Book Review: The Once and Future Witches by Alix E. Harrow

Title: The Once and Future Witches
Author: Alix E. Harrow
Publisher: Orbit
Publication date: October 13, 2020
Length: 528 pages
Genre: Historical fiction/fantasy
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

Rating: 5 out of 5.

In 1893, there’s no such thing as witches. There used to be, in the wild, dark days before the burnings began, but now witching is nothing but tidy charms and nursery rhymes. If the modern woman wants any measure of power, she must find it at the ballot box.

But when the Eastwood sisters–James Juniper, Agnes Amaranth, and Beatrice Belladonna–join the suffragists of New Salem, they begin to pursue the forgotten words and ways that might turn the women’s movement into the witch’s movement. Stalked by shadows and sickness, hunted by forces who will not suffer a witch to vote-and perhaps not even to live-the sisters will need to delve into the oldest magics, draw new alliances, and heal the bond between them if they want to survive.

There’s no such thing as witches. But there will be.

Alix E. Harrow’s debut novel, The Ten Thousand Doors of January, was one of my favorite reads last year, so it’s a pleasure to have another amazing experience with her newest book, The Once and Future Witches.

The Once and Future Witches takes place in 1893, in a world similar to our own, but with some key differences. Chief among these is the history of witchcraft — a plague and a purge some years earlier have resulted in the complete annihilation of witches or witchcraft, or so the men in power would like people to believe.

While the knowledge and power of witches seem to be lost, grandmothers and mothers still pass down to their daughters the little words and ways that make life easier, from simple spells to help with cleaning or harvest to healing rituals and ways to escape from someone who means you ill. In this world, what we’d call fairy tales are known as witch tales, and they’re regarded as simple folklore, merely children’s entertainment. But for the women who tell the stories, they know there’s something more hidden in the simple words and songs.

Our main characters are the three Eastwood sisters — Beatrice Belladonna, Agnes Amaranth, and James Juniper. While raised on a family farm, they now as adults find themselves drawn together in the town of New Salem after a long separation caused by their abusive father.

When the three sisters are reunited, Bella inadvertently triggers a momentary return of the lost ways, creating both a public scare and an inspiration for women who long for more. The story is set at a time when women are rallying for the right to vote, and workers’ rights are also front and center in the wake of awful mill and factory conditions and the abject poverty of New Salem’s underclass.

The Eastwood sisters soon lead a growing underground movement of women who are willing to risk everything to rediscover their own power and make a place for themselves in their world. But there are forces working against them, who will use whatever means necessary to silence their voices and make sure they keep to their approved places.

This is a powerful, uplifting, and complicated read. At over 500 pages, the story is intricate, with ample detail on the world of New Salem, the sisters’ histories, the witch-tales handed down, and the allies and friends they make in the battle for their rights and their lives. The writing is beautiful, with magical realism in its imagery mixed with the brutality of the slums and factories and the tired lives of the women looking for more.

I love how the quest to reclaim witchcraft melds so well with the fight for the vote, for equal rights and better working conditions. The characters here are distinct and memorable — upright librarian Bella and her unexplored passions, independent Agnes and her devotion to protecting what’s hers, Juniper with her fierce, feral nature and her readiness to fight. The sisters are amazing, as are the other women (and one man) who populate their story.

Likewise, the relationships between the sisters is gorgeously depicted. There is a lifetime’s worth of hurt and betrayal and resentment between them, but beneath all that, there’s also the bonds of sisterhood and love. As truths emerge that shed light on misconceptions about their shared pasts, they have to deal with their bitterness and pain in order to wage their fight for power and freedom.

I can’t say enough good things about The Once and Future Witches. It has to be read and experienced to really get what it’s all about. While it took me a few tries to get past the early chapters, I think that was mostly due to my distracted mind rather than the book itself. Once I shut out the world and really focused, I just couldn’t put it down.

A perfect October read. Don’t miss it!

Audiobook Review: Murder by Other Means by John Scalzi

Title: Murder by Other Means
Author: John Scalzi
Narrator:  Zachary Quinto
Publisher: Audible Originals
Publication date: September 10, 2020
Print length: n/a
Audio length: 3 hours, 3 minutes
Genre: Science fiction
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

From Hugo and Audie Award-winning author John Scalzi comes an exciting sequel to The New York Times best-selling, number one Audible hit The Dispatcher, performed by the incomparable Zachary Quinto.

Welcome to the new world, in which murder is all but a thing of the past. Because when someone kills you, 999 times out of 1,000, you instantly come back to life. In this world, there are dispatchers—licensed killers who step in when you’re at risk of a natural or unintentional death. They kill you—so you can live.

Tony Valdez is used to working his job as a dispatcher within the rules of the law and the state. But times are tough, and more and more Tony finds himself riding the line between what’s legal and what will pay his bills. After one of these shady gigs and after being a witness to a crime gone horribly wrong, Tony discovers that people around him are dying, for reasons that make no sense…and which just may implicate him.

Tony is running out of time: to solve the mystery of these deaths, to keep others from dying, and to keep himself from being a victim of what looks like murder, by other means.

If you’re looking for a quick audio listen that’s a noir/sci-fi treat, you have to check out this new audiobook by John Scalzi!

Murder By Other Means is the newly released sequel to The Dispatcher. Both are terrific. These Audible Originals are written by John Scalzi, narrated by Zachary Quinto, and just so much fun.

