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The Tapestries: A Novel

The Tapestries: A Novel

4.7 10
by Kien Nguyen

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- The novel was inspired by the life of the author's grandfather, a tapestry weaver in the last imperial court of Vietnam.- A selection of Minnesota's Talking Volumes book club.- A brilliantly textured historical romance that is sure to be a favorite with reading groups throughout the country.- Hardcover ISBN: 0-316-28441-6


- The novel was inspired by the life of the author's grandfather, a tapestry weaver in the last imperial court of Vietnam.- A selection of Minnesota's Talking Volumes book club.- A brilliantly textured historical romance that is sure to be a favorite with reading groups throughout the country.- Hardcover ISBN: 0-316-28441-6

Editorial Reviews

The Barnes & Noble Review
Following up his acclaimed Vietnam memoir The Unwanted, Kien Nguyen again relies on family history, this time constructing a marvelous fictionalized account of his grandfather's brutal and tumultuous life in the French-dominated Vietnam of the early 20th century. The story begins in 1916, with the arranged marriage of 7-year-old Dan Nguyen to Ven, a 24-year-old peasant woman. Ven -- whose marriage provides the Nguyen family with a convenient source of free labor -- serves as her young husband's guardian and de facto parent until tragedy strikes. Magistrate Toan, the ambitious local mayor, accuses Dan's father, Tat Nguyen, of conspiring to overthrow the French colonial rulers. Dan, hidden from view by Ven, watches Toan decapitate his father and two of his father's wives. After impressing on Dan the importance of avenging his family's honor, Ven hides the boy in plain sight, selling him to the Toan family as a household slave. Several years later, Dan falls hopelessly in love with the murderer's granddaughter, the beautiful, good-hearted Tai May. What follows is an impassioned account of murder, greed, madness, revenge, and star-crossed love that moves from the provincial village of Cam Le to the imperial court at Hue City and back again, covering 16 violent, eventful years. In spite of its factual origins, The Tapestries reads like an elaborately colored family legend that has grown with each retelling. In its profusion of incident, its melodramatic excesses, and its stylized, formal diction, it has the feeling of Asian grand opera successfully translated to the printed page. Lovers of historical exotica and operatic romance should find a great deal to admire in this immensely readable recreation of a vanished world. Bill Sheehan
Publishers Weekly
Nguyen follows his acclaimed memoir, The Unwanted (2001), with a daringly complex and vividly imagined debut novel about a boy who fights to reclaim his family's royal legacy in Vietnam at the turn of the century. Seven-year-old Dan Nguyen is married in childhood to a 27-year-old family servant named Ven, who hides and protects the boy when rivals come to execute Dan's parents. But Dan's strange union with Ven is disrupted when Ven contracts malaria and she is forced to sell him into slavery to the mayor's family. Dan's stint as a slave proves fateful, though, when he becomes the personal servant of the beautiful Tai May and the two fall in love. In spite of Dan's station, Tai May chooses him over a wealthy young suitor. When the spurned suitor spies on Dan and finds out about his marriage to Ven, Dan is forced to flee the family. The dizzying intricacy of the plotting occasionally becomes a bit overwhelming as Nguyen tracks Ven's tragic fate and Dan's search for Tai May while attempting to piece together a treasure map that has been laid out as an interlocking series of body tattoos. But the beauty of Nguyen's stately, ornate prose-perfectly suited to the rigidly formal customs of Vietnamese royalty-serves him well as the complex plot unfolds. The scope of the tale and its grace and power make this a formidable first novel. (Oct.) Forecast: Nguyen's difficult early life in Vietnam as the son of a wealthy Vietnamese woman and an American GI was the subject of his memoir, The Unwanted. With The Tapestries, he proves he is at least as talented a writer of fiction as nonfiction. Booksellers might recommend him particularly to fans of Anchee Min, another writer who has made the crossover from memoir to fiction. Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Nguyen is the author of the fine memoir Unwanted (reviewed in KLIATT, May 2002). He came to America from Vietnam in 1985 as an older teenager, has completed his studies here and is a dentist-quite a remarkable achievement in itself. In this work of fiction, he turns to the stories told to him by his Vietnamese grandfather about the family history in Hue during the 1920s as inspiration for this epic story of courage, loyalty, betrayal, and revenge. Nguyen's narrative is straightforward and accessible, yet the world he creates for the reader is as exotic as a tale from the Middle Ages. It begins, for instance, with the wedding (an arranged marriage, of course) of a young woman in her 20s who never meets her bridegroom until he comes to her marriage bed-the groom is 7 years old. In this way, the boy's family gets the complete devotion of an unpaid servant, and that is the role Ven plays in young Dan Nguyen's life, even if technically she is his wife. Dan's family shortly thereafter is ruined-his father and grandfather murdered. Ven saves Dan's life by taking him to the household of those who did the family wrong, placing him there as a servant, hiding his true identity and awaiting the time he is old enough to avenge his family. What follows are tales of love and intrigue, of life at the court (Hue is the Vietnamese capital), of further mayhem and murder. This is historical fiction that is riveting, especially for readers interested in Vietnamese culture and history. The violence and passionate relationships keep the story gripping. Even though the obligations and expectations are foreign to modern readers, Nguyen explains the feelings so well that the reader can understand why thecharacters act as they do. This is quite a remarkable addition to the growing collection of Southeast Asian literature. KLIATT Codes: SA-Recommended for senior high school students, advanced students, and adults. 2002, Little Brown, Back Bay, 310p., Ages 15 to adult.
— Claire Rosser
Library Journal
Nguyen follows up The Unwanted, his memoir of growing up Amerasian in postwar Vietnam, with a first novel based on stories from his grandfather's past. Nguyen relates an epic tale of family, greed, revenge, and love set in Vietnam during the early decades of the 20th century. During this time, there was growing discontent with colonial rule as well as greater acceptance of Western ways. The hero, Dan Nguyen, is married at the age of seven to Ven, nearly 20 years his senior. Shortly after their marriage, Dan's family falls victim to local rivalries and revolutionary intrigue, and the newlyweds witness the brutal murders of Dan's father and two of his three wives. Ven urges her reluctant child-husband to seek revenge, but his quest stalls when he falls in love with his enemy's granddaughter. An exciting tale that takes many twists and turns before finally ending with Dan's telling his stories to his young grandson, this work is marred somewhat by its fairy-tale qualities and minimal character development. Recommended for public and academic fiction collections. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 6/15/02.]-Rebecca Stuhr, Grinnell Coll. Libs., IA Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
San Francisco Chronicle
It pays to have listened closely to one's ancestors while they lived instead of tuning them out while playing with Barbie. Kien Nguyen listened. He must have been the ideal grandson, sitting rapt, because the world he evokes in his first novel stirs and bleeds and blushes, fully fleshed. Its every leaf glimmers with sunlit rain, its every anguish burns the eyes. It breathes.
Kirkus Reviews
A fablelike tale set in turn-of-the-century Vietnam offers intrigue, revenge, a treasure map, and undying love, in a sprawling confection from memoirist Nguyen (The Unwanted, 2000).

