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: 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: High School Witchery

It’s inevitable that my love of YA and magic will culminate in a love of witchy high school YA. It’s September, and schools are all back in session now, however that looks. High school is innately chaotic and often leaves one feeling powerless, and, witch persecution across time tends to look like how bullying can play out, so this blend is perfect for me. I tend to see more peer drama and bullying in middle school in my work, but, in high school, kids are coming much more into their powers and their identity. Powers are much less believable on a sixth grader than they are in a high school junior.

I also have books I read on witchy teenagers, but the high school context in these plays more of a role than it does in some of the other teen witches I have read about. Interestingly, my witch books this year are so much about persecution at a time where I feel than anything different in this country is persecuted. Hunts for those who are different and who have power that maybe they aren’t “supposed” to.

On a personal note, fall is closing in to my world. Autumn began this week, right before my understated wedding anniversary (I don’t know how I managed the same romantic relationship for ten years rolling, but maybe sharing a child and goals and both having our personal stability helps) and the trees are changing color. I also found an excellent wine from one of my usual Basic White Woman brands that really does taste like apple pie.

I’m sure I’ve already said that I used to love fall before I had to manage my adult responsibilities in winter. In a concerted effort to be more in the moment I am going back to loving fall. I won’t worry about what comes after. I will love the moment.

And I’ll actually review now the books I intended:

How to Hang a Witch, Adriana Mather

Sam moves to Salem, MA, to her father’s family home with her stepmother, after her father falls into an inexplicable coma.  In her new school she meets the descendants of the original hanged witches and knows that her ancestors had a role in persecuting these women.  So, naturally, they bully her, which would be enough, but then she meets a ghost in her home with his own role in the trials.  Bad things immediately start happening to the town, and Sam mentions in the story that she has always felt she was cursed, bad things always happened to children who got near her in the past.  With the help of the ghost they discover and break the curse of the Salem witches, and she also finds out why she has also felt so cursed through her life.

This kind of book is completely my jam, which is probably why I read three books this time about high school and perpetuated witch curses that get broken.  I always like a ghost sidekick to help with the research end of things, and I have to admit that I guessed wrong on who was really behind all the bad events, and clearly I am not going to reveal that here and ruin it.  It draws nice parallels between the events of the witch trials and the modern day hysteria, and how these things happen and perpetuate themselves.  Bullying happens all across history.  And the ending is good and satisfying, things get resolved.  It had also been on my TBR forever so I got the audio.  You’d think my stash of scary reads would be getting thinner but I seem to find more scary/witchy/magical  reads, like all the time, so it never really gets down.

The Graces, Laure Eve

 A girl starting a new school after some unspoken bad events and her father disappearing becomes entranced by three teens at her new school who seem to have powers.  The blurb says they do have powers, but the actual story, in my opinion, does not make this clear. Anyway.  These siblings are from a glamorous, secretive family that are at the heart of many town rumors and of course she is the only kid at school who gets invited into their fold.  Their beautiful home and parties. There is allegedly a curse where anyone who isn’t a witch who falls in love with a Grace is destined to death or madness. The girl is floundering, poor, and desperate to feel special and that she belongs somewhere, and that maybe, too, she has powers. So as with all of these setups, things get out of hand unexpectedly with a dark twist at the end. 

This hung out on the TBR for a few years after one of my usual hunts for witch books.  Because the audio either was not at the library or a price I felt like paying it hung out for a bit, but I needed a book to read while I worked my way through another with listening, and this year’s reading kick is around witches and curses in the high school setting, so this fits right in.  The new girl, who renames herself River, has a palpable desperation that makes her a willing friend to the youngest sister who gets her into the group, and the witchcraft part, in my opinion, takes a backseat to a more typical YA new girl plot.  The motivations and the desire to be a part of a beautiful, mysterious and glamorous family is very relatable and compelling, as well as my love for a drawn out dark secret. I was strung along wanting to know more about River’s past, and if the magic is real, if the curse is real.  The secrets here unravel very slowly, both about River’s past and the Graces.  The ending is only somewhat satisfying and I am debating with myself about reading the next one because of course, after all that bating along, it ends on a damn cliffhanger.  

