Category Archives: Fiction

Booklist Reviews Savage Girl

Booklist (March 1, 2014)

Savage Girl.

Mar 2014. 402 p. Viking, hardcover, $27.95. (9780670014859).

Debutante or demon? The title character of Zimmerman’s gripping historical novel seems to be a little bit of both. Discovered in a Nevada mining town by a wealthy couple determined to overcome the “savage” girl’s apparent feral upbringing, Bronwyn is introduced by them to Gilded Age Manhattan’s high society. But as the couple’s son, the novel’s narrator, can attest, she is perhaps not as innocent as she seems. All revolves around the central question of whether Bronwyn or the captivated narrator is responsible for the trail of bloody crimes left in their wake. Suffused with a gothic aura of dark suspense, this is a finely wrought psychological work from the author of The Orphanmaster (2012), rich with historical detail. The mystery stretches from society’s heights to its absolute depths and touches everything between, always increasing in dramatic tension. Zimmerman’s settings spring off the page, from the stinging dust of the American desert to the dank despair of the Tombs prison in New York. Immensely readable, Savage Girl takes the reader by the throat and doesn’t let go.

— Bridget Thoreson

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Pot Lucky

Just a neighborly event. The lightest of snows twinkled outside the windows. Someone said, You may not see each other for six months but you’re still glad they’re there. There was a list, a neighborhood email listserve, and these 60-odd people were on it.

The pot-luck took place in the carriage house of the local nature preserve, Teatown.

scenery_teatown1

Such communal feedbags have a history, dating back to the sixteenth century, when pot-luck meant “food provided for an unexpected or uninvited guest, the luck of the pot.”

In this bowling-alone world, community often strikes me as a missing element. Or perhaps that’s just because mine is a solitary profession, handcuffed to my computer keyboard, staring out the window at the winter. I was happy now to talk to people I barely knew about books we’d read, about composing music, about keeping chickens.

chickens_1844738c

Above all, we spoke about the deep drifts and ice outside that affect everybody.

As Bilbo Baggins once said, “I don’t know half of you half as well as I should like, and I like less than half of you half as well as you deserve.”

Someone brought a soup enriched almost to a stew with wild rice. Someone else baked a crusty bread. When the desserts came out there was a deep-burnished chocolate bundt cake studded with cherries that had folks lining up. We all shared food, shared companionship. A hat was passed to send kids to the local summer camp.

No one spoke about plumber referrals, or the other information that flies across the internet on the listserve. No one talked about rowdy teens on the roads, or co-mingled recyclables.

separate-recyclables

Above all, no one became embroiled in the deer situation, the bane of the neighborhood, the divisive question of whether to leave the overpopulation alone or somehow control it, and if so, how to do so. It would be a fraught conversation. We let it go. (Though some wry soul offered venison sausage on the buffet table.)

We were gracious, putting faces to names. We shook hands, kissed cheeks. We were neighborly.

Outside, it continued to snow.

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The Voice on the Page

I’ve been thinking about voice. Not the voice of Miley Cyrus, or Roseanne Cash, or even the Russian-born soprano, Anna Netrebko, who belted out the Olympic anthem at Sochi last night. She really shook the rafters.

No, I am trying to get a handle on voice in fiction. Writing a new novel about a girl who lives in New York City during the Revolutionary War, I want to make sure I get her right. And it forces me to deal with some difficult issues.

Can I show her best in the first person or the third? That’s probably the biggest question going in, because while writing “as” my protagonist gives me access to all kinds of emotional complexity, it is also limiting. It’s writing in handcuffs. You the reader can only see what my character sees, and by its nature that is not everything. I can see a very interesting house but I can’t necessarily go into that house. If I bring my character into the house it rejiggers the plot in all kinds of ways.

I’ve determined to go down the first-person path if it kills me.

Probably the most famous use of the first-person protagonist is in Dickens’ David Copperfield, with its wonderful first line:

Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.

The myriad of other first-person first lines include Call me Ishmael in Moby Dick.

