marshall receives a friend request on Facebook from Maria Weston, she is surprised to say the least. When they were in high school together, Louise wasn’t too kind to Maria. In fact, she was a bit of a bully. So why would Maria be reaching out after twenty-seven years? Plus there’s the fact that Maria is dead. Isn’t she?

My most recent post was entitled I’m Breaking Up With the Modern Thriller Genre. I explained how the recent trend towards unnecessary plot twists, shoddy characterization, and clumsy foreshadowing has killed my enjoyment of recently popular thriller novels. Friend Request by Laura Marshall was the book that broke this reader’s patience.

In this novel are the same tired cliches and overused stereotypes that have made the thriller genre an exercise in frustration. There are the obligatory flashbacks that serve no true purpose except to drum up a false sense of suspense. In this case, we visit Louise and Maria as they go through their senior year of high school in 1989. Instead of giving us a window into this time period which may have been fun or added relevant details to the overall plot, instead we just have Louise continually torn between her desire to be part of the popular crowd and her budding friendship with the new girl at school. There’s potential here for an insightful look at the long-term affects of teenage bullying, but Marshall never really connects the dots.

We also have multiple plot twists which serve no real purpose and fail to offer any surprises. When I think of novels such as Ender’s Game, Fight Club or any of Tana French’s Dublin Murder series, the thing that stands out is that all of the elements of the pre-twist narrative fall into place once the twist is revealed. If you go back and re-read any of these novels, you can logically and rationally follow the plot with the knowledge of the twist already in place. However, the plot twist in Friend Request is a cheat. It’s utterly out of left field and literally made me face-palm once I realized that this was what Marshall had spent so much time and effort building towards. I love a good plot twist but they need to make sense within the larger story, and the one in this novel fell completely flat.

I may have liked this book more if I hadn’t experienced a recent run of similar faux-thriller novels which can all be boiled down to “white woman with quirky but interesting career is somehow surprised when the past comes back to haunt her”. My frustration with Friend Request is ultimately due to my overall frustration with the current state of the thriller genre itself. I’ve decided to take a break and focus on a few other genres for awhile. Perhaps with some time I will be able to come back and appreciate this novel on its own merit.

My rating: 2/5

You can find Friend Request here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

Book Review: Final Girls by Riley Sager (2017)

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Review #95

Ten years ago, Quincy Carpenter and a group of fellow college students ventured into the Pennsylvania woods for a party weekend at an isolated cabin. Forty-eight hours later, Quincy stumbled out of the forest, covered in blood and screaming that her friends had all been murdered. She was the sole survivor.

Now, Quincy has a loving fiance and a successful baking blog. She feels that she has finally managed to shed the image of the “final girl” that the media tried so hard to pin on her. But when a fellow survivor turns up dead and another appears on her doorstep, Quincy finds herself reliving the painful memories she has worked so hard to forget.

I reviewed another of author Riley Sager’s works earlier for this website, and thought that he relied too heavily on unnecessary plot twists and clumsy foreshadowing. For the bulk of Final Girls, Sager manages to avoid the ridiculous plot twists and focuses on a more character-driven story. Quinn is a relatively sympathetic character, although she does ramble on a bit too heavily about the same three subjects: Xanax, baking, and her fiance. I much preferred the enigmatic Sam Boyd, a fellow “Final Girl” who shows up at Quinn’s home and immediately makes herself at home. In my mind, she was Eliza Dushku’s character Faith from Buffy. We want to like her, but we are never sure whether or not we can trust her.

Sager’s use of flashbacks continues to be a thorn in my side. The sections that take place in 1989 are utterly useless. They do nothing to advance the overall plot, and they are far too short and deliberately vague to make us care for the fate of Quinn’s doomed friends. Just as in The Last Time I Lied, these sections felt clunky and heavy-handed. Sager relies too much on continuously stating “that one terrible thing that happened”, as if by repeating himself it will serve to drum up an atmosphere of suspense. Instead it just began to feel tedious.

I think I’m going to start avoiding the “popular” thrillers that crop up like daisies every year. Obviously there are a great deal of people who love them, or they would not constantly be popping on on my radar. However, I seem to forget that these novels are nearly always going to rely on the cliched tropes and nonsensical plot twist endings that have come to define the modern interpretation of the genre. I am tired of finding myself perpetually disappointed.

