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Left! My Review of “He Left Her at the Altar, She Left Him to the Zombies” by Katie Cord

Posted in book review, evil girlfriend media with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 24, 2013 by vagabondsaint

(Author’s Note:  Katie Cord, friend of this blog, does not know I am writing this review.  Don’t tell her until the end, would you?  Thanks.)

So there are a couple-or-three things I need to get out of the way before I get to actually reviewing the book He Left Her at the Altar, She Left Him to the Zombies by Katie Cord.

leftcover2

First thing is:  I am not typing that title out over and over again.  We’ll be calling it Altar/Zombies from here on out.

Second: this book is currently out of print.  Katie Cord self-published it a few years back, before starting Evil Girlfriend Media. The copy I bought from her in September 2013 was one of the few remaining in her possession.  If, after reading this review, you wish to join the growing chorus of those begging her to republish Altar/Zombies, please feel free to send a message on her site. You can still get copies on Amazon, but be prepared to pay a bunch.

Third: this book is a little rough.  I was warned before I read it that it was self-edited, and Katie makes no claims at all to being an editor.  Definitely could use a little more polish before the repub. . .hopefully Katie can find an editor that works cheap (hint, hint).

Okay.  All that said, let’s get on to the review!

He Left Her at the Altar, She Left Him to the Zombies is brilliant.

Seriously.

I’m not even a zombie fan, and I loved the hell out of this book. Reading this book, I started to understand that good zombies stories, really good zombie stories, are about the survivors, not the zombies.  Katie clearly already knew that, and painted ten pictures of normal, flawed (some deeply so) human beings struggling with the sudden reality of dead people not staying dead.  It’s about the discovery of a new world through abrupt change (more on that later).  Whereas The Walking Dead is mostly about Rick Grimes trying to do right by his troupe of survivors and bring some order to the new lawless world, these stories are about people who are just people – not exemplars of a higher ideal, not moral compasses for other survivors, not even shining examples of the heroism everyone should aspire to – just real, average people shoved into extraordinary circumstances.  Those are the stories Katie is telling here, and they are simply brilliant.  Brilliantly written, very well characterized, deeply flawed, people – those people always make for more interesting stories than archetypes and pure heroes, and Katie does a fantastic job with them here.

Enough raving – though I could go on for quite some time – let’s get to the stories.  As with WSB, I went through and took notes on each story.

1. Puberty – This is the second time I’ve read a version this story.  An elongated version was written for the writing group that Katie and I used to be part of; that was the first version I read. Gotta say it – sorry, Katie – I like this version much, much better.  Shorter and more to the point, this version, just as it is, could and should be the first chapter of a novel-length story. It’s a great coming-of-age story, the feeling of transformation is very well portrayed, and the story is just so, so good this way! It’s such a sudden, abrupt transition from day-to-day boring life into this strange new world – the suddenness makes it so good and really pulled me along with the heroine into her new, unwanted life.  So much better this way!

2. Daddy’s Girl – Another story that could be part of a larger one, “Daddy’s Girl” is an interesting look at life inside a military family with an overbearing patriarch.  He’s mostly like Bill Cosby, but that he records all the family’s conversations is a disturbing detail – it’s like if Cliff Huxtable worked for the NSA. But it’s not about him, it’s about his daughter, and how she uses the lessons he taught her, from a prom gone awry to the wonderful twist at the end.

3. The Language of Survival – If you ever want to read a story that will dissuade you from being a professional pedicurist, this is it.  Oh my God, other people’s feet. Ick. That part of the story is pretty grody, but enjoyably so! There are a lot of moving parts in this story, from Amy’s relationship with her vapid sister April and domineering Auntie Xian to the pale creepy guy that’s there for a surprise meeting, and then the zombie problems start – all of these elements are expertly juggled in the story, which is why I love it!  And it manages to be funny in the middle of all that, too!  This story continues the theme from the other stories of a new world being discovered, but Amy is the one who uses the opportunity to break free of her old life and be someone new – a very satisfying ending to a very good story.

