Category Archives: Fiction

Historical fiction, Victorian, contemporary

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

This book has been reviewed extensively – 37,000+ reviews on Goodreads – so, briefly, I enjoyed it. It’s not perfect, but the ending was, for me, unexpected. And that is one criterion for a good read.

Maybe I haven’t read enough fantasy, but this book reminded me of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, which was fantastic and very original. I recommend Night Circus to someone who is looking for a magical experience without too much logic or character development.

For a sampling of the mixed reactions reviewers have had to this book, read on. Olivia Laing writing for The Observer compared the book to an “eminently intriguing cabinet of curiosities” with an intricate but unmoored setting and colorful but clockwork characters.” Laura Miller writing for Salon appreciated the “aesthetic fantasia with all the trimmings” but not the plot itself. Stacey D’Erasmo writing in the New York Times observed that “True magic is dangerous, and there is little of that sort of propulsive danger in these pages; where it does occur is surprising, and oddly marginalized.”

These comments may be absolutely true, but it doesn’t make the book unreadable or unenjoyable. I do not regret the time I spent reading it.

The Night Circus won an Alex Award from the American Library Association in 2012. The novel spent seven weeks on The New York Times Best Seller list, reaching number two on the hardcover fiction list.

The film and TV rights to The Night Circus has been optioned, and a film is reportedly (Wikpedia) being produced. A writer was hired in February 2012 to write the screenplay. What has happened since then? Apparently, this process can take forever or never. So read the book instead.

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A Treacherous Paradise by Henning Mankell

I wanted to like this, I really did. I have devoured Mankell’s Kurt Wallander novels, even watched Kenneth Branagh’s PBS versions (better than I expected). However, I just couldn’t.
Days after finishing it, some scenes came back to me, that is true. But, overall, I just couldn’t accept the premise. Set in the first decade of the twentieth century in Portuguese East Africa, now Mozambique, the novel doesn’t seem from that time; it feels more modern. Perhaps it is the translation. It is difficult to tell since I don’t read Swedish!

A Treacherous Paradise begins in Sweden. A young girl, Hanna Renstrom, leaves her isolated rural home because her family can no longer feed all its members. Hanna secures a place as a cook on a Swedish steamship bound for Australia. She marries the third mate, who promptly dies of fever off the coast of Africa. When the ship reaches Lourenço Marques, Hanna jumps ship and make a new life.

She checks in to a hotel and has a miscarriage. When she recovers, she learns that she is in Lourenço Marques’s most prestigious brothel, O Paraiso. After just a few weeks the brothel keeper asks her to marry him. Then he also dies, and Hanna finds herself running the business in his place — with considerable self-assurance and success.

Hanna discovers that paradise can be treacherous. Hanna tries to save a young black woman who has killed her white husband. When she is found dead, horribly mutilated, in her jail cell, Hanna finds some comfort in the arms of the victim’s brother. She sells the brothel, leaves Lourenço Marques, and travels north to Beira. There, in the Africa Hotel, she hides the diary she’s been keeping since coming to Africa and disappears. She is never heard of again.

In his Afterwood, Mankell explains that there was, in fact, a Swedish woman who ran a brothel in Lourenço Marques at the beginning of the 20th century, but about whom nothing more is known. From this material, Mankell has constructed this story.

Could an eighteen-year-old be mature to handle all that Hanna does? It was difficult for me to reconcile the thoughts and actions of this character with Mankell’s description. The narrative was meandering; the story of Isabel seemed contrived, serving only to emphasize the racial component of life in colonial Africa. The finding of her diary in 2002 Mozambique in the crumbling Africa Hotel was theatrical.

The book felt hung together, not cohesive or believable. Mankell divides his time between Sweden and Mozambique; being intimate with these two countries, he seems to have seized on the story of the Swedish woman and imagined her story in an attempt to connect the two places. For me, it just wasn’t successful.

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A Bookman’s Tale: A Novel of Obsession by Charlie Lovett

I have been remiss in not writing about this book. I thoroughly enjoyed it and intended to share my pleasure in this book. Unfortunately, things happen.

