Happy Valentine’s Day!

I’m blaming the pandemic for the stupid amount of chocolate I’ve eaten since it hit stores after Christmas. And bought more for the actual day today, even though I know my husband will be hitting the sale candy this week.

Before I launch into the somewhat V-Day appropriate read for this post, I must announce that this is probably the last book review that I will be writing on here. Ever. I bit the bullet last weekend and bought my author website, bethstillmanblaha.com. It is not up yet, so I will also be posting on this next week when I’ll have it up with a nice juicy post to welcome you all to my new author website, which is really just my blog, moved over, for now. It is my hope that most of you lovely followers will check me out over there. Also, the author page will have a Facebook page under Beth Stillman Blaha, Author, and the fb page for this blog will also be phased out. The novel that is in the works to come out this year is a YA fantasy/thriller novel, and yes, I can genre blend because I ‘m not trying to romance agents anymore so I can do what I please! If I’m putting all my own money and time into making this happen, I will be building my own empire.

I can wax poetic on this next week. I promised a book review here and a book review is what you’ll get!

Oscar & Lucinda, Peter Carey

A young clergyman and a woman of independent means, both with an unexpected predisposition toward gambling, converge on an ill fated sea voyage to Australia in the 1800s. They each have unusual and uncommon upbringings for their time, and each don’t really fit into the world in which they were born, so, you know the inevitable. Their lives intersect in a slow burn, completely believable love story, with, as the blurb states, “a stunning conclusion.”

Now, I thought I was all smart about this post because its a book I’ve had forever that needed to be read and it’s about a couple on this, the day of love. And, with my new blog having more focus on books that readers of my impending novel will enjoy, I thought I’d squeeze in one more read outside that purview. Now that the book is done I feel less smart about this.

This book is gorgeously written, poetic, memorable, vivid in my mind’s eye. This is a book for people who love just reading about lives different from their own in a different historical context, as one would expect from Peter Carey. It’s a prizewinner in that not entirely accessible way. It’s literary. AND I do like historical fiction set in the early days of white settlement in Australia. It made me want to pick up The Luminaries again.

But wow, it’s really freakin disappointing. My readers are aware of my aversion to spoilers and I’ll hold true to that, however, I was pretty upset that after 500+ pages I didn’t get any satisfaction from the ending. I felt sad and cheated, and I like to think of myself as one open to many different ways a story can end. I’m left wondering if Carey intended it to go the way it did or he just got to a certain point and had some sort of shower revelation about how he could most disappoint the readers who had invested themselves in these extensive character backgrounds. I hate leaving this blog on a book that was ultimately disappointing for me. Back when I was reading about book blogging I read it’s best to be positive about books, but it’s not in my nature to be blindly positive unless it’s really how I feel.

I have been reading more genre than literary stuff since I shifted to my own read down instead of the reading challenges that I was loving on for a few years. I have been reading a lot of YA to have blog posts ready for you lovelies while I get the book related stuff up and running (get ready for pics of my writing space and the headshots I’ve been avoiding) and maybe it’s the emotionally stressful time of COVID and all the other ways the outside world feels lost these days that makes me crave the resolution that I’ve come to expect out of books for an audience that thrives on some kind of satisfaction from their endings. So maybe it’s me, not the book. A very love thing to say, isn’t it. It’s not you, it’s me.

Please with all the pleases stay tuned for the upcoming blog shift. There will be more of this greatness just in a new space.

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Alice Hoffman Goodness continued

You know, the winter has not been so bad this year. Probably because I don’t have to drive in it, not really, working from home. I can largely avoid the unpredictable snowfalls and driving in the early dusk. We are only days away from a glorious 5 pm sunset. I noticed this more when I’d leave for the day to a parking lot that didn’t need the streetlamps quite yet, or my headlights all the way home.

My husband just drove the snowmobile past my window with my son on it.

So, a peaceful transition of power here has taken place and I’m really starting to feel a true new start and a new year in many ways! More on that to come.

Alice Hoffman books continue. I really had a lot of them to read down, so bear with me.

The Red Garden, Alice Hoffman

This is a series of short stories moving through time centered on a small town in Massachusetts, from it’s first settlers in the 1600-1700s and through the late twentieth century.  Family ties to the originals find their way into all of these stories.  

I like Alice’s historical fiction and shorts so far more than I like her novels, I think.  Here on Earth, a retelling of Wuthering Heights that I read a few years back, I felt was brilliant, maybe because I felt she wrote the dynamics of Heathcliff and Cathy so well, but when it comes down to her shorter novels and stories I found I was enjoying this like I enjoyed Blackbird House,  which was the same idea as linked stories through time.  I also find her historical fiction more appealing.  I was immediately engrossed by the story of the original families that came West to claim their own space from Boston and had no idea what they were doing and ultimately were saved by a scrappy seventeen year old who refused to lay down and die in the cold winter.  Having grown up and mostly lived in rural New York I can relate to the small town ness of the stories and the feeling of being linked to an early history.  I definitely enjoyed this one and was sucked up into it when I was not sure I was going to press on through my Alice Hoffman backlog.

The Third Angel, Alice Hoffman

This is another one of her books that are intertwined around a central place and a few characters whose ties to one another artfully converge as the story progresses.  This time it is around a hotel in London, which is different from her usual New England, and it’s The Lion Hotel, rather than a small town family home.  Love and betrayal are the usual features, and families changing after devastation.  A  widowed man and his daughter, two sisters preparing for an ill fated wedding, a maid in love with a heroin addicted and engaged rockstar to be.