There is Notes From Underground: I am a sick man . . . I am a spiteful man.

For a long time, I went to bed early, in Proust’s Swann’s Way.

It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York. From Plath’s The Bell Jar.

Considering the first lines of books turns out to be incredibly interesting.

Other issues you have to address as the plot unfolds: how much does my protagonist know about the world, how sophisticated is she? My character is a teenager, but is mature beyond her years, as kids of that era were. What kind of language would she use? Should I eradicate all adverbs from the narrative? How smart-alecky is she, how wise, how snarky?

How much historically appropriate language can you get away with using without a page sinking under the weight of Ye Olde? On the other hand, is a word you’re using wrong because it was invented yesterday, and she can’t possibly have known it? I looked up “goofy” today and found that “giddy” would suit the 1776 world of my character’s speech much better.

Is she addressing someone? Hugo in Savage Girl addresses his story to his lawyers. Is my character relaying the history of her life to someone, say a great granddaughter? Is it an epistolary novel, like The Sun Also Rises? Or is the text simply in her head? Is she “talking to the air,” as Gil and I put it when we discuss these questions.

All these and more are the thorns you must cross through in order to reach the fruit when you are writing a novel. Sometimes it helps to have an image as you work, a picture that reminds you of your heroine. I have adopted this 1750 painting by Pietro Rotari, Girl with a Book, which inspires me to find my character’s voice and do it justice. What draws me is not the cap nor the jewels, charming as they may be, but the wry, lovely expresssion in her eyes.

1750 pietro-antonio-rotari-girl-with-a-book-1337982962_b

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Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval

I’m so pleased to see Savage Girl among Good Housekeeping‘s recommended books for March.

March-cover-230114-de-lg

Here is the magazine’s thumbnail review, which manages to distill the essence of the story quite well, I think.

Good Housekeeping, March 2014

New Book Picks: No matter what mood you’re in, we have a page-turner to tempt you

FOR INTRIGUE

Savage Girl

A wealthy couple touring the American West in 1875 “rescue” a young woman who’s said to have been raised by wolves, then attempt to introduce her into society back East. Bronwyn cleans up nicely, but her suitors keep ending up dead. A wild ride.

 

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Big Ol’ Brick of Books

A brick of books. Author copies. Twenty-eight, to be exact, sitting where UPS dumped the box, in the fresh, deep pile of snow at the head of the driveway. The cardboard was soaked around the edges.

But the books were dry, miraculously. That novel is watertight.

open

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Kirkus Reviews Savage Girl

Kirkus Reviews Savage Girl (pub. Feb. 15, 2014):

A formal, measured tempo only heightens the tension in Zimmerman’s second historical fiction–cum-thriller (The Orphanmaster, 2012), this one set in the 1870s and concerning a serial killer whose rampage ranges from a rough mining community in Nevada to upper-class Manhattan.

The novel opens in 1876 with narrator Hugo Delegate, Harvard-educated scion of one of New York’s wealthiest and most socially connected families, locked up for the gruesome murder of another New York dandy. He willingly claims his guilt—though that guilt is far from certain—but his expensive lawyers demand he tell them the true story from the beginning. Hugo starts with his family’s visit to Virginia City, Nev., home of his father Freddy’s silver mine. Soon, Hugo’s parents, eccentric liberals interested in the nurture/nature debate raised by Darwin, are eager to adopt a young girl they have discovered in a Virginia City freak show, the owner of which claims she was raised by wolves. Of unknown origins, she speaks Comanche as well as a smattering of English, and her performance involves a set of mechanical claws and a swimming tank. The girl, whose name turns out to be Bronwyn, travels on the Delegates’ private train to New York, where the Delegates plan to put one over on their friends My Fair Lady–style by having her debut as a fashionable young lady. But one grisly murder after another seems to follow in Bronwyn’s wake, the victim always a man who has shown his attraction to Bronwyn’s considerable charms. Is Bronwyn, with her animallike instincts, the killer? Or is it Hugo, with his past mental problems, his capacity to black out and his love for Bronwyn that borders on jealous insanity? Neither Hugo nor the reader is sure right up to the satisfying if melodramatic end.

