Did Not Finish: The Witches by Stacy Shiff

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It had to happen eventually. Over the past sixteen months, I’ve published reviews on more than one hundred and twenty novels. There’s been good books and bad books and occasionally a book that is truly great.

But The Witches: Salem, 1692, by Stacy Schiff, is the first book that I am giving up on.

I don’t have a car, so I mostly walk or use public transit to get around Toronto. While commuting to various locations, I like to use Audible because my earbuds are easy to stash in my pocket once I reach my destination.

I prefer nonfiction because if I have to tune out for a few minutes in order to cross the street or dodge the ever-present construction in the city, I can quickly pick up the thread of the narrative once more.

For more than nine hours I listened to The Witches, and today I could not tell you anything about the Salem Witch Trials that I didn’t know beforehand. This is because the book is all brain and no heart. It’s filled with facts and quoted and diary excerpts, but it fails entirely to make the historical figures into living, breathing people with motivations.

I always like to know the why of things. For example, I knew the basic facts about Queen Hatshepsut of Egypt before I read Kara Cooney’s The Woman Who Would Be King. What her book provided was the historical context of the period. Using educated guesswork and a dash of wild speculation, Cooney was able to paint a portrait of Egyptian life that allowed me to better understand Hatshepsut’s reign as a whole.

That’s what is sorely missing from Schiff’s book. She spends countless pages describing what the teenage girls of Salem were doing when they were supposedly bewitched. They tore out their hair, contorted their bodies, and screamed the invisible “spirits” tormenting them. These are facts. What I wanted to know was why. If it wasn’t witches, which it clearly wasn’t, then what on Earth would possess an entire community of teenage girls to behave as if they were, in fact, possessed?

If this book had been a little shorter, I probably would have been able to stay the course. But The Witches is more than five hundred pages. Like I said, I listened for nearly ten hours. Then I looked, and saw there were still eight hours to go. And I just couldn’t spend another eight hours in that particular version of Salem, no matter how technically accurate.

My rating: N/A

Normally I leave links here for anyone who would like to purchase the book, but given what you’ve just read, why would you?

Happy reading everyone!

Book Review: Tiger Lily by Jodie Lynn Anderson

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Review 2.29

Before Peter Pan belonged to Wendy, he belonged to the girl with the crow feather in her hair…

Fifteen-year-old Tiger Lily doesn’t believe in love stories or happy endings. Then she meets the alluring teenage Peter Pan in the forbidden woods of Neverland and immediately falls under his spell. [Source]

The world of YA fantasy is largely dominated by romances that are painfully trite. Too often the relationships in these books can be boiled down to a collection of tropes. We have the obligatory love triangle, the dangerous stranger with a secret softness, and my personal favorite, “the heroine predictably falls in love with the first man who is described in any detail whatsoever”. Even my some of my favorite authors of the genre, like Sarah J. Maas, fall entirely into this pitfall.

For a book that is marketed towards the under 16 crowd, Tiger Lily, the short novel by Jodie Lynn Anderson tells a very mature story. Not in the sexual sense, but in the way it approaches its characters. Tiger Lily is a fierce, competent warrior who knows the risks and the threat inherit in her choices and makes them with calm certainty. For all her ferocity, Anderson captures the vulnerability of Tiger Lily with all the insecurities and passions of youth.

Peter Pan has been portrayed by boys and girls, men and women of all ages for nearly one hundred years. J. M. Barrie’s original source material left so much of Peter’s true motivations up to interpretation, which in my opinion is part of the enduring magic of the story. Here Anderson has made him a complex and romantic boy on the very cusp of manhood; older than in most iterations, Peter is meant to be around seventeen. And while there are no overtly explicit scenes, Peter Pan has always carried sexual undertones and Anderson does not shy away from the sensuality of the story and its characters.

If I had to describe Tiger Lily in one word, it would be enchanting. Every once in awhile there comes a novel that so truly encapsulates the feeling of first love and first heartbreak that it sweeps its reader away on a river of shared experience. The emotional power of Tiger Lily took me completely by surprise, before I even knew what was happening I was lost in Neverland.