Something about this one was more engaging than some of her others.  I liked the sisters and their family story coming together for the wedding, and I could relate to the ways she talks about how parenthood changes you and you love a little human more than you ever knew you could love, a discussion I often have with my eight year old over who loves who more.  I liked the interesting little twelve year old coping with being dragged across the ocean by a beastly stepmother.  The only part of this one that started to lose me was the maid who fell in love with the budding rockstar and how she compromised her lovely and gifted self for him. I had to skim that part because she was willing to be completely exploited by him before she got herself on track.  Other than that near disaster the characters were interesting and relatable, maybe more so for me than in the Drowning Season or The Probable Future.

Okay, one more January to go, and I promise it will be my last Alice post. For better or for worse. Then it will be some books I thought would be fun for Valentine’s Day but not in like a romance novels kind of way.

And then….

Friday I officially canceled my automatic blog renewal, deciding that come mid March, on it’s sixth anniversary, Donovan Reads book blog will be no more. I am going to be creating an author website to publish my book that I have sent off for copyediting and proofreading, and will be working with professionals to get the thing designed and formatted to look amazing. To do it every justice my book deserves and to build my own writing empire. When I have the domain name settled on, I will be sharing that with my readers in hopes that you will continue to read my blog posts there, as I will still be talking books, but also about writing and my published stuff. It’s time.

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The One Christmas Read of 2020

So I got my Christmas wish of a white Christmas. Wednesday night into Thursday morning saw an approximately two foot snow dump unparalleled in recent history (although I remember 1993) in keeping with all the extremes that 2020 has seen fit to bring. This picture is my son enjoying a snow bath in the forest.

Briefly, it’s the first time my chickens saw a decent snowfall and some of them thought they could just live their usual lives despite this event (a mistake I made when entering grad school, becoming a parent, and having a to do list for the day after I had my wisdom teeth out, so I feel this) and almost killed themselves in snowbanks. They are all fine four days in but no one is leaving the comfort of the heated coop now.

But my brief motivation to read a Christmas book pre-dated the snow, but not by much, so I had my one Christmas read for my readers on this, five days before the day. Baking has helped in a time where rona has taken away the rest, I’m a week into a ten day quarantine (feeling perfectly fine) and have to put off my getting my last gift, the thing I usually wait to get, until entirely too close to the holiday this year because I’m trying to follow the rules and keep out of stores. I’m the person that would have all her papers done weeks before the end of the semester to everyone else’s chagrin so not being able to go into a store until Dec 23 is going to kill part of my soul.

Let me just also say that Audible Originals for the win. Last year I felt that scraping together Christmas audiobooks was an expensive pain in the butt because I had blown through most of my library’s short and sweet Christmas audiobooks. This year I browsed the catalog and much to my excitement found (among other gems, of course):

Tied up in Tinsel, Ngaio Marsh

This cover is decidedly more mid century than the copy I have, which is the one my grandfather, who died in the 80s, owned. But this is what kindle has done to it.

Christmas 1972 and a young painter, commissioned to do the portrait of a wealthy estate owner, is pulled into intrigue when a Christmas party with a Father Christmas (it’s the British countryside) ends in a disappearance of a guest.

My grandfather was both an avid anglophile and reader of mid century mystery novels, many of which I own, so I was delighted to find one for free on audio. His old books keep me at a healthy emotional distance while taking me on a ride so they are perfect for my tender soul right now. I read Nero Wolfe novels for fun in grad school, the few moments I did read for fun, for the same reason. I wouldn’t get wrecked over some poor woman getting pregnant at the wrong time or something with his books. They are trusty in this respect.

Interestingly, the crime, and then the arrival of the investigator, happens halfway through this book a decent space of time after the actual Christmas party, so it’s not like the usual modern mysteries for those of us with short attention spans where the poop hits the fan long before you’re three chapters in. I loved the characters coming for a benevolent party in an English country manor, and although you had to wait for the crime, the setup was superb. The estate owner hires ex murderers from the local penitentiary for his house staff and the reader is privy to each character’s past murder, so all sorts of red herrings are tossed in as well as less than ideal cooperation from staff who want to stay on this side of the prison gates. And then the relationships between the guests are harried and multidimensional, so I was in the dark much of the time. To be fair, I don’t tend to figure out mysteries before they are revealed, and as much as I’d love to be able to write a cozy mystery series, I think my brain doesn’t work that way. Not without a lot of like, encouragement from my end. I like a complex web of relationships in a mystery novel, complete with the last secrets coming out at the eleventh hour and an idyllic setting, so this was totally it.

Like the snow, the cookie recipes I’ve made (peanut blossoms, peppermint oreo bark, butter pecan rounds, Christmas crack, pecan rolo pretzel bites, russian tea cakes, raspberry jam bars and gingerbread blondies with white chocolate), 98% of my shopping done, and my focus on gratitude, this book was what I needed to warm my COVID-19 frosted half dead holiday soul. Also peppermint schnapps mixed into coffee or cocoa haven’t hurt anything either.

Next week is the end of year specs and goals moving forward and I wish every single reader an awesome Christmas that ameliorates at least some of this psyche damaging dumpster fire of a year.

