Review: Witches! The Absolutely True Tale of Disaster in Salem by Rosalyn Schanzer

First review of 2020!

I read Witches! The Absolutely True Tale of Disaster in Salem by Rosalyn Schanzer to complete the first task in the Book Riot Read Harder Challenge, a nonfiction YA book. I have been interested in the Salem Witch Trials since I was a kid and I thoroughly enjoyed Schanzer’s presentation of the case.

The material is constructed thoroughly but written in prose that conjured up images of sitting around a campfire listening to scary stories. The book was also peppered with evocative illustrations that captured the terror and solemnity of the Salem Witch Trials, a choice that could have been hokey but actually worked to great effect.

I can see this book being a real asset in classrooms or for other morbid little children who are fascinated with tales of witchcraft and lies. It’s a good primer for them as they get older and read The Crucible and are made aware of the real terrors of the event, like mob mentality.

Also, the book is well cited which is just a little note I like to throw in because I love a well researched and cited piece of nonfiction. Both for plagiarism reasons and because it gives the reader plenty of options going forward if they want to continue reading about the topic.

Book Riot Read Harder Challenge 2020

Hey y’all,

If you have been with me since the start of this blog, you may remember that I took on the Book Riot Read Harder Challenge of 2019. You may have also noticed that I read about two books on that list and then it fell by the wayside. This has been my pattern with this challenge but I’m going to try yet again next year because even if I just read one book from these lists I am expanding my reading experience more than if I didn’t try.

You may have also noticed that I created a full syllabus for the Reading Embrace and ended up reading maybe a handful on there. But I am still going to do it again! Because I love making lists and that list still came in handy!

With all of that being said, here are the categories and my (tentative and open to editing) selections for the Book Riot Read Harder Challenge 2020

  1. Read a YA nonfiction book: Witches! The Absolutely True Tale of Disaster in Salem by Rosalyn Schanzer
  2. Read a retelling of a classic of the canon, fairytale, or myth by an author of color: The Girl from the Well by Rin Chupeco
  3. Read a mystery where the victim(s) is not a woman: Goldie Vance by Hope Larson
  4. Read a graphic memoir: Are You My Mother?: A Comic Drama by Alison Bechdel
  5. Read a book about a natural disaster: Outrun the Moon by Stacey Lee
  6. Read a play by an author of color and/or queer author: How I Learned To Drive by Paula Vogel
  7. Read a historical fiction novel not set in WWII: Lavinia by Ursula K. Le Guin
  8. Read an audiobook of poetry: Ronit & Jamil by Pamela L. Laskin
  9. Read the LAST book in a series: That Kind of Guy by Talia Hibbert
  10. Read a book that takes place in a rural setting: The Lost Man by Jane Harper
  11. Read a debut novel by a queer author: Texts From Jane Eyre by Daniel Mallory Ortberg
  12. Read a memoir by someone from a religious tradition (or lack of religious tradition) that is not your own: Casting Lots by Susan Silverman
  13. Read a food book about a cuisine you’ve never tried before: Israeli Soul by Michael Solomonov and Steven Cook
  14. Read a romance starring a single parent: The Governess Game by Tessa Dare
  15. Read a book about climate change: As the World Burns by Derrick Jensen & Stephanie McMillan
  16. Read a doorstopper (over 500 pages) published after 1950, written by a woman: The Lake House by Kate Morton
  17. Read a sci-fi/fantasy novella (under 120 pages): Binti by Nnedi Okorafor
  18. Read a picture book with a human main character from a marginalized community: The Day You Begin by Jacqueline Woodson
  19. Read a book by or about a refugee: The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nyugen
  20. Read a middle grade book that doesn’t take place in the U.S. or the UK: Adventures with Waffles by Maria Parr, Trans. Guy Puzey
  21. Read a book with a main character or protagonist with a disability (fiction or non): The Madness of Lord Ian MacKenzie by Jennifer Ashley
  22. Read a horror book published by an indie press: Tomorrow’s Journal by Dominick Cancella (Cemetary Dance Publications)
  23. Read an edition of a literary magazine (digital or physical): Ploughshares
  24. Read a book in any genre by a Native, First Nations, or Indigenous author: New Poets of Native Nations edited by Heid E. Erdrich

Review: Brazen and the Beast by Sarah MacLean

Trigger Warning: Discussion of child abuse, body image and weight talk that could be triggering for people who have a history of eating disorders

Guys this book blew my tits off it was so good. I am not even sure where to begin.

A basic premise: Hattie is a 29 year old spinster (because Victorian England) who has decided she will take charge of her future by getting control of her father’s company over her good for nothing brother and the first step towards that is ensuring she cannot marry. She goes to a brothel for ladies to be Ruined.

(Side Note: This book made me look at Ruination in a new light. I reject the sexist concept of a woman’s worth being tied to her virginity but also if a man I was attracted to told me he would gladly Ruin me I would perhaps die.)

Her plans are interrupted by finding a Tom Hardy type hero (aka Beast aka Whit aka Saviour aka bae) tied up in her carriage. Guys, if anyone is trying to get me a belated Christmas present, consider this wishlisted. It turns out he was tied up by her brother because her brother has been stealing from him and there’s a whole hullabaloo about revenge and fairness and reputation and Bareknuckle Bastards and yadda yadda yadda but what I care about is the tension between Hattie and Beast.

