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

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Review. 2.20

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!

Thrift Store Finds! 05/03/19

I FOUND IT.

I thought this book was some kind of weird Canadian urban legend, but last Friday there it was, a dusty paperback sitting innocuously in a stack of equally dusty paperbacks.

Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to present:

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Bear.

The 1976 classic Canadian novel of a woman who develops sexual feelings for a wild grizzly.

Bear

Seriously.

Okay, now I don’t normally get this excited when I find random erotic novels in thrift shops. If that were the case I’d be in a constant state of over-stimulation.

Bear is special.

I first heard about Bear many years ago on a blog called 11points, which sadly is no longer active so I can’t find the original link. The article was entitled “Eleven of the Weirdest Romantic Novel Sub-Genres” or something like that; and nestled somewhere in between werewolf romances and Abe Lincoln erotica was a little novel called Bear.

Fast forward to 2016; I was scrolling the Overdrive website for the Toronto Public Library and there it was again.

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Listed under “Proud to be Canadian”

Bear.

It even has a wait list!

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Allow me if you will to give you a brief excerpt from this great novel. Warning: NSFW

“She cradled his big, furry, asymmetrical balls in her hands, she played with them, slipping them gently inside their cases as he licked. His prick did not come out of its long cartilaginous sheath. Never mind, she thought, I’m not asking for anything. I’m not obliged to anybody. I don’t care if I can’t turn you on, I just love you.” (Engel, 130)

Pardon me for a moment, I’m going to go scrub my hands for typing that.

As undeniably weird and wrong as it is, only in Canada would you see something like this on a list of public library recommendations. Because instead of responding to things like Bear with righteous fury or moral indignation, Canada leans into its weirdness.

It embraces books like Bear and announces to the world, “Yup, we’re the country with that grizzly-fucker novel. What about it?” Canada accepts its own wackiness, and that’s one of the things I love about living here.

So here’s to you Bear. Let your freak flag fly.

Happy reading everyone!

Book Review: The Winter Sea by Susanna Kearsley (2008)

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Review #87

Carrie McClelland comes to the tiny Scottish village to write about Slains, the local castle that played an important role in the Jacobite uprising of 1708. Carrie hopes to use the crumbling ruins in a historical fiction novel she is writing, but ends up writing a completely different kind of book when she finds herself overwhelmed by someone else’s memories.

Nineteen-year old Sophia Paterson comes to Slains castle after her parents die on a sailing voyage. She finds safety and comfort with her aunt, the Countess, who is playing an active role in bringing the exiled King of Scotland back from France. Sophia finds herself embroiled in a plot that is doomed to fail.

This is my first novel by acclaimed author Susanna Kearsley, and I can see why she is so popular. Her writing style is comfortable and familiar, and she incorporates complicated historical elements in a way that is easy to understand. It is obvious that she has done a great deal of research on the Jacobite uprising and the castle of Slains. I can certainly say that I now know a lot more about the deposed King James II and those who sought to restore him to the throne than I did before reading this novel.

Generally, when an author splits the plot of the book between two characters in different time periods, one of them is going to be more well-developed than the other. That ends up being the case here, as the novel-within-a-novel that is Sophia’s story is far more interesting than Carrie’s plotline. I think Kearsley even began to understand that, since after The Winter Sea hits the halfway mark less and less time is devoted to Carrie’s narrative.

The descriptions of the harshly beautiful Scottish coastline poked my inner travel bug pretty hard. Might have to start looking into a trip to Northern Scotland. Perhaps I’ll stop by Slains castle while I’m there.

My rating: 4/5

You can find The Winter Sea here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Note: This novel was later released under the title Sophia’s Secret. No idea why as The Winter Sea is a much better name.

Happy reading everyone!

Book Review: There’s Someone Inside Your House by Stephanie Perkins (2017)

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Review #80

 

Makani Young is struggling to adjust to life in Osborne, Nebraska. After a life spent growing up on the beaches of her native Hawaii, the small football-obsessed town is incredibly dull. Makani is relieved to be away from the dark past that haunted her back home. She’s making new friends and possibly even a boyfriend. But when her fellow classmates begin turning up dead in a series of increasingly gruesome murders, she wonders if her past hasn’t come back to haunt her.