4. He Left Her at the Altar, She Left Him to the Zombies – Well, the title kinda gave the plot of that one away, didn’t it?  But it’s still well worth reading! Especially for the protagonist Maddie, who is, point-blank, a terrible, terrible person! “Bridezilla” is one of the many words that could be used to describe her, and one of the few I can say on this page.  She’s a selfish, spoiled, self-absorbed, ruthless, unholy terror of a woman – and that, as I began to realize with dawning horror, makes her extremely  well-suited to survive a zombie apocalypse.  In the movies, that type of person never makes it to the end, but in reality, they would not only survive but possibly prosper, because they’d do whatever it takes to insure their own survival.  A funny, but brutal lesson to learn.  Well taught, though!

5. Marriage – This was my least-favourite in the book, actually.  I felt the marriage problems were smoothed over too quickly, and, if the story had continued, would only return in greater strength later.  But at least I cared enough about the characters to think that much about them, as those who know me know that I don’t often do with real people.  It’s still a well-written look at an astereotypical marriage, with a breadwinner wife and lay-about husband, but ugh.  That guy.

6. The House and Kid – While the last story looked at an un-traditional marriage, this story looks at a painfully traditional marriage, and works all the better for being a counterpoint to the previous story.  Looking back, I realized that this is the first story in the collection of a smooth, orderly life, falling suddenly into chaos; a point wonderfully illustrated by the zombie PTA that shows up – and I am not kidding about that.  At its heart, this is a story about all the little things we fuss over every day, and the knowledge, brought by horror, of what it is that really matters.

7. The Pet – In my notes, I called “The Pet” a “quietly, and therefore gloriously, disturbing story”.  Like the title story, the female protagonist in this one is not a good person; Mariah Braxton (I just got that name, haha) is also selfish and self-centered. The difference is that Mariah rationalizes away her guilt over the terrible things she does, unlike Maddie, who just never felt guilt.  So there’s a little more hope for Mariah.  In the end, though, Mariah reveals herself to only have wanted the same things we all want, which makes her a little less horrifying than Maddie was, but still every bit as ruthless.  Something else I liked about this story: it’s told from Mariah’s perspective, and Katie does a great job of making the reader sympathize with a terrible person.  Maybe you won’t want to, but you will, and you’ll like it in the end.

8. Your Cheatin’ Heart – This story takes place in Mississippi, which reminds me: What are you trying to say here about my home state, Katie? I don’t want to give too much of this story away, but it’s my favourite of the collection and it shows that Katie has a completely-correct-yet-completely-depressing grasp of human nature.  This is EXACTLY what would happen in a zombie Apocalypse, if enough of humanity survived. It’s hilarious and it explores an avenue of depressingly-realistic human reaction to the zombies that I’d never seen done before.  The good news here is that this story is reprinted in the recent collection Roms, Bombs, & Zoms, published by Evil Girlfriend Media. This story alone is worth the price of that book!

9. The Plan – “The Plan” is more a traditional ghost story than it is a zombie story, but still a good one that earns its place in this collection.  The failed “raise the dead” ritual was a nice, humorous touch.  This is the most character-driven story; it does read a little dry early on but picks up quickly enough to prevent you from losing interest.   It also maintains the theme of the risen dead making a new world, a new life, possible, and does so in a way that’s perhaps more traditional than the other stories in this book, but isn’t out of place with its motifs.  It’s about where you came from, where you’re going, and what the people that didn’t get there have to say about it.

10. The Cure – Up front: this story is heartbreaking.  It’s so sad.  It’s gonna grab your heartstrings from the beginning and not let go. But it’s so well-crafted and the characters so well-developed that you have to read it.  Olivia Jayce makes a compelling protagonist, and her love Dani is a very tragic figure in the story, and her struggles with her illness gave me a new respect for those who care for the disabled.  Olivia makes a deal with Umbrella Corp a shady pharmaceutical company to save her love, and the results. . .well, just read it.  It’s a very sad, very evocative story. I know that may scare some of you away, but I like it when a writer makes me care enough to feel what they want me to feel.  I like emotionally evocative writing, and this is a shining example of that particular bit of word-crafting.  Also, it wouldn’t be out of place as backstory in a Resident Evil game; in fact, it reminds me of the very sad back-story shown in the credits of Resident Evil 4, about how the poor villagers just wanted medical treatment and were instead infected with. . .okay, I’m digressing.  Just read the damn story (and play Resident Evil 4; it was the last one before Capcom thought co-op or AI players were a good idea).