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A book I had to take a break from…but just had to finish

Maybe the holiday season is creeping into my soul. Just maybe. It still refuses to snow a decent amount, even though there was a hint we’d get a round on Wednesday, even that is retreating into nothing. Figures on a year where I genuinely have nowhere to be, as my son’s school is now completely remote until Jan 4, there are no massive disruptive snow dumps. Facebook is sending me flashback photos of my son sledding on a snow covered yard and right now I’m looking on a muddy hill.

But one of the few things COVID hasn’t taken away from me really is holiday baking and that’s helped. I made a peppermint oreo bark that really needs more chocolate base. Info for next year’s baking, for sure. Peppermint is my definitive seasonal flavor, in no small part because it suits in hot drinks so I can like caffeinate with peppermint alcohol simultaneously!

But you lovely readers are probably not here to get a glimpse into how red and green my soul is becoming. You might want to know what book I recently finished that brought me to a screeching halt before starting back up again.

Tidelands, Philippa Gregory

It’s the mid 1600s on the tidelands of England, and Alinor is a lovely, deserted wife, the object of much speculation by her neighbors.  She is on the fringes of society as a deserted pauper, but has made herself also essential to its functioning with her herbs and poultices and skill as a midwife. She becomes entangled in a love affair with a rich seminary student on an errand to free the doomed king.  Combined with her daughter’s desperation to marry her love, a boy above her station who nevertheless loves her, the women are brought back down to where society feels they belong.

Philippa’s historical fiction always centers on women who sink their tenterhooks into my empathic skin.  Always always.  When I read her historical fiction I get so bent about her characters that I creep on wikipedia so I can know how it turns out so I can brace myself for ruin.  Because we know women in power in history often were punished by ruin, and if they weren’t, they often skirted it.  I came to like a screeching halt for weeks on this one because I knew it was going to end badly after pages and pages illuminating the precariousness of her position.  How one major setback could be the end of her and then like three possible bad ends for her not only pop up but she kind of barrels toward them.  So on one hand I was annoyed with her and her daughter, but on the other hand, I couldn’t expect them as characters not to follow their hearts.  I’ve done it in the past too, it just didn’t have the same sort of consequences for me. Novels are not written about boring women, I just wish that they weren’t so relatable.  Well, maybe I like her characters just fine because I’ve read like 14 of her novels now and I suppose I should know better.  It was just hard.  I was immediately interested in this book and I don’t know why I didn’t expect it to break me apart. It was one of the new releases from my go to authors that I’m sure not to miss, even though it wasn’t following a Tudor.   Maybe because I thought I was safe with it not based on a Tudor. I don’t know, but I had to take a break from the book and get to a better emotional space before it all went to crap like I knew it would.

I am glad I read it, I am glad I finished it. I did skulk on the next of the series to get some idea of how it would play out.  And my dad read it and I asked him for some faith to press on.  And I might possibly read the next in the series and I do want to read the only two Tudor novels I have left on the TBR. Yup.  Because these are my problems, along with my soul that’s slowly coming around to Christmas. With the help of peppermint flavored, like, everything.

Next week I should actually have a Christmas read on deck, compliments of Audible’s premium plan. Not that I don’t have a ton of Christmas audiobooks, because I do. Again, problems.

Forming my plans for the New Year, too, so stay tuned.

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November was about Portals.

As a Psychologist I cannot ignore the symbolism of my need for transport into other worlds right now.

I can’t believe I’m saying that it needs to snow, but it does.

My son is on quarantine for another week which changed my Christmas shopping plans, and even though like 90% of it is done AND I have made Christmas treats AND my halls are decked, I still need a decent snow to get in the spirit. My house even smells like pine trees from a delicious three wick candle that I waited all year to burn. Nope. No Christmas for me. We couldn’t decorate the village tree from being on quarantine and there is no Santa Breakfast. So please, Mother Nature, come through for me on this, the winter where I really can’t and shouldn’t go anywhere. Breathe a little wintry Christmas spirit into this soul.

So no one will be shocked that I don’t have a Christmas read planned until at least the very week of the holiday.

But what I have read is delicious so you should keep reading and see what I have next week. 😉

The Ten Thousand Doors of January, Alix Harrow

January Scaller is a brown skinned, half orphaned child living in privilege in the white world of 1800s America, in the home of a rich businessman who collects artifacts. Quickly into her young life she discovers a portal to another world, which she makes the mistake of talking about to the adults, who cut her off from anything whimsical.  But when she is a little older and finds a mysterious book, she can’t avoid finding out the truth about the existence of other worlds and of herself.

So if I was as prescient as I occasionally fancy myself to be I’d have admitted in November that it would be my month of portal reads.  I know this is a post on the first Sunday of December but I spent my Thanksgiving week in the thrall of this story.  It is an ode to stories, just like in The Starless Sea with the interwoven stories and the blurred lines between dimensions and worlds.  It is utterly magical and mysterious.  January is an outsider, living between worlds herself, a dressed up collector’s item, who finds her place in the world, which is such an important and hopeful lesson in YA literature.  I loved the other worlds, the characters, and the twists just kept on coming.  I was getting near the end and I am like why is there still this amount left? What left is there to happen?  And then things!  

Love interest was decent too.  Not too much of a rake or unbelievably sappy. And Ms. Harrow was excellent about tying up all the ends.  The story was a delicious, satisfying whole. And the cover, ermagherd.

This was her debut novel and she has since come out with Once and Future Witches, which I already felt interested in, and now having read her ability to write a witch and headstrong women, I am all about that.  I’ll definitely get back to her next book because I love her powerful characters. 