Zimmerman’s dark comedy of manners is an obvious homage to Edith Wharton, a rip-roaring murder mystery more Robert Louis Stevenson than Conan Doyle and a wonderfully detailed portrait of the political, economic and philosophical issues driving post–Civil War America.

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In the Sky With Diamonds

The 60th anniversary of the Winter Antiques Show at New York’s Park Avenue Armory: the Diamond Jubilee. So it features special showings of diamonds, of course. And a lot of people are dripping with their own, too. One pouf-haired dowager in black stretch pants nearly blinds us with her sizable diamond pendant while scoping out the Tiffany Studio micromosaic table at the Associated Artists stall. In 1891, Tiffany designed things besides jewelry and lamps.

micromosaic

There are thousands upon thousands of match-head sized wood chips embedded in this decorative band that resembles cross-stitch, or snakeskin. Imagine the work that went into its intricacy. The table is the only one of its kind ever made, and with two matching chairs is priced today at 1.4 million dollars.

Going, going, gone, to the lady in the diamond dazzler.

There are a lot of things I love at the show. A small but powerful watercolor of a snarling but somehow jolly wolf circa 1800 gives me a welcome jolt of Savage Girl.

snarling wolf

There are girls here too, including one hand-sewn, winsome doll with brown velvet hair.

doll

One baby Amazon in glossy marble.

baby amazon

I see a trio of ventriloquist dummies dating back to 1875. Oscar and Louise Shaffer, along with their musical troupe, toured the east coast throughout post-Civil War America. Oscar was the ventrioloquist. His three “friends” were Jerry Doyle, D Day and Sassafras Jones.

dummies

Louise Shaffer was billed as “the most versatile lady artist in America.” She was renowned for her cornet solos and banjo stylings.

Louise probably could have managed this enormous blue guitar, hand-crafted and reminiscent of Picasso’s famous Blue Period painting, The Old Guitarist..

blue guitar

I really like this chair, too. One of my favorites in the show.

worn chair

Now that’s what you call antique. The leather has received its share of buffing and burnishing by uncountable weary behinds.

At the Winter Antiques Show you can buy a quartet of really important geodes, if you have a couple large in your pocket.

geodes

We stand at a counter admiring diamond rings set with emeralds and rubies, next to a gentleman in tweeds examining a set of cufflinks displaying horses, a bargain at $1,400. I don’t ask the price of the rings. I have just been chastised by a guard for attempting to snap a picture of Queen Victoria’s tiara from 1840, ablaze with sapphires along with diamonds and prominently on display. There’s a shot on the show’s website, however.

Queen Victoria's tiara

Tiaras have always intrigued me. We think of them as belonging exclusively to princesses. There was a time, however, in the late nineteenth century, when the only thing that kept a woman from wearing one is if she couldn’t afford it. You didn’t have to be royal. According to one expert, “By 1894 nearly 100 tiaras could be counted among the possessions of New York’s social leaders.” That’s a lot of tiaras. If you were really well off you might have two or three to choose from when you went out to the ball. Tiffany could barely keep enough in the pipeline, churning out beauties like this 1894 piece assembled of gold, platinum and diamonds.

tiara

If you wore one, like Consuela Vanderbilt in 1902, you could imagine yourself to be royalty. She had an Alice in Wonderland neck and a trompe l’oeil waist.

woman

Maybe that’s how that multi-faceted woman in the pouf-hair and leggings sees herself.

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Sweetly Wild

Animal Planet produced a popular program Raised Wild that profiles people who have been nurtured by monkeys, by a pack of dogs, by a flock of chickens. In researching Savage Girl I came across parental bears and goats and even a girl raised by rats. The mythology goes back to Romulus and Remus, boys suckled by the same she-wolf. The two man-cubs eventually went on to rule Rome. Nothing that takes place in my novel should shock anybody who has viewed Raised Wild. But it might surprise the Savage Girl herself to come across a box of Valentine’s-packaged Wild Child candy hearts.

wild child hearts

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A Fresh and Juicy Book

The dog woke up. It was mid-afternoon.

sleepy oliver

He barked. I looked out the window. A UPS truck. More important, snow.

snow cabin

I didn’t want to go outside to get a package. I wasn’t expecting anything. I’d stay in my socks.