Briefly as well, I am finding my spirituality shifting away from writing. Writing was my spirituality but I was always told that I would have a chance to reunite with my intuition when the timing was better for me… and now, it’s coming. And if I can keep staying safe with it, I want it. Someone came into my life to help right before the year changed, and then I found myself reading about tarot and writing (which is completely fascinating to mix these). Fall is an interesting time to investigate one’s power, when the veil is purportedly thinner. I have bought some crystals and the full moon this week…yea, it’s time to pay attention to those things.

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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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Historical Fiction for Summer Diversion

So this is my first late blog post maybe ever and I don’t have a good reason for it. Maybe my reason is I have been doing my home stuff, caring for the chickens, a continued pandemic win, and I feel compelled to check the veggie garden daily, which leads to weeding. But I’ve definitely been reading and for the month of July (and so sadly this is the last week) I am keeping to historical fiction, and one is YA and one is genre. But you’ll see the similarities as you read on.

Briefly, I hope everyone is staying safe in the current pandemic. Even though NY is in good shape and I got a nice taste of normal yesterday with a scout outing for my son, the rest of the country is experiencing something very different.

Drowning my brains in historical fiction has been fun.

The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue, Mackenzi Lee

Henry Montague, Monty son of an earl, is to have his come of age trip to the Continent with his childhood friend, Percy, and his sister Felicity, before Percy has to go to law school, Felicity has to go to finishing school, and Monty has to settle down into a more adult life.  Up to this point Monty has been carousing and drinking too much and is disappointed that the trip will be chaperoned and intended to be cultural and boring.  Moreover, he has a crush on Percy, who also happens to have a mother with dark skin.  All kinds of things that don’t fit in with the intended plan.  Monty makes an impulsive decision early on that throws off the intended course of the trip and they are hurtled into more adventure than they intended.

So in my historical fiction romp I needed some characters with more choices.  Granted, no youth back in the day had a lot of choices, but the roles of males were a little less restrictive, means or no. The added intrigue of Monty’s homosexuality helps with the stakes and helps with generating empathy in teen readers, much like Percy being on the fringes of society even though his aristocratic father, before he died, acknowledged him.  The subject of race is talked about too.  This book is exciting and fun. There’s alchemy, migrants, and plots.  

Monty is very well done as a main character.  He is clear with his desires, faults, and what is at stake.  I enjoyed his humor as the narrator and the exploration of his flaws and downfalls as the story goes on, and the unexpected strengths of his sister, Felicity, and how they are so different but love each other fiercely. Siblings are also so important to teens, as well as that intense, real first love, whether it fits into society or not. Some relationships are the same through time, and those are the relationships that keep us reading.  

I absolutely enjoyed this and the ending was satisfying. I might read the next in the series of Felicity’s story, but again, its hard to read historical fiction women as they have so many more restrictions. This sat on my TBR for far too long.

The Magpie Lord, KC Charles

This one starts out with a man of means, Crane, trying to commit suicide while under spirit possession and being stopped by his butler for the third time in the course of a few weeks. He finds a shaman for help, even though their families have a checkered, tangled past and they are from different social backgrounds, they go back to the family homestead to figure out the curse. It’s Victorian England and they gay men who find themselves attracted to one another, so it is a love story too, as well as the story of men trying to fit into their worlds as who they are.

This is much more genre than Gentlemen’s Guide. There is character development but not so well done as the characters in Gentlemen’s Guide, and it’s deliciously Gothic with a dark family estate drained of magical power. I know Gothic doesn’t necessarily mean magic but both? Yes. And the romance is definitely more sexually explicit, and it’s shorter, and the plot is more instant gratification than the slower burn of GG. But I like how it ends up, the twist at the very end which clearly I shall not reveal here. This would have been good for my diversion craving brain last summer, being shorter, more intense, and it’s a series in case I want more.

With both of these books, because the main characters are male, I had less of that depressive feeling at the end that involves the character either following her heart and fighting social convention or giving up what she loves to fit in. I am absolutely not saying that being homosexual in the past was any sort of easy, but these both resolved in a way I could live with. And I’d read more of both. My understanding and appreciation of genre has really grown with my focus on reading in the last few years.

