Secret History of Witches by Louisa Morgan


IMG_0200The concept of women’s power being rooted in magic has become a regular theme in recent fiction, and The Secret History of Witches adds to that growing genre. Louisa Morgan has created a captivating tale of six generations of Romani witches, women whose talents include “simples” like healing potions, knowledge of the weather, affinity for animals or growing things, and, most importantly, seeing the future.

The story begins in Brittany in the early decades of the 19th century, where the Orchiere family is cornered in a ring of standing stones by an angry mob out to burn them. Matriarch Ursule, a powerful seer, uses her power to hide her family. This act takes her life, but not before she sees her family travel across the sea to a farm on a cliff, where they will live in peace. The family buries Ursule between the stones, and heads off across the sea, where they find the farm, just as Ursule predicted, on the Cornish coast. The sisters continue to perform the family rites in a hidden cave, but none of them possess Ursule’s magic until the youngest sister, Nanette, comes of age. Nanette is the only sister to whom Ursule’s scrying stone responds.

The stone becomes the thread tying the family together through subsequent generations. The stone is the indicator of magic – if it responds to you, you’ve got it. Each generation experiences its own heartaches and tragedies. At the same time, the belief in magic waxes and wanes, until we end up with Veronica, who has no mother or aunt to initiate her into the magic of the Orchiere witches. This is where the story stretches belief a bit, by introducing Veronica to a coven of aristocratic witches led by the Queen of England during World War II. The best part? The Queen is descended from the Glamis witches. If you know Shakespeare, you’ll get the reference. The Queen’s coven instructs Veronica in the magic of her ancestors and draws her into their work focused on defeating Hitler, including exhausting work meant to manipulate the weather to assist with the Normandy invasion.

Morgan has created a readable, entertaining story around women and how they acquire and wield power. The writing and character development is well done, with a strong thread binding each generation together. I found Morgan’s honest portrayals of each generation’s “witch” to be refreshing, meaning they were not all paragons. In fact, some were downright unlikable. She balances the stories of each generation skillfully to demonstrate the idea that magic and power can corrupt if not used properly, culminating in the decision by Morwen, the second-to-last witch, of putting it away altogether.

The introduction of the Queen’s coven was unexpected and rather delightful. This is the woman I’ve known as the Queen Mother – the dainty, perfectly coiffed woman off to the side of the current Queen Elizabeth. I found it interesting that the Queen laments that neither of her daughters has shown any inclination to the craft, although Margaret might still have a chance. I also appreciated the way in which the author brought the Orchiere line full circle by connecting Veronica with a young man of Romani descent from Brittany, where her family originated.

This joins The Witch’s Daughter and other books by Paula Brackston, the Physick Book of Deliverance Dane by Katherine Howe, the All Souls Trilogy by Deborah Harkness, Practical Magic by Alice Hoffman, and the Waverly novels by Sarah Addison Allen as one of my favorite “witchy” books. Recommended.

Publication Date: September 5, 2017
Thanks to Edelweiss+ for the review copy

 

House of Shadows by Nicola Cornick


IMG_0195Elizabeth Stuart (1596-1662), daughter of James VI, wife of Frederick V, known as the Winter Queen due to her single winter as Queen of Bohemia. Not a familiar queen to most, but an engaging subject in this entertaining piece of semi-historical fiction from Nicola Cornick which blends history, mystery, mysticism, and romance.

The story opens at the close of Elizabeth’s life with a deathbed scene between her and William Craven, to whom she transfers ownership of the mysterious Sistrin Pearl. The pearl, we come to understand, is a powerful vessel for magic when combined with a particular crystal mirror. Elizabeth and Frederick, members of the clandestine order Knights of the Rosy Cross, use the pearl and mirror to foresee the outcome of battles and negotiations during their lifetime of effort to regain control of their Palatine lands. Craven, Frederick’s trusted advisor and defender, becomes the love of Elizabeth’s life, although hurt and betrayal abound throughout. Despite all the intrigue, or perhaps because of it, the pearl and mirror drive the actions of the 17th century characters through to Elizabeth’s final breaths.

Fast forward to present day, where Holly Ansell is woken in the middle of the night by a frantic phone call from her young niece, who reports that her Daddy, Holly’s brother Ben, is missing. Holly hotfoots to Ashdown Dean and the old mill where she and Ben grew up, only to find that no one seems to know much about why Ben was there and, more importantly, where he’s gone. As the days pass, Holly learns that Ben was researching family history, as well as Elizabeth Stuart, the Winter Queen. As she digs deeper, she discovers that Ben was searching for the Sistrin Pearl and the Crystal Mirror and that the story of the Winter Queen and William Craven has more significance than she could possibly imagine, both for her and the magnetic and handsome Mark, a local developer to whom Holly is attracted. Past and present come crashing together as Holly uncovers the stories of Elizabeth, Craven, and their descendants, and finally discovers what happened to Ben.