My rating: 4.5/5

You can find Tiger Lily here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

Note: By far, the best film adaptation of Peter Pan is the 2003 version, starring Jeremy Sumpter, Rachel Hurd-Wood, and Jason Isaacs. It is the only one to adequately capture the magic in a similar way to this novel.

 

Book Review: The Only Girl in the World by Maude Julien

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Review 2.28

 

In the tradition of The Glass Castle and A Child Called It, this memoir by Maude Julien is filled with such heartbreaking and harrowing detail that on more than one occasion I had to put it down and walk away. How such people come to abuse their children, and how such children find the strength to survive, are questions often explored in autobiographies and memoirs. But not since Tara Westover’s Educated, which I read and reviewed last year, have I encountered two people less deserving of the word “parent”.

It is obvious from the beginning chapters of The Only Girl in the World that Maude’s father is severely mentally ill. Of course that is just a polite term for “bleeding batshit crazy”, which is closer to the actual definition of Monsieur Julien’s affliction. Years before his daughter was born, he “adopted” a five year old girl from a family that was unable to provide for her. This young girl was groomed in the worst possible sentence of the world; she was indoctrinated to believe that her purpose on Earth was to bear a daughter for her adopted father. She went on to marry Mr. Julien, and bore his child in 1952.

This was a hard read. The entire stomach-twisting saga is narrated in a matter-of-fact manner, as if such things are standard practice. Sadly, the child abuse seen in the introduction it is but the merest inkling of the horrors to come. From the time she was able to walk and speak, Maude Julien was isolated away from the rest of the world in a manor home in Northern France where she was subjected to torture, molestation, starvation, sleep-deprivation, and a childhood deprived of love and affection from any other human.

Thankfully, Maude was born with a deep sense of compassion. Her love for animals and her connection to nature offered some consolation from the rigors of daily life. The second half of the memoir, in which Maude begins engaging in defiance and plans for escape, are much easier to read than the first half. The countless scenes of a small girl being treated with such cruel neglect were often too much, especially combined the rather deadpan narrative work by Elisabeth Rodgers in the audiobook edition. As I said earlier, I often had to pause and resume the story at a later time.

One thing that remains unexplained in The Only Girl in the World is exactly who was Monsieur Julien? With enough money it is said that one is never crazy, only eccentric, and that must have been the only thing keeping him from a mental asylum. But where he was getting all of this money from is never fully explained. I would have liked a little more detail on exactly how someone comes to the belief that their urine has magical properties, but it is more likely that the author simply doesn’t know.

My rating: 4/5

You can find The Only Girl in the World here on Amazon or here on Book Depository. The Audible edition is narrated by Elisabeth Rodgers and is available here.

Happy reading everyone!

 

Book Review: Emma in the Night by Wendy Walker

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Review 2.27

 

One night three years ago, the Tanner sisters disappeared: fifteen-year-old Cass and seventeen-year-old Emma. Three years later, Cass returns, without her sister Emma. Her story is one of kidnapping and betrayal, of a mysterious island where the two were held. But to forensic psychiatrist Dr. Abby Winter, something doesn’t add up. Looking deep within this dysfunctional family Dr. Winter uncovers a life where boundaries were violated and a narcissistic parent held sway. And where one sister’s return might just be the beginning of the crime. [Source]

Emma in the Night is one of those purely innocuous novels that is perfect for a long airport layover. Between its relatively slim pages is a story that is fast-paced, entertaining, and entirely forgettable. I finished this book three days ago, and I had to read the Goodreads synopsis to remember much of the plot.

Describing this novel by Wendy Walker as forgettable sounds harsh, but it isn’t meant as such. Sometimes it’s nice to sit down a read a book that doesn’t require your full concentration. It does; however, make writing a review more difficult because there isn’t much to say beyond, “Yeah I read that.”

The dysfunctional family relationship between mother and daughter is at the heart of Emma in the Night. Walker explores the concepts of narcissism and narcissistic personality disorder as they relate to the bonds between the women of the Tanner family. We are told about the psychological strain of growing up in a household ruled over by a manipulative and controlling parent, and how that often triggers a cycle of mental illness and abuse.