In the world of these books, death has been (mostly) defeated. For some unfathomable reason, as of about 10 years earlier, anyone who is murdered instantly zips back to life back in their own home, naked, and completely unharmed. This is not true, though, for natural or accidental deaths (basically, anything non-murdery). Die without murder, and dead is dead.

Hence, the rise of a profession known as Dispatchers. Say you’re going into surgery for a risky procedure — well then, keep a dispatcher on hand, so if things go wrong, one quick bullet in the brain will send you home again. There’s the 1 in 1000 chance that the dispatching won’t work, but most people are willing to take that chance.

In these audiobooks, our main character is Tony Valdez. Time are tough, and there aren’t as many legit dispatcher jobs these days, so when Tony is offered something that’s not entirely by the book, but that pays piles of cash, he does the job. And then things get screwy. After witnessing a robbery at his local bank branch, complete with dead and not-so-dead bodies, Tony is implicated, and when one of the investigating detectives ends up dead too, things go from bad to worse.

Tony has to figure out how to clear his name, get the cops off his back, and solve a puzzle regarding a slew of deaths in the city that can’t be murder… but they sure seem like they are.

At just barely 3 hours, this audiobook is perfect for a quick entertainment. The action is fast-paced, and the narration is terrific. The vibe is noir, but with enough weird elements to let you know you’re living in a Scalzi world. I had to keep reminding myself that this wasn’t a Dresden book (minus the magic) — it’s that kind of smart, quick urban storytelling.

Murder By Other Means includes enough stage-setting that you can listen to it without being completely lost, but it makes a lot more sense to listen to The Dispatcher first, to gain a full picture of what life in a death-less world feels like.

Audiobook Review: Without A Summer by Mary Robinette Kowal

Title: Without a Summer (Glamourist Histories, #3)
Author: Mary Robinette Kowal
Narrator:  Mary Robinette Kowal
Publisher: Tor Books
Publication date: April 2, 2013
Print length: 361 pages
Audio length: 8 hours, 35 minutes
Genre: Fantasy
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Up-and-coming fantasist Mary Robinette Kowal enchanted fans with award-winning short stories and beloved novels featuring Regency pair Jane Ellsworth and Vincent. In Without a Summer the master glamourists return home, but in a world where magic is real, nothing—even the domestic sphere—is quite what it seems.

Jane and Vincent go to Long Parkmeade to spend time with Jane’s family, but quickly turn restless. The year is unseasonably cold. No one wants to be outside and Mr. Ellsworth is concerned by the harvest, since a bad one may imperil Melody’s dowry. And Melody has concerns of her own, given the inadequate selection of eligible bachelors. When Jane and Vincent receive a commission from a prominent family in London, they decide to take it, and take Melody with them. They hope the change of scenery will do her good and her marriage prospects—and mood—will be brighter in London.

Once there, talk is of nothing but the crop failures caused by the cold and increased unemployment of the coldmongers, which have provoked riots in several cities to the north. With each passing day, it’s more difficult to avoid getting embroiled in the intrigue, none of which really helps Melody’s chances for romance. It’s not long before Jane and Vincent realize that in addition to getting Melody to the church on time, they must take on one small task: solving a crisis of international proportions.

My love affair continues! Book #3 in Mary Robinette Kowal’s The Glamourist Histories is just a captivating as the first two. I simply love the story and the characters and the storytelling!

In Without A Summer, the weather is unseasonably cold, with snow lingering into May and June. Unhappy, desperate people need someone to blame, and so they blame the coldmongers — the glamourists who are skilled in providing cooling for people with fevers, for overly warm indoors during the summer, and to help grocers keep their produce longer. But as any knowledgeable glamourist can attest, it is simply impossible for glamour to affect the weather. Even the relatively smaller amounts of glamour worked by the coldmongers often leads to severe injury or death.

In the midst of the weather crisis, Jane and Vincent travel to London to work on a commission. They bring along Jane’s younger sister Melody, who lacks society or any prospects of a match on her parents’ country estate.

Jane and Vincent soon find themselves involved in intrigue, with a suspected plot involving both the coldmongers and Melody’s Irish Catholic suitor. What’s more, the couple encounter Vincent’s estranged father while in London — a hateful man with lots of power, who clearly wants to make Vincent pay for separating himself from the family and his father’s toxic influence.

The plot quickly becomes complicated and suspenseful, and by the final section of the book, I found myself incredibly worked up and tense with worry over Jane and Vincent’s fate. Rationally, I knew that — with two more books in the series — they’d surely be okay in the end. Still, until reaching the resolution of the high stakes drama, I was fairly terrified over seeing them in mortal peril.

As with the other books in the series, I found this one delightful. Beyond the action of the main plotlines, I just love seeing Jane and Vincent together. Too often, stories of romance end with the wedding ceremony. In The Glamourist Histories, we get to see what a devoted, happy, passionate marriage looks like. Jane and Vincent are deeply in love, enjoy a robust physical relationship, and have a true partnership as equals, pursuing their chosen professions together with grace and trust.

A nice surprise in Without A Summer is getting to see Melody as something other than the pretty, shallow girl she’s been portrayed as so far. Here, she shows surprising intellectual depth and curiosity, as well as commitment and bravery that are quite admirable. It’s a nifty trick of the author’s to make us share Jane’s surprise at Melody’s underlying strength and seriousness — having seen her through Jane’s eyes, we’ve only seen her as the sum of her face, her flirtations, and her standing as the pampered little sister.