The ending for Final Girls in particular, was utterly ridiculous.

My rating: 2.5/5

You can find Final Girls here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

 

Book vs Film: The Shining

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Fittingly enough for October, I spent a last weekend at a cabin in the woods. And while there were more loons and squirrels than ghosts and ghouls, I took the opportunity to re-read one of my all-time favorite horror novels, The Shining by Stephen King. It is considered by many to be one of his best works, which is saying a lot considering he is one of the most popular and prolific authors still writing today.

While King’s The Shining has definitely earned its place in the higher echelons of the horror genre, I have never quite understood the esteem given to Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 adaptation of the novel. While I was re-reading the book over the weekend, it only served to remind me how utterly superior it is to the movie version.

In no specific order, here are my thoughts on The Shining novel version the film. Spoilers abound for both.

1.) The film is horribly miscast. I might be in the unpopular opinion crowd here but I absolutely hate Jack Nicholson’s interpretation of Jack Torrance. He plays Jack as a mentally unstable semi-psychopath straight from the beginning. The novel version of Jack is a flawed individual who loves his family and is eventually worn down by the dark forces of the Overlook. Nicholson instead chose to glower and menace from the very first scene, and spends the entire running length of the film chewing the scenery.

Shelley Duvall, as Wendy Torrance, is almost unbearable to watch. She is meek and whiny and shrill. Book Wendy is certainly submissive to her husband, but she fights for the safety of her son and it is her fierce love that has kept her family together. Wendy fights her own demons throughout the course of King’s novel, but she is never reduced to a mewling puddle on the floor.

2.) Kubrick basically tortured Shelley Duvall throughout the course of filming. It could be that part of my dislike for Shelley Duvall in Kubrick’s film is the fact that he put her through such psychological strain that she would frequently collapse from mental exhaustion. She was kept isolated from much of the cast and made to perform takes hundreds of times all while Kubrick was screaming at her. Apparently the stress was so great that her hair began to fall out. Kubrick’s interpretation of Wendy Torrance is utterly misogynistic. She is just there to make stupid decisions and scream a lot.

3.) Jack Torrance is supposed to be an imperfect but dedicated husband and father. In my opinion, one reason why Stephen King’s work is so difficult to translate onto film is that so much of the tension takes place in the minds of his characters. The reader spends so much time sharing headspace with the Torrance family that we grow to understand and appreciate their various strengths and flaws. So when I’m reading The Shining, I identify with Jack’s struggle with alcoholism as much as I respect his fervent desire to better himself for his wife and son. The reader feels that mixture of guilt, pain, sadness, and love. But because the battle for the soul of Jack Torrance takes place within the mind of Jack Torrance, it’s difficult to convey without resorting to voice-over narration which would have been equally ineffective. So instead, we’re left with Jack Nicholson who tried to convey that inner turmoil by acting like an overly toothy nutjob.

4.) Points must be given for setting and cinematography. I personally do not believe Stanley Kubrick deserves his place in the higher rankings of film directors. However, I will say that he was capable of delivering some truly stunning visuals. Horror films in the last decade rely too heavily on quick edits, jump scares, and screechy music to ramp up suspense. Kubrick understands the creepiness of the long shot, and his use of twisty hallways, looming staircases, and the general grandeur of the hotel set are all gorgeous to look at. His use of bright, primary colors contrasted with the gloominess of other set pieces is another reason why this film is mentioned so often in conversations about amazing visual effects.

5) THE ENDING Stephen King himself has tried to distance himself from Kubrick’s film, citing many of the same reasons I’ve mentioned in this post. Nicholson’s Jack Torrance has almost no character arc whatsoever, and even the final sacrifice of “book” Jack is left out of the film. In the novel, Jack Torrance manages to fight off the evil spirits that have consumed him long enough to say goodbye to his son and allow him a chance to escape. He then smashes his own face in with a roque mallet, destroying himself but saving his son. In the film, Jack Nicholson’s character basically becomes Michael Myers, a maniac with an axe who gleefully attempts to murder his entire family. In the end, he gets lost in a hedge maze and freezes to death.