In a guilty confession I have definitely broken my book buying ban because I have been opening BookRiot deal emails. It’s really the clincher to avoid those. Part of the issue is I am starting to acquire and read books for my Halloween Reads series and I get a little fast and loose there, even if I am continuing to read books off my list that didn’t make it into last year’s series. Every once in awhile I consider a beach reads/women’s fiction feature on here for the summer but I usually choose to focus on BookRiot challenges or my backlist. I’m not too good for women’s fiction or genre, we know this, but it never seems that I get into the beachy stuff.

I’ve already finished a witch book and I got the next audio of that author’s from the library I’m waiting for the third in the series I want to post on in two weeks to get off hold at the library so I can barrel through it. Audiobook secret for NY residents: You can get a NYPL library card for e and audiobooks from anywhere in NYS! It has expanded my audiobook access a little, but I definitely caved and bought three audio companions of Halloween books I already had to gear up for the series.

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YA Historical Fiction: Gail Carriger’s Finishing School

I’m so happy to be settled into summer.  My husband is canning, the garden is starting to produce, and a few eggs have made it in from the chicken coop.  We have a hen who seems to be broody and struggling and she has me worried, and the rooster is being a total jerk, so she is in the pop up run that I bought to be able to keep the new batch of chicks outside safely during the day.

What to do about my son’s schooling in the fall is heavy on my mind. I’d love him to be able to go back, but I can work from home and even though NY is doing awesome, I think I want to keep him with me during the day until this has passed.   Too many unknowns with this virus.  Both my husband and I have been very sick other years from what he has brought home, and I’d rather skip the weeks of exhaustion.  The emotional ups and downs of this has been enough, I don’t want to risk becoming physically ill.

I’m lucky to be able to even have the choice.

But on to books!  Last summer I spent a glorious week where I got to spend hours a day in a huge public library, reading and listening to my bookriot list and I posted on all short stories for the month. This July I have chosen to focus on historical fiction, mostly YA.  I don’t need the level of diversion that was the hallmark of my work life last summer, thank the universe, but I’m finding that it helps to increase my YA exposure.

So, when  graduate school was winding down for me back in 2007 and I was doing more practical work than reading and writing, I decided it was time for me to become well read.  In earnest. 

I believe anyone that reads this blog with some regularity is aware somewhat of that goal, now thirteen years old.   I got Anna Karenina and Vanity Fair in those big Barnes and Noble Classics re-issues, before I could binge on free stuff in the glorious new age of e readers and librivox.  I liked them more than I had anticipated. A few summers prior I had done Sense and Sensibility and Jane Eyre, which I believe I noted that I almost gave up on before the wedding. 

And I did quite a few.  I was pleased that I had tackled the majority of classics on the Goodreads Classics list.  But I’m finding I don’t have the bandwidth for them as much as I did when I started this venture, which is to say, classics are terribly depressing and the realities of women in those worlds were grim.  A woman had zero independence without means, and so few had means.  So often you read through something not a relatable anymore to find the woman dies in poverty or disgrace because she made some stupid mistakes or refused to conform but stuck to her principles.  Either way she freezes to death alone in the world.  It’s hard to get through a book and a character you grow to care about when that’s how it ends. I can’t say enough how grateful I am to have a professional career and independence.

But I love historical fiction set in these classic ages, and it’s because there is a good blend of the old world, which I still don’t really understand my attraction to, and the new ways women are allowed to live. And so this leads me to the current books in this post…

Gail Carriger’s Finishing School series

I started this series last summer when I was stressed beyond belief so I sunk myself into lighter books set in schools, which is a great setting for me because I loved school.  So the setting makes me happy and somewhat reminiscent.  But I read the other three since then and I’ll talk about them in a lump.

Sophronia Temminick is trying to finish at a school to create female spies in high society.  The school is in a giant blimp, which is so deliciously and unapologetically steampunk, and in a very James Bond way, there are all kinds of gadgets to manage high adventure spy schemes and thwarting of plans.  Sophronia is my favorite kind of heroine:  brazen, often bites off more than she can chew and unable to resist getting into the action when something isn’t right. These books involve politics between vampires, werewolves, and non supernaturals and plots to control mechanicals, which are robot household servants, and who is gaining power. 