Another aspect that bothered me at first, but ultimately made me appreciate the writing all the more, is seeing Jane as flawed. She’s always so strong and good, but in Without A Summer, she allows her unknowing prejudices to influence her interpretation of the events she witnesses. It’s not malicious on her part, but it’s still there, and puts certain characters in grave danger that might otherwise have been discovered or averted sooner.

The audiobook narration, courtesy of the author herself, is wonderful as always. I love her presentation of Jane, Vincent, Melody, and especially some of the young coldmongers they encounter.

I do love this series, and book #3 is a fabulous story. I can’t wait to continue!

Mini-reviews: A trio of classic horror

Maybe it’s the month of October exerting its spooky influence over me, but I ended up reading three works of classic horror fiction this week, and they were all chillingly great. For all three, I was inspired by recent reads that drew upon these works as inspiration. Read on to find out more…

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Title: The Island of Dr. Moreau
Author: H. G. Wells
Published: 1896
Length: 153 pages

Adrift in a dinghy, Edward Prendick, the single survivor from the good ship Lady Vain, is rescued by a vessel carrying a profoundly unusual cargo – a menagerie of savage animals. Tended to recovery by their keeper Montgomery, who gives him dark medicine that tastes of blood, Prendick soon finds himself stranded upon an uncharted island in the Pacific with his rescuer and the beasts. Here, he meets Montgomery’s master, the sinister Dr. Moreau – a brilliant scientist whose notorious experiments in vivisection have caused him to abandon the civilised world. It soon becomes clear he has been developing these experiments – with truly horrific results. 

For this book and the next on my list, I was inspired by Theodora Goss’s excellent trilogy The Extraordinary Adventures of the Athena Club (which starts with The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter, reviewed here.) A newly invented character related to the happenings on Dr. Moreau’s island is one of my favorites in the Goss books, so of course I had to read her origin story.

The Island of Dr. Moreau is grotesque and horrible, but it’s also a very exciting and compelling read. I can only imagine that this would be even more startling if (unlike me) you didn’t know the major plot twist related to Dr. Moreau’s strange and cruel experiments.

There are sinister people, scary beings in the jungle, midnight chase scenes, and all sorts of terrifying encounters. Definitely recommended!

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Title: Rappaccini’s Daughter
Author: Nathaniel Hawthorned
Published: 1844
Length: 48 pages

Part fairy tale, part Gothic horror story, “Rappaccini’s Daughter” is an inspired tale of creation and control. Giovanni Guasconti, a student at the University of Padua, is enchanted to discover a nearby garden of the most exquisite beauty. In it abides a young woman, perhaps the most beautiful Giovanni has ever seen; yet as he looks out from an upstairs window, he soon learns that the garden–and the matchless Beatrice–are not the work of Mother Nature but rather the result of a monstrous abomination of creativity.

Beatrice Rappaccini is another character who appears in the Theodora Goss novels, so it was enlightening for me to read the original story about her. Here, Dr. Rappaccini is a scientist devoted to cross-breeding plants and flowers to create a deadly garden, and has raised Beatrice among the plants from birth so that she herself is poisonous. Giovanni falls in love with her, but eventually has to believe the evidence he sees that proves that Beatrice’s breath and touch are deadly.

Rappaccini’s Daughter is brief, but powerful, and well worth reading.

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Title: The Willows
Author: Algernon Blackwood
Published: 1907
Length: 105 pages

Two friends are midway on a canoe trip down the Danube River. Throughout the story Blackwood personifies the surrounding environment—river, sun, wind—and imbues them with a powerful and ultimately threatening character. Most ominous are the masses of dense, desultory, menacing willows, which “moved of their own will as though alive, and they touched, by some incalculable method, my own keen sense of the horrible.”

“The Willows” is one of Algernon Blackwood’s best known short stories. American horror author H.P. Lovecraft considered it to be the finest supernatural tale in English literature. “The Willows” is an example of early modern horror and is connected within the literary tradition of weird fiction. 

I picked up a copy of The Willows after reading The Hollow Places by T. Kingfisher, one of the creepiest books I’ve ever read (reviewed here). In the author’s notes, T. Kingfisher credits The Willows as an inspiration, so of course I had to read it.

This is such an odd story, because in some ways, it’s hard to understand why the characters’ situation is so scary. They stop on a small island in an isolated, wild section of the Danube, where the river is wild and harsh, filled with similar small islands, and surrounded everywhere by willows.

The longer the men spend on their precarious island, the more convinced they become that something unearthly is going on, that they are in fact in a place where the veils between worlds are thin, and that the best they can hope for is to evade the notice of the beings from the other side who are trying to push through.

The Willows has a creeping terror — no jump scares, just the growing sense that something is really, really wrong, and that the characters may not make it out alive. Nothing is obvious, but the overall atmosphere is chilling and disturbing. It’s a weird story, but was enlightening in terms of understanding where some of the elements in The Hollow Places came from. Really a strange yet interesting read.

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That’s my creepy classics round-up! What’s your favorite classic horror story?

Discworld, #3: Equal Rites

Equal Rites
Published 1987
228 pages

My Discworld Challenge:

Over the summer, I committed to reading the Discworld series! I’m starting a new Discworld book on the 1st of each month, going in order of publication date.

Synopsis for Equal Rites:

On Discworld, a dying wizard tries to pass on his powers to an eighth son of an eighth son, who is just at that moment being born. The fact that the son is actually a daughter is discovered just a little too late. The town witch insists on turning the baby into a perfectly normal witch, thus mending the magical damage of the wizard’s mistake. But now the young girl will be forced to penetrate the inner sanctum of the Unseen University–and attempt to save the world with one well-placed kick in some enchanted shins! 

My rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

My reaction:

Finally, a Discworld book that I really liked! I’m three books into the series, and I have to say that the first two books were not great. (Then again, my expectations were low, since I’d already been warned about those books).

But here in Equal Rites, the 3rd book in the (vast) series, things pick up! The story is much more focused and has great main characters, so despite some messiness toward the end, it’s a charming read.

In Equal Rites, a dying wizard intends to pass along his powers to a newborn baby… but the expected boy is actually a girl. Unfortunately for the wizard, what’s done is done, and his powers flow into baby Eskarina, known as Esk as she grows up.

It’s unheard of for a female to be a wizard — it’s “against the lore”, as several wizards protest. Girls can only grow up to be witches, whom wizards dismiss as women who fiddle around with plants and herbs, not powerful magical beings like themselves.

Esk and her teacher Granny Weatherwax have other ideas, and after Esk learns all the basics about witchcraft from Granny, they realize that the wizard school Unseen University in the city of Ankh-Morpork is the best and only option for Esk.

The plot meanders a bit once Esk gets to the city, and honestly, the action sequences toward the end are a bit all over the place. But that doesn’t matter so much. As I’m learning, at least half the delight of these books is Terry Pratchett’s awesomely clever writing. The plot is nice to have, the characters are often fabulous, but the writing is what really elevates the entire thing into (pardon my saying so) magic.

Their world, bounded by an encircling ocean that falls forever into space in one long waterfall, is as round and flat as a geological pizza, although without the anchovies.

The midwife’s name was Granny Weatherwax. She was a witch. That was quite acceptable in the Ramtops, and no one had a bad word to say about witches. At least, not if he wanted to wake up in the morning the same shape as he went to bed.

Time passed, which, basically, is its job.

“How did you get here, little girl?” she said, in a voice that suggested gingerbread cottages and the slamming of big stove doors.

“I got lost from Granny.” “And where’s Granny now, dear?” Clang went the oven doors again; it was going to be a tough night for all wanderers in metaphorical forests.

It is well known that a vital ingredient of success is not knowing that what you’re attempting can’t be done.

She had found them lodgings in The Shades, an ancient part of the city whose inhabitants were largely nocturnal and never inquired about one another’s business because curiosity not only killed the cat but threw it in the river with weights tied to its feet. The lodgings were on the top floor next to the well-guarded premises of a respectable dealer in stolen property because, as Granny had heard, good fences make good neighbors.

There was a feeling that the universe had been turned inside out in all dimensions at once. It was a bloated, swollen sensation. It sounded as though the whole world had said “gloop.”

Reality returned, and tried to pretend that it had never left.

See what I mean? Esk’s adventures with Granny Weatherwax are fun, but even if they weren’t, I’d be too busy laughing and snorting over the wordplay and puns to really mind at all.

I’m absolutely looking forward to…

Up next:

November 2020: Mort

Can’t wait for this one! Everyone seems to love Mort!

Audiobook Review: Well Played by Jen DeLuca

Title: Well Played
Author: Jen DeLuca
Narrator: Brittany Pressley
Publisher: Berkley
Publication date: September 22, 2019
Print length: 336 pages
Audio length: 9 hours, 59 minutes
Genre: Contemporary romance
Source: Library
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Another laugh-out-loud romantic comedy featuring kilted musicians, Renaissance Faire tavern wenches, and an unlikely love story.

Stacey is jolted when her friends Simon and Emily get engaged. She knew she was putting her life on hold when she stayed in Willow Creek to care for her sick mother, but it’s been years now, and even though Stacey loves spending her summers pouring drinks and flirting with patrons at the local Renaissance Faire, she wants more out of life. Stacey vows to have her life figured out by the time her friends get hitched at Faire next summer. Maybe she’ll even find The One.

When Stacey imagined “The One,” it never occurred to her that her summertime Faire fling, Dex MacLean, might fit the bill. While Dex is easy on the eyes onstage with his band The Dueling Kilts, Stacey has never felt an emotional connection with him. So when she receives a tender email from the typically monosyllabic hunk, she’s not sure what to make of it.

Faire returns to Willow Creek, and Stacey comes face-to-face with the man with whom she’s exchanged hundreds of online messages over the past nine months. To Stacey’s shock, it isn’t Dex—she’s been falling in love with a man she barely knows.

It’s a pleasure to return to Ye Olde Renaissance Faire in Well Played, the sequel to last year’s Well Met.

In Well Met, the love story centered on Emily and Simon. In Well Played, Emily’s best friend Stacey takes center stage. Stacey is a home town girl, born and raised in Willow Creek, Maryland. While she once had the prospect of a fashion internship in New York, she gave it up when her mother had a sudden heart attack. Now, years later, Stacey lives in the apartment above her parents’ garage, works as a dental office receptionist, and lives for the few weeks each summer when she volunteers at Faire.

This year, things feel decidedly off for Stacey. Emily and Simon have announced their engagement, Faire is over, and she faces a long year ahead until she can break out her wench’s costume once again. After a few too many glasses of wine, she sends a drunken message to Dex McLean, the hottie musician with whom she’s had no-strings hook-ups the past two Faire seasons.