I liked that Walker resisted the urge to split her timeline, instead keeping the story in the present tense and delivering important exposition via conversations between Cass and the police. While this does create a distance between the reader and the protagonist, it also avoids the cliche of having constant flashbacks which add nothing to the overall narrative. When the final twist came, as final twists inevitably do in the thriller genre, it didn’t feel like a cheat. Which is high praise from a reader who is thoroughly fed up with unnecessary plot twists.

My rating: 3.5/5

You can find Emma in the Night here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Wendy Walker’s debut novel, All is Not Forgotten, was reviewed for this website by none other than my momma! Check it out here.

Happy reading everyone!

Book Review: The Agony House by Cherie Priest

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Review 2.26

 

Denise Farber has just moved back to New Orleans with her mom and step-dad. They left in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and have finally returned, wagering the last of their family’s money on fixing up an old, rundown house and converting it to a bed and breakfast.Nothing seems to work around the place, which doesn’t seem too weird to Denise. The unexplained noises are a little more out of the ordinary, but again, nothing too unusual. But when floors collapse, deadly objects rain down, and she hears creepy voices, it’s clear to Denise that something more sinister lurks hidden here.Answers may lie in an old comic book Denise finds concealed in the attic: the lost, final project of a famous artist who disappeared in the 1950s. Denise isn’t budging from her new home, so she must unravel the mystery-on the pages and off-if she and her family are to survive. [Source]

 

Graphic novels are among my very favorite type of book, and when I heard about The Agony House, set in a derelict New Orleans house in a community still reeling from Hurricane Katrina, I got excited. It turns out that Cherie Priest’s novel isn’t a traditional paneled graphic novel; instead, the primary narrative is written in standard prose, following Denise as she had her family attempt to unravel the riddle surrounding their new home. Nestled at random intervals throughout the novel are snippets of a mysterious comic book which may provide clues as to the identity of the spirit haunting the house on Argonne Street.

I really, really wanted to like this book. It has everything going for it: spooky house, plucky heroine, the cultural heritage of New Orleans. Not to mention the artwork by Tara O’Connor which I thought would offer a unique parallel to the main plot.

Unfortunately, The Agony House can’t decide what kind of book it wants to be. It is part mystery novel, part ghost story. It is part teenage adventure story, part cultural admonition on gender inclusivity. In general I find that when a book scatters itself over several genres, it ultimately spreads too thin and ends up as none of them. Such was the case with Priest’s book. The supposedly complex “mystery” at the center of the plot is oddly disjointed, long sections would pass where no one seemed to be working to solve it.

The pages of paneled comic book within the novel were also a bit of a let-down. After finishing The Agony House, I went through and read only the blue-tinted illustrations to see whether or not they made a cohesive story on their own. The answer was no; the illustrated sections offer nothing conducive to the overall plot. I started the book looking forward to these portions, but ended up just disappointed and confused.

My rating: 2.5/5

You can find The Agony House here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

Book Review: Wishful Drinking by Carrie Fisher (2008)

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Review 2.25

 

In Wishful Drinking, Carrie Fisher tells the true and intoxicating story of her life with inimitable wit. Born to celebrity parents, she was picked to play a princess in a little movie called Star Wars when only 19 years old. “But it isn’t all sweetness and light sabers.” Alas, aside from a demanding career and her role as a single mother (not to mention the hyperspace hairdo), Carrie also spends her free time battling addiction, weathering the wild ride of manic depression and lounging around various mental institutions. It’s an incredible tale – from having Elizabeth Taylor as a stepmother, to marrying (and divorcing) Paul Simon, from having the father of her daughter leave her for a man, to ultimately waking up one morning and finding a friend dead beside her in bed. [Source]

 

When I hit “play” on the audiobook edition of Wishful Drinking, hearing Carrie’s Fishers voice come out of my earbuds almost floored me. I knew that the audiobook was narrated by the author, but somehow I hadn’t connected that with the fact that Carrie Fisher was going to be telling me the story of her life.

Just hearing that sarcastic raspy voice was enough to transport me completely. Carrie Fisher was one of my heroes when I was growing up, and not for the reasons you might think. Of course I’ve been a life-long fan of Star Wars to the point where I’m currently sipping tea out of a Death Star mug, but it wasn’t Fisher’s portrayal of Princess Leia that made me love her. It was maybe twenty years later, when I was watching an interview with Fisher on Leno or Letterman or one of those late-night talk shows. I was probably only ten years old, but I remembered even then just how few fucks Carrie Fisher gave about anyone else’s opinion of her.

