Book Review: The Hour of the Witch by Chris Bohjalian

Title: The Hour of the Witch
Author: Chris Bohjalian
Publisher: Doubleday Books
Publication date: April 20, 2021
Length: 416 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

A young Puritan woman–faithful, resourceful, but afraid of the demons that dog her soul–plots her escape from a violent marriage in this riveting and propulsive historical thriller from the #1 New York Times bestselling author of The Flight Attendant.

Boston, 1662. Mary Deerfield is twenty-four-years-old. Her skin is porcelain, her eyes delft blue, and in England she might have had many suitors. But here in the New World, amid this community of saints, Mary is the second wife of Thomas Deerfield, a man as cruel as he is powerful. When Thomas, prone to drunken rage, drives a three-tined fork into the back of Mary’s hand, she resolves that she must divorce him to save her life. But in a world where every neighbor is watching for signs of the devil, a woman like Mary–a woman who harbors secret desires and finds it difficult to tolerate the brazen hypocrisy of so many men in the colony–soon finds herself the object of suspicion and rumor. When tainted objects are discovered buried in Mary’s garden, when a boy she has treated with herbs and simples dies, and when their servant girl runs screaming in fright from her home, Mary must fight to not only escape her marriage, but also the gallows. A twisting, tightly plotted thriller from one of our greatest storytellers, Hour of the Witch is a timely and terrifying novel of socially sanctioned brutality and the original American witch hunt.

I have read quite a few books by Chris Bohjalian by now, and without fail, they’re always interesting, unusual, and thought-provoking. And while most of the books I’ve read by him have been contemporary fiction, I’ve also read two terrific historical novels (The Sandcastle Girls and The Light in the Ruins), both of which shed light on important and disturbing historical periods and show these periods through the eyes of ordinary people.

In The Hour of the Witch, the author goes several centuries into the past to bring us a story set in the Puritan settlement of Boston in the 1600s. If you’ve read stories of the early Colonial days, then the moral code and rhythm of the community’s life may feel familiar.

Mary Deerfield, at age 24, is married to a truly awful man, Thomas Deerfield, a miller. Thomas often comes home “drink-drunk” and berates her, intimidates her, and beats her. His violence escalates over time, as does his verbal cruelty — but apparently no one sees his abhorrent behavior but Mary. Their servant girl Catherine appears to be enamored of Thomas, and Mary feels such shame about her marriage that she hides her bruises and keeps the violence a deep, dark secret.

On top of the misery of this abusive behavior, Mary has not conceived, despite five years of marriage. Her “barren” state subjects her to even more abuse from Thomas, not to mention public scorn and mistrust. If she’s barren, it must be God’s will — and could that be because she’s in league with the Devil?

“Women who are barren often act strangely. It would be like an owl that couldn’t fly: it would be antithetical to our Lord’s purpose, and the animal would, by necessity, go mad.”

Mary’s troubles grow further when she innocently accepts a gift from her father, a successful importer — a set of silver forks. But in the Puritan view, these are “the Devil’s tines”, since a three-pronged implement resembles a pitchfork, and those who use the Devil’s tines must therefore be suspect of inviting in evil.

When Mary finds a pair of forks buried in her garden, she suspects that someone is trying to curse her, and when Catherine observes her in the garden with the forks, Catherine immediately suspects that Mary herself is in league with the Devil.

Thomas’s violence eventually causes severe injury and Mary flees to her parents, taking the unprecedented and dangerous step of petitioning the elders for divorce. In the book’s two sections, we see two different trials, each giving us a horrifying view of what passes for justice at that time. The magistrates follow their own set of rules, accept as evidence hearsay and superstitious signs, and have no respect for women — especially not a barren woman like Mary, who, by their logic, must be guilty of something bad in order to be deemed unworthy of bearing children.

If it sounds like a no-win situation for Mary, as well as any woman who’s unusual and perhaps not quite meek enough, that’s because it is. You can see where Mary’s situation is headed, even when she doesn’t quite believe it, and we readers know early on that Mary’s legal case as well as her domestic situation will go from bad to worse.

The Hour of the Witch presents a fascinating view of Puritan life, although it doesn’t exactly feel new or different to me. I’ve read enough history books and articles about the period to have a pretty decent sense of what a woman’s life would have been like at the time, and the notion of an outspoken woman being accused of witchcraft isn’t exactly startling.

The Puritan phrasing makes the dialogue feel slow and heavy throughout the book, with characters exclaiming such things as “Thou canst not believe that!” and “Do what thou likest” and “I thank thee”. Maybe that’s supposed to be authentic speech, but it feels awkward, especially when a character later in the book says “I feel bad that she has been dragged into this”, which could be something said in a 21st century heart-to-heart.

I did really like Mary as a character, although she makes some unwise choices along the way — but for the most part, these just illustrate how very little control a woman of the time would have had over her own life, and how even the slightest step out of line could lead to life-threatening consequences.

The Hour of the Witch feels a little simple in comparison to some of the more twisty-turvy plots I’ve read by this author, but I still enjoyed reading it. Despite the sometimes slow pace, I was invested in the outcome and had to know Mary’s fate.

If you’re interested in this era in US history, then I’d definitely recommend checking out The Hour of the Witch!

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Buy The Hour of the Witch at Amazon

Book Review: The Roommate by Rosie Danan

Title: The Roommate
Author: Rosie Danan
Publisher: Berkley
Publication date: September 15, 2020
Length: 352 pages
Genre: Contemporary romance
Source: Library
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

House Rules:
Do your own dishes.
Knock before entering the bathroom.
Never look up your roommate online.

The Wheatons are infamous among the east coast elite for their lack of impulse control, except for their daughter Clara. She’s the consummate socialite: over-achieving, well-mannered, predictable. But every Wheaton has their weakness. When Clara’s childhood crush invites her to move cross-country, the offer is too much to resist. Unfortunately, it’s also too good to be true.

