February: Love and Treats

Just because this blog is winding down does not mean I have not binge read appropriately seasonal books for it. Well, partially. If I was as seasonal as I’d like to think, this month would also feature presidents and Black History Month topics (it still could, one never knows). But for now, the plan is Valentine’s Day. Because I’ve been a white girl with protestant heritage since I blew onto this planet and with that privilege I have enjoyed many a Hallmark holiday. And I plan to, pun intended, spread the love!

Also for some reason I have been eating those boxed chocolates for three weeks already, pretty much since they hit the stores in January and I was buying 37 cent chocolate Santas. Those were good Santas.

Valentine’s Day is about treats and couples. This week is two magical realism titles about treats. Because a magical realism backlist that fits into a holiday theme is a double win for me.

The Cake Therapist, Judith Fertig

Claire O’Neil, or Neely, returns to her hometown after her marriage flounders back in NYC to start a bakery of her own.  The narrative alternates with that of two poor sisters down on their luck sixty years before, and the mystery of how they get lost from one another after losing what little they had in the world.  Added to this is Neely’s marriage drama and her sixth sense, centered mainly in her sense of taste.  She is a bakery owner, but her extra abilities make her a healer and a savior too.

This was darker than I expected.  It has been sitting on my magical realism list forever and I thought it would be like other books I have read centered around creative hobby businesses.  I love me a book about creative hobby businesses and some psychic abilities rolled in there so you can be like low key helpful without all the responsibility of being in a healing profession.  Total wish fulfillment.  But this narrative is deepened with the intersecting historical fiction tale with the two little girls on the edge of disaster, and then one outright has a crisis.  It’s very different from the wedding business and the single woman in her thirties trying to get out of her marriage and try to make sense out of her childhood.  I don’t know if the contrast in the tone between stories would turn off some readers.  One reading for diversion might not like the dark aspects.  A reader who likes darker things might not even want to read a book about a bakery.   I mean, I liked it.  I’m glad I got it out of my nightstand in a fit of feeling like I never make serious progress with my book piles.  And there’s more depth than expected.  I can respect that in a book, even if it’s not what I was picking it up to read. A mystery that doesn’t turn out to be cozy at all.

Chocolat, Joanne Harris

Vienne Rocher moves into a devout Catholic, sleepy town in France and opens a chocolate shop.  An independent woman raised as a transient herself, she shakes up this town of traditional values, bringing change and healing to them and healing her own childhood wounds in the process.

This was feel good book for sure, but like with The Cake Therapist, there was more darkness than I expected and more magic.  I mean both books were recommended as Magical Realism even though they don’t feel like the South American magical realism that I’ve read.  Psychic abilities are more mainstream and subtle than like all the weird and fantastical stuff that goes on with Marquez and Allende. Anyway, this was compelling and multi-layered and I love books where magical treats bring people together.  I love books about attachment and healing, and outgroups coming together.  I kind of wanted it to end differently, but it was probably meant to end the way that it did.  An outcome I’d prefer for myself does not mean that it is in keeping with the character or the best outcome for everyone, and I think to be widely read and enjoy being widely read is appreciating outcomes that you would not personally want.  

Next week, the veritable day of love itself! Will feature at least one book about a couple. I still have to finish it and I’m woefully behind because I am working on books to blog about on the author website I am building. So many questions I don’t know the answers to, but that’s always part of the adventure!

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January has been Conquered!

So, guys. Totes late today but I still showed up.

January seems to have reserved it’s worst for the end as we get peppered with a snowstorm to open February and it’s bitter cold, which is not what my first winter ever chickens would prefer. But it can do what it wants. I have my second shot this week and anything is better than January.

Except this is my last post in the Alice Hoffman series! Full disclosure, I have one audiobook I didn’t make it to. I am working on a Feb read that I need all my audio goodness for getting through. You’ll see what it is but I’m not sure if you’ll really be impressed.

White Horses, Alice Hoffman

I’m actually stumbling around how to describe the plot of this book that is pretty plotless.  It’s a family that essentially falls apart, scattering to the wind.  It’s about women who romanticize inaccessible, damaged and selfish men to their own detriment before they realize that kindness is better, or that in the end they can save themselves. It’s a lot about selfishness. Selfish and helpless characters who seem aimless at times, and you waver on how much you like them. The main characters, or the two still standing at the end, are a woman, Teresa, and her brother, Silver. Teresa has a sleeping disorder where she sleeps for endless hours as a stress response, and most of the book when she’s awake she is either allowing men to do what they want with her or pining after her brother, Silver.  She does find her way, which is redeeming.

This is not to say that I didn’t like this book.  I love all the different places her books take me, this time the Pacific Northwest and the desert/American West, with her descriptions of the heat, and the atmosphere, the colors and smells of it all. The women in this book find their way back to themselves after losing themselves in dreams and men and the feminist I am loves that, and she finds ways to keep me interested in her often half appealing characters. I have never been one to fall for the golden, unattainable man just because of an enigmatic draw that is misinterpreted as romance, and this book is a lot about the unattainable, as well as a level of dysfunction her other novels do not share.  This one was darker and more unexpected from my Alice Hoffman binge reading, and looking at Goodreads, others of her fans were not entirely thrilled with it either.  Some were swept along, like her writing does to me, and others just couldn’t stomach it.  