It seems I’ve been reading a lot of multi-century, historical-mystery-romances lately. Some are good, some are not so good. House of Shadows, fortunately, is one of the good ones. The author moves seamlessly between the 17th and 21st centuries, and paces the chapters and action well. Often in stories like this, the chapters are too long and full of extraneous detail, making it difficult to remember what happened in the previous chapters/centuries. Cornick devotes just enough time to each story – Elizabeth/William and Holly/Mark – alternating between past and present but always managing to tie the two together. The mystery of Ben’s disappearance keeps the action flowing in the present day, while William and Elizabeth tie everything together in the past.

The stories are interesting, and the characters are appealing. I can’t comment on the accuracy of the history, but I am intrigued enough by the Winter Queen to do some research and learn more about her, Frederick of Bohemia, and the Rosicrucians (Order of the Rosy Cross). When a novel prompts me to do that, I count it as a winner. Recommended.

Publication Date: October 17, 2017
Thanks to Edelweiss+ for the review copy

The Fortune Teller by Gwendolyn Womack


IMG_0190Part mystery, part psychic adventure, part romance – The Fortune Teller has it all. The story opens with a death, that of Marcel Bossard, renowned collector of rare books and manuscripts. That disturbing scene is followed by our introduction to Semele Cavnow, an employee of the auction firm hired to sell the Bossard collection. As she begins her work, she feels an immediate, unusual attraction to Bossard’s son, Theo, which only intensifies as she spends more time in the Bossard home in Switzerland. Eventually, she finds a hidden book, very ancient and very mysterious, but not as mysterious as the handwritten note left in the book by Marcel Bossard, which is addressed specifically to her.

As Semele translates the book, the story splits in two – the present day story revolving around the book, and the ancient story which begins in 45 bc at the Library of Alexandria. The book, it turns out, was written by a powerful seer, selected by the Egyptian Goddess Wadjet to shape the future. Semele is stunned to discover that the seer wrote to her by name in the book, and that the book foretells what will happen to Semele and Theo in the present day. Typical action-adventure ensues, with Semele eventually coming face to face with the evil genius who put all the story-pieces in play for his own demented purpose.

With this second novel, Womack cements her place in the genre with authors such as M.J. Rose and Kate Mosse. Her writing is engaging and clever, the characters and their stories are interesting, and the action moves along at a decent pace. Blending two story arcs – one in the past and one in the present – can sometimes lead to a disjointed narrative, but Womack has paced her chapters perfectly. The story is fascinating and heartbreaking at the same time, and I loved the way Womack brought two strands of the story (Nettie and Lilyas) together at the end. The only dissonance for me is the way in which Semele’s adoption news is handled. (She found out she was adopted when looking through papers after her father died.) Her reaction seemed really extreme, although the scene where she confronts her mother over her father’s death rang true. Despite this one minor issue, I thoroughly enjoyed the story and was captivated to the very end.

The Fortune Teller joins favorites such as M.J. Rose’s Reincarnationist series, Susanna Kearsley’s The Winter Sea, and Kate Mosse’s Labyrinth and Sepulchre on my bookshelves. I read and enjoyed Womack’s first book, Memory Painter, but this, her sophomore effort, is even better. Recommended.

Goblins of Bellwater by Molly Ringle

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goblinHow could I resist a book inspired by one of my all-time favorite pieces of writing, Christina Rossetti’s Goblin Market? Molly Ringle’s reimagined Market takes place in the forests of present day Washington State, where we are introduced to Kit Sylvain, a young man bound by a family curse to take care of a tribe of goblins. By “take care of” I mean provide them with gold or whatever else they want to prevent them from messing around with the nearby humans. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, since goblins are wily, deceitful creatures.

While Kit is tending to the goblins, sisters Skye and Livy Darwen have grown up in the small town of Bellwater, and spend hours exploring the forest, where they imagine “teeny-tinies” call to them. One day, Skye follows a path that wasn’t there before, drawn by the call of the “teeny-tinies,” which turn out to be goblins who ensnare her into their world. Kit, Livy, and Grady (Kit’s cousin who is unwittingly drawn into Skye’s drama) eventually come to understand that Skye has been cursed and join forces to keep her from becoming a goblin.