After a bait-and-switch, Clara finds herself sharing a lease with a charming stranger. Josh might be a bit too perceptive—not to mention handsome—for comfort, but there’s a good chance he and Clara could have survived sharing a summer sublet if she hadn’t looked him up on the Internet…

Once she learns how Josh has made a name for himself, Clara realizes living with him might make her the Wheaton’s most scandalous story yet. His professional prowess inspires her to take tackling the stigma against female desire into her own hands. They may not agree on much, but Josh and Clara both believe women deserve better sex. What they decide to do about it will change both of their lives, and if they’re lucky, they’ll help everyone else get lucky too.

You’d never know from the cover that this is one of the most explicit books I’ve read in ages.

Whoo. *wiping away sweat* *clutching my non-existent pearls*

When I read romance, I tend toward the warm and fuzzy, implied steaminess, sensual but not graphic end of the spectrum. When I picked up The Roommate, not having read anything about it but the first few lines of the synopsis, I was expecting something along those lines. Instead, what I got was a book that pushed me way outside my comfort zone — but that I ended up really liking anyway.

In The Roommate, we meet Clara, a 27-year-old recent art history Ph.D. who drops everything in her prim and proper and well-ordered life to take her lifelong crush up on an offer of a spare room in his LA home. Things do not go as planned. No sooner does he pick her up at the airport than he informs Clara that he’s about to hit the road with his band, and she’ll be rooming with a stranger he found on Craigslist.

Clara’s roommate Josh is sweet, a little goofy, very cute, and seemingly at loose ends, having recently moved out of the place he shared with his ex-girlfriend and on a nonspecific break from his work in the entertainment industry. Ho hum, another out-of-work actor, is Clara’s basic impression. But then Clara has lunch with her aunt Jill, who informs Clara that the roommate who keeps sending her goofy selfies is actually one of the hottest stars in the porn industry, Josh Darling.

Clara can’t refrain from looking up Josh’s work, and she’s pretty floored… and amazed… and turned on. And when he catches her in the act of checking out his videos, things get intense pretty quickly.

“I figured that since you’ve already seen me in in flagrante delicto, the embarrassment veil is lifted.”

Josh frowned. “Is that a fancy way of saying I gave you an orgasm? Because like I told you, that was no big deal.”

Meanwhile, Josh is a rising star in the industry (he prefers the term “adult performer” over “porn star”, thank you very much), but is stuck in a contract that takes complete advantage of him and denies him any autonomy or control in his career. He can’t even sell merchandise! The only thing he can do outside of his contract is voice-over work, which isn’t relevant in the world of porn… or is it?

Clara has an idea, and a trust fund to back it up. She sells Josh and his ex-girlfriend Naomi (also a highly successful adult performer) on the idea of creating a new subscription-based web platform — called Shameless — focused on women’s pleasure, featuring respectfully made, very hot videos with Josh’s narration offering tips and guidance encouraging exploration and enjoyment. Clara, as a very risk-averse, buttoned-up blue-blood born and raised in the WASP world of Greenwich, Connecticut, is totally up for being the silent partner, trusting in Josh and Naomi’s expertise and her own bankrolls to get the new project off the ground.

Shameless represented everything he’d ever liked about porn. A celebration of sex and pleasure that didn’t make any apologies.

Along the way, Clara is exposed to way more of the porn world than she’d ever expected, and is forced to step far outside her safe and conservative approach to life to ensure that the business will thrive. Also outside the safe and conservative zone? Her growing feelings for Josh, who seems to return her feelings — but how could a guy who has had countless sexual encounters with hot, experienced women ever be satisfied with someone ordinary like her?

Taking his clothes off tonight would test his ability to open not just his pants but his heart…

Clara is kind of a mess, despite her rigidity and love of order. She gets a Ph.D. in a field that she doesn’t really seem to be interested in pursuing, mostly to extend her time in school and avoid making hard decisions about her life, but also to satisfy family expectations for a respectable career. She’s uptight in so many ways (scared of driving, terrified of letting her family down or damaging the family reputation, obsessed with lists and rules), but she’s irresistibly drawn to Josh, and he’s just as drawn to her — despite the turtlenecks, overalls, and utter lack of chill.

There’s a subplot about the evil corporation which controls the porn industry and takes horrible advantage of the performers and crews who work for them — the company is called Black Hat, and how on the nose is that? Josh and Clara’s fight to bring down Black Hat is a bit too easy to feel at all realistic, but hey, this is romance, not crime drama.

As with any book in this genre, there’s a communications complication that nearly derails everything between Josh and Clara, as each one completely misreads the other, but again, this is a romance, and we just know there’s going to be an HEA.

I wish the wrap-up and epilogue had been clearer about Josh’s career. We know by the end that Shameless is wildly successful and that Clara, Naomi, and Josh have created a new, positive alternative to the sleazy side of the porn industry. That said, throughout the book, we understand from Josh that he really enjoys performing, but once he tries to get out of his contract with Black Hat, he is on a self-imposed performance break. So, my question is, does he go back to performing? I don’t think it would work in terms of his relationship with Clara, but at the same time, a big point of this book is that there’s no shame in enjoying sex and that the people who work in the adult entertainment field are creative, artistic, body-positive people who enjoy their work. So why should Josh stop something he enjoys and is good at? We’re left not knowing, and it kind of bugs me. I want answers!

As I said at the start, the sex in this book is very front and center and very explicit, so if that doesn’t typically work for you in fiction, you might want to skip this one. I’m not a prude, but I just happen not to gravitate toward graphic sex in fiction, so this wouldn’t have been a go-to choice for me if I’d known anything about it in advance. That said, the level of explicit sex makes a lot of sense in telling this story. The point that all people should be able to seek and give pleasure in whatever way feels right to them and that sex is a positive, enjoyable, natural part of life is really well articulated throughout the book. The sex-positive, body-positive messaging is great, and I appreciated the frankness and openness of the characters.