The Story Sisters, Alice Hoffman

Three sisters meet different fates, coming together and falling apart, on the pages of this novel.  The eldest sister Elv spirals into drug abuse following a trauma she can’t talk about, pulling apart her mother and other two sisters. They all feel responsible for terrible things that happen to each other and do find themselves at the end, each in their own way.

Another one that is hard to really describe an actual plot, although things happen, and everyone is affected by what happens to others.  This one is later than the ones of hers I’ve been reading, and the magical elements are definitely in this one, and I like the way it adds to the stories.  I also liked how this one had a more clear reason why Elv spiraled off the way she did.  Sometimes I have felt that Hoffman’s teen girls in her earlier books are rebellious just because, not because of anything that happened to them that they are struggling with.  I mean, many of those girls are merely ones who have a lot of casual sex, but the oldest sister here gets into drugs, which is a whole other animal. Trauma is heaped on with a rehab program where she meets a guy who gets her into harder stuff.   But she was more damaged than a spoiled brat, like some of Hoffman’s early teen girls are. Like, I have considered reading her very first novel, Property Of, but I think it’s more the rebellious teen girl thing and because I have read so many of her novels in succession I’m over that trope. 

I read this one right after White Horses and there are some similarities between these stories and some similar elements to her older ones.  In both books, the mom’s heart is saved following a failed marriage by a private detective in half retirement who falls in love with them and carries the family forward even after the mother dies early from cancer, and takes care of her kids as a paternal figure.  There is much gardening, and the cycle of seasons, early mother deaths, dads who leave, headstrong daughters escaping their mothers. I liked how she wrote Elv’s boyfriend, and how the surprises about him were not what you expected and you found yourself liking him.  Usually I can’t stand all her selfish bad boys and I love her steady loving paternal good guys, but this guy was kind of both, and I found myself pleasantly surprised and intrigued by him.  So this one kind of broke away from her earlier novels in certain ways, even if it held very much the same in others.  She still made most everyone okay and she paints such magical imagery so she always wins.

Beautiful Alice to get me through the snowy dark winter. So grateful for her and her lovely writing career. I’m open to reading more of her backlist at some point, and that one audiobook I didn’t make it to. I’m certainly not done with enjoying her work.

Also, new author site is not off the ground. At all. I paid for the final copy and proofing and all the graphic artistry it will need and I’m beginning my collaboration with those professionals. And some magnet stuff. I’ll at least have a domain when this blog expires in six weeks. It’s exciting to feel tangible progress on getting it into the world and building my own empire. I will have a blog on there too.

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January is for Alice Hoffman Books

Winds of change continue to blow in this country as the new year pushes on.

It’s been mild enough for me to be able to keep getting outside, and I love how the snow is blue at dusk. My dog LOVES the weekend walks and its starting to stay light longer so I can sometimes get her out with me after sessions. My poor chickens don’t like being confined to their pen all winter but there’s nowhere to go in the yard. I feel for them. It’s too bad they can’t read to get them through this.

I’m finding that the late fall and winter are just about binge reading for me, whether it be the Snow Reads I used to do (that I kind of miss doing, honestly) or ticking down my back list.

After my Susanna Kearsley books I had a ton of Alice Hoffmans and I have enough of them read to cover me through this month of posts, and it’s mostly her older stuff. Very cool to read an author’s backlist to get a feel for their awesome growth as a writer and admire them making a career in the crazy competitive world of publishing. And she’s so lyrical and I love how she includes details to make things come to life, so it’s good for my writing as well.

Drowning Season, Alice Hoffman

A short, intergenerational family saga that centers around a family living in a compound united by the goal of keeping one of its members from drowning himself in the ocean for a few weeks every summer.  A rich family that came from nothing and how it’s individual members feel trapped in their own way, either by circumstances or love or being consistently prevented from becoming “one” with the water.   This one follows some of the same themes as the other Hoffman books I have been reading, with strained family members who don’t understand one another, and a dying matriarch, and a love somewhere in there dying to manifest.  This one does not have some of the magic that can be interwoven in her narratives.

At times I was absorbed by the narrative and trying to understand an unlikable matriarch who thinks maybe she should repent a little as cancer overtakes her body. Absorbed by the parts of her life where she was vulnerable when she was initially an ice queen.  Other times I didn’t care as much about what happens to her trapped family.  I found the part where she falls in love with the tattooed man the most interesting and how that scrap of her humanity stays with her to her dying days. This family is painfully disconnected and they only break further apart as the narrative continues, so there wasn’t that satisfying resolution.  Although if the family had suddenly truly come together it would have been entirely unrealistic and annoyed me.  

It was an okay one of her books.  Not amazing, and I think it was one of her earlier buildup ones to the mastery of her later books, just a testament to how being a writer is truly a lifelong journey into creativity.   I feel less guilty about a lackluster review when it didn’t score super high in Goodreads either. But as I said, with the context of the time in which she wrote it and still developing, I’ll take it.