Despite these embellishments, the female trappings are the same: women must find a patron or someone to support them as they just can’t be freelancers, because lord only knows what havoc any kind of independence would wreak, and they still have to be ornamental and pretend innocence and propriety.  Women who are killers but don’t quite understand the mechanics of sex is a difficult mash up to manage, but I think Carriger does it well.  She has other characters who embody more of the prized female virtues of the day and I think these characters help with making this unbelievable and unrealistic mashup more realistic and fun.  I think the friends who want to be traditional ladies, or who already have patrons, or who are double agents, because many of the twists come in the surprise of double agents, help balance out the main character.  But in the end with the werewolves and vampires this is meant to be fun.  It reminds me of the Stoker and Holmes series by Colleen Gleason that I delightfully binged upon last summer.

There is a love triangle that resolves.  Another depressing fact of the past is that no matter what a woman is like when she is young, unless she is rich, which Sophronia is not, she has to end up in some sort of obeisance/loss of independence if she is to fall in love, and Carriger includes the romance subplots without making the end entirely depressing.  But I won’t say more, because that is the end of the fourth and final book in the series.  It does end well and fun, which it should, being the tone of the whole series of danger, intrigue and adventure but with happy endings.  It’s diverting but the research is well done and the tension between the society of the past and women learning to be agents is blended well without being too cringe-worthy.  I find some things that are too anachronistic for historical fiction to be cringe-worthy.  Like when a woman in a historical romance novel is sexually knowledgeable and not ashamed about loving sex. But the sex has to be appealing in those books, so I just think historical romance isn’t for me.

But listening to these got me through an interesting week of driving and some vacation time listening while working on some craft projects.  (I have been doing awesome knitting down my projects since quarantine.) They are worth a read and I would read Carriger’s other mashups of powerful and independent women at different times in history.

I have a plan for some more historical fiction YA in two weeks, especially if that last audiobook in the series becomes available at from the library in time.  Am I a library junkie if I have cards for my local library and the NYPL?  Asking for a friend.

Also my son and I have made it to the final Harry Potter book.  It will have gotten us through four months of quarantine!

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Review of a Gothic Thriller

Phase 3 has opened in New York and we are in the middle of (hopefully) re examining race in America.

I know, this is a reading and writing blog and I am totally about to regale you with my adventures with pages.

But you can’t make it up about the first half of 2020.  You just can’t.  And somehow murder hornets were mentioned but like edited out because they weren’t relevant to the plot in the end.  I hope my readers know, by the books I have posted and my perspective that reading is an essential tool for engendering empathy, that I am in the black lives matter camp.  I am of the opinion that we need to focus on righting the deep wrongs of racism in our country.  Everything happening has been making me think, too, and I am pleased to see my friends reading and talking about books on race.  I feel like I’m seeing headway with these issues more than I had in the past.  I was pleased to see the NFL repeal its position on kneeling during the anthem.  I’m angry about the lengths people had to go to to get the kneeling condoned and I still think they suck for how they treated the issue, but I am pleased with that.

Also, it’s pride month, and protections have been rolled back for transgender individuals this very month in healthcare.  Also unacceptable.

My reading has slowed to a crawl. A very sad belly drag in the muck. Dragging along.

But the reason the reading has crawled is the best reason possible…the writing is coming along! I have had two rounds of editing on my first pages of my novel and I’m told they are much more effective in setting the scene for the rest of the book.  I have to look more closely at the final round of edits and then the dreaded going back to querying agents. But I’m confident I’m more likely to get more requests for fulls.  I know it’s going to be hard and take forever so that’s why I’m dreading sending out my baby again after I have worked so much on it the last few months.

But for reading.  I have one completed at the time of the post and I’m like 75% through the next book.  I almost could have made it through for this post but I’ve had some other things I’ve had to take care of on top of writing and educating my child and working from home.   

The Tenth Girl, Sara Faring

The daughter of a South American revolutionary gets a job at a private exclusive girls school at the southernmost tip of South America near the glaciers.  It’s very Gothic in a big old house with an ancient curse that no one understands, complete with ghosts.  Part of it is narrated by a ghost possessing one of the characters.  And there is a big twist which is definitely mentioned all over Goodreads.  