The first twenty or so pages of this novel are brilliant. A teenage girl home alone begins to notice that random objects in her house appears to have been moved ever so slightly. She attempts to ignore her growing sense of fear and goes about her evening, but keeps feeling as though someone is watching her from the windows. When she least expects it, the killer strikes. It is a fun and tense homage to the campy openings of horror films such as Scream or Urban Legend.

It is then followed by nearly one hundred pages of a book that more closely resembles a late ’90’s teen rom-com. Author Stephanie Perkins previous works were romance novels with titles like Anna and the French Kiss. This is her first foray into the thriller genre, and it is easy to tell that she had difficulty putting aside her romantic inclinations. The relationship between Makani and Ollie is sweet and genuine, but altogether tedious when the more interesting parts of the novel focus on a deranged killer as he stalks teenagers and dismembers them in creative ways. The juxtaposition of the romance and slasher genres doesn’t quite mesh and often feels like two entirely different books that got accidentally squashed together.

Perkins also makes the interesting choice to reveal the identity of her killer halfway through the plot. Not just to the reader, the characters actually see him and identify him to the police a little past the midway point in the novel. This took away a lot of the suspense that had been building up. If the big question is “Who is the insane killer?” then answering that question with more than one hundred pages left to go drains away the energy. It also led to a messy and somewhat confusing climax.

Overall, I can admire that Perkins attempted to break out of her comfort zone and offer her readers something entirely different. I would like to see another thriller novel from her, just to see whether or not the suspense aspects of the plot have managed to supersede the romantic elements.

My rating: 2.5/5

You can find There’s Someone In Your House here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

 

 

Book Review: At the Water’s Edge by Sara Gruen (2015)

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Review #66

Amidst the turmoil of World War II, Madeline Hyde’s husband Ellis and his best friend Hank randomly decide to venture into the highlands of Scotland in search of the Loch Ness Monster. Both men have been deemed medically unfit for the army, Ellis for colorblindness and Hank for flat feet, but that does not stop the glares and whispers when people see them out of uniform. When they reach a tiny Scottish village and check into the local inn, Ellis and Hank begin acting secretive and wild, drinking all day and well into the night. Frequently left behind while her husband is off monster-hunting, Maddie gets to know the locals and struggles to remember who she is outside of her marriage.

Author Sara Gruen is best known for her wildly popular Water for Elephants as well as the tragically underrated Ape House. For her most recent novel, Gruen dives into one of the most famous and enduring legends, that of the Loch Ness Monster. However, anyone going into At the Water’s Edge expecting to be thrilled by exploits of monster hunting will be tragically disappointed. I would estimate that nearly 75% of the novel takes place in the small hotel where Maddie and her husband are staying. This is not to say that At the Water’s Edge isn’t an interesting book with an intriguing plot line, but I did spend a fair bit of time wondering when the hunt for Nessie was going to get underway.

Despite the intense lack of creatures from the deep, the plot of the novel is carried along by the force of Maddie’s character. She is a woman who finds herself married to a man she barely recognizes, one that does not seem to respect her or take her feelings into consideration. Ellis goes from being merely immature to downright repugnant over the course of the novel. Luckily there is a strong and honorable innkeeper available to catch her eye. Gruen takes advantage of the stereotypical Scottish male that has been romanticized by novels such as Outlander. Angus is strong but possesses a gentle heart. He provides for his fellow man in times of scarcity without asking for anything in return. He is a war hero with a tragic backstory. You can probably fill in the rest of the blanks from there.

I couldn’t decide how I felt about the romantic angle in this book. In some ways it comes about naturally enough and doesn’t feel too forced. But on the other hand, why is it in novels that the beautiful but tragically unhappy heroine manages to find her strong and valiant protector in literally the first male she meets after realizing she is unhappy? It’s so utterly predictable that as soon as Angus was introduced and described, I made a note in my book journal: “obligatory love/savior”.

That said, I couldn’t help but rooting for Maddie as she struggles to fit in with life in a small Scottish village. I’ve always loved Sara Gruen’s writing style, she is compellingly readable and my mind sunk into her narrative without a moment’s hesitation.

My rating: 4/5

You can find At the Water’s Edge here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!