I admit it’s difficult to focus on posting today, as much as I want to share my thoughts about The Starless Sea. I have been trying to be more conscious of my screen time and that’s all been blown to bits this week with election coverage and stress about the outcomes of either side claiming victory. Debunking conspiracies, keeping hope, still being a therapist and a mom, making progress on my reading and other personal projects.
I let my kid have a friend over today to have a break from all the stress talk going on between his parents.
Somehow I have ended up reading two involved portal books this November, which I didn’t expect, because agents looking for manuscripts have mostly said no portal fiction. But since neither of those books are debut novels, apparently you can write about slipping through magical doors all that you want. Do I sound jealous? Because I so am.
But I digress.
The Starless Sea, Erin Morgenstern
Zachary Ezra Rawlins, and yes, all three names are used copiously, is a graduate student who finds a book in the library about his life. Intrigued and creeped out but also with the distinct sense he is meant for something different, he embarks upon an adventure into a bizarre parallel world and assumes a role in a story he was always meant to assume. Labyrinths, symbolism, folktales that all eventually weave together and characters with unclear motives flank the shores of the starless sea.
November is a good time to read Morgenstern, first of all because she is a NaNo winner with The Night Circus, and because November/late fall, before it really starts to snow, holds a thin veil magic for me. I loved this time as a kid without understanding why and as an adult there’s a certain magic to it. Adulthood needs magic. Needs infinite possibilities. Both of her books now are a perfect foreground to a magical, anything’s possible time of the year. I also love that this is the time of year that Harry Potter movies make their way back to TV. Thanksgiving weekend I usually tune in and hit The Half Blood Prince.
It’s lucky I set the expectation at the beginning of this post that I’m struggling to focus today.
That said, I think this book is for people with certain book tastes. It is a more literary, atmospheric book for someone who just loves stories for the sake of stories. The smaller stories that weave together kept my interest going when at times it flagged a little bit, when Zachary was really in the bowels of this strange world I didn’t yet have a framework for understanding. My brain got impatient at times, but if I read this book at a time where I had more brain bandwidth I may have felt differently. I cannot promise that if you loved The Night Circus that you will love this too. But if atmospheric stories for the sake of stories and maybe some wish fulfillment for those of us who have always wanted to be spirited to another dimension are for you, or maybe for you, it’s worth picking up. And remembering that even when it gets weird, there is resolution in the end that pulls it together.
I had this pipe dream that I was going to have a second intense portal book (because isn’t early November kinda about portals?) ready for you today, and I’m like, 60% through, but this week has been too emotional to plough through like 250 more pages of a book that needs my attention. But Morgenstern easily deserves her own post, as she is my November magic twice over. I look forward to more of her magic.
More books I missed this month before the Christmas reads.
And I’d love for this country to come together again, once I am done with my petty anger. Yes, I must acknowledge my petty anger. I tell my kids to do it all the time.
So, the night when the veil is at it’s thinnest complete with a full moon is over. I’ll take that over the big storm we had last year that thankfully held off for the festivities.
I selected this image because there is something so eerie and poetic about the deep gold of later fall. I love an atmospheric misty fall morning. It begs to be breathed in.
Who is surprised that my son finally gave up the Jack Skellington costume for a Harry Potter, after Harry Potter audiobooks were a clear head and shoulders pandemic win for us? I haven’t minded the world slowing down a little for the pandemic, either. That was a win for me.
I think I have warned my fair readers that I binged on so much creepy book goodness this summer that even though I’m turning back my clocks and looking ahead to the holiday season, I’m posting on a last bunch of not to be missed Halloween reads today. Because this holiday is good enough to last the whole weekend when I got two demon books and two haunted house books on deck.
The Good Demon, Jimmy Cajoleas
Claire is unmoored and empty inside following her exorcism. Her demon, called Her, was a support and companionship in a cold world with preoccupied adults. Claire steals a journal (for a thousand dollars) that she discovers may hold the secret to getting her demon back and embarks on an adventure, complete with the son of the preacher who exorcised her, that uncovers something much bigger in her sleepy Southern town. Totally deliciously Gothic.