The story is fresh and engaging, and the characters well-written. Ringle skillfully develops four likable characters and weaves their stories together to an exciting, nerve-jangling ending. The story moves along at a rapid pace, with the current dilemma of Skye’s curse being nicely woven into the older story of how the goblins became attached to Kit’s family. I especially liked the fact that all four of our heroes were essentially saved by the first goblin “victim” who was snared so long ago. There’s an extraordinary amount of sex here, more than I expected, but it fits with the darker side of fairytales that few dare to tell, and creates a sizzling romantic side to an otherwise folklore/fantasy-heavy story.

I give Ringle props for taking an old story and hanging new skin on it. This will appeal to fantasy fans, for sure and would make an awesome graphic novel. Highly recommended.

Shadow Weaver by Marcykate Connolly


IMG_0159Marcykate Connolly has begun a wonderful new series with Shadow Weaver, which tells the story of Emmeline, a child blessed with talent bestowed by a comet that passed overhead when she was born. Emmeline’s talent is, as the title suggests, the ability to control shadows. However, Emmeline’s parent consider her talent more of a curse than a blessing, and have kept her hidden away on their estate for years. Emmeline is an outcast in her own home, reviled and avoided by family and servants alike, with no friends other than her shadow, Dar. When Emmeline’s parents invite strangers into their home who claim they can cure her of her talent, Emmeline and Dar run. Emmeline is running from the very real danger posed by the strangers, emissaries of the much-feared Lady Aisling, while Dar is running for a very different reason. As Emmeline encounters others with talents and begins to understand that she is not alone, Dar becomes increasingly cantankerous and sly, urging Emmeline to help her escape the shadowland and become flesh once more.

Connolly has begun building a compelling but familiar world, where people with special talents are hunted by those who wish to use them to achieve power. It’s a familiar construct, but Connolly has done an excellent job of introducing readers to a new world populated by likable characters. There is potential here for this to grow into a well-loved series, with many possible storylines for Connolly to explore. Here, we meet a shadow weaver, a light bender, a wind whistler, and a shape shifter; and we hear about a fire breather and a magic eater. I look forward to seeing what other talents Connolly creates!

The story moves at a fast pace, with enough nail-biting action to keep even a reluctant reader engaged. Character development is good, with Emmeline receiving the most attention. We watch her grow from a sheltered, easily led child into a caring young woman who is becoming self-aware, loyal, and brave. I hope that Dar’s story is developed more in the next entry; I would love to read about how she and her sister fell out and Dar became a shadow. Overall, this is a winner and one I would recommend to readers in grade 6 and up. Well done!

The Library of Light & Shadow by MJ Rose


IMG_0110MJ Rose continues the La Lune series begun in Witch of Painted Sorrows with this story of Delphine Duplessi and her gift of painting people’s secrets. The pattern is familar to fans of the La Lune series – a passionate love affair gone wrong, a young artist struggling with her gift, and people who want to use her and her gift in nefarious ways.

We first meet Delphine in New York City, where she is engaged to a wealthy young man and is the current cause celebre at all the fabulous parties where she performs her “party trick” of drawing people’s secrets while blindfolded. That, you see, is her talent. Having been blinded at age 8, then her vision miraculously restored by her witch of a mother, she can see all the things people want to keep secret when she puts on a blindfold, or when she looks in a mirror. Her talent is a form of scrying and makes her constantly in demand at parties, until one night when the “party trick” reveals a dangerous secret that results in tragedy.

Shocked and numb, questioning her art and her purpose, Delphine slides into a deep depression, rescued only when her twin, Sebastien, arrives to take her home to France. Once there, Delphine continues to struggle with her art, refusing to put on the blindfold again in fear of creating more tragedy. At the same time, Sebastien, who is also Delphine’s manager, pushes her to put the blindfold back on and resume her work, specifically for Madame Calve, who wants Delphine to draw the secrets of her castle in order to find a valuable book hidden there for centuries. Underpinning all this is a failed and painful love affair, which is what initially sent Delphine to NYC. We learn about her passionate affair with Mathieu through entries in Delphine’s diary, all leading up to the two meeting face to face at Madame Calve’s.

Rose layers on more fascinating detail to the world of the Duplessi’s with each entry in this series, while still keeping some key elements common to each story. In addition, there are connections to and mentions of characters from Rose’s earlier books worked in throughout, which add a great deal to the world-building going on here.

My only issue is the pace of the storytelling, which is super slow for the first half, then very rushed at the end. For me, the best part of the story is what happens once Delphine and Sebastien get to Madame Calve’s, which doesn’t happen until halfway through the book. All the angst and self-pity Delphine experiences in the first half just bored me, as did her diary entries about Mathieu. Rose is known for incorporating some pretty steamy sex in her books, and that remains true here in the diary entries; however, I find it is getting repetitive and not adding much to the story. I wish there had been less of the first half and more of the second half of this book. I found the ending to be very rushed and would have liked to see a resolution between Delphine and Sebastien, given the surprising revelation that occurs near the end.