Where’s the sacrifice? Where are the last words of a broken man to his son? It’s as if Kubrick didn’t see Jack Torrance as a person with a conscience of his own, but merely as an empty receptacle for the evil spirits that inhabited the Overlook. So the ending consists of one drawn-out chase scene, complete with an idiotic woman who runs up the stairs when she should be running out the front door. Even in 1980 this was beginning to become a cliche. Kubrick had the opportunity to show his audiences a truly unique monster, the monster that lives within all of us waiting for the chance to take over. Instead, we were given yet another soulless psychopath. What a shame.

What are your thoughts? Are there any other film to book comparisons you’d like to see? Let me know in the comments!

Happy reading everyone!

Book Review: You by Caroline Kepnes

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Review #93

When a beautiful young aspiring writer enters his bookshop, Joe Goldberg is immediately enthralled. He realizes they are destined to be together so he does what seems natural to him, he invades her life. By finding out where she lives, entering her apartment uninvited, and stealing her phone, Joe manages to insert himself in her life almost seamlessly. His obsession grows as the young woman begins to trust and even love him. Increasingly possessive, Joe becomes determined to remove any obstacles that stand in the way of his happiness, even if means killing people to do so.

First things first, this book was amazing. It is one of those novels that pulls you in from the very first page and then you can’t function normally in the real world until you finish it. It’s one of those novels where you sacrifice sleeping at night so you can read a few more chapters. If I were a smoker, this would be the kind of book that would have me chain-smoking out of pure nervous energy as I flipped the pages as quickly as possible.

You is non-stop tension from beginning to end. The narrator is a psychopath with delusions of grandeur. Joe truly believes that entering a strange woman’s apartment and masturbating on her bed is a perfectly natural way of expressing his adoration for her. Anything that he sees as a hindrance to their “love” is a threat that must be removed without hesitation or remorse. He is the ultimate wolf in sheep’s clothing.

Author Caroline Kepnes makes the bold choice to write her novel using the second-hand voice. I typically find this style of narration to be tedious and annoying, but here it gives us a look into Joe’s mind in a way that first or third hand perspective would not have done. It is a chilling, cold, reptilian brain that is all the more nerve-wracking because on the outside Joe would seem like a perfectly normal guy who works in a bookshop. But under the surface he is calculating and manipulative. Since we only see the female character through Joe’s eyes, she is basically a hyper-sexualized depiction of feminine perfection.

It’s almost sick how compelling Joe’s character is. I felt a little demented myself after spending so much time in his head. And even though you can probably guess the ending from the first chapter of the book, it got there in an entirely different way than I had originally anticipated.

This book is not for the faint of heart. It is twisted and dark and brutal. It may be triggering for survivors of rape or sexual assault. It will definitely make you think twice before striking up a conversation with a stranger.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go find the sequel.

My rating: 5/5

You can find You here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

 

 

Book Review: Journey Under the Midnight Sun by Keigo Higashino (1999)

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Review #91

When a local pawnbroker is found murdered in an abandoned building in 1973, Detective Sasagaki begins the hunt for his killer. He eventually links two young people that seem to be connected with the crime. One is the sullen, brooding son of the murder victim, the other is the beautiful and captivating daughter of the prime suspect. The story of these individuals spans the course of twenty years as Detective Sasagaki pursues his murder suspect to the point of overwhelming obsession.

The cover states that author Keigo Higashino is the “Japanese Stieg Larrson”, and I did find a lot of similarity to Larrson’s Millenium trilogy. Journey Under the Midnight Sun occasionally suffers from too many characters, to the point where I had difficulty remembering who a specific character was and what their place was in the overall plot. Also similar to Larrson, too many of these characters have very similar surnames which added to my initial confusion.

The two central characters are Yukiho and Ryo, young children at the beginning of the novel whose lives are shaped by their relationship to one another. Yukiho seems to be blessed with preternatural beauty and grace. After the events that set the main plot into motion, we follow Yukiho through her expensive prep school, into marriage, and eventually life as a successful business woman. Wherever Yukiho goes, men fall in love with her and women envy her. As she moves through life, a series of unfortunate events seem to occur to those who would deny Yukiho the things she desires.

Ryo is the maladjusted son of the murdered pawnbroker. Unlike Yukiho, who was able to attend a prestigious school and university, Ryo is instead sent to the local public school. He discovers an interest in the emerging world of computer technology, and finds himself working alongside a group of people who steal video games and sell them on the black market. As Ryo sinks deeper into a dark world of crime and isolation, secrets from his past threaten to consume him.