Of course, she’s horrified the next morning, until she sees that Dex has actually replied, and what’s more, sent a really appreciative message in return. From there, the two begin to text and email, and as the months go by, their communication becomes more personal and intimate. Stacey is shocked but delighted — could Dex really be this deep? Could he really be ready for a more serious connection?

I’m sure you can see where this is going. I certainly did from their first exchange. So…

Minor spoiler ahoy!

It’s not really Dex with whom she’s been texting and emailing all this time, but his cousin Daniel, the cute redhead who manages Dex’s band. Stacey and Daniel had been casually friendly over the years, but she never really noticed him, being so wowed by Dex’s glamor. A minor slip-up in an email right before Faire starts the next summer leads Stacey to realize that she’s been fooled all these months — but was this cruel catfishing, or is there a reasonable explanation?

I’ll be honest — no matter the explanation, this felt too uncomfortably on the catfishing side of the line, even though Daniel was coming from a place of misguided good intentions. Yes, there might be an element of Cyrano here (as the characters discuss), but at the end of the day, he just wasn’t being honest with her.

Do these two lovebirds overcome their obstacles? This is a romance — what do you think?

Once they get past the initial arguments, Stacey and Daniel become even more deeply connected, but naturally there are some major miscommunications that lead to a huge fall-out and break-up. And as in Well Met, I was wishing for some good old adult conversation rather than emotional storms where no one quite manages to say what they mean or what they want.

Still, the book is lots of rom-com fun. On a more serious side, I thought Stacey’s dilemma about wanting to see the world but feeling tied to her hometown and and worrying about her mother’s health felt realistic and very sympathetic. Stacey is a great character, and her journey through this book says a lot about growing up, finding independence, leaving the nest, and figuring out the right balance between dreams and obligations.

Of course, the Ren Faire setting is just as great as in the first book, even though there’s much less time spent there in Well Played. A good portion of the book takes place during the year in between Faires, and I missed spending more time on Faire preparation, costumes, and the day-to-day experience of the glories of Faire.

A note on the audiobook: Well Played has the same narrator as Well Met, and she does a great job with the characters and their dialogue, particularly capturing their different voices for when they’re themselves and when they’re in their Faire personae. A great listen!

I really enjoy the characters and the relationships in this series, and I’m excited that a third book is on the way! Lots of fun for anyone in the mood for light, upbeat romance with a memorable setting. (Plus, kilts and corsets!)

Book Review: Spoiler Alert by Olivia Dade

Title: Spoiler Alert
Author: Olivia Dade
Publisher: Avon
Publication date: October 6, 2020
Length: 416 pages
Genre: Romance
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Olivia Dade bursts onto the scene in this delightfully fun romantic comedy set in the world of fanfiction, in which a devoted fan goes on an unexpected date with her celebrity crush, who’s secretly posting fanfiction of his own. 

Marcus Caster-Rupp has a secret. While the world knows him as Aeneas, the star of the biggest show on TV, Gods of the Gates, he’s known to fanfiction readers as Book!AeneasWouldNever, an anonymous and popular poster.  Marcus is able to get out his own frustrations with his character through his stories, especially the ones that feature the internet’s favorite couple to ship, Aeneas and Lavinia. But if anyone ever found out about his online persona, he’d be fired. Immediately.

April Whittier has secrets of her own. A hardcore Lavinia fan, she’s hidden her fanfiction and cosplay hobby from her “real life” for years—but not anymore. When she decides to post her latest Lavinia creation on Twitter, her photo goes viral. Trolls and supporters alike are commenting on her plus-size take, but when Marcus, one half of her OTP, sees her pic and asks her out on a date to spite her critics, she realizes life is really stranger than fanfiction.

Even though their first date is a disaster, Marcus quickly realizes that he wants much more from April than a one-time publicity stunt. And when he discovers she’s actually Unapologetic Lavinia Stan, his closest fandom friend, he has one more huge secret to hide from her.

With love and Marcus’s career on the line, can the two of them stop hiding once and for all, or will a match made in fandom end up prematurely cancelled?

Spoiler Alert is a body-positive yet somewhat angsty romance, ultimately a feel-good story but one that makes its characters work pretty hard to get there.

April Whittier is a 36-year-old geologist who’s comfortable in her own skin, despite the constant pressure from parents who’ve always wanted to fix her through diets or exercise or “foundation garments”. As she gets ready to start a job with much less focus on image, April decides to come out as a cosplayer by posting a photo of herself in her full Lavinia glory.

Lavinia is one half of the madly shipped pairing of Lavinia and Aeneas from the hugely popular Gates of the Gods book series and TV adaptation. In the world of Spoiler Alert, Gates of the Gods is the biggest thing on TV, adapted from the books series by author E. Wade — but the author has only published three books so far, and the TV series has moved beyond book content in its later seasons, with plotting and scripts by the showrunners. By most accounts, their work is a disaster, at least according to true fans. Only the cast knows what’s coming up in the final season which has just finished filming (and they’re sworn to secrecy) — but privately, most of the cast feels like their characters have been ruined and given plotlines that destroy or negate seasons worth of development.

Marcus Castor-Rupp is one of the stars of Gates of the Gods, in the leading role of Aeneas. Almost 40, Marcus is known for his gorgeous face, fine physique, sharp acting skills… and lack of intelligence. His public persona is all about his good looks. He’s a truly pretty face, but there’s no there there.

When April posts her cosplay picture on Twitter, the trolls come out. When some particularly cruel comments are posted which tag Marcus, as if inviting him to have fun mocking April, Marcus swoops in in hero fashion and declares April gorgeous and asks her out. It may be a publicity stunt, but April decides to be brave and accepts.