At seven, Dan Nguyen (loosely based on the author’s grandfather) becomes married to Ven, twenty years his senior, poor, illiterate, and essentially sold into marriage-cum-nannyhood to care for her young husband. Though first wife to the heir of the Nguyen fortune, Ven finds herself serving, as tradition dictates, Dan’s three mothers and working in the rice fields. When Dan’s father and his first two wives are beheaded for treason, Ven hatches a plan of revenge that will allow her young husband to regain the family name and fortune. The death of Master Nguyen was the plot of the greedy town magistrate, who hopes to locate the Nguyen buried treasure—half of the map showing its location was tattooed on Master Nguyen’s back. As the evil magistrate searches for the other half, wrongly told it’s tattooed on young Dan’s back, Ven decides the safest place to hide him is in the magistrate’s own house. She sells him, and he becomes the slave/companion of the magistrate’s granddaughter, Tai May. The two grow up, they fall in love, and Dan loses all interest in exacting revenge on Tai May’s family. When the lovers are separated, Dan flees to the capital, where he becomes the royal embroiderer. From there, the tale wanders down many paths, giving a broader picture but weakening the reader’s attachment to Dan and Tai May, who become just two more figures in the ongoing story. That, along with occasional overblown prose, weakens an old-fashioned romance of Vietnam.