The setting, which begins in the early 1970’s and spans nearly twenty years, is a fascinating look at the changes that occurred in Japanese society as it was swept up in the technological revolution and became a powerhouse in the computer and video game industries. The rise of Tokyo real estate prices, the beginning of the digital black market, and the loss of “traditional” class and gender roles all paint the portrait of a rapidly changing world where people could either change with the times or risk become obsolete.

This novel was a twisty-turny rollercoaster ride of a thriller. Despite the overabundance of supporting characters, they all have an important role to play and once I got them puzzled out they sprang to life with motivations and desires of their own. Journey Under the Midnight Sun is the written equivalent of film noir complete with chain-smoking detectives, alluring femme fatales, wide-eyed innocents, and devastating betrayals.

My rating: 4/5

You can find Journey Under the Midnight Sun here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

 

Book Review: The Broken Girls by Simone St. James (2018)

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Review #90

Vermont, 1950 Idlewild Hall is where parents send daughters that had deemed lost causes. Whether illegitimate, inconvenient, or simply rebellious, girls find themselves dropped unceremoniously at Idlewild. Once there. four girls forge a tight bond of friendship until one of them vanishes without a trace.

Vermont, 2014 Twenty years after her older sister was found murdered on the now-abandoned grounds of Idlewild Hall, journalist Fiona Sheridan returns to her hometown in rural Vermont to cover the story of the school’s restoration. Confronted with memories she has worked so hard to bury, Fiona becomes determined to uncover the mystery of her sister’s death.

I’ve mentioned in previous posts that split perspective narratives are difficult to do well because one of the narratives will almost always end up being more compelling. In The Broken Girls, the chapters set in 1950 move at a faster clip and have a stronger voice. Even though these chapters vary between the four girls who reside at Idlewild, they still manage to accomplish more character development than the chapters written from Fiona’s point of view.

The problem is that Fiona spends an inordinate amount of time repeating herself about how broken up she is over her sister’s death, and lamenting that she and her police officer boyfriend may not be meant for one another. Not until the final seventy pages or so does Fiona’s narrative begin to pick up momentum and by that point the tension is lost.

The Broken Girls is billed as a paranormal suspense, but seems to be lacking both paranormal and suspense. The “ghost” story is glaringly underutilized; at no point does the spirit of Idlewild present any kind of threat or intrigue.

Author Simone St. James does get points for her creepy, Gothic atmosphere, I could almost feel the chilly and crumbling halls of the neglected school. I also greatly enjoyed the way that St. James depicts life as a girl in 1950 as a prison. That the girls of Idlewild consistently rebel against the tight strictures imposed by the adults around them made me silently cheer for their victory.

My rating: 3/5

You can find The Broken Girls here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

 

 

Book Review: Baby Teeth by Zoje Stage (2018)

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What would you do if you found yourself unable to love your child? What if your child didn’t love you?

Eight-year old Hanna is sweet and precocious for her father, even if she is unwilling to speak. But for her mother Suzette, Hanna is a manipulative and destructive child who seems hell-bent on destroying the relationship between her parents. As Suzette becomes increasingly strained by Hanna’s behavior, Hanna’s tricks become more sophisticated as she decides that she may have to remove her mother from the picture altogether.

I read a lot, and I mean a lot of horror novels, but this debut novel by author Zoje Stage scared the pants off me. The premise is entirely ridiculous and utterly silly but it’s crafted within enough care to keep the level of suspense heightened until the very end.

The split narrative varies between mother and daughter so that the reader comes to sympathize with both characters. It would be easy to write off Hanna as a deranged child psychopath like Macaulay Culkin in The Good Son, but that would be too easy. Instead we can understand Hanna’s skewed viewpoint and how she has somehow come to view her mother as the enemy. She is never depicted as a “demon child” so much as a confused and disturbed little girl. We can also understand how Suzette has reached a breaking point when it comes to parenting a increasingly difficult child.

There is a hint of Rosemary’s Baby in Suzette’s relationship with her husband. He is too often absent, and since Hanna puts on her best face for her Daddy, inclined to side with her. As the father, Alex is the least developed character and too often plays the role of biased mediator. There are many instances where he says that his wife is “over-reacting” and that there daughter is simply “under stimulated” at home. This is a fairly lazy plot device in 2018 when most parents are more involved in their children’s upbringing.