So, I said it. Wishing for snow so I can get my spirit rolling. Reading women’s fiction instead. I mean not that Christmas books aren’t women’s fiction, because they are.

Plus I have not talked about my writing in awhile but I think I have made some decisions about how I’m going to use that January to April creativity sprint when it sucks outside.

I do wish the Christmas spirit on anyone that can find it!

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Fall Reads: The Magic of Hester Fox

So the post today is about the three books by Hester Fox that I’ve had the luck to come across but the profile picture is a puffball mushroom. Puffball mushrooms were magical and rare as a child growing up in city limits and seeing them reminds me of how I felt when I saw little natural magics in my world. Living in the country as an adult has been a wonderful way to remember the magic as an adult, especially in the change of seasons.The leaves are moving past peak here and we are starting to have those occasional epic fall thunderstorms to bring in another season. I’m absorbing all the beauty I see before it’s snatched away in the cold snowy winter.

Fall is a perfect time to absorb Hester Fox books, historical fiction featuring magical women surviving their worlds. I shall delay no longer.

The Witch of Willow Hall, Hester Fox

Lydia, caught between a prettier older sister and a fiery, imaginative younger sister, and her parents, move to New Oldbury in the wake of an unnamed scandal away from Boston society in 1821. On the surface, the move seems like a good idea:  a place to start fresh in a home built with no expense spared.  Except there’s the conspicuous absence of an older brother and Lydia lost an engagement in the aftermath (which she isn’t that sad about, thankfully).  Their mother is defeated and aloof, their father is focused on his booming business. Lydia’s burgeoning powers as a witch are pulled out of her by the secrets and haunting of the house and land from a previous tragedy.  She doesn’t understand the powers because her mother has never explained them to her, even though her mother recognizes, from an incident in Lydia’s childhood where she harmed another child, that Lydia has inherited the family abilities.  Enter her older sister’s Catherine’s desperation to get married and sets her eyes on a man Lydia is falling in love with, and a family tragedy…

Okay, so this was a debut author and novel last year so it definitely was not on the TBR for years.  Whatever Amazon algorithm out there designed to find me understands me on a disturbing level, as this novel was my jam.  My absolute jam. This is a supernatural Gothic witchy haunted house story at its very finest. Mysteries akin to Rebecca and Wuthering Heights. Ghosts and untold tales, magic.  Absorbing and transporting.

I was glued to the story, the slow discovery of mysteries and intrigue, the understated narrator who seems to be the only one who can see past her own nose in her family.    The characters were all well done and believable in their role in the story. I was rooting for Lydia from the first page and I had to know what happened to her.  And it does end well and happily.  The narrator was so good at layering on the tragedy I found myself wondering if there was enough space left in the book for something else bad to happen to her because I wanted her to be happy and okay.

I wasn’t sure that the narrator was my favorite but I can’t explain why. Maybe she seemed like there was an element of whiny-ness?  I went back and forth between reading and narration and that helped to break it up. 

But, this is a perfect fall, Halloween read.  I immediately took her next book out of the library.  I think I will be a devotee of Hester Fox.

The Widow of Pale Harbor, Hester Fox

Sophronia Carver is a pretty young widow living in a mansion overlooking the small town of Pale Harbor in 1800s Maine. The superstitious town believes her to have killed her abusive husband (although they didn’t know he was abusive) and as a result of her PTSD from that relationship keeps to herself and her home with a faithful servant, Helen, caring for her.  She spends her days reviewing submissions for her late husband’s literary magazine. Gabriel Stone comes to town as a new minister with no real inclination or gift for being one, but to honor the memory of his late wife, who loved the school of thought he tries to spread.  There are a series of strange events in the town with dead animals, dead people, and eventually a murder that they need to solve, as well as falling in love, being truthful to one another and themselves. 

This one felt more like a mystery story than The Witch of Willow Hall, and more like a romance, as the narrator is third person omniscient, instead of first person, so we aren’t left wondering if the attraction is mutual.  And because they are trying to piece together a puzzle that ultimately leads to a threat on the widow’s life. I didn’t find it as Gothic or as intriguing, but I was still turning the pages right along.  I think also that plotlines that involve coming into power are more intriguing for me than a romance, and this felt more like a romance than fantasy, although it was classified as both.  Helen dabbles in charms and spells but there isn’t really any evidence that anyone has magic or the protection spell that Helen feels she cast was doing anything. No ghosts, no ancestors showing up, no untimely deaths of main characters.  No unexplained events.  So it was decidedly more grounded in real life than the fantasy realm and that may be why I didn’t feel as drawn in.  The writing continues to be lovely, the characters intriguing, the setting a well defined entity unto itself.  I was transported to the past. But the draw was different.

Also, same narrator on the audio.  Still don’t like her.  Definitely read this one too for breaks.

The Orphan of Cemetery Hill, Hester Fox

Tabby Cooke was orphaned at a young age and ran away from her cruel, exploitative guardians, becoming separated from her dear sister.  Her whole life she’s been able to talk to the dead, so living in a cemetery with a caretaker who took her in isn’t the worst of fates, until she meets a dashing rake and gets twisted up into a murder plot and the dark secrets of powerful men in 1840s Boston.  She ultimately needs to learn to work with, rather than against her powers to help others and save herself.