In fact, read all of the stories.  They’re all wonderful in their ways, all working along the same themes but exploring those themes in very different ways.  The variety is great, the characterization is spot-on, the emotional involvement with these characters is very high, and you may stumble over a spot here or there that needs editing but it’s not enough to distract from the enjoyment of these ten brilliant tales.

Get this book if you can, and if you can’t, ask Katie to re-publish it here!

VS – 12.23.13

Bewitched – My review of Witches, Stitches, & Bitches

Posted in book review, brilliance, evil with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 22, 2013 by vagabondsaint

(AUTHOR’S NOTE: In the interests of disclosure, I’ll tell you now that I am friends with Katie Cord, founder and CEO of Evil Girlfriend Media, and am acquainted with several of the authors featured in WSB. At least, I was when I started writing this review. Given my penchant for brutal honesty in reviews, we’ll see how many are left after it’s posted.)

Witches, Stitches, & Bitches (hereafter WSB) is an anthology of short stories, with each story featuring, in some interpretation, a witch, stitches, and *sigh* a bitch. (I really don’t like that word.) WSB is also the first book published by Evil Girlfriend Media, a new publisher founded by Katie Cord. WSB came out on September 13, 2013, so why am I doing a review two months later? Because I’ve been really busy and am horribly behind on my reading, that’s why.

I’ll start with the cover (which is a great cover, by the way). It feels good, it looks good. It doesn’t feel or look cheap, flimsy, slapdash, or anything other than professional and well-put-together. It’s a little thing, I know, but how a book looks and feels are important qualities to me.

On to the anthology itself!

On my second reading (and yes, I liked I enough to read it twice without another book between), I took notes on each story to base my reviews upon. Here we go, into the world of WSB!

1. “Blood Magic” by Gabrielle Harbowy – I loved “Blood Magic.” It’s an artful, graceful take on a horrible situation. It intrigued me that the standard victim trope is turned on its head, in that the method of the abuse ending is – well, you’ll just have to read it. I’m trying not to give spoilers here. The way in which Harbowy describes Aya’s feelings as she suffers and struggles through the day are a master class in gently describing a terrible circumstance without losing any of the emotional impact. I also liked the lack of padding and unnecessary details – it is a short story that tells the tale, engrosses you in the heroine’s plight, gets its message across and gets out before you have time to get tired of it. Short, elegant, beautiful, and sad, “Blood Magic” is a really strong start for this anthology.

2. “Urgent Care” by Christine Morgan – The opening line really sets the tone for this story: “Once upon a time, there was a little girl whose dumbass big brother got caught up in an occult gang war.” This story is going to be very real, very gritty, and lets you know that from the jump, which I appreciated. It’s unapologetic urban fantasy in a style very reminiscent of Kim Harrison and Jim Butcher, but with its own distinct voice. It is also to Morgan’s credit that she employed one of my least-favourite literary devices, past flashbacks that continue throughout the story, and I hardly noticed it until the second read. The flashbacks are smooth with the flow of the story and don’t disrupt it at all, which is lovely to read. The romantic aspects of the story are a little obvious, but not enough to detract from the grim tone and feel of the setting. The dialogue is well-done, and I ended up really liking Larrah, despite her. . .we’ll be polite and call it “brusque”. . .demeanor. It’s obviously part of a larger story, one I know I’ll be eagerly waiting to read.

3. “The Knitted Man” by Bo Balder – This is a very charming, enjoyable short story with a, I think, a larger meaning about love that I couldn’t entirely grasp, but I think that’s more my fault than Balder’s. Even with that, though, it’s still an interesting story, and the Aunties were amusing.

4. “Spare Parts” by Stephanie Bissette-Roark – From my notes: “Mary Shelley meets Jim Butcher at the Punisher’s house.” Violent, gory, funny, and sad, Stephanie (I do know her) runs an emotional gamut in this story. It’s a bit long, and I learned things about crime scene cleanup that I never needed to know, but it kept me enthralled throughout. The last scenes were a bit more convoluted than the straightforwardness of the rest of the story, with a main character making some odd choices, but that could easily be explained if the story is continued (hint, hint). A quality read that slips just a little bit at the end.