Also, the book as a whole as well as some of the banter is just funny, and we all need more of that in our lives, right?

“Do you regret it?” His voice came out unnaturally neutral.

“Absolutely not. If other people don’t like it, they can take a hike.”

Josh shook his head. “We gotta get you a millennial phrase book or something. Phrases like that are why telemarketers are always trying to sell you osteoporosis medication.”

I ended up really liking The Roommate, despite some of the unlikelier aspects of the plot ups and downs, and I really liked Clara and Josh as characters, as well as their undeniable chemistry. There’s a follow-up book that focuses on Naomi, newly released this month (The Intimacy Experiment), and yes, I’m going to read it!

Book Review: Maggie Finds Her Muse by Dee Ernst

Title: Maggie Finds Her Muse
Author: Dee Ernst
Publisher: St. Martin’s Griffin
Publication date: April 20, 2021
Length: 304 pages
Genre: Contemporary romance
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

A sparkling romantic comedy starring a bestselling author who goes to Paris to overcome writer’s block and rediscovers family, independence, and love along the way.

All Maggie Bliss needs to do is write. Forty-eight years old and newly single (again!), she ventures to Paris in a last-ditch effort to finish her manuscript. With a marvelous apartment at her fingertips and an elegant housekeeper to meet her every need, a finished book—and her dream of finally taking her career over the top—is surely within her grasp. After all, how could she find anything except inspiration in Paris, with its sophistication, food, and romance in the air?

But the clock is running out, and between her charming ex-husband arriving in France for vacation and a handsome Frenchman appearing one morning in her bathtub, Maggie’s previously undisturbed peace goes by the wayside. Charming and heartfelt, Dee Ernst’s Maggie Finds Her Muse is a delightful and feel-good novel about finding love, confidence, and inspiration in all the best places.

What a refreshing change to read a romance with a mature woman in the lead role!

Maggie is a successful romance writer, but she’s stuck. The second book in her current trilogy is about to be released, and she’s fast approaching the deadline for book #3. There’s a lot at stake, including a potential TV option that will take her to the next level of financial success and finally enable her to buy the beach house of her dreams. The problem is, Maggie is completely blocked. She’s got nothing on the page, and she just can’t ask for another extension.

Her trusted agent Lee offers a change of scenery as a desperate last-ditch effort to get her writing again: Come to Paris with him and his husband, live in their fabulous apartment free of charge, and let the Parisian vibe restore her to full inspiration once again.

After dumping her live-in boyfriend (who gives off a traditional romance alpha-male vibe, but is actually a self-centered leech), Maggie sets off to Paris. And soon, her creative juices start flowing again. But Maggie is a writer who relies on superstition (like wearing the same old sweater every single day until she finishes a book), and she starts to believe that Max, a charming Parisian who happens to be staying in the apartment as well, might just be her new muse. But what happens if Max leaves? How will she keep writing if her flesh-and-blood inspiration isn’t present any longer?

Along the way, Maggie spends time with her adult daughter and her ex-husband — her first love, who’s newly retired and interested in rekindling their romance after all these years. And yes, it might be nice to spend more time with Alan, who’s lovely and intelligent and comfortable — but what about that spark she feels whenever Max is around?

There’s a lot to love about Maggie Finds Her Muse. As I said at the start of this review, three cheers for a romantic heroine who’s not in her 20s! I love reading about a smart, successful, motivated woman who’s able to take charge of her professional and personal life. Maggie isn’t perfect — she has insecurities and doubts, but she’s also lived life and has learned a lot about herself, her needs, and what she expects from a potential partner.

“Do you think a person becomes too old for love?”

… “No, I don’t think you’re ever too old,” I said. “But I do think that how you love changes. The things you look for when you’re young are not the same ones you want when you’re older. Not in your life, or in the person you want to share it with.”

It was really fun reading about her writing process, and I liked hearing about the story elements she explores over the course of the book. While her actual book doesn’t sound like the sort of thing I’d ever read (war-torn romantic drama), I was amused by scenes of her figuring out blocking by having her friends act out action sequences. I did feel not quite so charmed by the setting of her books, an invented country with vaguely foreign elements, which sounds like a Westerner’s standard generic anywhere-but-here kind of setting — warlords, non-English names that are hard to pinpoint, desperate escapes through deserts and mountains… It all feels a little too America-centric, like anyplace that’s not the US must be uncivilized and “other”. But I’m probably over-analyzing. After all, this is romance!

The Paris setting is delicious, of course. Maggie enjoys the food, the sights, the people, the customs, and so we as readers get to do so as well. It made me want to pick up and fly to Paris RIGHT NOW, but only if my trip would include a marvelous flat and totally chic and supportive housekeeper/cook/emotional guide like Maggie has.

“Maman, you cut me to the quick,” Max said, eyes twinkling. “surely, there’s room in one of those books for a dashing older gentleman who can ignite a bit of passion, non?”

Oui. That’s definitely a oui.

As for the romantic elements, Maggie and Max are well-matched and are clearly the pairing to root for in the romantic triangle. Max is suave, kind, confident, and totally supportive of Maggie. They’re not without their difficulties, but I like that Maggie, as a romance writer, is very much aware of the genre tropes, and is horrified when her friends point out that she has fallen into a romance novel complication in her real life.

“Maggie,” Alison soothed, “what I think Cheri is trying to say is that maybe you were the victim of A Great Misunderstanding.”

I sat very still.

A Great Misunderstanding is a commonly used device in romance writing wherein the hero or heroine says something that is completely misconstrued by the other party, and chapters of angst and possible revenge sex happen before the truth is finally known. I hate A Great Misunderstanding and have never used it in any of my books, if for no other reason than if I did, neither Cheri nor Alison would ever read anything I wrote ever again.