This one has all the Gothic goodness ingredients: orphans, spiritual powers, nefarious people in power with dark secrets, handsome rakes that seem unattainable.  It doesn’t have a prophecy or a curse but I feel that would have been overdoing it.  All my favorite things, but I didn’t quite connect with this one like I did the other two.  Admittedly, The Witch of Willow Hall is an incredibly hard act to follow, and I kinda knew that when I read Widow and then pre ordered this one for some author love karma.  This one hasn’t even been on the shelves for a month!  And it’s on this blog!  Anyway.  

I didn’t completely enjoy the rake but I have a hard time enjoying them because I have read too many victorian novels to feel like they are anything but a means of destruction for a virtuous young lady of no means.  I wanted a guy who was more believable and less wish fulfillment, even though he does have a decent character arc that makes him more deserving. And there wasn’t really time in the plot for the change in her power to go from overwhelming and scary to manageable.  Managing your powers in my opinion is like a life struggle, not something you get to in like a year because you can see that it helps people.  How does she set boundaries with it with no one to help her manage that?  So many good elements here and a great setting, and I hate to say I didn’t connect with it as well because it’s damn hard to be an author, and so much goes in to writing a book and I don’t want to dismiss all that went into it by being like, eh.  And let’s be real, it’s not like I’ve broken into publishing myself.

I still have love for this author and her work.

Still not a huge fan of the narrator.  I forgot I didn’t like her in the other two books because I ready them months ago and pre ordered this beast that came out in September and wanted to read it and then combine all three into one post.  Ugh.  I hate not liking narrators either. 

So there you have it. One of the most perfect authors for the changing of seasons! Check her out if you haven’t already!

I’m slugging along trying to find an agent for my book. I have slowed considerably the search and harassment of agents but still working on my shorts. I continue to wait on responses for some short things I sent in at the end of August. My attention is being fulfilled in other directions but I haven’t worked on writing my whole life and since my child was little to give up once some spiritual stuff resurfaces!

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Fall Reads: Witchy October

Welp, now the fall is real. The trees are making their show and the temps are dropping after some last ditch warmer days. I like seeing my friends on social media absorbing all the nature and tranquility they can in the midst of everything else that’s crazy.

And let’s face it, things are crazy. I’m delighted school has been able to complete three weeks of hybrid instruction and should be able to keep going for the time being. That sliver of normalcy has made me crave more though, and I find as it gets colder I am missing being able to take my son to a movie on a weekend. I understand safety measures and I believe my frustration with this is placed where it should be, but it doesn’t change the fact.

So much witchery in this TBR decimating reading season. So much. I can’t help if I relate to powerful women who push against the norms.

The books here are teen witches but less about the high school context. More about a historical context and I’m doing three today because they have this overlap of women from a different time and context impacting worlds they aren’t supposed to be able to impact. Are witches solely because they can.

The Wicked Deep, Shea Ernshaw

Penny Talbot lives in a town in the Pacific Northwest that is haunted by a centuries old curse.  Every year, the spirits of drowned witches return from the sea and exact their revenge on the town by drowning a few of its residents between the first day of June and the summer solstice.  When a newcomer arrives at the island, he gets swept up in its intrigues, unbeknownst to him, he is an integral part of breaking the curse.

This book has looked delicious since its release and I finally got it on audio to read it for this fall’s reads.  It did not disappoint.  Even though it takes place in June the setting makes it atmospheric and dark rather than summery and bright.  Penny’s family is bereft and broken with its own unsolved mysteries when the newcomer gets off the bus and meets Penny at the beginning of summer beach party. The unraveling of the plot and the secrets is lovely and kept me going and it had a decent resolution. I like how the newcomer questions the town’s acceptance of the drownings every summer, the tourist spectacle that it has become, and how his own story is ultimately a part of it all.  How do we even battle the supernatural, even when the curses we brought upon ourselves are devastating?  These stories of cursed towns I have been reading are all about people’s misguided attempts to be in control, only to have them blossom into a bigger and much more unwieldy problem.  I definitely bought her second book, Winterwood, Saturday morning. I made serious progress to my list until I want the new releases too. Signs of an addict.

The Year of the Witching, Alexis Henderson

Emmanuelle is a young woman whose very origin is a scandal. She lives in a religious settlement, complete with an authoritarian Prophet, polygamy, and strict gender divisions.  She comes from a line of midwives, her own mother being one slated as a prophet’s bride before she chose her own path and ultimately died in ruin.  When Emmanuelle is lured into the Dark Forest she unintentionally ignites a prophecy (complete with a sighting of Lilith herself) and puts it upon herself to save her people from the disasters that follow, with the help of the current Prophet’s son and successor. 

So I still have witchy TBR books, but I can’t tell you I didn’t poke around on my library websites for audiobooks with Witch in the title and move some ahead of the line.  Because I am shameless. This was released summer 2020 AND it is a debut author, and with my fervent wish to be a debut author myself, I am trying to support new authors practically and of course with karma.   So it’s a shameless line jumper, but it’s SO appropriate to the garbage fire that is 2020 (because this book is about a garbage fire year too) and it’s beautifully written, the world building is tight, the pacing appropriate and Emmanuelle is an awesome heroine/accidental unleasher/object of revenge, curses and wrath.  She just wants to fit in but kind of doesn’t and it makes sense to her once she stumbles upon her late mother’s dark secrets.  It’s coming of age times about a million. This is old school biblical women are the root of all evil witching.  Where the stories to keep powerful women down began.  And while I love fun witchy books, witches came from a real fear of women with power, and those dark tales are important too.  Loved it.  Excited to see what else Ms. Henderson comes out with, and I fully understand how this one broke into publishing.  A-mazing.