Her memoir, Wishful Drinking, is an extension of that attitude. Considering that the cover features Fisher dressed up as Princess Leia, I imagined that this book would be filled with fun behind-the-scenes tales from her time on the set of Star Wars. Fisher knows her audience, and does deliver some amusing anecdotes about working with George Lucas. But ultimately, Fisher did not write her memoir to talk about her career as an actress.

She wants to talk about mental health.

Carrie Fisher was a loud and lifelong advocate for mental health. She is open and honest about her own battles with bipolar disorder and the substance abuse problems that so often accompany the illness. She describes how electro-shock therapy has left her with holes in her memory  but a renewed zest for life. This matter-of-fact portrayal of mental illness was refreshing, and Fisher herself seemed to take great comfort that so many “crazy people” managed to achieve so much despite their mental health problems. It doesn’t help that it was all read in Fisher’s brash tones.

I cannot recommend enough you listen to this book as opposed to reading it in print. As I listened to Wishful Drinking I could picture Carrie Fisher so perfectly. She is chain-smoking one cigarette after another and laughing over-loudly at some inappropriate comment. It was like having her back for a few short hours

My rating: 4/5

You can find Wishful Drinking here on Amazon or here on Book Depository. The Audible edition is read (wonderfully) by the author and can be found here.

Happy reading everyone!

Book Review: Asylum by Madeleine Roux

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Review 2.23

 

For sixteen-year-old Dan Crawford, New Hampshire College Prep is more than a summer program—it’s a lifeline. An outcast at his high school, Dan is excited to finally make some friends in his last summer before college. But when he arrives at the program, Dan learns that his dorm for the summer used to be a sanatorium, more commonly known as an asylum. And not just any asylum—a last resort for the criminally insane.

As Dan and his new friends, Abby and Jordan, explore the hidden recesses of their creepy summer home, they soon discover it’s no coincidence that the three of them ended up here. Because the asylum holds the key to a terrifying past. And there are some secrets that refuse to stay buried. [Source]

To be honest, I was less than thrilled when I picked this book up from the library to find that it was in the “Teen” section. I generally enjoy YA horror, but the creepy-ass cover art that originally piqued my interest had gotten my hopes up for a full-on scare fest. YA horror is somewhat limited by the constraints of its genre, and I immediately knew that this wasn’t going to be the spine-tingler I had envisioned.

My initial disappointment was at least somewhat soothed by the unique visual style of Asylum. Interspersed within the narrative are photographs allegedly taken from inside former mental institutions. This adds an immersive element to the story and ups the spook factor a bit. There is something inherently sinister about black-and-white photos of abandoned buildings, and this gave the novel a much-needed boost of creepiness.

The big difference between horror novels intended for adults, and horror novels geared towards “young adults” (an annoyingly vague term that could refer to anyone between the ages of thirteen and twenty-five) is that YA writers and their publishers seem insistent on adding an unnecessary “romantic” angle. Personally, I believe that teenagers are capable of accepting a story that does not involve awkward kissing or endless mooning over awkward kissing, but hey what do I know.

What I do know is that this persistent romantic subplot trope can work well in fantasy or science fiction, but it doesn’t translate to horror. When Daniel, the protagonist of Asylum, is wandering the decrepit remains of an abandoned surgical theater in the middle of the night, I doubt very much that he would be daydreaming about a pretty classmate.

Asylum is what it is, and it would probably be a fun read for someone in junior high school. I was just hoping for a little more Winchester brothers and a little less Scooby Gang.

My rating: 3/5

You can find Asylum here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

 

Book Review: The Cruel Prince by Holly Black (Folk of the Air #1)

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Review 2.22

Jude was seven when her parents were murdered and she and her two sisters were stolen away to live in the treacherous High Court of Faerie. Ten years later, Jude wants nothing more than to belong there, despite her mortality. But many of the fey despise humans. Especially Prince Cardan, the youngest and wickedest son of the High King.

To win a place at the Court, she must defy him–and face the consequences.