“No,” I whispered.

Overall, Maggie Finds Her Muse is a sweet, delightful read. The characters are smart and relatable, and I couldn’t help but want every single one of the people we meet to get a perfect HEA.

From reading the author bio on Goodreads, I learned that Dee Ernst specializes in writing older (okay, I hate calling them that — let’s say age 40+) leading characters, and I think that’s awesome. This is an author whose work I’ll be following!

Book Review: Second First Impressions by Sally Thorne

Title: Second First Impressions
Author: Sally Thorne
Publisher: William Morrow
Publication date: April 13, 2021
Length: 352 pages
Genre: Contemporary romance
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Distraction (n): an extreme agitation of the mind or emotions.

Ruthie Midona has worked the front desk at the Providence Luxury Retirement Villa for six years, dedicating her entire adult life to caring for the Villa’s residents, maintaining the property (with an assist from DIY YouTube tutorials), and guarding the endangered tortoises that live in the Villa’s gardens. Somewhere along the way, she’s forgotten that she’s young and beautiful, and that there’s a world outside of work—until she meets the son of the property developer who just acquired the retirement center.

Teddy Prescott has spent the last few years partying, sleeping in late, tattooing himself when bored, and generally not taking life too seriously—something his father, who dreams of grooming Teddy into his successor, can’t understand. When Teddy needs a place to crash, his father seizes the chance to get him to grow up. He’ll let Teddy stay in one of the on-site cottages at the retirement home, but only if he works to earn his keep. Teddy agrees—he can change a few lightbulbs and clip some hedges, no sweat. But Ruthie has plans for Teddy too.

Her two wealthiest and most eccentric residents have just placed an ad (yet another!) seeking a new personal assistant to torment. The women are ninety-year-old, four-foot-tall menaces, and not one of their assistants has lasted a full week. Offering up Teddy seems like a surefire way to get rid of the tall, handsome, unnerving man who won’t stop getting under her skin.

Ruthie doesn’t count on the fact that in Teddy Prescott, the Biddies may have finally met their match. He’ll pick up Chanel gowns from the dry cleaner and cut Big Macs into bite-sized bits. He’ll do repairs around the property, make the residents laugh, and charm the entire villa. He might even remind Ruthie what it’s like to be young and fun again. But when she finds out Teddy’s father’s only fixing up the retirement home to sell it, putting everything she cares about in jeopardy, she’s left wondering if Teddy’s magic was all just a façade.

From the USA Today  bestselling author of The Hating Game and 99 Percent Mine comes the clever, funny, and unforgettable story of a muscular, tattooed man hired as an assistant to two old women—under the watchful eye of a beautiful retirement home manager.

Ruthie Midona is a 25-year-old who seems to have found her niche, living on-site in a cottage at the retirement community where she works. She’s there 24/7, except when she dashes out on an errand for one of the residents, and obsessively checks all doors and locks, is available at a moment’s notice whenever needed, and takes her job very, very seriously.

She also gives off a 95-year-old vibe, as Teddy Prescott laughingly tells her when they first meet at a gas station. He thinks she’s in costume as an old lady, down to the glasses on a chain around her neck, until she sternly lets him know that no, this is just how she dresses.

But not for long.

While Ruthie’s boss Sylvia is off on a cruise, Ruthie is temporarily filling in as the property’s office manager, and she hires a vivacious temp to help her out. Melanie is 22, fun, creative, and very invested in turning Ruthie back into someone who acts her own age, and decides to set Ruthie on an improvement plan aimed at loosening her up and getting her to date and find true love.

A complication arises when the new property owner shows up with his directionless son… and of course, it’s the guy from the gas station: a very attractive man with glorious, gorgeous long hair and a body that’s covered in ink. Teddy is more than meets the eye, though. Sure, at first glance he’s a good-looking charmer with no job, living off his family’s wealth — but he’s actually a gifted tattoo artist who dreams of opening his own studio, rather than settling down, getting a haircut, and going into the family business. Teddy’s dad gives him no choice — he’s cutting him off financially, and can either find a way to support himself or accept that the business is his future.

Teddy moves into the other side of Ruthie’s cottage and takes a job working for the fearsome Parloni sisters — two elderly women who go through young male assistants incessantly, driving them away through crazy tasks and unceasing demands. Teddy is made of just the right stuff, though, and is a hit with the ladies… and as he settles into the cottage, he reveals to Ruthie that there’s more to him than meets the eye.

I was a little skeptical at the beginning… but my “second first impression” of this book is that it’s really quite charming! Ruthie and Teddy are so different at first glance, but they soon learn how much they connect once they get past first impressions. Teddy has no boundaries and impinges on Ruthie’s space and time constantly, but as Ruthie soon learns, she’s cut herself off so much from real human contact that having someone around who’s actually interested and cares is a jolt to her system.

I really liked seeing their connection develop, from simple shared tasks to opening up about their hidden vulnerabilities and insecurities, to sharing the hurts from their pasts that have led them to where they are at this point in their lives. They each have a lot to get over, and finding a way toward their dreams will be difficult, but knowing one another gives them each a new burst of strength and inspiration.. and even hope.

The characters are sweet and fun and entertaining, and the setting at the retirement community is adorable without coming across as saccharine. (Side note — why do I keep encountering romance novels set at senior homes? Is this a thing now? Because as sweet as this is in fiction, the reality is far grimmer than a bunch of eccentric old folks just needing someone young and attractive to organize a prom for them.)

I’m not typically a fan of workplace romances in fiction, but this one worked for me, maybe because the office pieces are mostly offset by time spent on the property, interacting with the residents and the high volume of tortoises who make their home there.

The writing is cute and quirky, and some of the wording made me giggle:

Every time he looks up and seeks eye contact with me, I know that complete dazzlification has occurred.