Trying a bit too hard for a broad-sweeping majesty,Nguyen’s first fiction works best when confined to the more intimate aspects of its character’s lives.

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Little, Brown and Company
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5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.75(d)

Read an Excerpt

The Tapestries

By Kien Nguyen

Back Bay Books

Nguyen-Andrews, LLC
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-316-73560-4

Chapter One

The Wedding

During the winter months, the Perfume River was chilly, especially at dawn. The morning of Dan Nguyen's first wedding was no exception. While the sun was still hidden, its early rays reached from behind the Ngu Binh Mountain, stretching pale-yellow fingers over the sky. Thin clouds wafted by, and the wind whipped up whirlpools of mist. Damp tendrils drifted over the jungle of oak trees that climbed the steep mountainside and were lost against the horizon. Along the side of the river, a strip of land still lay in darkness. From afar, it looked like the back of a crocodile floating in the water. A few hundred feet away, a sampan moved slowly upstream. Both sides of the boat were painted with red resin from the lacquer tree and highlighted with gold trim in large rectangular patterns-the design reserved for weddings.

At the vessel's stern, a white-haired man with stooped shoulders sat on the floor. His gnarled hands clenched an oar, and he leaned heavily into its strokes. The man seemed lost in his own world. His eyes, hidden beneath the rim of a torn conical hat, focused on the water. The faded blue peasant shirt on his back was tattered, exposing his bony ribs. Next to him hung a red lantern that illuminated a short stretch of river ahead. The faint sound of the oar moving the water echoed against the silence.

Behind the old man, in the center of the sampan, was a small cabin with a roof built of red-lacquered bamboo stalks lashed together with palm fronds. Across its entrance hung a pink silk screen on which a canary-yellow dragon entwined with its feminine mate, an equally gracious phoenix. Custom dictated that the bride must be concealed from sight. She sat behind the silk barrier, careful not to make a sound while the boat rocked to the helmsman's gentle rhythm. Just as the sun appeared from behind the purple mountain, the old man guided his bridal sampan toward land. Sunlight broke through the clouds into thousands of tiny golden pennies. The old man squinted, searching the shoreline for a place to dock. He did not have to look far.

Just ahead, where the ground extended into the water to form a long, narrow wharf, twenty people from the groom's family stood in a single file. Most of them wore the ao dai, the ceremonial garb reserved for festivities such as this. The costumes were similar for both men and women: a tunic, made out of silk or satin, with a long skirt separated at the waist into two panels, front and back. The men wore their robes over white pants, while the women wore theirs over black-a more subservient color.

The wedding party had prepared the landing site by hanging strings of firecrackers over the branches of the tamarind trees. Upon the arrival of the sampan, the two oldest men began the ceremony by burning purified joss sticks. Then they ignited the firecrackers. The red, petal-like missiles burst into the morning air, stirring flocks of sparrows from their sleep. They flapped their gray wings among the dark branches, adding their screeches to the din. The deafening sound of the explosives was believed to banish evil spirits as the groom's family prepared to accept their new daughter-in-law.

With the help of two young servants, the old man stepped off his boat. He took off his hat and bowed to the elders. His gesture was mechanical yet courteous. He focused his eyes on the crimson debris of the fireworks on the ground. After the last few scattered booms, silence returned to the riverbank, and even the fog seemed to settle back into its original pattern, draped over the oak trees. From the greeting party, one man marched forward. He was about forty-five years old, and his deep-set eyes peered from beneath bushy eyebrows. His high cheekbones and the downward curve of his mouth made his features appear grim and darkly authoritative. He wore a headdress of black silk, folded into many layers, which framed the crown of his head like a halo. His ao dai was ocean blue, with a subtle, darker, dotted pattern of embroidery, representing the royal symbol of longevity. The fabric was handwoven from a superlative silk, made by the silkworms of the famous Phu Yen Village. Even a rich man could afford only a few such garments. He returned the old man's salutation with a slow bow, then knitted his hands together and faced his palms upward, placing them against his abdomen.