5. “The Secret Life of Dreams” by Tom Howard – In my notes, I wrote that this story is “a brief burst of wonderful strangeness that leaves you confused, curious, and smiling in its wake; tells you exactly everything you need to know to follow the story and exactly nothing more.” I don’t really have another way to describe it – you have to check this story out for yourself. It is absolutely worth it.

6. “Frogsong” by Kate Brandt – The straightforward storytelling of “Frogsong” makes it a great follow-up to the previous story. It’s a nice modern take on a morality tale, and has a closing line I wish I’d written: “The powers of our hearts call to us, and generally we follow the song.” I so wish I’d written that! Alas, Kate Brandt beat me to it, and I begrudge her nothing for it. As for how I liked the story, well, I loved Daphne, didn’t feel sorry at all for Frank, and did feel sorry for Nellie, so I think Brandt hit exactly the emotional evocations she was going for. That is indeed a mark of high-quality writing.

7. “No Substitute” by Caren Gussoff – Whereas the weak point of “Spare Parts” was its convoluted ending, “No Substitute” is weakest in its beginning. On the first page, 8 character names (I’m counting “Delanor sheriff” as a name) are thrown at you with no context and not much about their relationships (Kate is a friend of Poppy’s, Jonquil is Poppy’s mother, Wisteria is Poppy’s aunt). It’s like the story hits the ground running too fast and stumbles. The relationships between those people are explained early on, so the story does get up to its own speed after that stumble. There is a bit of a “whodunit” element to the story, though the suspect list is pretty short, and one character makes a really odd decision that drives the story forward but just doesn’t make much logical sense (read it and you’ll see what I mean). It’s a solid story, but not without its flaws. Also, the name “Ber Breyan” kept reminding me of longtime University of Alabama football coach Bear Bryant, and I couldn’t quite get the mental image of him out of my head when I read the name.  I think that says more about me than it does about the story, though.

8. “Forgetting Tomorrow” by Bob Brown – I will say this now: I think fables are overdone in current pop culture. Between TV shows Once Upon A Time and Grimm, movies like Snow White and The Huntsman, Tangled, Hansel and Gretel, and of course the Disney Princesses, and comic books Fables and Grimm Fairy Tales, and numerous other novels out there, fables are just being done to death right now. All that said, “Forgetting Tomorrow” manages to stand out in that crowded field by following a character that I haven’t seen in any of those other fable interpretations (no, I’m not going to say who). Kudos to Bob Brown for writing a fast-moving, engaging story that stands apart in a saturated market!

9. “The Bitchy Witch Queen And The Undone Stitches” by Garth Upshaw – I guess it’s only fair that the longest story in the book should have the longest title, right? Also, I guess it would make an interesting band name. Anyway, don’t let the light tone of the lengthy title fool you – this is a pretty heavy story. It’s a fully-realized world, with details given aplenty in drips and drabs as opposed to flow-breaking info-dumps, which I liked. It’s also, I think, a fair approximation of what our world would be like if magic really existed – there would still be social inequality and class warfare, just along different lines. That’s the world this story occupies, and Upshaw really makes the world live and breathe. In terms of world-building, I would say this story is the best in the book; the characters are also pretty well-developed, but given the length, they’d damn well better have been. The somewhat preachy ending, along with Lianne’s choice to make it so, detracted a little from my enjoyment of the story, but not much. Upshaw built a good world here – I hope he’ll return to it to tell more stories.

10. “Not Even If I Wanted To” by Kodiak Julian – It’s an interesting modernized take on Hansel & Gretel, from a very different perspective than other tales and, thank God, not starring Jeremy Renner. It’s by no means a bad story, but it really didn’t grab me and pull me in as much as the other stories did. That may be down to Julian’s stark, this-is-what-happened style. The first-person narration here seems to be a little detached, and that carried over to me in reading it – I felt detached from the story, not engrossed in it. Again, by no means a bad story, but not as vibrant and alive and the others in this book.