I’m not sure I quite understood this one, but that’s okay:

He reaches for me, maybe to smooth the hair back from my face, but my grenade pin is caught on his pinky.

But I do think this is funny:

The shine in his hair gives me a candle-flicker in my uterus.

There really are lots of adorable moments of banter and flirtation, but I guess I neglected to bookmark them as I devoured this book. You’ll just have to read the book to find them!

Second First Impressions is a great spring/summer read. It verges maybe too far into the fantasy realm, in that I couldn’t see characters like these actually connecting in real life. Still, as light entertainment, it’s a fun, positive, and uplifting read, and makes for a nice escape from the real world!

Audiobook Review: The Time of Contempt by Andrzej Sapkowski

Title: The Time of Contempt (The Witcher, #2)
Author: Andrzej Sapkowski
Narrator: Peter Kenny
Publisher: Orbit
Publication date: 2013 (first published 1995)
Print length: 331 pages
Audio length: 11 hours, 55 minutes
Genre: Fantasy
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Geralt is a witcher: guardian of the innocent; protector of those in need; a defender, in dark times, against some of the most frightening creatures of myth and legend. His task, now, is to protect Ciri. A child of prophecy, she will have the power to change the world for good or for ill — but only if she lives to use it.

A coup threatens the Wizard’s Guild.
War breaks out across the lands.
A serious injury leaves Geralt fighting for his life…
… and Ciri, in whose hands the world’s fate rests, has vanished…

The Witcher returns in this sequel to Blood of Elves.

It’s always confusing to try to keep track of the book of the Witcher series — an explanation is always necessary.

The Time of Contempt is the 4th book in the Witcher world, but it’s considered The Witcher #2, because it’s the second novel — the first two books are interwoven short stories, but they rightfully should be considered books 1 and 2. Anyhoo…

The Time of Contempt picks back up with the story of Geralt of Rivia, the Witcher of the series’ title, his ward/foster daughter Ciri, and the enchantress Yennefer. Our main characters spend most of their time separated from one another, but always trying to to reconnect or find a way to save the others.

Ciri is young and impetuous, trained as a Witcher but also with her own magical powers. In the company of Yennefer, she’s traveling to Aretuza, the academy for young enchantresses, where she’ll be enrolled as a novice. Meanwhile, Yennefer plans to attend a conclave of mages, where intrigue and alliances and plotting take center stage. Geralt is in pursuit of both, aware that there are terrible forces trying to locate and control Ciri, if not outright kill her.

It all goes to hell, as the conclave turns into a massive battleground. After briefly being reunited, the main trio is once again separated, with Geralt left critically injured, Yennefer’s whereabouts unknown, and Ciri isolated and forced to survive danger after danger.

If you’ve read this far in the Witcher series, none of this will be terribly surprising. The series thrives on thrusting the main characters into horrible danger over and over again. It’s at its strongest when we see them using their skills and their wits to outmaneuver, outfight, and outthink their opponents.

In The Time of Contempt, a lot of time is spent on political wrangling, and that’s where the story frequently lost me. There are kingdoms, kings, the kings’ mages, borders, fortresses, and all are seemingly at odds or in cahoots or shifting loyalties or betraying one another. It’s a lot, and maybe especially because I listened to the audiobook, I had an awfully hard time trying to keep all the players straight.

At the same time, I do truly love the narration of the audiobooks. Narrator Peter Kenny does a fabulous job with the characters, and I especially love hearing him do Geralt and the bard Dandelion. He also does a great Ciri and Yennefer, and excels at all the various accents the supporting characters of different countries and races speak in.

Overall, I have very mixed feelings about The Time of Contempt. There are some compelling new developments, but too much time is spent away from the main characters, and that’s where my attention and interest inevitably drop off. I found the politics too confusing to follow via audio, but fortunately, there’s a huge Witcher fandom and I counted on the various wikis to clarify matters for me whenever I lost track of who was who and which side they were on.

I do want to continue the series, and I have a hard time imagining sticking to the print version, since I’d really miss the sound of Geralt’s voice. Still, I’m a little hesitant, because I can only imagine that as the plot progresses, it’ll only get more complicated, and potentially all that much more difficult to follow.

If you’ve read the Witcher books, I’d love a little advice: Continue with the audiobooks, or switch to print? I guess the bigger question is whether it’s worth continuing with the series at all, but my gut is telling me yes! And how could I stop now?

Book Review: Near the Bone by Christina Henry

Title: Near the Bone
Author: Christina Henry
Publisher: Berkley Books
Publication date: April 13, 2021
Length: 336 pages
Genre: Horror
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

A woman trapped on a mountain attempts to survive more than one kind of monster, in a dread-inducing horror novel from the national bestselling author Christina Henry.

Mattie can’t remember a time before she and William lived alone on a mountain together. She must never make him upset. But when Mattie discovers the mutilated body of a fox in the woods, she realizes that they’re not alone after all.

There’s something in the woods that wasn’t there before, something that makes strange cries in the night, something with sharp teeth and claws.

When three strangers appear on the mountaintop looking for the creature in the woods, Mattie knows their presence will anger William. Terrible things happen when William is angry.

There is a menacing, eerie feel to Near the Bone right from the start, and the cover absolutely nails it. Near the Bone is the story of Mattie, a 20-year-old woman living in isolation on a snowy mountain with her husband William. Mattie cooks, cleans, checks the snares — always under William’s watchful eye. Every night, she does her other wifely duties, because as William reminds her each day, a man has to have sons.

The plot bursts into action when Mattie finds the body of a fox on a trail near their cabin. It’s been killed and mutilated, but not eaten. What predator would do such a thing? When Mattie explains her find to William, he takes her with him to explore further, and they find tracks and claw marks huger than anything a bear might leave behind. What new animal has shown up on the mountain?