All that said, I continue to be fascinated with the world of the Duplessi’s and all who inhabit it. The story is, as always with Rose’s work, captivating. I expect the final entry in the La Lune series will focus on youngest sister, Jadine, who can read people’s tears. I look forward to it!

Little French Bistro by Nina George


Everything was more sacred than yourself, and your own longings were the least sacred thing of all.

IMG_0100This single sentence beautifully conveys the spirit of this gem of a story about a 60 year old woman who suddenly finds her life unbearable. When we first meet Marianne, she is readying herself to take a final plunge into the Seine in a desperate attempt to end her boring, insignificant life. Then we witness the first of many times Marianne’s life is saved, literally and figuratively, throughout the story.

That first “save” launches Marianne on a journey across France which begins as a quest to drown herself in the sea and ends with her figurative rebirth as a woman. Along the way, an incredible sequence of events, initiated by a painted tile of a seaside village, draws her closer and closer to Kerdruc, the lush and magical Breton village depicted on the tile. As Marianne journeys across France with nothing but a bit of cash and the clothes on her back, she reflects on the loveless marriage and cold-hearted, indifferent husband she’s running from, and begins to remember the girl she was before she was a wife.

When she reaches Kerdruc and finds the sea, she lands in the middle of a quaint village full of colorful, kind-hearted people who accept her at face-value. Their kindness and friendship begin to change her and reverse her wish to die. It is the sea, however, that gives her the strength to reject the old Marianne and let the real Marianne come forth and embrace her own magic and, ultimately, find love.

Nina George has once again created a world full of magical, quirky, witty, and human characters who live and love enthusiastically. There’s all sorts of love here – unrequited, rejected, deep and old, hidden, and raw. George’s Marianne is the catalyst that brings multiple love stories to their apex, while at the same time, creating a new story all her own. Marianne’s story is all too familiar – the middle-aged woman who suddenly realizes most of her life is gone and she has nothing to show for it. She has become a maid for her husband, invisible except when he wants something, unable to assert herself and fulfill her own needs, essentially voiceless. Under George’s care, Marianne comes alive in the pages of this story, and ultimately sees herself as other see her, through an artist’s eyes. I was reminded a bit of a book I read years ago – Praisesong for the Widow by Paule Marshall – as I accompanied Marianne on her journey. Like Avey, the protagonist of that book, Marianne connects with the land and people of Brittany, and especially with the sea, just as Avey connects with her African ancestors. Their journeys were similar and powerful, sending a message about how women sacrifice their lives for others, often living their lives through their families, and how there is always time to rediscover the young woman who once dreamed of a very different life.

Sometimes stories like this one leave me sad and unsatisfied. The Little French Bistro left me feeling joyful and hopeful, something we all need a bit more of these days. This would make an excellent book for a group discussion. Highly Recommended.

Gather Her Round by Alex Bledsoe


gatherI have written before of my love for Alex Bledsoe’s Tufa books. I swear, I become more enamored with Cloud County and the Tufa with every entry in this series. Bledsoe’s latest, Gather Her Round, does not disappoint. My favorite characters are back – Bliss Overbay, Bronwyn Hyatt Chess, and Mandalay Harris – plus some new folks who show great promise. In this instance, Bledsoe begins with a horrific accident when Kera Rogers is attacked and killed by a wild pig. Kera’s death reveals a love triangle that becomes deadly when one boy who loved her finds out she was seeing his best friend. Soon after, the scorned lover becomes responsible for the death of his friend, also killed by a wild pig, which sets in motion a deadly hunt and plenty of human emotion.

Bledsoe has created a remarkable world within a world in Cloud County, and keeps adding fascinating characters. I am so intrigued by how Mandalay’s story is unfolding and am eagerly awaiting how Bledsoe will resolve the tension between her and Junior Damo. Two new characters who I hope to see in future stories are Janet, the musical prodigy, and Flick, Junior’s dangerous protector. If you haven’t read the Tufa stories, don’t start with this one. Go get The Hum and the Shiver and start from there. You’ll thank me!

Jackaby


JackabyDiscovering Sherlock Holmes was a watershed moment in my reading life, and I have remained enamored of the great detective for years. Many authors have attempted to improve upon Sir Arthur’s stories, some with success, some without. I always find myself drawn to these treatments of Holmes and Watson, even when it’s not those specific characters in play, but characters drawn in the Holmesian style. So it was with relish that I cracked Jackaby by William Ritter, which features a detective-scientist in the manner of Holmes who operates in New Fiddleham, a growing town located somewhere on the east coast of the United States (could be a young Boston, or New York).