Illumination Night, Alice Hoffman

Neighbors on Martha’s Vineyard intersect for about a two year span:  A teen girl coming to nurse her ailing grandmother and a young couple struggling financially and with the demands of parenthood and mental illness. The story goes between perspectives of different members of these two families and their backstories.  

Like her other older works that I have been reading through, this is more that ‘slice of life’ type writing than it is about a plot, a definite story with a beginning, middle and end.  It’s a period of interwoven lives and where they converge and diverge.  That didn’t mean I was not interested in all their individual tales and woes and intersections; I definitely was, but I am increasingly finding that her early books are something you really have to be in the mood for.  You have to be in the mood for character stories and slice of life rather than a high stakes or fast paced, twisty, diverting plot.  These books are really more about getting consumed in individual stories than they are about a unifying plot, per se.

I am not reading her novels in order, I am reading them by what I think I am in the mood for, and working down my TBR, of course, but I’m wondering when she’s going to stop writing about angry disconnected teenaged daughters from mothers that may or may not deserve it.This particular one grows up helping her grandmother and managing more responsibility, but she also goes after the married man next door and has casual sex with most of the eligible teen boys in town, stays out all night, and barely does any schoolwork. Her teen girls all over are falling for the wrong guys and having sex with them.  As this was very much not my own experience or the experiences of many teen girls I’ve worked with, she needs to flesh this out.  This book is from 1987, so way early on.  Also, the love connection she makes in the end?  There was definitely romance to it but the end of the story became a lot about a character that wasn’t big in the rest of the book.    

I did like how she managed Vonny, the young wife’s, agoraphobia and I think she does well with portraying the complications and evolutions of marriage and parenthood.  I like how Vonny’s husband is both annoyed with her agoraphobia but likes having the chance to be the hero in her eyes, even though the marriage has changed in ways he doesn’t particularly like, either, as marriages do. Vonny needs to grow up a little too, as she relates to teen girls more than she does other adult women, even though she proves herself to be a responsible parent.

So all month, like I said, will be the talented Ms. Alice. Might help get us through the snow and all the other anxiety producing things swirling about this January.

I’ve started to make progress toward getting my book off the ground in a real way. Yes, that means changes to this blog project. More to come.

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The Read Down Continues: Alice Hoffman

Okay all my lovelies!!

Like sooo 2021. Not even past the free trial and I’m almost ready to return it. Ugh. I mean, not that my spidey sense hasn’t been twinkling for months that things had the potential to go wildly off track, but I’m one of those people who isn’t used to bad things happening. I’m just not. I’m privileged. Unprecedented times.

I wish for healing and love for 2021 and us all to get back to working on the best possible version of themselves. This includes me who has to make an author platform this year and when it is finished I would love any of my followers to check it out when it’s ready. Already a plug. I already feel shameless.

So, okay. Read down continues. I spent the end of last year in a blur of Alice Hoffman books. I collected a lot of her early pre magical realism, the stuff before the spinoffs of Practical Magic that are so popular right now.

I want to start off this series of posts by stating that no matter how I felt about any particular book of hers, I deeply respect her work. She’s talented and she’s amazing with the way she has built a career as an author. I like seeing how she changes and experiments as her writing career goes on. She’s part of our fabric as a culture. She’s amazing no matter what.

Also these are in no particular order. It’s the order in which I felt like reading them.

Fortune’s Daughter, Alice Hoffman

An unlikely friendship forms between Rae, a deserted, pregnant girlfriend and a fortune teller, Lila, struggling with the old trauma of being forced to give up a baby for adoption in Southern California during the game changing earthquake season.  

Somehow this story was just what I needed, even though I was taking a break from the heaviness of another novel and this had its own heaviness, just different. Readers on Goodreads complain that this one is not as dazzling and magical as some of her more recent stuff, but it still has magic to it.  More subtle magic, times where you aren’t sure what’s based in reality.  Rae and Lila were both terribly emotionally deserted by their families of origin and are only trying to make it in a world where a woman could only just recently have a credit card in her own name. Lila is ambivalent at best about her psychic abilities and more interested in healing the heartache of her past that she can only barely seem to put words to. The reading pulls them together but only because it’s the only person since Rae left home that she’s tried to connect to, not because Lila reads tea leaves.  And Rae grows up when she becomes pregnant and her selfish boyfriend chases the next big break instead of staying home to make a family for her.  She realizes who she is and that she likes that person and her freedom once she gets a taste of it. Maybe it doesn’t have the razzle dazzle of her later stuff but her writing is so beautiful and true that I don’t need to be astounded to keep coming back to her books.  

Also the cover of my kindle edition of this book is way better. I don’t like these random covers that are similar across all her early stuff with like stock images. Mine has a teacup on it. So much more fitting.

I do agree with other reviewers that it was hard for it to end as abruptly as it did, and I won’t say at what point.  I don’t know how she got away with ending it right at a new beginning, but maybe if she went into the new beginning there would not have been a better place to end it.