As they soon discover, it’s something other, not just a monster. It’s enormous, dangerous, and sentient. It has rituals and territories, and seems to have left them a warning to stay away.

But as the author so deftly illustrates, the creature isn’t the only monster on the mountain.

I should pause here for some content warnings, which I tend not to include, but feel like it’s essential for this book.

Content: Includes kidnapping, rape, assault, emotional and physical abuse. And yes, those are all human actions.

When it comes to the creature, we see horror-story elements such as eviscerated and dismembered bodies — but honestly, if you read horror, this isn’t going to be the most shocking part of the story. Gross, yes, but not terrible the way the human-induced horror is.

The arrival of strangers on the mountain escalates the action. Mattie knows that she’ll be punished if William thinks she’s been talking to the strangers. They’re a trio of college friends exploring a “sighting” of a “cryptid” that they’ve read about online. They think this will be fun — but Mattie feels compelled to warn them away.

Meanwhile, memories start to return for Mattie — memories of her childhood, an earlier life where she had a mother and a sister and was happy. With the help of the outsiders, who recognize her from news coverage, she’s able to piece together the awful truth of the last twelve years of her life, and begins to plan her escape. But can she get off the mountain when there are two dangerous predators hunting her down?

I feel like I could talk about this book for hours, but at the same time, I’m already skating at the edge of spoiler-ville and don’t want to go too far. Near the Bone is incredibly upsetting and scary and utterly enthralling. I tore through this book in about a day and a half — I felt so personally invested in Mattie’s story and absolutely had to know if she’d find safety.

The story of her life with William and the ongoing abuse — captivity, control, beatings, sexual assault, withholding of food — is very, very hard to read. It does have a ripped-from-the-headlines feel, bringing up memories of the recent cases in the news of women escaping their captors after many, many years. Mattie considers herself a mouse, weak and powerless, but over the course of the novel, as her memories return, she finds an inner strength and determination that helps her finally take action.

This book is not going to be for everyone. As I said, the more traditional horror elements aren’t the parts that were hardest for me to read. It’s been a couple of days since I finished, and I still can’t get Mattie’s story out of my head.

I think the only thing that leaves me a touch unsatisfied is the lack of clear explanation of the creature. By the end of the book, there have been glimpses, but not a full look, and we’re left not knowing exactly what it was. I know this is intentional, but I wanted to know! There’s a message there about heeding warnings and staying away from places you shouldn’t go — my impression is that the creature only went after the humans when they disturbed its territory, and then of course there was hell to pay.

Ultimately, the true monster on the mountain is William. We can understand the creature as “other”, with behaviors and patterns that make sense for it, even though they’re deadly to whoever crosses its path. William, though, is human, and we’re left with a picture of evil that’s hard to shake.

Near the Bone is a fantastic read, very disturbing but impossible to put down. Mattie is someone to root for, and while I felt enormous sympathy and sorrow for her, I also was left with high admiration for her ability to survive, help others, and keep going in the face of terrible circumstances. The book ends on a high note, despite all the horror, and I was happy to be able to leave the books with a sense of hope after all the awful things that occurred.

I strongly recommend Near the Bone, but with the caveat that the content won’t be for everyone.

Book Review: The Light of the Midnight Stars by Rena Rossner

Title: The Light of the Midnight Stars
Author: Rena Rossner
Publisher: Redhook
Publication date: April 13, 2021
Length: 432 pages
Genre: Fantasy
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

An evocative combination of fantasy, history, and Jewish folklore, The Light of the Midnight Stars is fairytale-inspired novel from the author of The Sisters of the Winter Wood.

Deep in the Hungarian woods, the sacred magic of King Solomon lives on in his descendants. Gathering under the midnight stars, they pray, sing and perform small miracles – and none are more gifted than the great Rabbi Isaac and his three daughters. Each one is blessed with a unique talent – whether it be coaxing plants to grow, or predicting the future by reading the path of the stars.

When a fateful decision to help an outsider ends in an accusation of witchcraft, fire blazes through their village. Rabbi Isaac and his family are forced to flee, to abandon their magic and settle into a new way of life. But a dark fog is making its way across Europe and will, in the end, reach even those who thought they could run from it. Each of the sisters will have to make a choice – and change the future of their family forever.

I so wanted to love this book, but unfortunately, it just didn’t work out that way.

In The Light of the Midnight Stars, we meet a devout Jewish family living in the village of Trnava in the 14th century. The family has three daughters — Hannah, Sarah, and Levana — and each has her own special gifts. Their father is a Rabbi and a practitioner of ancient magics handed down through King Solomon’s descendants. This magic protects the community, yet as an ominous black mist intrudes on the village and the surrounding areas, the Jewish community’s gifts raise suspicion and anger among their neighbors.

Told through the perspectives of the three daughters, we learn about each girl’s gift, her frustrations and challenges, and see them each find (and lose) love in different ways. When the family is forced to flee after a tragedy, they finally emerge from a journey through the deep woods and start a new life in a new land, posing as simple village folk, hiding their Jewish heritage and powers.

While there are some lovely moments of magic and some beautiful descriptions of the natural world, the overall storyline is convoluted and overstuffed. In the author’s notes at the end, she discusses being influenced by family stories, folktales, fairy tales, medieval history, and more. It’s too much — the book has a “kitchen sink” feel, as in, everything was included, nothing left out but the kitchen sink.

At various slower-moving points, I was sorely tempted to DNF, but then I’d come across a particularly moving or interesting chapter, and hoped that I’d reached a turning point. As I said earlier, there are some especially good moments and some truly tragic, heartbreaking events — but there is also way too much symbolism, allegory, and magical flights of fancy for my taste, and as a result, I couldn’t completely invest in the story.