The Familiars, Stacey Halls

Fleetwood is a pregnant member of the British aristocracy in 1612 when she comes across a letter from a doctor to her husband indicating that her next attempted childbirth will kill her.  She is desperate to carry her fourth pregnancy to term, as the other three have ended in miscarriages and stillbirths, to hold together her marriage and keep her place in her home.  Friendless and desperate, she meets a woman, Alice, who Fleetwood believes is integral in making this pregnancy end successfully, but Alice gets entwined in the witch hunt of the time, merely through trying to help someone. Fleetwood comes to believe that only she can spare Alice the rope, and only Alice can get Fleetwood and her baby safely through the pregnancy and birth.   All through we aren’t sure what powers Alice possesses, if any at all, as Fleetwood learns the nature of the witchcraft accusations of the time.

Interestingly, both of these women are actual historical figures, but the juxtaposition of them is purely fictional.  I find this fascinating, a writer who can take real elements of history and make them her own without deviating too much from the facts. If there’s one thing I love to do is google a historical character and see their pictures and read Wikipedia articles.   The history of persecuting women who have any sort of power in this world is devastating, and makes me really glad I don’t live in a time where I could get hanged for my work as a therapist, but these women’s stories against their historical context is fascinating. I liked Fleetwood as a character very much, her loneliness was palpable in her life story and even in parts of her marriage, despite all her money and title in the world, and you find that women’s plights are similar across time and socioeconomic status.  She was a bit independent for her time, but I find that none of the modern historical fiction stories would be very good if the women always behaved in them.  I like that Fleetwood also is able to take notice of her privilege, of her ready resources of a horse any time she wants one or staff to free up her leisure time, even if she is dangling at the precipice of life and limb herself.   I thought this book was well done.  I was transported into the 1600s and a world that was still mysterious, dark, and cruel. And like I always say, I’m thrilled that my survival and standing never depended on my ability to make a baby.

Loving this atmospheric fall and the reads that go with it. Working on my spirituality amid the crazy and got my own little firepit so I don’t have to have my husband’s participation if I want a cozy little flame back in the trees. Awesome. Looking for the good in the world right now and learning tarot cards. A woman like me who loves stories, healing, helping others and a feeling of magic and awe needs to read cards. I just do.

And trying to move ahead with writing.

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Fall Reads: ghosties

Two weeks ago I promised that I’d post weekly and promptly crapped out the following weekend. In my defense I was getting certified in reiki and focusing my energy and intentions that much for two days didn’t leave a ton of emotional space to scrape up a post. I figured my eager readers would forgive me!

Also, it was awesome. I love expanding my healing repertoire.

Also, is September usually this cold? Feels like ghost weather (on top of like apple season and hayrides and looking at Halloween costumes on Amazon, etc). School has started, everything seems okay so far with the hybrid schedule. I made my kid a work station in his room because he thinks he wants one, even though he’s not a kid who hangs in his room. New beginnings all around. I like the progress toward normalcy.

But! More booky less pontification.

The Saturday Night Ghost Club, Craig Davidson

This is a memoir type story of a twelve year old during a memorable summer in a post industrial town who makes new friends and engages on ghosting voyages with his occult obsessed uncle.  There are vignettes as well of the author’s experiences as a brain surgeon intertwined with the story of this summer, providing another level of intensity to the narrative, as well as a hidden trauma story I suspected as I read but not from the blurb.

My guilty confession here was this was not a TBR deal.  It was on BookRiot book deals, which I should be avoiding, but it demanded I buy it and devour it, which I did.  Something about this book needed me to read it.  Coming of age, which I love, add in some ghosties, and then there was the added fascination of the brain surgery which was a little cringey for this squeamish reader, but maybe to add appeal to adult readers.  I would have loved it either way but the adulthood vignettes did add depth to the story.  It was beautifully written, the language sharp, and I went between wanting to consume the story but also absorb the lovely use of language.  It’s Halloween-y because there is definitely a supernatural element but it’s a summer read too, as it takes place during a pre screen, ride your bike around town or hang in your basement with your friends, be home by dark summer.  I had those summers as a kid, even though video games were becoming a thing.  We still got together to play them.  But this was really good and somehow I knew it would be.  Nostalgic but I also can’t unsee some of the brain surgery imagery.  Loved it.

Riddance:  Or the Sybil Joines Vocational School for Ghost Speakers & Hearing Mouthed Children, Shelley Jackson

Jane Grandison is an eleven year old mixed race orphan who is accepted into the Sybil Joines school due to her stutter (and honestly, there isn’t really another place for her to go).  The idea is that her stutter will be treated and cured, but truly it is a school for communicating with those on the other side of the veil.   The Headmistress pioneers this effort and spends her time on either side of the veil as well.  Jane becomes her stenographer for her recorded sessions on the other side of the veil.  A child disappears from the school, which brings unwelcome outside attention, and then some nefarious events take place.  The story is told through explanations of necrophysical philosophy, travels on the other side of the veil, Jane’s story of her experiences at the school.  There is some unreliable narration going on as well.

This is gorgeously and poetically written. The language is sharp and beautiful. It’s a darker and less accessible Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children,  and perhaps a little more realistic too, given these children are possibly neuro-atypical in a number of ways that set them apart from society, instead of having special powers.  I mean, not that special powers, or anything poorly understood, was really dealt with well in the past, either. This novel doesn’t try to sugarcoat the plight of different and marginalized children back in the day.  