The Probable Future, Alice Hoffman

Each woman in the Sparrow family is gifted with a psychic ability on her thirteenth birthday.  As one would expect, they are gifts accompanied by burdens.  The most recent Sparrow girl, Stella, can see how people will die, and when she presses her father to tell the police about a murder she has seen, he spins into suspicion for murder that changes everything for the Sparrow women, bringing back together a family that has been distanced from one another way too long.  And bringing a true love together that was long overdue.

All right, so that plot summary is super reductive.  As with any Hoffman novel, the setting of a small New England town with its history of witch persecution is a character in and of itself, as well as ill fated relationships with males and ice cold relations between mothers and daughters.  A family gift/curse that has molded each woman in her own way. The origin story of a girl who comes out of the trees and becomes the object of suspicion because for a woman she is entirely too powerful.  And some nice magical realism in there, as any reader of mine knows I love a subtle but present magic.  So many people and stories and layers.

I had more frustrations with the plot of this one than I did for Fortune’s Daughter.  I wasn’t sure how Stella really ended up estranged from her mother when her mother Jenny gave her all the attention that Jenny didn’t get from her mother, Elinor.  I understand how Jenny ended up taking off with her classic ne’er do well charmed boyfriend, but I don’t understand why Stella, with all the attention in the world from Jenny, ended up with the same angry coldness and the same attraction to negative guys as her mother did.  I’m less sympathetic to her resentful nature, even though at thirteen, it’s more acceptable than if she was older. She acts like a spoiled brat with how she treats her mother. I don’t understand Stella’s ability to relate to her friend Juliet, who has been truly abandoned and neglected, as fun as Juliet is. And Stella’s father Will is truly awful and gets off lightly with every crappy self centered thing he does.  He puts his family in danger and ends up smelling like roses with some inexplicable turnaround.  Like, he gets with another woman who he doesn’t deserve and is just like oh I’m going to quit drinking now because this one woman who doesn’t really know me believes in me.  After I’ve spent my whole life exploiting people and not dealing with my demons.  I can’t.  Maybe I’ve known too many men like that.

Characterization aside, this novel has all the artful writing, beauty and complexity that always draw me back to her novels.

So at least the next two Sundays will be Alice Hoffman books, maybe a third Sunday. I’m glad I did read up some books to have time to be building my author empire for releasing my book this year. So much research involved. Every self pub author I follow has done so much work. But it’s always work, whether it’s researching agents and then begging for consideration from them or publishers or if it’s just setting it all up myself or coming up with the money for someone else to do it. Sometimes I just want to leave the damn thing on my google drive and let that be that.

Stay tuned for more Alice Hoffman goodness this month.

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This is not a Christmas Post

I decided I wasn’t ready.

As I am writing this post my tree is not up yet because it’s pre-Thanksgiving, but when you read this, it will be up and my house will be decorated for Christmas. Not by me. If you need a chat about a tasty Christmas read, this is not your post.

Not saying I don’t have Christmas reads lined up, because I do, but you’ll have to stay tuned for them. Maybe the tree being up will help but I find that a good snow helps with the spirit to come along. I’ve even eaten chex mix and sent out gifts and nope, when I screeched to a halt on a book I’m trying to get through and I needed something else to post on this week, I didn’t pick up any Christmas.

But I do hope everyone’s Thanksgiving was lovely.

Today it is magic! But not happy Hogwarts magic, that’s for sure.

An Unkindness of Magicians, Kat Howard

A world of magicians (the Unseen World) overlaid with ours (the Mundane World) participates every few years in bloodthirsty battles to see whose family is going to come out on top. Enter a woman, Sydney who has escaped from the House of Shadows to turn everything on it’s head. She has power like no one has seen, and, to boot, magic is failing. Sydney wants to see magic fail, based on the sacrifices that she and others have been forced to make to uphold it.

This is a dark, ruthless, bloodthirsty worldbuilding of magic. It’s about power and privilege and abuse of power. It’s not fun times at Hogwarts, not that Harry Potter doesn’t have a dark element to it but this book is brutal. The powerful magicians in it are notably old white men and the main source of magic is the exploitation of other’s magic. This book is about an underdog, absolutely, cold and calculating after years of abuse, but you still like her, and you still want her to come out on top. She’s relatable even if deeply damaged, maybe because we have all had the urge to watch it all burn. Some have been hurt in ways it’s difficult to come back from, which makes the return all the better.

Because I don’t connect as much with the deep trauma, even though well written and constructed, this book could be an interesting, diverting book of alliances and systems and power plays, and it wasn’t exhaustively long with most of the action being in the last, like 15% of the book. Sometimes books with complex systems are exhaustive/exhausting but this wasn’t, the pace clipped right along and even though it looks like it will be a series of some sort there is resolution on it’s own. And I like books about magic and magical worlds in November. I just do.

So, right? Not the loving light of Christmas. I’m okay though. Foisting my treats on different people than usual this year because I usually travel to see my people who get treats but I won’t be doing that.