People really have mixed feelings about this book. I got really into the Gothic elements of this book in the beginning. The cover pulled me in and then I preordered it as a debut author. I read the Victorian Gothic stuff, as I have posted on here, and I eat it all up, but this was set significantly closer to modern day (if the 1970’s count as modern day).  I see calls or interest from people for more modern Gothic stuff but I don’t tend to come across it.  I’m clearly not blowing a twist for anyone but I liked it more before the twist.  I wish the Gothic elements were resolved/explained without a huge altering twist, even though the twist isn’t bad.  I just wish it held to those elements throughout.  It doesn’t make me so frustrated as it does some of the readers on Goodreads.   But I liked it.  I can see how it broke her into publishing.   

I’m pleased with having moved myself forward with my writing with having fewer places to be.  It’s helped me feel productive in the time of the coronacoaster.  I’m excited about how much flash I was able to write too and then being more than halfway the novel edits.  So one book.  It’s hard to read when I am immersed in my own book.  

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YA Reads: Two More Agent Favorites

The lockdown is long and wearing on all of us.

I am counting down the weeks until I don’t have to spend the morning homeschooling my son, even though when school is done it likely means another battle over filling time in ways that is not screens all day, as I don’t think it will be safe to reopen summer camp.

I went back in to the office Friday to move some paperwork along that needed it, but it will take longer to extract myself from the pile, and it was okay to be back to the world and not giving spelling tests or helping with writing assignments.

Like I have said every post, not getting up and going straight into a workday has really helped me work on my writing as far as getting my daily bit of flash done.  However, I just got back some incredibly helpful feedback on my novel that I need to buckle down to get the head space to do, and the exhaustion of combining homeschool with work has made it hard to get right to it.  Often I need at least one entire weekend day, sometimes two, to recover.  The long weekend next weekend, when normally I’d be traveling, I will work on getting it done, and I have some agents lined up to send it off to.  The lovely agent/editor has said that she would give it a quick glance when it is finished and I want to not let too much time pass so she doesn’t forget me before I can get it back to her.  The extra time has been nice but other aspects have been draining.

Reading continues, but a little less intensely.  I may have slid in some diverting reads the first week my husband returned to work and I was homeschooling and working alone in the house.

So in developing my agent list, like I said before, I gathered up some favorites to read as examples of the genre, and these are two more.

One of Us Is Lying

One of Us is Lying, Karen McManus

A group of four students in detention witness the death of a boy who writes a gossip website and is about to reveal life changing secrets for all of them.  In a classic mystery style their stories all entangle to make each of them feasible murderers, so you’re hooked on finding out who. 

I can see where an agent would be looking for something else well written like this.  They were all contemporary, relatable stories from each child and what they did to be susceptible to the rumors.  The weird love match was even feasible based on the extensive backstory of each child.  It was compelling without having to be supernatural, which is one of my FAV things in stories, and if you read me you already know this.  I have taken some online courses in how to write mysteries but I have never plotted one out and I’d love to have created something like this.  It’s compelling without having to be flashy or high concept. 

The Sun Is Also a Star

The Sun is Also a Star, Nicola Yoon

A pair of brilliant teenagers with very different perspectives intersect for a single day. A day that they spend falling in love.  The girl is about to be deported back to Puerto Rico at the end of the day and is in a desperate, last ditch attempt to save her family from that fate.  The boy is supposed to be attending a college interview that he’s deeply ambivalent about, but he attends for the sake of what his immigrant parents want for him.

I mean, I’m not going to pretend that my book is as perfect an example of YA literature as this one.  This captures the different way kids feel about the future that seems so large and anomalous before them…some with a definite plan and others who need more time to find something.  It captures different ways to look at love and finding someone, the mixed feelings of love, anger, loyalty and betrayal from our families.  It adds the different perspectives from different cultures and how people come to find a better life, work hard, and have families here, and what kids straddling these two worlds do with that.  I have said before that I love YA that engenders empathy and the world through the eyes of others. I wonder how these books would have been consumed by me when I was in this demographic.

Because of all these important stories and perspectives this book is a bit intense. It’s under seven hours long but I took breaks from it.  You know from the outset she has less than 24 hours to save her family from deportation. You want her to win.  I was consumed by how unfair it was that her father got them in that predicament through a lifetime of selfishness and that she was the one out trying to be able to stay.  I was angry with how mean Daniel’s brother is to him because he cannot accept his own mixed heritage and Daniel is okay with it.  I am consumed by circumstances beyond both kids’ control that still affects them so deeply.