The complicated theories are made interesting in how they are written, explaining how children’s stutters leave space for ghost voices to come forth. It does well with complicated theories. However, I do have to mention that it could be difficult to get through in parts.  It’s heavy and layered with traumatic stories. My favorite parts were Jane talking about being a student at the school, but it really isn’t centered on being a student at a school for atypical children. It would have helped to know that there is the element of the headmistress speaking from the other side and that is separate from the story of the student who becomes her loyal subject. I am not surprised that the ratings on Goodreads are lukewarm.  I think this is a book that really has to be your thing to get through, and it becomes apparent that the narration is unreliable, so a reader looking for a concrete resolution or answer would likely be disappointed.

 It is spooky, Gothic and mysterious and perfect for this time of year.   It is something I’d have to revisit to feel that I got all of it, or more of it, than at a first pass.  It’s an ambitious project that does well with the realities of the past as I see them.

I also may have been a little disappointed last weekend that the one agent who wanted a full ultimately passed on my book. But I gotta keep going. I’m waiting on smaller pieces I submitted and I’m still putting out my intention into the world to get the book forward and to manifest creativity.

I have read A LOT for this blog series so you’ll hear from me next week. I almost have all the Halloween TBRs read. NYPL is an awesome audiobook hookup.

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Reads as it gets colder

Photo credit: Zac Baldwin

Labor Day weekend is so different for me this year. My son is not going back to school until the 14, so I have another whole week home with him, and usually we gather at my parents house for the final summer holiday weekend. My parents are closing on my childhood home in a week and moved out months ago, on top of the fact I’m too concerned about bringing the virus to them to gather with them where they are now. The temps are dropping and I see the trees thinking about changing color, and I am thinking about taking my son apple picking, but my personal family traditions just got turned on their head in this crazy dumpster fire year. I didn’t spend the summer sitting in camp chairs on field sidelines or taking my son to special camps.

So this is the crossover from summer so I am posting on books that sneak a toe into the darker subjects. Not hurtling us into pumpkin season. Although I may have already had a pumpkin coffee. They are an interesting mashup of books but both worth the read.

The Bone Houses, Emily Lloyd-Jones

Ryn, a teenage girl come head of family come grave digger, sets out with a wayward semi aristocratic mapmaker (Ellis) to destroy the source of everlasting life that is causing zombies to invade her land and cause all sorts of issues.  They are called Bone Houses and of course they are not so simplified as the cinematic representation of them crawling through the forest moaning “brains” every three minutes.  The reason for the everlasting life is set in a Welsh fairytale.

This was really well done.  I see calls for agents still willing to consider fairytale/folk stories as long as they are well done, preferably not well known, and I feel like I’m seeing more interest in non Western folk and fairy tales too.  There is an origin tale inside the story and I don’t know how close it is to the original fairy tale, which is good because I feel like I’m read up on the most common ones.  I listen to the Myths and Legends podcast sometimes too for story ideas and examples and I hadn’t come across this.  I read it after The Tenth Girl because it was an audible sale and I thought it would be more Gothic than it was. And I like to read on a theme, but lately YA has mostly been the theme. I really liked how the mapmaker was one of those on the fringes of the elite and how he straddled those two worlds and I liked how Ryn was headstrong and fiercely dedicated to her family. I loved the twists and turns in this book, too, and I don’t want to out those too much because the way the story unfolds is really part of the magic of the book.   And there is closure for the people who are seeking it.  Interesting, multifaceted, and well done.

Tunnel of Bones, Victoria Schwab

Cassidy Blake is a tween girl who follows her parents around the globe as they film a ghost hunting TV show. Unbeknownst to her parents, her own brush with death has afforded her the ability to see the other side of the veil, and the catacombs of Paris (and Paris in general, let’s be honest) beckon to her with its many ghosts.  She encounters one ghost, a child who is stirring up trouble and needs to be reminded of his history in order to move him on.  In order to do this she has to figure out his history with her ghost best friend and her saucy mentor before the chaos he creates kills someone.

So this is the sequel to City of Ghosts, which I also enjoyed last year, but I agree with its higher rating on Goodreads.  I loved the Scotland setting in the previous books, but having been to Paris and those very catacombs myself, Schwab wrote about it with such detail and clarity I was totally back in that city. The catacombs are such a cool setting too.  But I thought the plot was more accessible, a small child causing chaos who needs to be stopped but with the added snafu of figuring out his history. I LOVE ghost TV shows because I like dark history, and probably like ghost stories for the same reason.  This one was super fun, and I can see where it would be super scary for the middle grade audience it is intended for.   I need to read so much more of her and I know it.  I have more of her works.  This is Halloweeny because it’s ghosty, but the theme of a kid managing an ability and concealing it from her parents in exotic locales is something that could be enjoyed any time of year. But, it’s fall, so GHOSTS.

So I think I have binge read enough during these last few weeks to return to weekly posts. No one should be surprised because it’s scary fall reads time and those are my favorite bingies. I can easily fill nine/ten Sundays of fall reading posts, and I know being consistent is better for my readership. I have a few posts waiting on my drive file and I’ll probably finish another witchy book today. And I took this week off, so more reading! Get psyched!

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YA Historical Fiction: Lady Janies

So, the US is kind of going to crap right now, and figuring out school this fall…what? The need for diverting reads is such.a.thing. right now.

So divert I shall!!