"Greetings," he said to the visitor. "My name is Tat Nguyen. I am the father of the groom. Welcome to our humble town." The old man's head bowed lower, so that no one could see his lips moving as he spoke. "Thank you, but I am afraid that I can't accept your warm welcome, Master Nguyen. My job is to deliver my granddaughter to your home. It is now done, and so I must bid my farewell. Take her with you to the groom. From this moment on, she belongs in your household, sir."

He stepped aside, leaving room for the groom's family to approach the sampan. A pair of servants came forward and joined the other two on the boat. One stood at each corner of the bridal cabin. Then, with one synchronized movement, they hoisted the cubicle to their shoulders and carried it to the shore.

Master Nguyen lifted a corner of his robe and strode to the cabin. He parted the silk screen with the back of his hand to reveal its small interior. Looking back at him was a woman in her twenties. Dressed in a red wedding gown, she crouched with visible discomfort in the center of the cabin. The moment she saw his face, she recoiled farther into her cramped sanctuary. Her eyes, slanted and wide-set, darted as though she were searching for a way to flee. From years of working outdoors, her body had absorbed so much sunlight that a glow seemed to radiate from her skin. She had a big, flat nose, large mouth, and oversized teeth, which were stained black with the juice of betel nuts. He drew his eyebrows together disapprovingly.

"Master, do you like what you see, sir?" came a female voice from somewhere behind him. He turned to see an elderly woman whose back was bent so close to the ground that she appeared to be crawling instead of walking. She was the matchmaker who was responsible for this arranged wedding. Trying to meet his stare, she looped her neck like a duck.

"How old is she?" he asked. "Four and twenty, sir." His frown deepened. "She is an old maid, isn't she?" "She is very healthy," the matchmaker replied quickly. "She is as strong as a bull. And look at her breasts. They are heavy. You will be blessed with many grandchildren."

He relaxed his grimace, looked at the bride, and asked, "What is your name, daughter?"

Upon hearing this, the matchmaker turned happily to the others. "The master has approved. He called her 'daughter.' Bring in the musicians!"

A much louder noise from a turn of the street drowned out the old lady's excited cry-the pulsating sound of a drum. Within seconds, a dragon made of glossy painted wood, cardboard, and papier mache, held up high on bamboo sticks, appeared at the opening of the wharf. From afar, it seemed to float through the village. Young men in white shirts and red pants danced under it to the beat of the drum. Lanterns, shaped like butterflies and fish, burned brightly under the earlymorning sun. A soprano sang the ending verse from the famous opera The King's Wedding. Her voice glided to the highest note before it, too, blended with the sounds of revelry. More firecrackers soared through the air, and no one seemed to notice when the old man slipped away to his boat and turned it back downstream. When the noisy celebration dimmed, the bride shyly answered her father-in-law's question. "My name is Ven, sir."

"Good." Master Nguyen nodded. It was a lowly name that one would give only to a dog, yet somehow it suited her, he thought. The matchmaker handed him a red veil, which he hung over the bride 's head, concealing her face. From that time on, all she could see were the ruby tips of her slippers, yet she was thankful. The sheer fabric became her protective shield. Alone in a strange town, she would rather be led through the ceremony like a blind woman, unaware of the disparaging looks, like the one she had just received from her husband's father. In the back of her mind, a pang of curiosity stirred up, as faint as smoke. What did he look like? She knew nothing about her bridegroom. What of his personality, his likes, his dislikes, even his name? And yet, these things mattered little at this juncture of her life. Like it or not, she was about to be a married woman.

The servants carried her through the streets. The farther they walked, the more vigorously the cabin rocked on their shoulders. She leaned back, closed her eyes, and let herself sway with its movement. The thought of becoming a fine woman in a rich man's home relaxed her aching muscles. The folds of her satin gown trapped her body heat, and she began perspiring. "An elegant lady never sweats." She dimly remembered an old saying she had heard as a child. She reached under the veil and wiped her forehead with the back of her hand.

At last, the bridal party stopped at what seemed to be the back entrance of a house. Someone swept aside the silk curtain of her cubicle and took her callused palm. She recognized the matchmaker's wrinkled hand as the old lady guided her down a muddy path that led to a wooden door.