I was really looking forward to this book and it didn’t let me down. I was intrigued by a positive depiction of a demon having a relationship with their person. The relationship between them makes total sense and it’s completely understandable why she would go on a quest to get her back and I loved how deep the rabbit hole went. I was impressed by how well a male author could write a wayward teenaged girl and her falling in love with a boy totally unlike her. The supernatural element was awesome, the darkness, the story behind how the demon was paired up with Claire in the first place and…you kinda root for Her, too. Definitely makes you think about the lines of good and evil. And I love books that make everything into a gray area. Yes. Worth the read.
Mexican Gothic, Silvia Moreno-Garcia
Noemi Taboada, a rich young woman enjoying the high life in 1950’s Mexico is summoned to a creepy old mansion to assist her newlywed cousin, Catalina. Catalina has made a hasty and mysterious marriage and now seems to be sinking into a psychiatric condition. Noemi is better suited to parties than she is rescuing cousins and sleuthing, but she discovers something far more nefarious than a psychiatric disorder plaguing the family and the crumbling mansion. Something that she ends up having to escape to keep her life her own.
This just came out and is highly praised. It is exactly what a Gothic tale is meant to be: dark, long family curses, mysterious, dark, and full of slowly unraveling secrets. It easily could have been set in Europe, in my opinion, because it is so much in the tradition of a Gothic horror, right down to it not being too horror-y. Definitely more Gothic, definitely more slow unfolding legacy and family secrets and having to find out the good bits from the people outside the house than it is about bloody guts and death. Character driven. Certainly not like the hardcore Joe Hill book from last week. It is a slow burn with a big weird secret that takes off in the last 50-100 pages.
I like the love interest. I like that he isn’t a rake and that it’s believable that there is some attraction because the story mentions that she is a little bored of men, bored of the playboys and the rakes in her society scene. I like that she has to slow down the game playing and becomes more genuine with him, rather than flirting and trying to get him going. I didn’t mind her cousin’s husband being enigmatic and there being some sort of supernatural attraction there because she was being real, and experiencing something real, with the other guy.
I shall take this moment to give myself props for including a new and hot book in this post.
Amityville Horror, Jay Anson
This is a famous one for whomever is interested in American ghost stories: The Lutz family moves into a home where a brutal murder (Ronald DeFeo having murdered his four siblings and parents in cold blood) was committed and are driven out by dark, unseen forces within a month.
Now, I love me a demonic haunting, and I seem to read one in every scary reads series I do. Audible recently expanded its catalog to certain members and when this became available on audio I wasted no time. I find the acceleration of weird and scary phenomena fascinating, as long as they are not happening to me. I like to know the famous American ghost stories, which are always controversial in themselves. I don’t completely understand it though, as it is rarely truly resolved, or resolvable, and it is subtle. I’m currently reading a different horror book, and I’m finding I prefer the subtlety to the gore. In this one, we never know the whole story. Ronald hasn’t come out with a consistent story as to how he ended up killing his family, if the demonic creatures already were there when the house was built, or he or someone had a role in inviting them in. Hearing voices isn’t enough to explain how it happened. Certainly the Lutz family was just a typical white upper middle class family of the day looking to have a nice life and raise their kids, not dabble in anything so dark and scary. They were hapless victims. I find myself wondering what happened to the house after the Lutz family left, if the number of other families since have had similar events. I googled it to see the actual home. I wouldn’t move into a house with a past like that or one that didn’t feel right. But I’m glad I finally got to it, to know this iconic story as well as my odd fascination with demonic hauntings. It is definitely a fall read, even though the events take place during a holiday season, one that was supposed to be joyful for the family.
I hope this freaky weekend treats everyone well and you can all look forward to no more spooky books for the rest of the year. I don’t think. I am in the middle of my November reads so I need to do that as well as make sure I get another Full Moon meditation in this weekend. Because you have to catch the energy as it avails itself.