But first I need to note that I finished the revisions on the opening of my novel and I sent out six new queries this morning! The emotional investment in getting myself back to my novel is astronomical. But it happened, and issue my gratitude to the universe.

My Lady Jane, by Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton and Jodi Meadows

My Lady Jane is a historical tweaking of Henry VIII throne ascension issues back in the sixteenth century.  It is about a woman who gets crowned queen for nine days after the death of her cousin, and there are rival, plotting sister queens involved, and there is tension between two groups, but instead of it being between Catholics and Protestants, it is between people who can change into animals and people who cannot.   

This is a hilarious romp into twisted history.  You don’t need to have read all about Henry VIII’s reign to be able to understand relevant events and he is thankfully dead by this time, as I have read enough about him and his crazy.  It has the teen style friendships and romances appropriate for YA.  And the changing into animals is so funny but also relevant to the plot and self actualization of the teen characters and narrators.. It’s not just a random pot stirrer.  The romance is believable.  I still don’t know how much teen girls,even educated ones, were allowed to speak their minds like Jane does without having her spirit broken back then, but teen girls now are allowed personalities, so I suppose they need to be able to relate to Lady Jane to have this book feasible.  So I get that.  And of course it’s narrated by the late incomparable Katherine Kellgren.  It’s fun, and it’s funny, and it’s so YA. I loved it.

My Plain Jane, Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton, Jodi Meadows

So this is a retelling of Jane Eyre, and I think it was this book that drew me to the series, even though it was 2 and I read it as 2.   It is a blend of Jane Eyre, ghost hunting, and a biography of the Bronte family.   Good stuff for me, who loves Gothic novels and Jane Eyre retellings are of particular appeal.  Jane is a beacon, which is someone who attracts and can compel ghosts, and there is a society that gets rid of ghosts, and Jane lives with Charlotte Bronte at Lowood school before she goes to the Rochester home to be a governess and fall in love with Mr. Rochester.   Jane and Charlotte are besties so stay around each other in the book, even after Jane leaves school.  There is a murder to make some intrigue but it’s not the focus of the book.

I read one review on Goodreads that indicated that this plot didn’t add much to the original tale, but I thought there were a lot of changes to the original tale.  I don’t want to give away too much, but even having the Bronte family as characters changes things up, as well as ghost hunting and possession being a major part of the plot.  This is funny but not as funny as My Lady Jane, and I don’t know how it could compare anyway with the hilarity of people being able to change into animals.  But it holds true, still, to the realities faced by women back then, of not having the resources and independence of women now.  The girls are still focused on love and finding husbands, which is accurate for their time, even at the expense of independent jobs and means.  Depressing still for them. Like with Carriger’s series, you can punch up historical plots some, but there were still the realities of confining clothing and a society predicated on the oppression of women to contend with when spicing up historical plots and settings.  Jane Eyre does have a depressing end, at least to me, but it was considered romantic at one time (maybe even now, I’m not sure).  But it’s another fun retelling, twist on an original tale.  I’m always game for such things as ghosts and witches, especially mixed in with a good Gothic tale.

My Calamity Jane, Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton, Jodi Meadows

The third in the series is set in the Wild West, America in the 1800s, with Annie Oakley as the familiar historical figure, and the main supernatural threat being werewolves. A traveling show is a cover for werewolf hunters, referred to as garou. They seek to find and destroy an alpha wolf who has a pack of violent garou under his thrall.

If this book followed an Annie Oakley or Wild Bill narrative, I wouldn’t be familiar enough to know it, like I was with Lady Jane and Plain Jane. I still enjoyed the rag tag bunch of friends who are more like chosen family, as their regular families have abandoned them or are gone. I think friendship bonds that replace family ones is a common theme for teens and young adults, and it works in this book. Also, for someone who doesn’t tend to read about werewolves, I thought the werewolf element was well done, especially since it didn’t generalize about werewolves in the same way people shouldn’t generalize about groups of others.

The best and clearest character was Calamity Jane, an orphan taken in, a survivor, rough around the edges but with a heart of gold. She wavers with her place in the world, has a chance at a second relationship with family, falls in love for the first time, but ultimately ends up on her feet. She has her vices and is a little dim, literal in ways that are uproariously funny. She’s cut out for living in a rough and tumble world that lets her get out of following the gender rules. And she’s Calamity Jane, because, like I said, girl can end up on her feet even in the most adverse circumstances.

Also, because a slightly faster pace can lead to a more comedic cadence, at least for me, I tried this sucker at 1.5 narration speed for the audiobook, which made it perfect, because the narrator also had a Western twang and emphasis. Some readers complained of the narration shift from the other two, but the other two happened in England. There needs to be a narration shift, even if the narrator of the first one hadn’t passed.

All three Janes are survivors in worlds stacked against them, and who doesn’t want to read about that? Historical outlines, written as comedies, with paranormal elements tossed in? Completely cool mashup. I want to say I wish I had read these as a teen, but I loved knowing the original stories of the first two to add more hilarious context.

So, six queries, and I have to wait two months at most for the agency asking for the most time. These have stated I will not hear from them if they are not interested, and while I understand that, the feedback from other rejections moved the project forward in ways it would not have without that feedback. Even if one place wanted to see more, I’d be heartened, with full knowledge that it’s still more likely to get rejected.

I don’t know how things will look in two months, thanks COVID, but with even one request to see more…that could really be a thing for me. Even if it’s a pass in the end.

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