This book is sure to be controversial with the mommy crowd, particularly the ending. As a currently childless woman, I found the ideas presented in Baby Teeth to be simultaneously disturbing and highly entertaining. It was certainly a compelling read from beginning to end.

My rating: 4/5

You can find Baby Teeth here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

Book Review: The Winter Sea by Susanna Kearsley (2008)

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Review #87

Carrie McClelland comes to the tiny Scottish village to write about Slains, the local castle that played an important role in the Jacobite uprising of 1708. Carrie hopes to use the crumbling ruins in a historical fiction novel she is writing, but ends up writing a completely different kidn of book when she finds herself overwhelmed by someone else’s memories.

Nineteen-year old Sophia Paterson comes to Slains castle after her parents die on a sailing voyage. She finds safety and comfort with her aunt, the Countess, who is playing an active role in bringing the exiled King of Scotland back from France. Sophia finds herself embroiled in a plot that is doomed to fail.

This is my first novel by acclaimed author Susanna Kearsley, and I can see why she is so popular. Her writing style is comfortable and familiar, and she incorporates complicated historical elements in a way that is easy to understand. It is obvious that she has done a great deal of research on the Jacobite uprising and the castle of Slains. I can certainly say that I now know a lot more about the deposed King James II and those who sought to restore him to the throne than I did before reading this novel.

Generally, when an author splits the plot of the book between two characters in different time periods, one of them is going to be more well-developed than the other. That ends up being the case here, as the novel-within-a-novel that is Sophia’s story is far more interesting than Carrie’s plotline. I think Kearsley even began to understand that, since after The Winter Sea hits the halfway mark less and less time is devoted to Carrie’s narrative.

The descriptions of the harshly beautiful Scottish coastline poked my inner travel bug pretty hard. Might have to start looking into a trip to Northern Scotland. Perhaps I’ll stop by Slains castle while I’m there.

My rating: 4/5

You can find The Winter Sea here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Note: This novel was later released under the title Sophia’s Secret. No idea why as The Winter Sea is a much better name.

Happy reading everyone!

Book Review: The Mermaid by Christina Henry (2018)

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Review #85

Once upon a time there was a mermaid who was curious about the lives of men. One day she swam too close to shore, and was trapped in a net by a fisherman. Moved by her alien beauty, the fisherman released the mermaid back into the sea. But the mermaid, entranced by the loneliness in the eyes of the fisherman, used an ancient magic to give herself legs and join the fisherman on land. He named her Amelia and together they lived a long and happy life, until the day came when the fisherman went out to sea and didn’t come back. Isolated in her small cabin on a cliffside, Amelia spends her days watching the sea and missing the fisherman. Many years pass, until another man comes into her life. A man by the name of P.T. Barnum.

Christina Henry has published several revisionist fairy tales, included Lost Boy which I reviewed earlier this year. I would describe her latest novel, The Mermaid, as a re-imagining of the classic story of a mermaid who dreams of life on land. The plot of The Mermaid bares almost zero resemblance to the original Danish fairy tale, choosing instead to follow its own path to 19th century New York City.

The opening of The Mermaid reads very much like a classic fairy tale, with very little dialogue and an omniscient narrator who constructs a sweet and believable love story between a mermaid and a fisherman. The rest of the novel switches to a more modern narrative with the mermaid Amelia as its heroine, a creature who is older and stranger than anyone around her realizes. Christina Henry does a wonderful job of portraying Amelia has inhuman but not inhumane. She has difficulty identifying with those around her but is filled with empathy for the everyday struggles of the people she encounters in New York.

If The Mermaid is lacking anything, it’s a solid antagonist. Because Henry has grounded her story away from its Danish roots, Amelia never makes a deal with a vengeful sea witch. There is no pressing time limit for her to win her true love and remain human. The nearest thing to a villain is P.T. Barnum as the immoral collector of freaks and oddities, but even he is presented as distasteful and greedy rather than actively monstrous.

So far I have enjoyed both of Christina Henry’s novels. I love the imaginative way she transports her readers to another time and place. Her writing is captivating and begs to be read. I’ll keep my eyes open for her next fairy tale interpretation.

My rating: 4/5

You can find The Mermaid here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!