This book has been compared to Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s Shadow of the Wind, Geraldine Brooks’ People of the Book, and A.S. Byatt’s Possession (one of the most haunting books I’ve ever read). I might also mention Chemistry of Tears, discussed elsewhere in this blog.

A book about antique books and the stories behind them is a natural for comparison. The subtitle is A Novel of Obsession, a descriptive that could be applied to the protagonists of all these stories.

In this book, a mysterious portrait ignites an antiquarian bookseller’s search—through time and the works of Shakespeare—for his lost love. The Bookman’s Tale tells a terrific story — there’s mystery and suspense, murder and seduction — but more importantly, Lovett shows us how it’s all connected, all of this: the reading and the keeping and the sharing of books. It forms a chain long and strange enough to tie a heartbroken young scholar from North Carolina back to the Bard himself, who might or might not have been William Shakespeare.

Bibliophile and antique book restoration expert Peter Byerly is directionless following the unexpected death of his young wife, Amanda. In hopes of getting his life on track, he’s moved from North Carolina to England and is trying to face bookshops again, which he and his wife, once loved haunting.

In a small bookshop, a painting of Amanda falls out of an early Shakespeare folio he is perusing. This inexplicable event starts him along a trail of detection as he tries to establish provenance of the art piece along a twisting path that might just prove for once and for all that Shakespeare was the actual author of all of his plays.

If you are a bibliophile and love old books, this is your book. Lovett describes books passionately and lovingly throughout his novel, as they are throughout the comparative novels. These are all meticulously researched and span generations. All novels jump from the past to the present and everywhere between.

However, this is not to imply that this book is a pale imitator of those popular books. Mr. Lovett might address a similar subject matter, but he chooses to tell his tale in a far different manner from his predecessors.

The Bookman’s Tale is told in a straightforward manner, quite unlike the fanciful prose of Spaniard Ruiz Zafon or the clinical narrative of Brooks. Though his narrative travels through time, the words Mr. Lovett chooses are rather plainspoken, though not without their own melody. He projects heartfelt warmth that is lacking in both Ruiz Zafon’s or Brooks’ novels.

There is a paranormal aspect of The Bookman’s Tale. Specters and more are both described and hinted at throughout Mr. Lovett’s book, creating a sense of expectation that is quite lovely.
The author’s scholarship is impeccable—let there be no doubt of that—but he uses the facts to support the more metaphysical aspects of his story rather than for strict authenticity, and that definitely sets The Bookman’s Tale apart from People of the Book.

This book has it all: antiquarian books, deceit, love, murder, passion, Shakespeare, death…and (spoiler alert) a secret passage. What more could you ask for?

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Bellman and Black by Diane Setterfield

In Norse mythology, Huginn (from Old Norse “thought”) and Muninn (Old Norse “memory” or “mind”) are a pair of ravens which fly all over the world to bring information to the god Odin. Odin is referred to as “raven-god”. In the Prose Edda and the Third Grammatical Treatise, the two ravens are described as perching on Odin’s shoulders. Heimskringla details that Odin gave Huginn and Muninn the ability to speak.

Huginn and Muninn’s role as Odin’s messengers has been linked to shamanic practices and general raven symbolism among the Germanic peoples, and the Norse concepts of supernatural creatures.
In the Third Grammatical Treatise, an anonymous verse is recorded that mentions the ravens flying from Odin’s shoulders – Huginn seeking hanged men, and Muninn slain bodies. The verse reads:
Two ravens flew from Óðinn’s shoulders;
Huginn to the hanged and Muninn to the slain [lit. corpses].

Setterfield references these birds in her closing: the descendants of Thought and Memory will gather at the end of your story, just as they do at the end of William Bellman’s story.

This is a thought-provoking, challenging, and provocative book, not for readers who do not want to think about what they are reading or remember events in their lives. Those of us who have experienced deaths of family and friends will understand some of it. I think the book requires a second reading to understand all and, even then, much will be left to the reader’s interpretation.
It was a difficult book to read, in that it is difficult to see a man’s life collapse so totally.

Setterfield’s first book, The Thirteenth Tale, was published in 2007, and has been sitting on my bookshelf ever since. It has moved up to the top of my very tall stack of books to read.