As Jude becomes more deeply embroiled in palace intrigues and deceptions, she discovers her own capacity for trickery and bloodshed. But as betrayal threatens to drown the Courts of Faerie in violence, Jude will need to risk her life in a dangerous alliance to save her sisters, and Faerie itself. [Source]

 

I first heard about Holly Black’s The Cruel Prince last year, and had been meaning to check it out for ages, but wanted to finish Sarah J. Maas’ Throne of Glass series before embarking on another journey into YA fantasy. I’m really glad I finally got around to reading it; I was almost surprised by how much I liked this novel. It manages to avoid a lot of the more glaring tropes that have become disappointingly commonplace in YA fantasy.

The Cruel Prince immediately pulls away from the cluttered pack with its heroine. Jude is a mortal who has grown up in constant fear and danger; she dreams of becoming a knight in order to gain a stable position in the Faerie court. The best thing, she isn’t an archer. I am so tired of women being assigned the bow again and again as their weapon of choice; it’s become a tired and overused cliche. But Jude fights with sword, dagger, and crossbow. And poison. And subterfuge. She never stoops quite low enough to enter “antihero” territory, and her motives are generally honorable, but her actions are decidedly less so, which made for a refreshing change of pace.

The world of the Fae has been described in detail by countless authors, and the immortal lands are limited only by the creative limits of the writer. Is it a dreadful and haunted land of twisted and depraved individuals, like in Peadar O’Guilin’s The Call? Or is it an eternal land of beauty and impossibly gorgeous men, like A Court of Thrones and Roses? Holly Black has taken aspects from both interpretations; her Faerie Court is beautiful and deadly, where immortals live a life of luxury but humans are often bewitched and enslaved. It is also filled with one of the most diverse group of Faeries I can recall. Their skin is in every shade from cerulean to sienna; they have horns or tails or goat’s hooves in place of feet. I particularly liked the figure of Jude’s stepmother, whose cold demeanor covers hidden secrets.

I also enjoyed that Black stayed away from yet another overused cliche; Jude is not motivated by romantic love. She isn’t pining after a lost love, or sacrificing herself to save a lover. She also is not driven by any kind of familial duty. Her relationship with her sisters is largely unexplored, something I hope is remedied in the recently released sequel.

Jude is motivated purely by ambition.

She wants to become a knight simply because she wants to be acknowledged as the best. She has been powerless her entire life, and when the opportunity for power presents itself, she seizes it without hesitation.

Ambition is a heady thing, and I will be interested to see where Jude’s ambition leads her.

My rating: 4.5/5

You can find The Cruel Prince here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

 

Book Review: The Spellbook of Katrina Van Tassel: A Story of Sleepy Hollow by Alyssa Palombo (2019)

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Review. 2.21

Washington Irving’s short story The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is deeply ingrained in the American psyche; two hundred years after it’s publication and I doubt there are many grade school children who are not at least passingly familiar with the story of Ichabod Crane and his ill-fated midnight ride. The tale has been told and retold in so many different iterations that it’s sometimes difficult to remember that nowhere in Irving’s original source material was the ghost of the Headless Horseman actually witnessed. The reason for the sudden disappearance of the luckless schoolmaster is left open to interpretation. Did he slink away in shame after his proposal for the hand of the beautiful Katrina van Tassel was denied by her father? Was he only after her wealth the entire time, venturing to the next village in search of a more hapless heiress? Or, as the townspeople whisper to themselves, was he taken to the depths of hell by the Headless Horseman, who is said to haunt the woods around Sleepy Hollow?

All of these questions and more are answered in this historical romance novel by Alyssa Palombo. Set in the very early days of the American republic, just a few years after the defeat of the British soldiers, Palombo does a wonderful job of setting her scene. She captures the revolutionary attitude of New England with her heroine, Katrina Van Tassel. No longer the mostly nonverbal plot device of Irving’s story, here Katrina holds the same optimistic attitude and hopeful fervor that would have defined the young nation under Washington’s presidency. Palombo paints a romantic but realistic view of New England life. The community of Sleepy Hollow represents a community that is extraordinarily close-knit, and for a good reason. Any group of people that did not come together during the long New England winters would not have lasted long.