11. “Yes, I’m A Witch” by Julie McGalliard – The second page of this story contains a line I absolutely fell in love with: “It tasted of chemicals and disappointment.” Brilliant. McGalliard has an attention to small details that speak volumes, such as the mismatched door on the otherwise undescribed car of Sharyn’s sister’s car; it’s such a little thing but it told me so much about Sharyn’s family and home situation. I love writing like that, that gives me meaningful small details instead of walls of miniscule, unimportant ones. Also, the primary setting of this story makes perfect sense: 1981, at the beginning of the Satanic Panic. That societal fear of basically things that were not mainstream, so encouraged by and ensconced in the rise of the religious right, is perfectly reflected in Tabby’s mother. No other time would have had that movement in society, so this is that rare gem of a story in which the setting really matters to the story. Not many stories are that way nowadays, and I loved it here. Granted, it also brought back painful, awkward 80s memories, but I’ll not hold that against McGalliard. It also reads a little like a cautionary tale, but isn’t heavy or preachy in its message. “Yes, I’m A Witch” is one of my favourites of the anthology, no question.

12. “The Far Horizon” by J. H. Fleming – As I think I mentioned before, I’m not a fan of stories that switch back and forth between past and present for their entire length. Fleming employs that technique here, and does okay with it. This is also another example of a story with just the right amount of detail – not too much, not too little, and that’s a technique I am a HUGE fan of. This story zips right along at a great pace, starts off greyish in tone and gets darker as it goes, and wraps up in an open but very satisfying conclusion. It’s a very good story overall.

13. “The Three Gateways” by Eva Langston – This is another story with a “cautionary tale” feel to it, but one that wraps up really well and in an unexpected way. Langston does an excellent job of characterization here as well’ there’s no pure saints and no pure sinners. I like that. In all of it, Langston writes really well and sucks me into the story. I even liked Luci the Teenage Goth Witch, mercenary though she was, and the spells described feel pretty real to me. It’s a great grey story, well worth the read.

14. “For Want of a Unicorn” by Camille Griep – This story is hilarious. I cracked up several times reading about the worst Fairy Godmother ever and things working out for the heroine in spite of the FG more than because of her. I love this story so much! It’s a take on a fable-ish world rather than directly on a fable, which is good, and it’s very smartly written. I love a good humour story, one that doesn’t insult the readers’ intelligence for the sake of a joke, and Griep pulls that off very, very well here. Definitely one of my favourites, if not my outright fave. LOVE IT! More from Camille Griep, please, now, thank you!

15. “Blood of the Mother” by Alaina Ewing – I began this story with a bit of apprehension, becomes it starts closer to the middle of the story than the beginning, and I am automatically wary of stories that start off that way and then flash back to the earlier bits of backstory. THANK GOD this story doesn’t do that. The necessary backstory is filled in through dialogue and the narrator’s thoughts, a much more less obtrusive method that didn’t pull me out of the story. (Hear that, writers? If you can’t start me at the beginning, then catch me up along the way; don’t put the story on pause to go back to what happened before.) It’s a well-written, solid witchy adventure story that moves along at a quick, smooth pace. My only complaint is that, at times, Terra feels like the sidekick in her own story.

16. “Dress of Fur and Fangs” by Rebecca Fung – Last but not least, we have this story, which starts off light in tone but gets very dark around the middle, when the “bitch” shows up. This story had, in my interpretation, a running theme on body images, filtered through a Potter-esque world, with a message on the dangers of envy as well. I can’t say much more than that without spoiling it, and I have no desire to do that, but I can say that, for me, it made me really think about the messages society tells women about their bodies. It’s an intriguing and thought-provoking story that loingers in your head after reading it, and concisely written to get its point across without being heavy-handed about it. (I should probably learn from that.) A very good read, and a great way to bring this anthology to a close.

So, now you have my review of these 16 stories. Now I’ll answer the most pressing question: is WSB worth buying?

The answer is a heartfelt, enthusiastic OH HELL YES WHAT ARE YOU WAITING FOR. If you like witches, stitches, bitches, and/or well-written, intelligent, engrossing stories, this is the anthology for you! It’s available on Amazon in both ebook and paperback formats (I haven’t jumped onto the ebook bandwagon yet, because I am old and set in my paper-reading ways) so whatever your preference, it’s easy to get your hands on a copy.

Which you should do.

Like now.

Don’t make Katie have to put a curse on you.