Their date is horrible. April wants to get to know Marcus, and Marcus is dull as rocks (or duller than rocks, since April is a geologist and finds rocks fascinating.) But finally, April starts to realize that the pretty boy facade might hide someone else, a man of intelligence, and almost unwillingly, she’s intrigued.

As April and Marcus get to know each other better, a further complication arises: They are each active fanfiction writers, and their fanfic alter-egos are actually close friends, and maybe even more. While April admits to her fanfic identity up front, Marcus does not, knowing that his writing could get him fired and make him untouchable in Hollywood if anyone ever found out. As they continue dating, Marcus digs himself a deeper and deeper hole — the closer he gets to April, the more he wants to tell her the truth, but that would mean admitting he lied in the first place, which he’s sure would drive her away.

There’s a lot to really enjoy about Spoiler Alert. I liked the fictional world within the world, learning about the plotlines and characters of Gates of the Gods throughout the story. There are snippets of fanfic included in between chapters, as well as some rather hilarious script selections from the truly awful movie and TV productions Marcus was in before hitting it big.

I also appreciated the confidence both April and Marcus have when it comes to their chosen professions. They both have devoted themselves to becoming great at their work, and they have faith in themselves and their own abilities. (Also, it’s kind of awesomely funny every time we find out about yet another skill that Marcus has learned in preparation for roles — not just horseback riding and sword skills, but also how to chop like a chef and even ride a unicycle.)

April describes herself as fat, and she’s okay with that. While others (especially her mother) might try to change her or make her feel unworthy due to her size, April knows she’s an attractive woman and dresses to show herself to best advantage. She’s also clear that she wants to be loved for herself, and not despite or because of her fatness. She’s also very sex positive, understanding what she like and what she wants, and being very upfront about giving and receiving pleasure.

Both April and Marcus carry heavy baggage from the pain of their childhoods. April’s parents fat-shamed her her entire life, and it’s amazing that she grew up to be as well-adjusted as she is. Marcus, the son of two academics, was made to feel slow, lazy, and stupid throughout his childhood and adolescents, because his undiagnosed dyslexia made his schooling a nightmare. His sense of shame from this stays with him and absolutely informs the “just a pretty face” act that he puts on in public. Even though he’s recognized his dyslexia and learned adaptations to help him succeed, the scars have stayed with him.

Other stuff I like:

  • April and Marcus’s hot chemistry
  • How frequently we hear Marcus think about how gorgeous April is and how attracted he is to her
  • April and Marcus’s ages — they’re adults, not teens or early 20-somethings. I like the maturity and the stage of life they’re both in, where they’re both successful, but feel like it’s really time to make changes in their lives if they’re ever going to.
  • The story within a story, particularly when it comes to the Lavinia and Aeneas characters
  • The tongue-in-cheek humor shown in the fanfic and the script snippets
  • The way Gates of the Gods is clearly meant to be a Game of Thrones-type production
  • April’s professional pride and success
  • The celebration of fandom culture as a whole — I loved the positive portrayal of cosplay and fanfiction and cons. The author makes this world rich and vibrant and so much fun.

Some quibbles:

  • SO much pain and angst. I appreciate how thoughtful April and Marcus are and how deeply they feel everything, but the scenes of anguish and mental suffering are way too frequent and long. As April’s fanfic persona points out to Marcus’s early on, some writing should be tagged “misery ahoy”.
  • Perhaps one reason the angst felt like too much to me has to do with the overall length of the book. For a fun, upbeat romance, it’s long. I think the story would have been stronger with about 30-40 pages whittled down, at least.
  • The conflict over secret-keeping is obviously going to cause a break-up. We readers can see exactly where it’s going, right from the start of the relationship. Being obvious isn’t a deal-breaker, but at some point I found myself just waiting for the inevitable.

For those who prefer to know in advance, the sex scenes in this book are explicit, which usually isn’t my taste in romance reading. However, there aren’t so many that it’s overwhelming, so overall I was okay with it.

Whew. This is a long review. I love the positive messages conveyed by this steamy love story: You don’t have to fit some society-determined idea of what perfect is to be attractive, sexy, desirable, and most importantly, to be loved. The body-positivity is lovely, and the plot itself and the charming characters are really enjoyable and entertaining.

I understand that there will be a follow-up novel focusing on Marcus’s best friend and his love interest, and I will definitely be on board!

Book Review: The Hollow Places by T. Kingfisher

Title: The Hollow Places
Author: T. Kingfisher
Publisher: Gallery/Saga Press
Publication date: October 6, 2020
Length: 352 pages
Genre: Horror
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

A young woman discovers a strange portal in her uncle’s house, leading to madness and terror in this gripping new novel from the author of the “innovative, unexpected, and absolutely chilling” (Mira Grant, Nebula Award–winning author) The Twisted Ones.

Pray they are hungry.

Kara finds these words in the mysterious bunker that she’s discovered behind a hole in the wall of her uncle’s house. Freshly divorced and living back at home, Kara now becomes obsessed with these cryptic words and starts exploring the peculiar bunker—only to discover that it holds portals to countless alternate realities. But these places are haunted by creatures that seem to hear thoughts…and the more you fear them, the stronger they become.

With her distinctive “delightfully fresh and subversive” (SF Bluestocking) prose and the strange, sinister wonder found in Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s LabyrinthThe Hollow Places is another compelling and white-knuckled horror novel that you won’t be able to put down.