2020 dumpster fire.

No promises about next week. I just started another portal-y magic book.

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I’m grateful for cozies

We have made it to the holiday week of gratitude!

I have slowed down this week in honor of the holiday and because I’m finding a serious adult life lesson for me is knowing when to slow down and not to listen to all my crazy issues around being productive all the time. And because I think I need to make space for my grief for this skewed holiday season without the usual trimmings. Even if I wasn’t focused on being safe, the world here is shut down and will likely be more so as COVID cases bloom again all over the state. I could get into politics over this, but I won’t.

I intended to have a different book finished for today’s post, but it’s stressful right now and it blows my empathy apart and I had to take a break from it and then I didn’t get back to it on time to post. So space has been made to talk about a book series I am super grateful for in this week of gratitude.

Also I am grateful to my readers!!! My stats are slowly but surely improving. I am grateful to everyone who peeks over here to see my Sunday bookish goodnesses.

Southern Spirits by Angie Fox

Main cozy mystery elements: Verity, our lovable protagonist belle who is a little too outspoken for polite Southern society, who can’t help but help those in need with a definite headstrong streak. She has not been able to get consistent employment after having to sell everything off to pay for the wedding she ditched. The ghost hunting also makes her weird to some of the town’s residents.

Frankie, her sidekick ghost who sometimes gives her the power to see the other side as it overlaps on current reality and has it’s own distinct worldbuilding rules that up the stakes when needed. For example, ghosts can hurt her when she is in their world but not when they aren’t. She and Frankie have nicely conflicting personalities as well as Frankie getting his own storylines. Also, her reliance on Frankie and his reluctance to help is an effective driver of tension.

Virginia Wydell, her antagonist, the woman of the fiancee (Beau) that she dumped on their wedding day because he tried to hit on her sister the night before the wedding. Virginia is old school Southern high society and is determined to make Verity suffer for the embarrassment the caused the family.

Ellis Wydell, the sexy, skeptical cop love interest who just happens to be another son of Virginias.

Lucy, a pet skunk that she rescued as a baby.

Sugarland, Tennessee: A quaint Southern town full of gossips and old money and old families and all kinds of interpersonal conflict and drama.

There are nine books in the series and I have read them all, plus most, if not all of the shorts. I love that she helps ghosts and the different ways the author creates tension in her immediate world and juxtaposes it with the spirit world. I love the audio narration, although it’s not out with the newest book that I finished weeks ago. I couldn’t wait for it. I don’t care that the covers are cartoony. I used to have a thing against that but life is too short to only read intense books.

As the books go on they get decidedly darker. The spirit world mysteries are not exactly light hearted, as that wouldn’t make sense, but the stories behind the hauntings get creepier as it goes. But it’s all great. The shorts are great, the audio is great, the slow burn romance and the character arcs. I get completely absorbed. It’s too long before the next one, and I’m not huge on book series.

I wish everyone the best holiday week and that we stay safe as we plunge into the cold months during a world changing pandemic. The next two months will be interesting for my country and all I can do is spread love, be grateful and optimistic. Books are a big way I can get that feeling.

I don’t know if it’s Christmas reads next week. No promises.

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November Diversion: A Peculiar Peril

It’s Sunday morning and I know the rest of the world continues to spin off its axis in chaos around me.

I thought I’d barrel into this holiday season but after buying my sister’s gifts, which I wanted to buy the most, I feel like I’ve had to make myself focus on the rest. I just tossed my mother’s gift onto my knitting needles when holiday knitting usually started weeks ago. Everything is just out of whack. I blame the dragged out election and the lack of my usual external markers of my life, like sports seasons.

I have managed to purchase materials for Thanksgiving pies and chex mix, my holiday cooking bastions, so there is that. I would be planning cookies if I was going to see my family but COVID says no.

I do think it’s important to be safe, however. My boss has sent us all back to remote sessions as of this week and I’m wondering how much longer my child will be able to do his two in person days. I know school closing will be inevitable and I am grateful that he’s had the number of in person days as he has had. He’s gotten back into the swing of school, which for me is the most crucial component.

I mean so it’s a good time to delve more into portal fiction. I said last week that November is just such a portal appropriate month for me and I have to say that the bizarre nature of this one was a good diversion from the election craziness last week.

A Peculiar Peril, Jeff VanderMeer

Jonathan Lambshead inherits his grandfather’s estate on the pretense that he needs to catalog and manage the vast amounts of items accumulated. This quickly dissolves into a larger theme involving Aurora, another dimension under siege by a magician, his mutinous familiar, and a collection of constructed war machines. Jonathan discovers his true inheritance, his legacy, in which was to protect Earth from the nefarious powers taking over Aurora. Of course he uncovers his own family secrets in the process. And this is a duology so the resolution is only partly and not just my usual avoidance of spoilers.