Do the trees feel cold? On this day they would have.

trees

The UPS guy whistled a tune as he headed from the Cabin back to the truck, winding his way through the snow banks.

Have you ever handled The First Book, fresh from the package? No?

When Gil came home he told me something had come for me, out on the porch. He slit open the plastic.

A hardcover of Savage Girl fell out, fresh and juicy as a ripe apple and cold as though it had been plucked from a tree in fall. The jacket, of course, was no surprise, as my publisher had involved me in the design process. But so many little details seemed different, the exact shade of blue on the back cover, the smidgen of lace along the edge. The spine, with my book’s title and my name and “A NOVEL” all perfectly proportioned.

jean book

There are a number of peak moments when you write books. The day you jot down a note and think about all it might be. The first page you write. Getting halfway done. Turning it in. Turning it in again after you revise it. Seeing the typeface. Paging through a galley.

No matter how many milestones you’ve passed, nothing can prepare you for the heft of the hardcover, holding this object in your hand, the ephemeral idea you had so long ago transformed into a tactile reality.

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Stop by My Author Page and Say Hi

My Facebook author page has a brand new cover – it quotes Library Journal saying that Savage Girl is “A fanciful and occasionally surreal take on Gilded Age New York.”

And hey, I just reached 100 likes, a figure I’m a little proud of. But I’d like more likes, more! And more visitors. Come see reviews and interviews as they come in, as well as offers for galley giveaways. Savage Girl doesn’t hit stores until March 6 but there’s a lot going on before then.

I’m always trying to put up something fresh, not only about my books (Savage Girl, The Orphanmaster, Love Fiercely and others) but about writing, reading, and living in such a way as to make those things possible. How do you water an idea to make a book come up? Always trying to figure that out.

watering-can

Something else: please post on my page! I would love to hear what you’re thinking about.

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A Room of One’s Own-Thank You Virginia

A belated happy birthday to Virginia Woolf (born January 25th), a writer whose fiction I idolized when I was around sixteen. I had the firm conviction that her novels To the Lighthouse and Mrs. Dalloway, innovative, modernist, poetic, were about as good as literature got.

Virginia Woolf cu

When I discovered Woolf’s book-length essay A Room of One’s Own, in college, I was thunderstruck. And I’ve never lost that feeling. I re-read Woolf’s arch 1929 critique of a sexist world, a discriminatory educational system, the need to nurture female talent, and I’m still pumping my fist in the air.

“A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” A Room of One’s Own

Adeline Virginia Stephen was born on January 25, 1882, to Julia Stephen, a model for Pre-Raphaelite painters, and Leslie Stephen, a well-known biographer. She had seven siblings and half-siblings, and was brought up in an upper-middle-class Kensington household. That she suffered some sort of mental disorder (she was probably bipolar) was clear from her first breakdown at the time of her mother’s death in 1895. She collapsed again when her father died in 1904. In 1912 she married Leonard Woolf and in 1915 she published her first novel. Despite her recurring “madness,” she was able to publish and run Hogarth Press with Leonard and be active in the Bloomsbury literary group for the rest of her life.

Virginia and her sister Vanessa playing cricket

That’s Virginia and her sister Vanessa playing cricket, proving that she had a lighter side.