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’m well aware that my favorite reads and subjects are more nuanced than they are all out crap your pants on the edge of being grossed out horror, but I can get into the occasional harder core horror story. It doesn’t always have to been teenagers and women with more power than society deems acceptable that fills my reading brain (although I think it will be teenagers again next week. Possibly demons. I don’t know. I seem to have done some serious binge reading this summer). Today’s post, as you have a coffee and think about all the Sunday fall goodness ahead, shall prove that sometimes I’ll crawl into that emotional space of an edgier horror story.
Should I have waxed poetic about it already becoming later October or would that have taken away from this confession that my dark side has its’ needs too?
Hex, Thomas Olde Heuvelt
A town in the Hudson Valley is haunted by the spectre of a prosecuted witch from back in the early 1600s. With her eyes and mouth sewn shut and wrapped in chains, she is an unexploded bomb tolerated by a tiptoeing town. The curse: once you know about her, you cannot leave the town for any appreciable amount of time or you will be compelled to take your own life. So she is a carefully constructed, guarded, quarantined secret. You know that’s a total setup for things to go terribly wrong when some under-supervised teenagers get to blaming her for the strict rules in the town. How she has caused them to lose family and feel confined against long term relationships or external careers. Inevitably it goes to crap, her whispering into people’s ears compelling them to take their lives, the consequences unbearable if she is able to use her eyes and mouth.
Another TBR long hanger that I picked up the audio to to be able to read it. This is a classic creepy, horrific story. I can’t imagine having to anticipate a ghost like that, or any ghost really, rando showing up in my path like that. And it’s a setup for things to go to crap so you’re just waiting for it to, with the animal harbingers and the bored, disturbed and trapped teenagers. Too much power shared with too many people. In fact, I am surprised they held it together for as long as they did. The town is a character more than the individuals in it, as they are all affected similarly. Goodreads reviewers and I agree that this felt old school Stephen King to me, with people struggling as a whole against a curse, and it all goes to crap at the end in a way that follows with the plot. So if you like old school King, this one is worth a read.
For me personally, I liked that it was snuggled in the Hudson Valley and kept consistent enough for me to miss the place in the year I lived there. I like reading a book where I have been, and I like the Hudson Valley, still rural enough but so close to the city. It was a good place to be, but also it gave the book a kind of Legend of Sleepy Hollow effect too, with historical events in early America still affecting the town.
Heart Shaped Box, Joe Hill
An ex rockstar, Judas Coyne, buys a suit at an online auction, knowing full well that it comes with the ghost of the man who used to own it. What starts off as a curiosity for a person whose life has slowed considerably becomes a horror story of revenge when he discovers the auction was a setup to buy the vengeful spirit of the stepfather of an ex girlfriend who committed suicide after the breakup. Not only is this dude an angry stepfather, but in life he was a gifted hypnotist who didn’t use his powers for good. His ghost is scary, merciless and focused on the ruin of Coyne and anyone who tries to help him. Whoa.
This was a compulsive horror story. It was an artful balance between intense action and backstory that slowly unravels as Judas and his current girlfriend, Mary Beth/Georgia, an ex stripper/recovering drug addict, run to survive the ghost. They rake through Judas’ past in a harrowing drive South to get to the family who sent him the ghost, to get to Mary Beth’s old Ouija board, and ultimately to a face off in the home of his estranged and dying father. I was hooked on the action and then before the action got to be too much, because I can get lost in too much of it, it would slow back down to the stories and the reasons. The story itself hung together well through the scary parts, gave them context. I was impressed that this is a debut novel as well and I have seen other Joe Hill novels like The Fireman get high praise among horror readers.
It also has a resolution with redemption in it. Throughout the story, Coyne is becoming more human in his interactions and ends up staying with Mary Beth even though he has had a failed marriage, I hope that isn’t a spoiler alert. I didn’t really have expectations for their relationship past the high drama of the story but I guess the whole surviving a disaster together tends to draw a couple together. Mary Beth is much younger than he is with her own complicated past but Coyne tends to be the kind of guy women fall in love with and she’s no exception.