So this plot summary is super reductive. This novel spirals into the weird at warp speed. The second chapter brings in the magician, his familiar, the disembodied head of Napoleon providing battle strategies living in Notre Dame repainted on the inside to more closely resemble the flames of Hell. I anticipated this, as I follow the author on Facebook purely for my own entertainment. Usually he writes sci fi/cli fi which is too intense for me to enjoy but I thought I’d try this one because it’s marketed as a YA novel. I have no idea who thought that would be a good idea, because I can’t imagine getting involved in this book as a teenager. This is what I get for reading someone’s book because they put up trailcam footage and pictures of themselves in costume holding a jackfruit on Facebook when the world, for all intents and purposes, is going to crap.

This is good if you like the super ass weird and out there. If you are looking for talking vegetables, hedgehogs riding roosters, a monster made to look like a school marm and a talking inanimate object that is the secret to dominating the universe, this is it. I needed brain space for it but I didn’t get too emotionally involved and that is a plus. Also the bathroom and tongue in cheek humor is really top shelf. Yeah, it’s toilet humor but VanderMeer brings it to a new level of hilarity without being gross in a way that keeps me following his Facebook posts. And I can’t confidently say I caught every iota of the layers and subtlety. I always love some resolution to family mysteries too and when the MC ends up more connected in the end that they were in the beginning. I’d find new things if I read it again. It’s not a book I’d recommend to everyone, so I’m trying to be open about the kind of book it is so my readers can decide for themselves if it’s a good outlet for their brain space.

At the moment I think I’ll read the next installment but it isn’t coming out until 2022. A lot can happen by then, if 2020 has taught us anything.

Not Christmas yet next week. More stuff I meant to get to, maybe some more magic, because I realized that I read the Magicians trilogy at this time of year and it was also that other dimension portal absorption goodness.

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Review: The Starless Sea

I admit it’s difficult to focus on posting today, as much as I want to share my thoughts about The Starless Sea. I have been trying to be more conscious of my screen time and that’s all been blown to bits this week with election coverage and stress about the outcomes of either side claiming victory. Debunking conspiracies, keeping hope, still being a therapist and a mom, making progress on my reading and other personal projects.

I let my kid have a friend over today to have a break from all the stress talk going on between his parents.

Somehow I have ended up reading two involved portal books this November, which I didn’t expect, because agents looking for manuscripts have mostly said no portal fiction. But since neither of those books are debut novels, apparently you can write about slipping through magical doors all that you want. Do I sound jealous? Because I so am.

But I digress.

The Starless Sea, Erin Morgenstern

Zachary Ezra Rawlins, and yes, all three names are used copiously, is a graduate student who finds a book in the library about his life. Intrigued and creeped out but also with the distinct sense he is meant for something different, he embarks upon an adventure into a bizarre parallel world and assumes a role in a story he was always meant to assume. Labyrinths, symbolism, folktales that all eventually weave together and characters with unclear motives flank the shores of the starless sea.

November is a good time to read Morgenstern, first of all because she is a NaNo winner with The Night Circus, and because November/late fall, before it really starts to snow, holds a thin veil magic for me. I loved this time as a kid without understanding why and as an adult there’s a certain magic to it. Adulthood needs magic. Needs infinite possibilities. Both of her books now are a perfect foreground to a magical, anything’s possible time of the year. I also love that this is the time of year that Harry Potter movies make their way back to TV. Thanksgiving weekend I usually tune in and hit The Half Blood Prince.

It’s lucky I set the expectation at the beginning of this post that I’m struggling to focus today.

That said, I think this book is for people with certain book tastes. It is a more literary, atmospheric book for someone who just loves stories for the sake of stories. The smaller stories that weave together kept my interest going when at times it flagged a little bit, when Zachary was really in the bowels of this strange world I didn’t yet have a framework for understanding. My brain got impatient at times, but if I read this book at a time where I had more brain bandwidth I may have felt differently. I cannot promise that if you loved The Night Circus that you will love this too. But if atmospheric stories for the sake of stories and maybe some wish fulfillment for those of us who have always wanted to be spirited to another dimension are for you, or maybe for you, it’s worth picking up. And remembering that even when it gets weird, there is resolution in the end that pulls it together.

I had this pipe dream that I was going to have a second intense portal book (because isn’t early November kinda about portals?) ready for you today, and I’m like, 60% through, but this week has been too emotional to plough through like 250 more pages of a book that needs my attention. But Morgenstern easily deserves her own post, as she is my November magic twice over. I look forward to more of her magic.

More books I missed this month before the Christmas reads.

And I’d love for this country to come together again, once I am done with my petty anger. Yes, I must acknowledge my petty anger. I tell my kids to do it all the time.

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Fall Reads: YA Goodness

The days have been increasing in their fall atmospheric goodness. Perfect for hot drinks and the kind of read you need for fall, whether that’s cozy, or scary, or creepy.

My son is going to be eight years old on Tuesday and I don’t miss the whirlwind of activity this weekend may have been save for the pandemic slowing everything down. It’s somewhat of an experiment to see how much he will feel is amiss once the birthday is over, and I’m guessing it won’t be much. He has gifts coming and his special birthday rituals and I am going to do something special with him on the day and we all might find that keeping it simple was really just fine. Although I just did a sweep and I think I’m missing birthday wrapping paper. I would usually have his gifts done by now…eek!