As a ten-year-old boy, William, out playing with his friends, idly kills a rook. A rook is in the crow family, with black feathers often showing a blue or bluish-purple sheen in bright sunlight. The feathers on the head, neck and shoulders are particularly dense and silky.

Collective nouns for rooks include building, parliament, clamor and storytelling. Their communal nesting behavior gave rise to the term rookery.

William is the grandson of a wealthy woolen mill owner. However, his father married beneath him, was cut off from the family, and eventually deserted his wife and son. Consequently, William is beneath his grandfather’s derision. He will not inherit the mill from his grandfather. His uncle, though, hires him as at the mill, and he takes to it like the proverbial duck. He learns everything there is to know and suggests improvements which his uncle puts into place, with some manipulating of the grandfather.

William is an outgoing, pleasant, sociable young man with a charming way with the ladies. He wins over all the workers at the mill, even the ones who initially mistrust him because of his family ties.

Eventually, grandfather dies. His uncle takes him on as an assistant. The mill flourishes. Then his uncle dies. Because his cousin, Charles, has no interest in the mill, William takes over. William meets and marries and has four children. Life is good.
Then his mother dies and his life falls apart. His friends die. His wife and three children die; the fourth remains in a coma for months. He finds solace only in work.

The odd thing is that at every funeral, over many years, there is a man in black, unknown to William. Finally, at his children’s graves, he talks to this man, Mr. Black, and they make a deal.

William turns over management of the mill, moves, with his daughter, to London and spends a year building a department store for death, Bellman and Black. As you undoubtedly are aware, death was to the Victorians what sex is to us. The business booms, and William is at the store all day and all night. Yes, he has a bed built into his office. He has no friends, hardly sees his daughter, is rarely away from the store. Death is his business.

Profits, though, begin to decline. Why? No explanation, other than cremations seem to be the fashion now.

Then William is visited by Mr. Black who appears only as a darkly shrouded form. He has come to say good-bye. William offers him money, but he learns that he misunderstood the deal. What Mr. Black is offering is “Thought” and “Memory,” the thought and memory of death. He remembers all the people he has known who have died, and then he remembers the rook he killed.

After William is buried, his daughter and the son of a friend who was there at the beginning go back to the mill to see the flocks of rooks that fly over the mill each day. It is a startling sight.

Is the rook death? It is Thought and Memory. As mentioned above, a collective noun for rooks is storytelling. The rook will be there at the end of your story and tell it to other rooks. Setterfield closes by telling us that rooks have a collective noun for us: an entertainment of humans.

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The Baby in the Icebox and Other Short Fiction by James M. Cain

I am in awe of James M. Cain. I have read Mildred Pierce, but I don’t think I have read his other very famous novels. Seen the movies, yes, but as those of you have read and seen Mildred Pierce (the original with Joan Crawford) the two have very little to do with the other. Both terrific, but quite different.

What has happened to short stories? I am old enough to remember when magazines (wait – you mean I’m old enough to remember magazines!) printed short stories in each issue. By the time I came along they were romance stories in the women’s magazines my mother subscribed to; in the 1920’s through the 1940’s, The Saturday Evening Post, Liberty, The American Mercury, The Bookman, Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, and dozens of pulp magazines published short stories by the very best of contemporary authors. (This is being written on the day we learned that the Washington Post has been sold to Amazon – what’s next? The New York Times??)

Maybe we associate short stories with those anthologies we had in school; maybe we just don’t think short stories are cool. They should be popular now. They are perfectly suited for mobile consumption. The iPhone and iPad and other tablets are with their owners all the time, and a story on these devices can be read on a treadmill, in a bank line, on an airplane, wherever the user has a few minutes and wants to be transported to the magical place stories can create. Poe’s definition of the short story remains as true today as when he wrote it: “a story is a thing that can be read in one sitting.” If he were writing today he might rephrase it: “…in one hour on the tread mill.”

Roy Hoopes, the writer of the introduction to this collection of short stories and one novella states that Cain was essentially a writer of short fiction. The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity are really novellas, according to Hoopes. Cain himself wrote, “In one respect … it [the short story] is greatly superior to the novel, or at any rate, the American novel.”