Two things interested me here: the replacement of the dour John Watson character with Miss Abigail Rook, dinosaur hunter, recently of England, and the inclusion of a supernatural element. We enter the story with Miss Rook’s arrival in New Fiddleham from a sea voyage that took her anywhere but home. We come to understand that Abigail, daughter of a famed archaeologist, had grown tired of always being left at home when her father went on digs and so took the money designated to pay her tuition at a young ladies school and scarpered off to dig for dinosaurs in Eastern Europe. When that adventure ended, she got on a boat and ended up in New Fiddleham, still looking for adventure and not a little afraid to go home. She encounters Jackaby in a tavern, where he does the typical Sherlockian assessment and recitation of where she has been, only in this version, he bases his assessment on the fairies and pixies hiding among Abigail clothes, clinging to her in passage to the new world.

Abigail encounters Jackaby again when she answers an advertisement for an assistant, and finds herself among the oddities in his home, including a frog that dispenses a noxious gas out of its eyes, a neat ghost, and a duck who turns out to be a former assistant to the detective. Abigail and Jackaby are immediately plunged into a grisly murder scene in an apartment house also inhabited by a banshee. There is the usual tension and disrespect between the “amateur” detective and the “real” detective who scoffs at Jackaby’s methods (he can “feel” supernatural auras and trails left in the air when these beings pass by). Jackaby immediately discerns that an ancient evil is at work, and predicts more deaths, which, naturally occur until the evil is finally defeated.

I quite liked the characters here. Abigail is a spunky, smart young woman who is not intimidated by the oftentimes overbearing Jackaby. The great man himself is somewhat endearing and very entertaining. The supporting characters, especially the young policeman Charlie Cain and Jackaby’s live-in ghost Jenny, are interesting and deserve more attention in any future entries in this series. The supernatural elements were not the usual withes, vampires, or werewolves, but unusual creatures drawn from British and world folklore. The identity and origin of the “ancient evil” is a clever and unusual bit of British/Scottish lore that I cannot recall being used anywhere else. The writing is crisp, and the plot moves along very nicely. I sincerely hope we will see more of Jackaby and Abigail Rook in the future. Highly recommended.

Wisp of a Thing by Alex Bledsoe


Wisp of a Thing: A Novel of the TufaI have loved fairy tales since I was a young child devouring Grimm, Andersen, and Lang. Those tales led me to the work of Kevin Crossley-Holland, Joanna Cole, and Katharine Briggs, and fed a lifelong interest in Celtic folktales and mythology. Which is why I am in love with the Tufa.

The Tufa feature prominently in Alex Bledsoe’s books The Hum and the Shiver and in this newest offering, Wisp of a Thing. The Tufa are modern day faeries, part of a race of creatures who fled land to the east and settled in the mountains of East Tennessee. They have distinctive features that include straight, lustrous black hair, a dusky complexion, and perfect teeth. They use faerie glamour to appear as ordinary humans, but in reality are powerful creatures who use hidden wings to ride the night winds. The Tufa are split into two factions, the First Daughters led by Mandalay, an ancient soul reborn into a child’s body whose “regent” is Bliss Overbay who will protect her until she’s grown. These Tufa do no harm, and communicate love, grief, life, and death through haunting music. The second faction, led by the irascible and sneaky Rockhouse Hicks, are not as nice. These are the dark fae who resent humans and want to use their powers to dominate, control, and destroy.

Bledsoe began the story of the Tufa in The Hum and the Shiver, where he told the story of Bronwyn Hyatt, a First Daughter of the Tufa, who defied the restriction that the Tufa can never leave the hills in which they make their home. She enlisted in the Army and went to Iraq, where she was wounded, returning home a hero. He continues the Tufa’s tale in Wisp of a Thing that reveals the darker side of the Tufa through the story of Curnen, a young woman cursed to live her life out in the woods until she finally becomes a “wisp of a thing” and fades away completely. The night winds which guide the Tufa step in and orchestrate the arrival of a bereaved young man who looks like a Tufa but is not one of the “true.” His arrival in Cloud County stirs up all sorts of trouble that leads to a final showdown between the light and the dark Tufa.

Giving an adequate synopsis of Bledsoe’s work is very difficult because these books are like none I’ve read before. The writing is lovely, the stories full of mythology, legend, and fairy tale as well as plain old human emotion, all revolving around a people we all want to believe in. Recommended for lovers of fairy tales and fantasy.