“One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.” A Room of One’s Own

On March 28, 1941, Woolf filled the pockets of her overcoat with stones and walked into the River Ouse, near her house, to drown. An object that moved me beyond words was the simple wooden walking stick she took with her into the river, found floating near where she went in, preserved in the collection of The New York Public Library and shown in an exhibit of the library’s treasures a few years back.

woolf's walking stick

“When, however, one reads of a witch being ducked, of a woman possessed by devils, of a wise woman selling herbs, or even of a very remarkable man who had a mother, then I think we are on the track of a lost novelist, a suppressed poet, of some mute and inglorious Jane Austen, some Emily Bronte who dashed her brains out on the moor or mopped and mowed about the highways crazed with the torture that her gift had put her to. Indeed, I would venture to guess that Anon, who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman.A Room of One’s Own

There is one surviving recording of Virginia Woolf’s voice. She delivered a talk called “Craftsmanship,” part of a 1937 BBC radio broadcast.

VIRGINIA WOOLF

Here is Woolf’s take on Judith, Shakespeare’s erstwhile sister, also from A Room of One’s Own. Tell me if after reading this you are not also pumping your fist in the air.

“I told you in the course of this paper that Shakespeare had a sister; but do not look for her in Sir Sidney Lee’s life of the poet. She died young—alas, she never wrote a word. She lies buried where the omnibuses now stop, opposite the Elephant and Castle. Now my belief is that this poet who never wrote a word and was buried at the cross–roads still lives. She lives in you and in me, and in many other women who are not here to–night, for they are washing up the dishes and putting the children to bed. But she lives; for great poets do not die; they are continuing presences; they need only the opportunity to walk among us in the flesh. This opportunity, as I think, it is now coming within your power to give her. For my belief is that if we live another century or so—I am talking of the common life which is the real life and not of the little separate lives which we live as individuals—and have five hundred a year each of us and rooms of our own; if we have the habit of freedom and the courage to write exactly what we think; if we escape a little from the common sitting–room and see human beings not always in their relation to each other but in relation to reality; and the sky. too, and the trees or whatever it may be in themselves; if we look past Milton’s bogey, for no human being should shut out the view; if we face the fact, for it is a fact, that there is no arm to cling to, but that we go alone and that our relation is to the world of reality and not only to the world of men and women, then the opportunity will come and the dead poet who was Shakespeare’s sister will put on the body which she has so often laid down. Drawing her life from the lives of the unknown who were her forerunners, as her brother did before her, she will be born. As for her coming without that preparation, without that effort on our part, without that determination that when she is born again she shall find it possible to live and write her poetry, that we cannot expect, for that would he impossible. But I maintain that she would come if we worked for her, and that so to work, even in poverty and obscurity, is worth while.”

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“First to Read” at Penguin

Please note that the art people at Viking have helped me with a facelift for the site, posting a new Savage Girl banner with a matching background pattern of gleaming orangey rust. Publishing a book is anything but a one-person job. I so appreciate all the help I’ve gotten bringing this novel to the state it’s at today.

The state it’s at… well, you’re going to have to wait to find Savage Girl at your corner bookstore for another six weeks, so here’s some good news. The folks at Penguin (Viking’s parent company) have a special program through which you can request a digital version of the book. If you love paper pages and a luscious new jacket, wait. If you want, though, you can jump in now, through Penguin’s “First to Read” program, and get the novel on your e-reader. Then please leave a comment and let me know your reactions.

penguinlogo_60w

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Publishers Weekly Interview w/Jean Zimmerman

PW 1

PW 2

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Bound vs E-Books Revisited

How many books do you have stacked on your nightstand? Or piled on the bedroom floor, or scattered across the coverlet? Does your coffee table hold bound books or yesterday’s papers or riffled copies of Vanity Fair? Do you tuck a paperback into your bag when you go to wait in the doctor’s office, or do you slip in your IPad? When you go out to power walk, are you also power listening to a wonderful story?

stack

If you absorbed a book in some form you are in the majority – so did 76 percent of American adults last year. That surprises me, actually. Fully 24 percent of us read no book at all? Who are those people? I guess the ones poring over Vanity Fair. The new Pew Study that identified the 76 percent also found that the “typical American adult” read or listened to five books in a year’s time and that the average for all adults was 12 books. Not bad. A figure that hasn’t changed recently.