Cain was from Maryland and most of his early work was placed in the East. He wasn’t successful in selling this fiction and, as a result, taught school, worked as a newspaper reporter, and served in France during WWI. The characters in these stories were “homely characters” who spoke in “ain’ts, brungs, and fittens.”
He was good friends with H. L. Mencken, who is regarded as one of the most influential American writers of the first half of the twentieth century.

A very controversial figure, Mencken commented widely on the social scene, literature, music, prominent politicians, pseudo-experts, and the temperance movement. He was skeptical of economic theories and particularly critical of anti-intellectualism, bigotry, populism, fundamentalist Christianity, creationism, organized religion, and the existence of God.

An outspoken admirer of German philosopher Nietzsche, he was not a proponent of representative democracy, which he believed was a system in which inferior men dominated their superiors. During and after World War I, he was sympathetic to the Germans, and was distrustful of British propaganda. However, he also referred to Adolf Hitler and his followers as “ignorant thugs.” Mencken, through his wide criticism of actions taken by government, has had a strong impact on the libertarian movement.

Cain followed Mencken’s lead in the essays he wrote for Mencken’s publications. He also started writing successful short fiction. He decided to go to Hollywood where he got a job writing screenplays. He gradually found the West, especially California, appealing. One of the principal forms of recreation in the 1930’s was taking car drives. He and his family took hundreds of trips to the canyons, valleys, beaches, and all the other California attractions. He decided that California was the natural background for his writings.

His two greatest influences on his literary style were Ike Newton and Ring Lardner. Ike Newton was a bricklayer who had laid a walk on the campus of Washington College while he talked to twelve-year-old James Cain for hours. Cain later used Ike’s speech to create the dialogue in his stories. One of the most recognizable traits of much of Ring Lardner’s writing, both in his columns and in his fiction, is the use of the American slang vernacular.

Several of the short stories were truly haunting, making a remarkable impression on me. Many of the stories followed Cain’s basic theme – two people who conspire in committing a crime, but mistrust lead to betrayal. “The Baby in the Icebox” was reminiscent of The Postman Always Rings Twice in that the setting is a gas station, one of the characters is a drifter, and the husband is a jerk. “The Girl in the Storm” is melancholy and ironic. “The Birthday Party” was a poignant coming-of-age tale. Not all the stories have unhappy endings; in fact, the novella Money and the Woman (The Embezzler) went about 180◦ away from the way I thought it was going.

This was an excellent collection of first-rate short stories. Please bring back the short story; after reading this book, I am very nostalgic for the genre.

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The Last Dickens by Matthew Pearl

In a way, every piece of fiction is a mystery – How is it going to turn out? What will happen to the characters? If the reader doesn’t care, then the author hasn’t succeeded in writing a good book. The author must create a degree of eagerness and anxiety in the reader to keep him (or her) turning the pages. The anxiety in The Last Dickens is ideal for the bibliophile: what happens when we lose the voices that tell us what happens next? It’s June 1870, and Charles Dickens suffers a stroke midway through his serial The Mystery of Edwin Drood, leaving the story a genuine whodunit that will never and hasn’t ever been solved. How will readers cope without knowing how the book ends? And how will Dickens’s American publisher, the financially struggling firm of Fields, Osgood & Company, survive without the profits from his book?

I like to think of this as the third entry in a trilogy. Matthew Pearl’s first novel, The Dante Club blended history and mystery in a story featuring Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and post-Civil War Boston. In his second novel, The Poe Shadow, Pearl re-created Edgar Allan Poe and life in mid-nineteenth-century Baltimore. In this novel, he presents a neatly written, meticulously detailed, and meticulously researched tale.

The firm’s junior partner, James Osgood (an historical figure), attempts to solve the real-life mystery that is proving fatal for several characters. The amiable, ordinary Osgood makes a believable man of letters. As a man of action he is an adorable fantasy, given to pedantic lecturing. In his efforts to find Dickens’s document, Osgood places his trust in a shady character to track dangerous clues through the city’s opium dens, he confides to his bookkeeper and sidekick, Rebecca Sand, this explanation: “I thought of consulting with Scotland Yard to secure a police escort, yet it would likely drive away the very man who can guide me. I am a publisher, Miss Sand. I know what it means. It means I must find a way, very often, to believe in people who believe in something else — something I often may not be inclined toward in the least.” He’s more stuffy than swashbuckling, but is able to hold his own with the bad guys.