One word review: Creepy.

Five word review: Scary. Snarky. Weird. Nightmarish. Un-put-downable.

But let me expand a little…

In The Hollow Places, Kara (known as Carrot by her uncle and close friends) is recently divorced and without a place to live. Her uncle Earl runs a totally awesome-sounding small-town museum (Glory to God Museum of Natural Wonders, Curiosities and Taxidermy). It’s a mish-mosh place full of (yes) taxidermied animals, fossils, relics, weirdness, and whatever people choose to send him. Earl is a sweetheart of a man, a total believer in whatever strangeness he comes across, but also kind-hearted and accepting and unconditionally loving when it comes to Kara.

Earl invites Kara to come live in the spare room at the back of the museum and help him with cataloguing and inventory. With so many positive memories of her time with Earl during her childhood, Kara is happy to accept. The taxidermy in the museum feels like being surrounded by old friends (and does not creep her out in the slightest, like it would for me!).

When Earl has to leave for a few weeks to get knee surgery, that’s when the weirdness starts. One day, Kara discovers a hole in a section of the drywall, which she attributes to clumsy tourists. Enlisting the help of Simon, the friendly and slightly odd barista next door, she plans to repair the hole… until they look inside it and see not the expected boards and plaster, but a corridor.

And it’s a corridor that should be impossible. Kara knows the layout of the building perfectly, and there just isn’t room for a long hallway like this. Naturally, they decide to explore, and end up in a bunker that opens onto an island in a river… in another world.

The world they discover is immediately disconcerting. There are willow trees everywhere, and the river is filled with small humped islands that appear to all contain bunkers. The sand has weird funnel-shaped holes, and there’s something just completely otherworldly and alien about this place.

The more they explore, the more horrors they discover, and they soon realize that they may not be able to get back to their own world.

I won’t go into too much more detail about the terror of this willow world, or what happens next, but it’s SCARY AF and gave me nightmares, for real. And despite the nightmares, I loved this book.

T. Kingfisher’s writing is funny and snarky, even when the circumstances are creepy and horrible. I love how Kara looks at the world, and some of the descriptions are laugh-out-loud hilarious, even in the midst of the terror.

Kara is a freelance graphic designer, and her worldview is amazing. Even while dealing with her disillusionment over her failed marriage and her jerk of an ex, she’s funny:

Dammit, I can’t believe I spent so much of my life on a man who would unironically post the line “Today is a gift, that’s why we call it the present.” And in Papyrus, too.

Simon is really fun too, and I love how he throws himself into the adventure with Kara, even while reminding them both how bad an idea this could be.

Come on, let’s go back to the coffee shop and I’ll make us Irish coffees and we’ll discuss this like people who don’t die in the first five minutes of a horror movie.

Even as hideous danger looms, Kara is still Kara:

It sounded slow. If I got to my feet and grabbed my cane, I could hobble away, and then we could have the slowest chase scene ever.

I read a good portion of this book in the middle of the night when I couldn’t sleep, and that pretty much guaranteed that I’d never be able to sleep again! Well, at least not that night.

The writing and the pacing are terrific, and the plot is weird and terrifying. The willow world is baffling and yet horrible, and there are certain descriptions that made me feel that I would drop dead of complete and utter fright if I found myself in Kara’s place.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that besides the awesomeness of Kara, Simon, and Uncle Earl, and of course the museum itself, there’s also a Very Good Cat named Beau who is all sorts of amazing in the most cat-like ways possible. I’m guessing the author is an animal lover, because her previous book, The Twisted Ones, had a Very Good Dog as an important character. (Rest assured, Beau is just fine by the end of this book. Beau is a bad-ass.)

The Hollow Places is a crazy disturbing read, but I mean that in the best possible way. A perfect read for the creepy-reading month of October!

Book Review: Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

Title: Piranesi
Author: Susanna Clarke
Publisher: Bloomsbury
Publication date: September 15, 2020
Length: 245 pages
Genre: Fiction/fantasy
Source: Purchased

Rating: 5 out of 5.

From the New York Times bestselling author of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, an intoxicating, hypnotic new novel set in a dreamlike alternative reality.

Piranesi’s house is no ordinary building: its rooms are infinite, its corridors endless, its walls are lined with thousands upon thousands of statues, each one different from all the others. Within the labyrinth of halls an ocean is imprisoned; waves thunder up staircases, rooms are flooded in an instant. But Piranesi is not afraid; he understands the tides as he understands the pattern of the labyrinth itself. He lives to explore the house.

There is one other person in the house—a man called The Other, who visits Piranesi twice a week and asks for help with research into A Great and Secret Knowledge. But as Piranesi explores, evidence emerges of another person, and a terrible truth begins to unravel, revealing a world beyond the one Piranesi has always known.

For readers of Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane and fans of Madeline Miller’s CircePiranesi introduces an astonishing new world, an infinite labyrinth, full of startling images and surreal beauty, haunted by the tides and the clouds.

How do you write about a book that’s impossible to describe?

When it comes to Piranesi, there’s so little that I can actually say. You have to read this and let it unravel itself to you. Knowing anything in advance would take so much away from the reading experience.

What I can say is this:

A man lives alone in an endless House, with halls and vestibules that seem to stretch on forever. Outside the House, as seen from its windows, are the sun and moon and stars. Inside there are clouds and birds, and on the lower levels, the sea and its rising and falling tides. The House is filled with statues, all depicting different people and creatures.