Something that will gratify both the hearts of Luddites and of independent book store sellers is that print is still the medium of choice. Even people who read e-books (28 percent) also often read the paper variety. Just four percent of readers confessed themselves to be exclusively e-book.

I like my several-years-old Kindle, now slightly weather-battered. I like that I’m carrying around a library of 100 volumes and can dip into any of them at will, at any time.  I love that I can send an electronic file of a book I’m working on to my Kindle and read it in one hand, rather than printing out clumsy manuscript pages. Or having ready access to the draft of her novel a friend wants me to read. So easy. The prose sings with the Kindle’s light behind it. And I love ordering stuff to read on it with just a click and feel cool that I can do so on a whim. Sometimes I get junk food, like the Central Park murder mystery Death Angel by Linda Fairstein. It’s like a box of New York chocolates I might not pick up in a store.

death angel

If someone at a dinner or over coffee mentions a more obscure or older title, say The Alligators of Abraham, by Robert Kloss, or The Dinner, a novel by Herman Koch, or Eat the Document by Dana Spiotta, I’m off and running.

EatTheDocument

These are works I wouldn’t necessarily find browsing at my local shop, The Village Bookstore in Pleasantville, New York. Though I know they would always be helpful about ordering them. More lucrative for the proprietors that I go in and order stacks of new hardcovers. Which I have been known to do.

An example of a lesser-known item in my digital library: Jeanette Winterson’s Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. People had been mentioning this book to me for a long time and it won all kinds of prizes when it came out in 1985.

oranges-1

The British author also wrote the novel Sexing the Cherry. The book begins:

Like most people I  lived for a long time with my mother and father. My father liked to watch the wrestling, my mother liked to wrestle; it didn’t matter what. She was in the white corner and that was that.

White corner?Alright, I’m in. And Winterson goes on, portraying a world I have never imagined that that if it wasn’t for an electronic device I would never experience.

But then sometimes I dip into a book I’ve downloaded to my device and say, Why? What in a million years possessed me to gather this title into my library? The novel I’m trying to read is kind of hiding within the cold glass front of this machine and therefore I can’t access it mentally. A book like Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell (I know, everyone loves this one) begs to have its secrets revealed in a stack of actual pages. Not being able to touch paper numbed me to its charms.

Real books, I find, tomes of paper and ink, with beautifully designed jackets or with soft covers whose spine you feel okay about breaking when you plow through with vehemence – real books tend to hold my interest much more. And I find that when I’m reading a book on my Kindle that I really like, my strong impulse is to rush out to a store and buy a print copy. The phenomenal  Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin, say, by Jill Lepore. Or Per Petterson’s pitch-perfect I Curse the River of Time. The whole time I was reading I wished I held paper.

august_patterson_riveroftime

Or The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls. I want to hold the book in my hands, flip the pages back and forth, cradle it on my chest when I read it in bed. I read in bed a lot and I bet if Pew studied the phenomenon they would find that of the 76 percent of Americans who read any kind of books in the past year, 75 percent of them did so comfily and cozily in their beds.

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Savage Girl Review in Library Journal

Woo hoo! This just in, from Library Journal, its Feb. 1 issue:

Wealthy socialite Hugo Delegate and his family rescue the “Savage Girl” from a carnival sideshow and bring her back to their mansion in 1870s New York. Reportedly captured as a child and raised by a Comanche tribe, she instantly captivates Hugo with her boldness and energy. The Delegates undergo a campaign to socialize Savage Girl with limited success. Meanwhile, violence follows this young woman across the country, as men she flirts with end up mutilated and dead. In this follow-up to her acclaimed debut, The Orphanmaster, Zimmerman offers a fanciful and occasionally surreal take on a Gilded Age New York that is reminiscent of Caleb Carr’s The Alienist or even Edgar Allan Poe. Most of the novel is narrated by Hugo recounting events in an extended flashback, which feels jarring and out of place. More successful are the action-packed final chapters. VERDICT This is best for fans of Zimmerman’s first novel and readers who like their historical novels tinged with darkness.

Savage Girl cover

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