My only warning for readers is there is a significant element of child abuse/sexual abuse in this story. Horror has to rake people’s deepest darkest fears and traumas to be effective, to meet the needs that draw people to this genre and I get that but if CSA is a trigger for a reader, they should really avoid this one.
These were both great. I’ve considered limiting the scope of the books I blog about, but my tastes are so wide I don’t have the heart to limit myself. Because I read these ones and I have the Christmas reads listed out to get read. (But I am not far enough ahead to be on them, I’m still getting through the November posts, and that’s fine, because I’m not ready for Christmas books until we are past Halloween).
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!
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.
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.
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.
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!
Sunflowers were trendy when I was in high school and I liked to fancy myself a free thinker at that time, but maybe a little because we weren’t as likely to get the trendy stuff, being 45 minutes from a mall with no internet to speak of. So I wasn’t into them then. To cool for me.
But I’ve recently fallen in love with them in their own right, their vivid beauty signaling that summer is moving on. They are a crossover between summer and fall, can be seasonal for both of those times. I am begrudgingly accepting the cooler days and the sooner nights, the fall flavors starting to pop up everywhere. Not ready for a pumpkin coffee myself but I don’t begrudge those who are. I used to love fall. Now I desperately cling to any last vestiges of summer. I feel traitorous to myself that I tried Bath and Body Works new Sweater Weather scent and I LOVE it and I am wearing it in August. Not. Sweater. Weather.
In keeping with that, I am starting my fall reads with books that can be Halloweeny but can be good for any time. The classic Witch cozy mystery, of course.
Miss Spelled, Morgana Best
Amelia has a bad week. She loses her boyfriend, her job, and is evicted all in the same week. She’s saved by a letter telling her she has inherited her grandmother’s business, which she finds out when she arrives at her new home that it’s a bakery, and she’s hopeless in the kitchen. Not only is it a bakery, but she finds out she has magical powers, AND someone is murdered in her new bakery. So she has to make heads and tails of all that!
My energy levels have been inconsistent, to say the least, since the coronavirus hit us in full force, and I read this one way before witchy read time to let my brain experience the guilty pleasure of a witch cozy. And this very much is a guilty pleasure for house chores. I think I mopped the floor and did some gardening while I listened. It may have been a little predictable, but that has its place. Some of the witch books I’m reading are grave and scary, but sometimes, it’s nice just to have some magic and be a young woman just trying to find her way. I would absolutely check into another Morgana Best witch cozy. Which is good, because combing the goodreads site it looks like there are a ton of them in the Kitchen Witch series alone. The next one, Dizzy Spells, looks higher rated AND she has Halloween cozies in the series. She has other series too.
Southern Magic, Amy Boyles
This one follows the same formula as Miss Spelled: Pepper loses everything in a day only to find out she inherited a magical business from a magical grandmother she never knew, only to find out she is magical as well, complete with an unknown ability to talk to animals. It’s a business pairing familiars to owners, and she doesn’t like animals. She decides to sell the business in this magical Magnolia Cove but becomes a prime suspect in a murder, so is forced to stay while she solves the mystery so she can bust out of town. It doesn’t help that the prime witness is a cat who is reluctant to speak with her about what she saw. And of course there is a hunky police office who sounds like he might be harboring a dark secret of his own.
This one is more creative and I felt a little more fleshed out than Miss Spelled. It follows the same formula, and that’s what mysteries do, but the business was creative with the pairing of familiars. And I love the American South as a setting, even though I’d never be able to fit in there myself. I’m not sure I understand the appeal, but there’s definitely a draw there. This one is part of a developed series as well and it looks like there are at least werewolves mixed in for more paranormal fun.
I am not ready to call this my Halloween Reads or do my usual opening to survey what’s lined up. I have definitely started the list as I do in August, but I’m not ready to make it official.
Also I had a request for a full manuscript for the first time ever!!! I sent it with joy and some crossed fingers.
Halloween Reads will start in earnest with the next post. Labor Day is the last hurrah of the summer so I can kind of swing it?