It’s too bad. I loved the author’s previous novel, The Sisters of the Winter Wood, and had such high hopes for this one. I did enjoy the characters of the sisters (well, mostly the two older sisters — the youngest one just confused me), but overall, the book just didn’t gel into one coherent story and followed too many wandering tangents for me to really love it.

The author is clearly quite gifted and has a terrific imagination, so I won’t give up — I’ll definitely keep an eye out for her future books.

Book Review: The Good Sister by Sally Hepworth

Title: The Good Sister
Author: Sally Hepworth
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
Publication date: April 13, 2021
Length: 320 pages
Genre: Thriller
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

From the outside, everyone might think Fern and Rose are as close as twin sisters can be: Rose is the responsible one and Fern is the quirky one. But the sisters are devoted to one another and Rose has always been Fern’s protector from the time they were small.

Fern needed protecting because their mother was a true sociopath who hid her true nature from the world, and only Rose could see it. Fern always saw the good in everyone. Years ago, Fern did something very, very bad. And Rose has never told a soul. When Fern decides to help her sister achieve her heart’s desire of having a baby, Rose realizes with growing horror that Fern might make choices that can only have a terrible outcome. What Rose doesn’t realize is that Fern is growing more and more aware of the secrets Rose, herself, is keeping. And that their mother might have the last word after all.

I have not been disappointed in a Sally Hepworth book yet, and The Good Sister is no exception! Talk about a page-turner! I couldn’t put the book down, and finished this compelling story in one day.

Rose and Fern are adult sisters who’ve only had each other to rely on for as long as they can remember. Rose is calm and responsible and protective; Fern has sensory issues and struggles to understand the nuances of interpersonal communications, completing missing nonvisual cues and unable to take words as anything but literal.

When Rose shares with Fern her heartache over infertility, Fern decides to have a baby for Rose. And when she meets a sweet guy at the library where she works, Fern realizes that he’s a good candidate for the baby’s father.

Things don’t always go as expected, and as Fern becomes attached to the man she calls Wally, Rose becomes uneasy about the relationship and the feeling that Fern is pulling away from her.

Man, this book is hard to talk about without entering spoiler territory!

Told through Rose’s diary entries and Fern’s first-person narration, we learn bits and pieces about the sisters’ bond, their painful childhood, and their memories of their mother. We also learn more about why and how Fern became so dependent on Rose, and why neither of them consider Fern to be reliable or trustworthy.

It’s only as we get deeper into the story that we start to realize that neither sister is telling the whole story, and that what we’re hearing might not be the true picture of certain key events. Puzzling out the pieces and figuring out what’s true and what’s a lie makes this an incredibly engrossing read.

I especially loved Fern’s character. She’s unusual and has certain needs when it comes to interacting with the world, but she’s also very loving in her own odd way. And hey, she’s a librarian! And a really great one — despite her outward prickliness and tendency to ignore people who ask for help with the library photocopier, she’s terrific at helping people find what they need, whether it’s the right book or a bit of distraction, a way to calm down or even just some basic toiletries so they can use the public showers.

The plot of The Good Sister has some very clever twists and turns, and honestly, I just could not stop reading once I started. I won’t say more about the story, because it’s just too much fun to experience it without advance clues or information. Sally Hepworth has written yet another engrossing story with memorable characters, and I heartily enjoyed it. Don’t miss The Good Sister!

Book Review: To Love and To Loathe by Martha Waters

Title: To Love and To Loathe (The Regency Vows, #2)
Author: Martha Waters
Publisher: Atria
Publication date: April 6, 2021
Length: 384 pages
Genre: Historical fiction/romance
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

The widowed Diana, Lady Templeton and Jeremy, Marquess of Willingham are infamous among English high society as much for their sharp-tongued bickering as their flirtation. One evening, an argument at a ball turns into a serious wager: Jeremy will marry within the year or Diana will forfeit one hundred pounds. So shortly after, just before a fortnight-long house party at Elderwild, Jeremy’s country estate, Diana is shocked when Jeremy appears at her home with a very different kind of proposition.

After his latest mistress unfavorably criticized his skills in the bedroom, Jeremy is looking for reassurance, so he has gone to the only woman he trusts to be totally truthful. He suggests that they embark on a brief affair while at the house party—Jeremy can receive an honest critique of his bedroom skills and widowed Diana can use the gossip to signal to other gentlemen that she is interested in taking a lover.

Diana thinks taking him up on his counter-proposal can only help her win her wager. With her in the bedroom and Jeremy’s marriage-minded grandmother, the formidable Dowager Marchioness of Willingham, helping to find suitable matches among the eligible ladies at Elderwild, Diana is confident her victory is assured. But while they’re focused on winning wagers, they stand to lose their own hearts.

To Love and To Loathe is author Martha Waters’s follow up to last year’s To Have and To Hoax, and I’m happy to report that the fun is back!

In TH&TH (sorry, I just can’t handle typing the titles over and over again), the story focused on a married couple Violet and James, and their love-match-turned-hate-match… and what came next. As part of the story, we also met the closest friends of the estranged couple, and here in TL&TL, two of their friends take center stage.

Lady Diana, in her mid-twenties, is a wealthy widow who has no need for a husband in order to live well. Six years earlier, in her first social season, she was desperate to marry, having been raised on the charity of an aunt and uncle. Diana was forced to be decidedly mercenary in her approach to the marriage market, much to the amusement of Jeremy, Lord Willingham, who couldn’t see beyond the surface to understand Diana’s true circumstances.

Years later, Jeremy has a confirmed reputation as a rake, seducing a steady stream of willing married women, enjoying sexual flings and remaining completely unavailable emotionally. But now that Jeremy, a second son, has inherited the family title that should have gone to his late brother, the family expects him to settle down and live up to his responsibilities. Jeremy is one of Diana’s brother’s closest friends, and Jeremy and Diana have bantered and bickered their entire lives.