As for the reads! I’ll do the YA creepy stuff today. I have demons lined up for the day after Halloween as that is a day with a thinner veil and maybe people want something darker to go with the holiday weekend. Right before we shift into end of the year mode (I won’t use the C word yet. I am not even on my C reads).

The Women in the Walls, Amy Lukavics

Lucy’s mother died when she was a toddler and ever since she has been stranded with her father, aunt Penelope and cousin in a rambling Victorian house in the middle of the woods.  When her aunt disappears in the woods a creepy mystery spirals out of control.   Her cousin starts saying that she can hear Penelope speaking to her through the walls of the mansion.  Lucy starts to hear voices too, only to discover her mother’s and aunt’s roles in a deadly legacy.

This one was on my Amazon wish list forever, to be listened to when I found that NYPL had it on ebook. This year has been good for getting through wishlisted scary reads titles, bought or borrowed, which still count as TBRs.  This book was terrifying and haunting in parts, a perfect example of dark YA horror. The voices, her discoveries in the house, the way her cousin’s sanity slipped away and she had no one to help her with it.  The mysterious graveyard on the property that she never knew about, and the random disappearance of her aunt with her father seeming to be too focused on his socializing to do too much about, so you wonder what his secrets are.  It definitely kept me guessing. 

I also thought the author did well reporting on Lucy’s self harm habit and what it meant to her.  So many teens struggle with self harm I think it is helpful for them to see themselves in book characters who understand it, struggle with it, and overcome it.

However I agree with many reviews that some aspects of this book were terrifying and haunting, really worked, but some parts of it fell short of the mark. I struggled with the book being set in modern day when its overtones are decidedly Gothic:  an isolated old mansion in the woods, the girls don’t really have a good reason for not attending public school and just going along with being shut up and bored all day in the house, long standing family secrets.  I feel this would have been better set in an earlier time when people still had grand dinner parties as entertainment and feasibly did spend their days shut up in a mansion if they were rich. I also thought that the reveal came in a rush at the end, where it could have been sprinkled more throughout.  Lucy could have been making discoveries about this mystery all along rather than just at the end.  But do I still recommend it?  I do. If there’s a reluctant teen reader that could potentially get absorbed in a horror book, this would be the one. The inconsistencies I find with it as an adult may not be the same to a teenage reader who gets swept up in this atmospheric novel.  I’d be willing to bet it would have worked even better on my teenage self than my adult, classic Gothic novel reading self.

Toil and Trouble: Fifteen Tales of Women and Witchcraft, Tessa Sharpe and Jessica Spotswood

Fifteen short stories involving teen girls through varying contexts dealing with their power.  Most of these witches are women of color, some of them gay, and are dealing with legacies of prejudice on a number of levels, and of course, rising above.

These stories were fun, varied, well crafted, and thought provoking. Many uplifting and empowering for teen girls to believe in their own powers. Another one that spent way too much time chilling on my TBR.  The diversity was especially appreciated, the women coming out of all walks of life and situations, but similar to all other women in the stories through their undeniable power.

The stories that stood out to me the most were Afterbirth, where a midwife apprentice covers for some midwifery that the Bible wouldn’t condone; Death in the Sawtooths, where a marginalized woman who deals with deities no one else wants to is called on for a favor; and Gherin Girls, where a trio of sisters are trying to hold it together through the challenges that threaten them.  

Awesome young adult reading!

Blood and Salt, Kim Liggett

Ash would be your normal teenager, save that her mother escaped from a spiritual commune and is pulled back…or save the fact that she often sees a dead ancestor hanging above her.  When she and her twin brother find the commune tucked into a ravenous field of Kansas cornstalks, they find a community preparing for resurrection and she finds a boy with secrets of his own that she can’t resist. She has to save her mother before her mother is sacrificed as a vessel in this immortality ritual.

So, I think the title made me think this book would be harder core than it was, or less romance, which is dumb of me because the pitch is Romeo and Juliet meets Children of the Corn.  It has been on my wishlist forever and I scammed the audio off the NYPL website.  I found it hard to get my brain into the revelations and the secrets behind the cult.  All cults have secrets, and this book is like an onion in its layers of revealed secrets.  The ritual and the love that started it all, the abilities that come out of the twins and the story behind a mother’s protection.  It’s an original story, there’s lots of drama around the lovers and obstacles.  As I said, I was surprised with the amount of romance in it, considering all the suspense and horror too.  If a significant romance aspect works for you in an otherwise dark scenario works for you, then it would be a fitting book.  Plus all the corn.

So some YA reads as the fall turns into winter, as we slide into the week of Halloween, however that looks for everyone this year. Full disclosure I don’t miss doing four Halloween activities with my son. I like that it will be two this year. Next weekend, although it will already be Nov 1, I will wrap up my favorite post series of the year with one more clutch of fall reads. I guess life being slower has been good for my TBR after all.