The Spellbook of Katrina Van Tassel has the setting. And it has the characters, with its outspoken and forward-thinking heroine. Palombo also takes a bit of narrative license with Ichabod Crane, making him less of a painfully awkward but still capturing his shy, gentle spirit and nerdy appearance. When the current TV series Sleepy Hollow depicts him as dreamy beardy eye candy:

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it’s a nice message to send that a man can be attractive due to a generosity of spirit, or a creative imagination rather than just a chiseled jawline.

Anyway, Palombo gets all of these really great characters together in this really great setting and then…

She doesn’t seem to know what to do with them.

For nearly two hundred of it’s three hundred and fifty page running length, we are treated to chapter after chapter of Katrina pining after Ichabod. She yearns. She craves. She longs from afar. Sometimes there are snatched moments of joy and pleasure with her beloved, but these moments are fleeting and then it’s quickly back to pining.

Another fifty or so pages is dedicated to Katrina attempting to use “witchcraft” as she seeks out answers to the mystery behind Ichabod’s disappearance. I put witchcraft in quotes because she mostly consults tarot cards, or stares into fires after drinking some herbal tea. The reveal of the eponymous “spellbook” was such a disappointment that I actually groaned aloud.

On an unrelated note, the tagline for this book is nonsense. Love is a thing even death won’t erase? What does that even mean? No shit Sherlock. We don’t just stop loving someone the moment they die. But that is an issue for the publishers of this novel, not the novel itself.

My rating: 3.5/5

You can find The Spellbook of Katrina Van Tassel here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

Book Review: This House is Haunted by John Boyne (2013)

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Review 2.20

 

After the death of her father, twenty-one year old Eliza Crane accepts a job as governess to the children of Gaudlin Hall. Upon her arrival at the train station, an invisible pair of hands seize her coat and attempt to push her onto the tracks; she is only saved by the unknowing interference of a local resident. This is only to be the first of many such assaults as Eliza enters Gaudlin Hall to find an oppressive and violent spirit, intent on preventing anyone besides the two children to remain within the walls of the manor.

John Boyne is probably best well known for his award winning novel The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, about two children on opposite sides of a concentration camp fence. Most of his work focuses on historical fiction, and Boyne sticks to his roots with This House is Haunted, adding a supernatural twist. This novel is an homage to the Gothic novels of the Bronte sisters or Rebecca du Maurier.

All of the elements at play for a classic haunted house tale are present in This House is Haunted. Our protagonist, Eliza, is a recently orphaned young woman who accepts a position as a governess to the children of a lonely manor home. Upon her arrival, she finds that the townsfolk speak of the manor, called Gaudlin Hall, in hushed whispers. The children seem to have been left all alone, and no one will tell Eliza the fate of their parents. The children themselves, particularly twelve year old Isabella, speak in riddles and ominous statements. And all of this is in the early few pages, before the supernatural forces that surround Gaudlin Hall make themselves known with a ferocity seldom seen in ghost stories.

Like I said, all of these elements needed for a wonderfully spooky tale are accounted for in This House is Haunted. And yet, it failed to illicit even the smallest shiver down my spine.

Perhaps it was Eliza herself that was somehow lackluster. Her primary characteristic seems to be that she is homely. She is very, very insistent on this fact, constantly lamenting her ugly features which have denied her the prospect of ever becoming married. Because as we all know, only the most beautiful women in history have ever been able to catch a man. Other than plain, Eliza isn’t much else. She is merely a prop that serves the dual purpose of delivering exposition and being attacked by spirits at regular intervals.

Or perhaps it was the lack of descriptive details regarding the manor house itself. Haunted house stories are only as creepy as their setting. There needs to be slow, creeping fog and corridors that seemingly go on forever. There needs to be crumbling walls and menacing portraits and all of the other deliciously atmospheric particulars that raise gooseflesh on the arms and make you reconsider a creak in the night. Some of those details honestly may have been present within the pages of This House is Haunted, but they got lost in the shuffle. I did enjoy one midpoint reveal that winked a tribute to Charlotte Bronte. But sadly, Eliza Crane is no Jane Eyre.

My rating: 2.5/5

You can find This House is Haunted here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!