Unfortunately, Pearl juggles too many narrative threads for a novel this length. He is forced to resort to exposition at inopportune moments, throwing off the pace. The subplot set in India and centered on Dickens’s son Frank, a supervisor in the Bengal Mounted Police with his own interest in the opium trade, is a promising gesture but never pays off. Pearl knows his Dickens, undoubtedly better than many of his readers do, and his focus on the author’s dark late period is valuable to those who would like to know about Dickens, the man. The problem is that by putting “the Chief” in his book (which he does through a series of flashbacks to the author’s final, backbreaking American tour), Pearl introduces a writer he can’t match, on any level. Of course, few writers could.

An intriguing element of the book is the historical struggle among publishers extant at the time; some of which still exist intact, some of which have been altered, and some of which are extinct. Fields, Osgood & Co. know that if they retain exclusive rights to The Mystery of Edwin Drood, it could mean the difference between a successful publishing company and capitulating to their chief New York rival, Harper & Brothers. There is also a role for the trade circular that would come to be known as Publishers Weekly.

One of the pleasures of reading Pearl comes from enjoying the skillfully detailed 19th-century settings he constructs. In The Last Dickens, he recreates a world in which there were no international copyright laws, Andrew Johnson’s impeachment loomed, and steam elevators improved travel in office buildings. He also gives a contemporary feel to his works by reminding us that the 19th century in which the drug trade, organized crime, and urban blight loomed large and were less genteel than we tend to imagine.

It’s enticing to think that somewhere in some old, unexamined library or bookstore out there is a pile of missing manuscript pages in Dickens’s hand that would unravel the mystery of Edwin Drood. There have been several attempts by miscellaneous authors over the many years since Dickens’s death to complete the book – in the theater, film, radio, and novel. But none of them have the voice of Dickens himself.

Historical Epilogue for The Last Dickens:
Some facts behind characters and elements of The Last Dickens:
• After Fields’s retirement, James Ripley Osgood thrived for several years. The terrible Boston fire of 1872 destroyed some of the steel plates owned by the publishing firm. The following year, Osgood was forced to sell all three of his magazines. Facing steep financial problems, Osgood agreed to a merger with Houghton & Hurd. Later in life, Osgood moved to England to work for Harper & Bros. as their London agent. He died in 1892 in London, where he is buried.

• After Fields retired, he used his various experiences to write his memoirs of literary figures. He also spoke on the lecture circuit. He died in Boston in 1881 and is buried at Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

• Fletcher “Major” Harper retired in 1875. He died in 1877 at his home in New York and is buried at Greenwood cemetery. He was the last survivor of the original Harper brothers.

• Following seven years of service in the Bengal police, Francis Dickens continued his chosen profession in North America, receiving an appointment to the North-West Mounted Police in Canada beginning in 1874. Francis participated in several important battles and was promoted to Inspector in 1880. He died in 1886 while traveling in Moline, Illinois, where he is buried.

• Approximately ten years after Dickens’s death, one of Dickens’s sons, Charley, co-wrote a theatrical production of The Mystery of Edwin Drood with a new ending, which he claimed was in part based on the authority of the information his father had shared with him. The play has to this day never been produced. The manuscript is at the Charles Dickens Museum in London. (Charley was originally depicted as a character in The Last Dickens, but eliminated in a later draft)

• Years after Dickens’s death, a collector discovered a sheaf of his papers in Dickens’s unique shorthand. It was believed the bundle of papers could be the ending of The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Turning to Henry Dickens, one of Dickens’s sons, to help decipher, the papers were decoded—but apparently had nothing to do with Drood.

• According to a literary historian in the early twentieth century, James Osgood wrote a manuscript detailing his experiences as a publisher, including extensively about his time with Charles Dickens during the American tour. This manuscript has never been located. Osgood had left it in the possession of A. V. S. Anthony, an engraver, at whose death passed it on to his widow. Tracking their descendants leads to actor Anthony Perkins, whose father was named James Ripley Osgood Perkins after the publisher and who also had a son named Osgood Perkins. If the manuscript still exists, it does not appear to be registered to a library or archive and may still be held somewhere as a private possession (http://www.matthewpearl.com/dickens/epilogue.html).