At the entrance, a burning pot of red coals sat on the ground waiting for her. It was the custom for the bride to step over a blazing stove before setting foot in her new home. The fire would rid her soul of any evil spirits still clinging to it. The matchmaker explained that, according to the astrologer, Ven's unfortunate time of birth required her to enter through the back door and go straight to her honeymoon suite. The rest of the wedding celebration would continue without her.

Ven had to wait for her husband to come and lift her veil. This was another important tradition she had been told that she must follow if she ever hoped to have a long and happy life with this man. Seeing nothing but the tiles beneath her feet, Ven was led through unseen rooms and seated on her bridal bed, alone in the unfamiliar house. Ven lost count of how many hours she remained alone. From the fading of a few streaks of light on the floor, she could tell that the day had aged into night. Outside the window, the party seemed to be winding down. She could hear the laughter slowly diminish into the slurring of drunken guests. The ebullient opera had ended, and now there was a single, soporific moan of a lute. In the dark, her back throbbed, and the numbness in her buttocks spread down her legs. She was hungry and tired. The gown tightened around her bosom, making it difficult for her to breathe.

Just when she thought she could not wait any longer, Ven heard the squeaking noise of a door as it opened and shut. A small group of people tiptoed into the room. Their whispering sounded to her like the wind rasping against rice paper. The oil lamp on the nightstand by her side flickered into light. Moments later, she heard the intruders withdraw, carefully closing the door behind them.

But Ven could tell that she was not alone. The subtle movement of the furniture, the faint rustle of clothing, and the quiet footsteps moving back and forth kept her frozen in place. It's him, she thought. It must be my husband. Who else could it be? In seconds, her months of waiting would be over. Like a boiling pot of water, the anxiety rose up, and she could hardly control her composure. She sat tightly, watching her hands tremble. She could feel the heat from her husband's body as he approached her. She kept her eyes downcast. Touching the ruby tips of her slippers were two tiny bare feet, just half the size of hers. A small hand reached out and clumsily tugged the veil from her face.

Standing before her was a little boy wearing a groom's costume. He could not have been older than seven. She could see the wide gap of his missing front teeth as he grinned at her, and it came to her that this child was her husband.

She got up from the edge of the wedding bed and lowered the oil lamp until it emitted only a dot of light the size of a pea. Quietly, she took off her restrictive clothing. The boy sat on the bed and watched her with his large, almond-shaped eyes. He inserted his thumb into the gap in his teeth. Ven left her undergarments on and climbed into the bed, pulling the mosquito net over her. As she lay down, her husband snuggled into her outstretched arms. He buried his face in her armpit, sucking his thumb.

She took the boy's wrist and pulled the finger out of his mouth. With an effort, she made her voice low and reasonable. "Young master, you are too old for this habit." He lay still, looking at her. Then he closed his eyes and went to sleep. Ven struggled with an impulse to wipe the drool off his face.

In the dark, she began to understand what her position would be in this rich man's house. They did not marry her to make her a fine lady. They wanted her for slave labor. Yet, being a daughter-in-law, she was not entitled to the salary a servant would have been paid. To her surprise, Ven found she could not cry. Soon exhaustion claimed her.