UPDATE: Because I don’t think clearly at 3 AM, I made a mistake.  I did not mention the terrific editing job on WSB done by Shannon Page.  Having been an editor myself, I am very vigilant for editorial errors when I read; in the past few years, most books have driven me to conniption fits over how many errors make it to print.  I am pleased to report that, thanks to the diligence of Shannon, there aren’t any.  Seriously, none.  No typos, no continuity slips, no nothing.  Clearly Ms. Page is a superhuman editor, perhaps editor of the Xavier School’s monthly newsletter, and deserves to be recognized as such.  I apologize for the oversight.

The Death of Compassion: A Review of J.K. Rowlings’ “The Casual Vacancy”

Posted in book review with tags , , , , , , , , , on October 29, 2012 by vagabondsaint

Well. That definitely wasn’t a Harry Potter book.

After 7 books (8 movies) of wizardry and witches, magic and mischief, and dragons and, umm, other fantastic creatures, J.K. Rowling has moved on. This is her first post-Potter book, and if you were expecting anything remotely like Harry Potter, you’re in for a disappointment – but a surprisingly pleasant one.

The Casual Vacancy is, unlike the Harry Potter series, completely grounded in reality. No magic, no dragon, no fantastic creatures, no big hero to save the day from the dastardly villain, and – perhaps most importantly – no clear-cut line between good guys and bad guys.

So, what is this book about? Ostensibly, it’s about a small rural English village and the conflict over whether or not to keep the council estates – what we here in the US would call “the projects” – as part of the town or dump it on the neighboring village and alleviate themselves of a financial and social burden. It’s about replacing a leading member of the village council after his sudden demise, about the political and social fight to take his place. But it’s also about the oft-intrusive intimacy of small towns and the secret lives people manage to lead even when faced with each other every single day. And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that it’s also about how the middle- and upper-classes view the poor, the poverty-stricken, the unfortunates.

That said. . .most of all, at its core, at its heart, The Casual Vacancy is about the death of compassion.

That death happens in the first few pages; everything beyond that is fallout woven into the narrative of the impending council election and decision of what to do with the council estates. And it is well worth the read.

J.K. Rowling’s characterization is excellent. One can’t help but come to know the residents of Pagford as intimately as if one actually lived there. . .moreso, in fact, for her use of a third-person-omniscient perspective gives the reader insights into all the hidden secrets and thoughts of every resident chronicled. The characterization is, in my opinion, the best part of the book; it’s what makes one care enough, or at least want to see some come-uppance enough, to read through all the way to the end. Even the largely unlikable characters are fleshed out well enough to keep one deeply engrossed in their saga.  At times, it’s even a very painful read, as major characters suffer setbacks and tragedies.

On top of that, reading this gave me the inspiration to write a story of my own, which hopefully someone will review on this site one day. 🙂

So why not 5 stars? The pacing is a little slow, and the first half of the book was a bit of a slog. It took me two weeks to get through that, but once I did, I finished the rest in two days.

The Casual Vacancy is a great book; a well-written journey through the various mindsets of first-world society-at-large in a quite fitting microcosm with a very, very bittersweet, eye-moistening ending, a good read for anyone who likes a well-crafted story with complex, interesting, human characters.

Oh, and this book is definitely not for kids.

Go read it.

 

VS

My Review of Dark Horse Comics’ “Supernatural Noir”

Posted in book review with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 1, 2011 by vagabondsaint

Supernatural NoirSupernatural Noir by Ellen Datlow

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

My experience with short story collections leaves me with one general rule of thumb about them: in any given collection, most stories will be just okay, a few will be standouts, a few will be bad or worse. Supernatural Noir falls right into line with that rule.

While none of the stories are outright terrible, most are just fair to middling. There are some standouts, however; Melanie Tem’s “Little Shit,” Joe Lansdale’s “Dead Sister,” Tom Picirilli’s “But For Scars,” and, surprisingly, Caitlin R. Kiernan’s “The Maltese Unicorn” (“surprisingly” because I’d read only one Kiernan book before this story, and hated it with such a passion that I refused to read any more) are the great stories of this collection. They’re the ones that balance the noir and supernatural aspects perfectly, whether it be in the mere ghostly whispers in “But For Scars” or the entire world has embraced the supernatural as in “The Maltese Unicorn”.

The rest of the stories are okay. Solid enough, for the most part, but not as strong or as memorable as the ones listed above, and some seemed to struggle with the noir/supernatural balance well.

My only question is: Why isn’t there a Jim Butcher story in this collection?

View all my reviews