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The Chemistry of Tears by Peter Carey

This is another book I read for the Kimball Museum’s book club. I found it off-beat, enigmatic, and worthwhile reading, although not really a page-turner. Maybe it’s I who is off-beat because it seemed that no one in the group liked it, at least the outspoken members. I really don’t know how I feel about the book; put me down as neutral.

Peter Carey has won the Booker Prize twice, for the novels Oscar and Lucinda and True History of the Kelly Gang. This is the first book by Carey that I have read so I have no basis for comparison. However, two reviews stated that:

Peter Carey’s dazzling new novel, The Chemistry of Tears, encompasses heartbreak, the comfort of absorbing work, the transformative power of beauty and the soul of an old machine. If you’ve never read the Australian-born, two-time Booker Prize–winning author of Oscar and Lucinda and True History of the Kelly Gang — or, most recently, Parrot and Olivier in America — his 12th novel is a terrific introduction to his work. Once again, Carey demonstrates an artful ability to capture a two-way interplay between past and present that is part historical, part fanciful and completely wonderful (McAlpin, Heller, NPR.org).

This novel lacks the wicked energy of Parrot and Olivier or Theft: A Love Story. But if Carey’s best books are superlative, the next tier down is still better – meatier, more imaginative – than many writers ever manage (Caplan, Nina, http://www.independent.co.uk)

So, I have more books to put on my to-read list. As they say, so many books, so little time.

Maybe what the book club readers were reacting to is that The Chemistry of Tears is a novel that speaks to the intellect rather than the heart. While it is tightly engineered, The Chemistry of Tears also contains vagueness and ambiguity, mystery and wonder. This novel reaches a bit too far for ambiguity to make the book really accessible. Carey’s goal in the book is setting up the illusory versus the actual, the mechanical versus the organic; it just takes great deal of work on the reader’s part to get it.

Peter Carey moves between two time periods, two countries, and two main characters. Catherine Gehrig is an horologist working at the (fictional) Swinburne Museum in London. The book begins when she learns of the sudden death of a heart attack of her lover, Matthew Tindall, Head Curator of Metals at the same institution. Catherine has been Tindall’s mistress for 13 years. He was older, married, and a father, but the pair of them lived an idyllic, secret life together. Now, Catherine believes that all possibility of happiness in life is gone.

Despite her grief, which we hear a lot about and which should make her a sympathetic character, Catherine isn’t easy to like. Her voice is brittle and snooty. It isn’t a voice that seduces. Quite soon, it’s possible to wish she would keep quiet about her “secret darling.”

It is in his depiction of Catherine as a technician that Carey presents her most effectively. He has clearly done a massive amount of research into what conservators and curators do in modern museums. The Swinburne and Catherine’s workroom are always entirely convincing places, and there is much incidental pleasure in learning about the place, the tools, the dust coats, the fume cupboard, the elaborate hierarchies.

Eric Croft, her boss, is one of the few at the museum aware of her affair with Tindall. He hopes that a new project, the complex reassembly of a magnificent, mid-19th century automaton of a silver swan, will distract her. He also provides an exceptionally able young assistant, Amanda, along with boxes packed with the swan’s hundreds of screws, rods and rings and eleven densely filled notebooks.

These are the journals of the second character, Henry Brandling, a British railroad heir who, desperate for entertainment for his sickly young son, travels deep into the land of expert clock makers in the German Schwarzwald in 1854 to commission a mechanical toy duck that will eat grain, apparently digest it and then, with a whirring of springs, defecate. Catherine becomes obsessed with Henry’s fantastical tale about his dealings with Herr Sumper, a mechanical genius and probable con man, and his strange household, a story that alternates and ultimately intertwines with her own.

There are many strings left hanging at the end. Ambiguity, remember? However, in the end, details (and logic) don’t really matter. The closing scenes, in which Catherine and Amanda finally recreate what Henry Brandling brought back from the forest, are among the best in the book, and the moment when the swan is set in motion is delightful.

Watch a video (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c4YggCiDRI0) of the mechanical Silver Swan housed in the Bowes Museum in Northern England, which inspired Peter Carey.

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