I find that November posts pre-Thanksgiving tend to be a good time to get in any newer books I haven’t made it to with my other reads. I say newer because I don’t always get to what was published this year, but books that caught me when they were new that I made sure to get but other blog themes or writing projects got in the way. If an author I like comes out with something new it tends to be the time I get to it. For me it is a good end of year wrapping up thing.

I wish everyone a happy and safe Halloween week!

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Fall Reads: Harder Horror

I’m well aware that my favorite reads and subjects are more nuanced than they are all out crap your pants on the edge of being grossed out horror, but I can get into the occasional harder core horror story. It doesn’t always have to been teenagers and women with more power than society deems acceptable that fills my reading brain (although I think it will be teenagers again next week. Possibly demons. I don’t know. I seem to have done some serious binge reading this summer). Today’s post, as you have a coffee and think about all the Sunday fall goodness ahead, shall prove that sometimes I’ll crawl into that emotional space of an edgier horror story.

Should I have waxed poetic about it already becoming later October or would that have taken away from this confession that my dark side has its’ needs too?

Hex, Thomas Olde Heuvelt

A town in the Hudson Valley is haunted by the spectre of a prosecuted witch from back in the early 1600s.  With her eyes and mouth sewn shut and wrapped in chains, she is an unexploded bomb tolerated by a tiptoeing town.  The curse: once you know about her, you cannot leave the town for any appreciable amount of time or you will be compelled to take your own life.  So she is a carefully constructed,  guarded, quarantined secret. You know that’s a total setup for things to go terribly wrong when some under-supervised teenagers get to blaming her for the strict rules in the town. How she has caused them to lose family and feel confined against long term relationships or external careers.  Inevitably it goes to crap, her whispering into people’s ears compelling them to take their lives, the consequences unbearable if she is able to use her eyes and mouth.

Another TBR long hanger that I picked up the audio to to be able to read it. This is a classic creepy, horrific story.  I can’t imagine having to anticipate a ghost like that, or any ghost really, rando showing up in my path like that.  And it’s a setup for things to go to crap so you’re just waiting for it to, with the animal harbingers and the bored, disturbed and trapped teenagers.  Too much power shared with too many people.  In fact, I am surprised they held it together for as long as they did.  The town is a character more than the individuals in it, as they are all affected similarly.  Goodreads reviewers and I agree that this felt old school Stephen King to me, with people struggling as a whole against a curse, and it all goes to crap at the end in a way that follows with the plot. So if you like old school King, this one is worth a read.

For me personally, I liked that it was snuggled in the Hudson Valley and kept consistent enough for me to miss the place in the year I lived there.  I like reading a book where I have been, and I like the Hudson Valley, still rural enough but so close to the city.  It was a good place to be, but also it gave the book a kind of Legend of Sleepy Hollow effect too, with historical events in early America still affecting the town. 

Heart Shaped Box, Joe Hill

An ex rockstar, Judas Coyne, buys a suit at an online auction, knowing full well that it comes with the ghost of the man who used to own it. What starts off as a curiosity for a person whose life has slowed considerably becomes a horror story of revenge when he discovers the auction was a setup to buy the vengeful spirit of the stepfather of an ex girlfriend who committed suicide after the breakup. Not only is this dude an angry stepfather, but in life he was a gifted hypnotist who didn’t use his powers for good.  His ghost is scary, merciless and focused on the ruin of Coyne and anyone who tries to help him.  Whoa.

This was a compulsive horror story.  It was an artful balance between intense action and backstory that slowly unravels as Judas and his current girlfriend, Mary Beth/Georgia, an ex stripper/recovering drug addict, run to survive the ghost.  They rake through Judas’ past in a harrowing drive South to get to the family who sent him the ghost, to get to Mary Beth’s old Ouija board, and ultimately to a face off in the home of his estranged and dying father.  I was hooked on the action and then before the action got to be too much, because I can get lost in too much of it, it would slow back down to the stories and the reasons.  The story itself hung together well through the scary parts, gave them context.  I was impressed that this is a debut novel as well and I have seen other Joe Hill novels like The Fireman get high praise among horror readers.  

It also has a resolution with redemption in it. Throughout the story, Coyne is becoming more human in his interactions and ends up staying with Mary Beth even though he has had a failed marriage, I hope that isn’t a spoiler alert.  I didn’t really have expectations for their relationship past the high drama of the story but I guess the whole surviving a disaster together tends to draw a couple together. Mary Beth is much younger than he is with her own complicated past but Coyne tends to be the kind of guy women fall in love with and she’s no exception.  

My only warning for readers is there is a significant element of child abuse/sexual abuse in this story. Horror has to rake people’s deepest darkest fears and traumas to be effective, to meet the needs that draw people to this genre and I get that but if CSA is a trigger for a reader, they should really avoid this one.  

These were both great. I’ve considered limiting the scope of the books I blog about, but my tastes are so wide I don’t have the heart to limit myself. Because I read these ones and I have the Christmas reads listed out to get read. (But I am not far enough ahead to be on them, I’m still getting through the November posts, and that’s fine, because I’m not ready for Christmas books until we are past Halloween).

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