It’s brilliant. And I have not made plans to see the movie.  I’m awful at seeing the movie.

More writing for me with this forced slow down.  I’d be getting my son ready for a soccer game this morning if life was normal.  I am considering signing up for a four week writing course because it will be tiring but I don’t know when the pandemic is over when I will have time to do it later.  I know it feels like it will be forever but feelings are not facts.

Greenhouses have been allowed to open so I’ll get flowers for my garden today.

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YA Read Down 2020

Picture credit:  me for finding an abandoned hyacinth in an overgrown garden on a walk. Hyacinths are my favorite spring flowers!  Also loving the daffodils and the bluebells.  May is really when spring gets up to full test, and who doesn’t need spring right now?

Okay, so if you live in NY, and many other states, kids won’t be returning to school this academic year.  My son’s teacher is having an extra meeting with them tonight to help them grieve the loss of their end of year rituals. I think that’s a lovely thing for her to do.  I know teachers are still busting hump to try to make this work and I support kids staying home to keep us safe.   I am working from home and teaching second grade which is going as well as it could, I guess.

Still writing my prompt daily (haven’t done mine today!) and happy with all the writing that is getting done and loving the process.  It’s bringing back some magic for me in the nightmare in trying to query a novel, which is on hold because I am waiting to get my revisions back on my first 20 pages that I paid for.  When they come back I know I have to refocus my efforts, but I am taking a break for now.

But these reads are related to my read down more than they are about agent recommended books, and I have two lined up for my next post of some agent favorites I’m seeing.  And breaking my rules about no new books on both of them.  Still not doing badly with acquiring new books with being a third of the way through the year.

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Raven Boys, Maggie Stiefvater

Four boys at an elite prep school get caught up in a plan to find magical energy lines, incorporating a girl from a family of psychics along the way.  Of course these powers involve a sacrifice to amplify them and more than one person is looking for them and for different reasons.  To top  of that, the girl has long been told that she will kill her true love with a kiss and she’s in love with one of the boys, so there is that.

I liked how this book combined different personalities and situations to make up this rag tag bunch.  I like that they come together despite their differences and appreciate one another.  And of course I love the psychic family of women and all their intrigue.  I don’t know if my brain is a little distracted right now (aren’t we all, right?)  but it took me awhile to get all the boys and their stories straight.  I got there, but there is a lot to it and a lot for my brain to piece together.  It makes sense that there are more stories to follow a setup with all these backstories with these boys, and then near the end the origin story of the girl gets called into question, so it just layers on.  But it’s magical, and intriguing, and good, and I’d read more of these if I wasn’t on a binge of all the YA that agents love and that there is to sample in this excellent world.

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Mechanica, Betsy Cornwell

This is a retelling of Cinderella, and like in The Lunar Chronicles, the Cinderella character is a mechanic and catches the prince’s eye unbeknownst to her via her talents and gifts.  To boot, there is the intrigue of her having a foot in the fae world due to her brilliant mechanical mother, so with the sequel, there is more to do than just, I don’t know, be what she is to the prince.  Which I don’t want to spoil this on people.  Her stepfamily is sufficiently awful and disappointing for her, and she finds a better life for herself.

What is great about this book is that the resolution is an active, rather than a passive one. Gone are the days where YA is going to be all about finding a man to take care of you forever.  Aside from us trying to move the culture away from that, girls don’t even really want it.  Not the girls I am blessed to know, anyway.  I was more taught to think about my career path rather than marriage, although I romanticized love as much as the next girl).  Also I loved the magic in this book.  I loved the secretive fae elements and the ongoing mystery rather than just a love story of a girl being rescued (or really, rescuing herself).  And of course, there is a sequel to get into all the magic, which, yes.  I haven’t read it.  Trying to work down my TBR but you know how that can lead to other trouble.

Reading continues to be my survival, especially now that it is slowly getting nice out and I can be listening when I am outside walking, which is one of my favorite things whether the world is ending or not.  Writing has been a surprising form of salvation as well.  When I am looking at calls for submissions I always wish I had a well of material to pull from, and now that’s what I am creating.  Which brings the joy of creation, of course.

Next week are two agent recommended YA books!  And of course I totally get why they are favorites of people who know and represent this genre.

Comments/Likes/Shares!  What have your pandemic survival reads been?