Excerpted from The Tapestries by Kien Nguyen Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Tapestries 4.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 10 reviews.
LininCT More than 1 year ago
Just a wonderful book - rich in story and characters - it's truly unforgettable. I would even reread this book and hope to find more great stories from this author. A true talent and rare find in the myriad of authors and books on the market. I feel truly lucky to have purchased this remarkable story!
Guest More than 1 year ago
i love this book.... it has romance, suspense, revenge, tragedy, mystery, all in one... mayb more though... but this book is easy to read and understand... i wouldnt even put the book down to go back to sleep because i was so interested in this book... must readd...
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Kien survived unbelievable hardships, unbelievable unless you know something of Vietnam and her history, in order to grace us with his creativity and humanity. His first book, Unwanted, had to have been one of the most difficult of writing projects. This one, however, was a project of pure unadulterated love. He introduces us to his beloved grandfather and describes an almost improbable life lived on the edge of disaster almost from birth. Kien's depictions of the imperial court in Hue and descriptions of landmarks in the Citadel were like a homecoming to me. After the battle there in February, 1968, I was able to return and wander the New City (severely damaged) streets, see the hole in the Catholic cathedral caused by a rocket that passed through but didn't blow up, much to my relief since I was in the sanctuary with some comrades and citizens of Hue. The vividness Kien used to illustrate the characters all the way from his 'wife' Ven, to his nemisis, Toan, to the new emperor, to his life long love Mai, made it feel like I was actually there with him. In a way I was, having served near the village where his grandfather came from. This is a wonderful book and it serves, I hope, as a bridge he will use to give us more of the history of that wonderful country and its people.
PhDrSeuss More than 1 year ago
i was bored & wanted something 2 read. out of all the books i have i chose the tapestries and loved it. the book was everything good i can think of. the main character dan nguyen (mouse)goes thru alot thru out the book. he starts of as one of royalty who marries at a very young age and then loses his family in a cruel way. after that event he later becomes a servant/playmate to tai may,a girl whose family is of a high status & who he later develops deep feelin for. after leaving her (u gotta read why) he then goes thru so much in his life. he doesnt give up and thats what i like best bout him (other than the event in which he & tai met up at a celebration). the tapestries (for me) was hard to put down (i dont know rhe last time i read a book in such a short time --- 1 1/2 days). its really worth the read. once u start u will find out why i couldnt put it down. as for the ending .....u are gonna love it!!!!
Vermillion_Bear More than 1 year ago
I can't believe this is suppose to be based on true life stories from the author's grandfather. This book has everything, murder, adventure, revenge, and love. Definitely a great book to read and intriguing. This book could be made into a movie and would do well. Wonderful story. I've read The Unwanted by Kien Nguyn and I hope to read more from him.
Hill_Ravens More than 1 year ago
An adventure through one boys complicated life from 7 years old to late in his adult life. The author is great with descriptions, creating vivid locations and developing the main characters with thought and care. The evil men in the book are so evil; I couldn't even cheer or be relieved in their demise. The happiness Mouse finally finds is hard earned and cherished all the more. It was nice to see Asian female characters which did more than let the men around them rule their lives. Out of the three main female characters, each was strong, intelligent and self-less in their own ways. Mouse has to make some tough decisions, and he doesn't always make the right one first. It was good to see a hero who suffered from normal doubts and logic puzzles. Overall a very delightful book, would recommend to anyone who likes historical books.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is a great book that kept me reading. It flows very smooth. It is a fictional book based around a few key events in his grandfather's life. You won't be disappointed with this book.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book was very interesting and I had a hard time putting it down. There were some parts of the book where some of the character's stories seeemed unfinished, but in the author's notes he helped to wrap up the mysteries surrounding these characters. The book read not only as an interesting novel, but somewhat like a mystery/suspense/thriller. I loved this book and would recommend it to anyone. Kien Nguyen is a promising and talented writer.
harstan More than 1 year ago
In 1916 Viet Nam, twenty-four years old Ven is shocked to learn that her new husband Dan Nguyen is only seven years old. She quickly learns why his father agreed to her joining his family as a ¿daughter¿. She is now an unpaid servant (perhaps slave is more descriptive) to her three mothers-in-law as expected by society. Still she tries to do what is best for her husband as their relationship is more mother to child than a married couple. However, when the town¿s mayor has Dan¿s parents killed, Ven protects her spouse. When she becomes ill she sells Dan into slavery into the safest place she knows, the home of the mayor. Years later Dan and Tai May, granddaughter of the mayor, fall in love. However, another suitor destroys their happiness by revealing Dan¿s preadolescent marriage, forcing Dan to flee for his life. THE TAPESTRIES is a tremendous early twentieth century Viet Namese historical tale that is at an incredible level of excellence up to the point that Dan runs away after being exposed. Though the plot meanders after that, the insightful story line provides an intriguing glimpse at a time and place. Along with the resplendent light on the past, the three dimensional cast turns Kien Nguyen¿s novel into a must read for sub-genre fans who will also want to obtain the author¿s biography THE UNWANTED as this is a talented writer worth following. Harriet Klausner
Anonymous More than 1 year ago