Also in the House are the remains of 13 people. There’s also the Other — an older man whom the main characters visits with twice a week, who refers to the main character as Piranesi. As far as Piranesi is concerned, the 15 people — two alive, thirteen dead — are all the people in the entire world.

So what’s actually going on here? What is this House? Why is this man here, keeping journals of his daily explorations, fishing on the lower levels, and leaving offerings to the dead?

I’m not telling. 30 pages into this book, I’d decided that it was the weirdest thing I’d read all year. Now that I’m done, that’s still true, but it also was a strangely captivating read. There are revelations and explanations, but the most interesting thing of all is living inside Piranesi’s mind and seeing his worldview.

The writing is beautiful, of course, even when utterly baffling. I ordered this book knowing nothing about it, other than that it was by Susanna Clarke, and that was enough for me to know that I needed it. After the huge size of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell (782 pages for the hardcover, over 1000 for the paperback), I was pleasantly surprised to realize how slim Piranesi is.

Piranesi really doesn’t need to be any longer. It’s slim and decisive, telling a weirdly wonderful story with a sparseness and delicacy that make it a perplexing but ultimately fulfilling read.

Of course, there are probably many more layers to this book — issues of identity, memory, and psychology — that I only grasped the barest shadows of. But even without a deeper dive into the underlying meanings and symbolism, I thoroughly enjoyed reading Piranesi.

I just can’t wait for someone else in my life to read it — it’s so hard not to be able to talk about it!

Book Review: In a Holidaze by Christina Lauren

Title: In a Holidaze
Author: Christina Lauren
Publisher: Gallery Books
Publication date: October 6, 2020
Length: 336 pages
Genre: Contemporary romance
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

One Christmas wish, two brothers, and a lifetime of hope are on the line for hapless Maelyn Jones in In a Holidaze, the quintessential holiday romantic novel by Christina Lauren, the New York Times bestselling author of The Unhoneymooners.

It’s the most wonderful time of the year…but not for Maelyn Jones. She’s living with her parents, hates her going-nowhere job, and has just made a romantic error of epic proportions.

But perhaps worst of all, this is the last Christmas Mae will be at her favorite place in the world—the snowy Utah cabin where she and her family have spent every holiday since she was born, along with two other beloved families. Mentally melting down as she drives away from the cabin for the final time, Mae throws out what she thinks is a simple plea to the universe: Please. Show me what will make me happy.

The next thing she knows, tires screech and metal collides, everything goes black. But when Mae gasps awake…she’s on an airplane bound for Utah, where she begins the same holiday all over again. With one hilarious disaster after another sending her back to the plane, Mae must figure out how to break free of the strange time loop—and finally get her true love under the mistletoe.

Jam-packed with yuletide cheer, an unforgettable cast of characters, and Christina Lauren’s trademark “downright hilarious” (Helen Hoang, author of The Bride Test) hijinks, this swoon-worthy romantic read will make you believe in the power of wishes and the magic of the holidays.

As a rule, I do not read Christmas-themed books. But, rules are made to be broken, especially when the Christmas-themed book in question is by Christina Lauren, the author duo whose books I always seem to love.

In a Holidaze is a feel-good holiday story with a little bit of Groundhog Day mixed in as a twist. Maelyn Jones loves her family’s Christmas tradition. For as long as she can remember, her parents, their college best friends, and the assorted offspring gather at a cabin in Utah to catch up and celebrate. It’s the best sort of found family.

The only downside for Mae is that her teen crush on Andrew Hollis, the older of two brothers who are sons of the cabin owners, has morphed over the years into unrequited love. For ten years, Mae has pined for Andrew, but Andrew has never looked at her as more than a kid sister.

This year, Mae’s holiday gets complicated. On the last night at the cabin, she drunkenly makes out with Andrew’s younger brother Theo, which she instantly regrets. Not only that, but Andrew’s parents inform everyone that they’re selling the cabin, so this is the last year of the traditional Christmas holiday together.

Mae is upset and depressed, and not at all excited about going back to her disappointing life and job back home. A random car accident on the drive back to the airport launches Mae into an impossible new reality — she wakes up back on the airplane on the way to the cabin to start the holiday all over again.

Of course, no one else realizes that anything weird is afoot, but Mae is freaking out. After a couple more reboots, each caused by a seemingly fatal accident, Mae is determined to stop being so cautious and timid and just go for what she wants… and that includes telling Andrew how she feels.

From here, it’s a feel-good romance, as lifelong friends discover passion and deep emotional connection. The setting is such fun — a snowy cabin, a big family, holiday traditions like sledding and setting up the tree and having snowball fights, board games and drinks by the fire. The big extended family is of course very invested in the Mae/Andrew romance, and some complications arise that almost ruin everything. But, this is a holiday romance, so despite some fears along the way, I was pretty confident that things were going to work out just fine.

Christina Lauren books are always a good time, and I really liked this one. I loved the set-up — the large group gathered at the cabin for a week — and how the different friends and family present interact, support one another, act out, make fun of each other, and show just how strong a family of friends can be.

Mae and Andrew are sweet together, and the only issue I had was that I spent the 2nd half of the book holding my breath in case another random reboot would happen and wipe out all the wonderful relationship steps these two managed to take.

In a Holidaze is really a sweet read, and is a perfect choice for when the weather turns colder. Ideally, this book should be read while wearing flannel, under a big cozy blanket, in a comfy chair next to the fireplace, while snow falls outside. Don’t forget the hot chocolate!