But now, as adults with more at stake, there’s the potential that they could help each other out. Jeremy’s darling masculine ego has been dealt a blow by his most recent mistress, and Diana is thinking of expanding her social engagements to possibly include a lover. They agree to liaise at Jeremy’s upcoming country house party, where there will be time and opportunity for late-night dalliances.

I don’t think it’s at all a spoiler to say that Jeremy and Diana quickly discover that there’s more to their connection than friendship and banter. Their sexual spark is connected to emotions that bubble up as they spend time together, and they each must face the fact that there’s more on the line than just their bedroom connection.

Of course, there are complications, including another single young woman introduced as a possible future bride for Jeremy, but who harbors her own set of surprises. Violet and James are in attendance at the party, as is Emily, the 3rd member of Violet and Diana’s close friendship circle. I’d guess that if there’s a book #3 (and I hope there will be!), we’ll finally focus on Emily’s sad romantic situation and see her find true love too.

To Love and To Loathe is a fun, clever historical romance, and while some of the complications seemed a little more drawn-out than strictly needed, it’s quite an entertaining read. I really enjoyed the characters’ banter, as well as the witty/snarky/innuendo-laden moments.

With Willingham, at the moment, it seemed that little effort would have to be expended in the seduction. He was directing his charm at her so forcefully that she was surprised her legs hadn’t fallen open of their own accord.

“Do remove yourself from my settee, Willingham,” she said briskly, proceeding to rearrange her skirts with such gusto that the man had no choice but to retreat to an armchair to avoid the risk of suffocation by muslin.

And a favorite:

For heaven’s sake, it was breakfast time. She hadn’t known that thoughts this inappropriate were possible this early in the day.

If you’re looking for a light, romantic escape with charming characters, definitely check out To Have and To Hoax AND To Love and To Loathe. (TL&TL works just fine on its own, but might as well read them both!)

Audiobook Review: The Christmas Surprise by Jenny Colgan

Title: The Christmas Surprise (Rosie Hopkins’ Sweetshop, #3)
Author: Jenny Colgan
Narrator: Pearl Hewitt
Publisher: William Morrow
Publication date: 2014
Print length: 272 pages
Audio length: 8 hours 51 minutes
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Library
Rating:

Rating: 3 out of 5.

From the New York Times bestselling author of Little Beach Street Bakery and The Bookshop on the Corner comes a delightful holiday tale full of sweetness, love, heartbreak, and happiness—perfect for fans of Debbie Macomber and Elin Hilderbrand.

Rosie Hopkins, newly engaged, is looking forward to an exciting year in the little English sweetshop she owns. But when fate deals Rosie and her boyfriend Stephen a terrible blow, threatening everything they hold dear, it’s going to take all their strength and the support of their families and their friends to hold them together.

After all, don’t they say it takes a village to raise a child?

Perhaps I was pushing my luck with a SECOND Christmas-themed book, but since the books in question are the 2nd and 3rd books in a trilogy featuring characters and a setting I love, it was awfully hard to resist.

Note: Some spoilers ahead, since otherwise I can’t really talk about the book, the series, and why I felt the way I did about this 3rd book.

The Christmas Surprise picks up right after Christmas at Rosie Hopkins’ Sweetshop. Rosie and Stephen are newly engaged and blissfully happy in their little cottage next to the sweetshop in their country village of Lipton. Their close friends are engaged too and planning a fancy wedding, the sweetshop is thriving, Stephen is loving his teaching job at the village school, and Rosie’s great-aunt Lillian is ruling the roost at her senior living home. All is well.

But not for long.

After a surprise pregnancy (about which Rosie and Stephen are elated) ends in miscarriage, Rosie is plunged into despair, especially upon learning that a future pregnancy will be extremely unlikely without intervention such as IVF — way beyond their means.

A surprising email leads them in a new direction. Years earlier, Stephen had volunteered with Doctors Without Borders as a teacher in an African village, and he’s heard from his contact there that the young daughter of a family he became close with is expecting a baby, and the family would like him to be the godfather. Stephen and Rosie begin raising funds for the village and the family within their own small community, but then decide that a trip to visit might be just the thing to break them out of their low times.

It wasn’t a shock by any means to see how this all turned out.

The book of course ends on a happy, jolly note, with just about everyone getting a sweet and happy “ever after”, but it does take some effort to get there. Rosie and Stephen face financial challenges that seem to drive a wedge between them, there’s a major disagreement over medical treatment for their baby, and ongoing difficulty with Stephen’s aristocratic mother’s seeming indifference and coldness toward their new little family.

Naturally, there are also tears of joy, village-wide celebrations that include moments of chaos and comedy and silliness, and plenty of laughs and small-town craziness to go around.

Overall, I enjoyed the book, but felt a bit on edge with the Africa storyline. First off, it’s always just “Africa” — as if the continent is one big entity. Why not identify a country? The descriptions are all generic outsider views — the bustle and color, the heat, the lack of modern amenities in a remote village. Rosie and Stephen swooping in and saving the day smacks of white saviourism, and when a snooty mom back in Lipton refers to Rosie’s actions as “colonial privilege”, I didn’t think she was far off.

I mean, of course it was lovely that they adopted this newborn who was essentially given up on by his birth family, but it felt a little too pat and condescending for my comfort — even though it did result in the happiness that the characters were so desperately in need of.

I’m not sorry I read/listened to this book, since I really do enjoy the characters and the entire town of Lipton, and was happy to see everything wrapped up with a pretty bow by the end. Still, it stretched my tolerance in parts and the ultra-happy ending, while predictable, was also a bit too pat and deliberately joyful for my taste.

Then again, there was simply no way I wasn’t going to finish the trilogy, and ultimately, it’s been a fun, sweet reading and listening experience. I can’t say no to Jenny Colgan books, and I’m glad to have spent time with Rosie and her adorable little sweetshop!