These characters are presented as clear equals from the jump. Hattie’s sexual inexperience is never used to infantilize her or give him the upper hand. They’re both smart, stubborn, and determined. They both have similar values and the conflict between them was understandable and I never felt like one of them was clearly right and the other wrong. The tension between them was so excellently written that it takes literally 70% of the book to pass before they have full, penetrative sex and I did not feel cheated or annoyed because the whole process getting there was still incredibly hot.

I didn’t yadda yadda past the plot because I was bored by it, I was actually able to read the whole thing on my trip home for Christmas. I just yadda’d because the heat between the characters hit me like a ton of bricks. I also all caps messaged a friend of mine to yell at her for not warning me that there is a scene where the hero asks the heroine to tie him to the mast of a ship and have her way with him.

Please read this book.

Review: Quest of Honor by Ellie St. Clair

I’ve been on a quest for a real good pirate romance for a long time so I was excited to have the Reading Embrace finally push me to do pursue one. I ended up reading Quest of Honor by Ellie St. Clair and while it isn’t my dream pirate romance, I really enjoyed it.

Eleanor Adams is the daughter of a pirate who is more Robin Hood than Redbeard. Captain Adams is being doggedly pursued by Naval Captain Thomas Harrington who has become the laughingstock of the navy for his inability to bring in this one pirate and dreams that perhaps if he catches this one he can find a new path for himself. Eleanor goes to do recon on the man pursuing her father and ends up in his bed, having been mistaken for a sex worker and caught up in her own desire for the handsome Captain. When the truth comes out and roles shift, will these two find a way to be together despite being on opposite sides of the law?

Yes. Yes they will. Because this is romance and that’s what we can count on damnit.

This was a brief read because I am running out of time but it was still well paced and I enjoyed it a lot. The romance felt a bit rushed but I understand that St. Clair only had so much space to work in and things had to keep moving at a pretty brisk pace to ensure the HEA happened. I don’t feel especially compelled to keep reading the series, not because of anything lacking in the book, but because there are just so many books I want to read that if I don’t feel strongly about continuing a series I just don’t have time to bother. It has definitely rekindled my need to find my One True Pirate Romance. Or maybe write my OTPR?

Who can say.

What I can say is you should pick up this novella if you enjoy lady pirates and boat sex.

Review: The Beauty Bride by Claire Delacroix

Trigger Warning: Attempted sexual assault

I read The Beauty Bride to check the Medieval romance box in the Reading Embrace. I’m still not sure how I feel about it. It started pretty strong, I like the banter between siblings, but I’m still just kinda…. hmm.

The general synopsis, thanks to Amazon, is:
“Lady Madeline’s heart is not for sale…especially not to a notorious outlaw like Rhys FitzHenry. Yet Madeline’s hand has been sold, to none other than this battle-weary warrior with a price on his head. A more dutiful maiden might cede to the Laird’s command and meekly accept her fate, but Madeline has never been obedient. She decides to run away, though she never dreams that Rhys will pursue her. She does not expect this taciturn man to woo her with fanciful stories, much less that each of his enthralling tales will reveal a scar upon his shielded soul. She never imagines that a man like Rhys could imperil her own heart while revealing so little of his own feelings. When Rhys’s past threatens his future, Madeline takes a leap of faith. She dares to believe him innocent
— and risks her own life to pursue a passion more priceless than the rarest gem.”

So a couple of things came up for me while reading this book. First, everyone gets real chill with Alexander auctioning off his sister real quick. By the end of it everyone is like ‘aw shucks Alex you tried a thing’ and I was still very much Team What The Hell Dude Don’t Auction Your Sister. Similarly, the hero tells the heroine, after they get married and have sex, that if she can’t produce a male heir he’ll just hire a prostitute and do it that way just like his dad did. This is also never rescinded and we’re just kinda meant to go ‘aw shucks Rhys you heir happy sonofagun’ and be fine with that. Also, I’m all for his mother not being presented in a terrible light because sex work is valid work, but they did turn his stepmom (his dad’s wife) into a literal villain and I feel like her anger (if not her actions) are incredibly valid. So that was complicated for me.

The pacing was rough. The hero kept telling stories to Madeline that enthralled her but bored the everloving fuck out of me. It was a little history happy and the fairy character felt thoroughly unnecessary and gimmicky. Wow as I write this I guess I really didn’t like it that much, huh. I think the problem is that I wanted to like it so much and like I said it started pretty strong but it sure did sink pretty quickly. I don’t feel compelled to read the rest of the series even though some of the premises sound interesting because fool me once, shame on you fool me twice, still shame on you, write better books.

That might be unfair. The book wasn’t bad. It just wasn’t for me.

Review: Time Out by Jill Shalvis

Trigger Warning: Discussions of domestic violence

Quick note – if you look at the initial Reading Embrace post I made about what books I was going to read and notice that 75% of them are not what I ended up reading, please know that it doesn’t mean I started and DNF’d all of them. It just means I lost the plot somewhere in the middle of the year and didn’t read anything for the Embrace for a long time and suddenly had to start scarfing some down and chose quicker reads.

I read Time Out to fill the Sportsball category in the Reading Embrace. This was my first sports romance and my first Jill Shalvis book and will probably be my last for both.

Amazon Synopsis:
“NHL coach Mark Diego’s plan to spend his off-season volunteering in his hometown goes awry when he learns that not only is he coaching teenage girls, but that the program is coordinated by energetic (and five feet two inches of trouble) coordinator Rainey Saunders, his childhood friend—and the woman he could never stand to see dating any other guy….
When their tempers flare, Mark and Rainey discover their fireworks don’t just burn angry—they burn very, very hot! But that’ll just sweeten the victory. Because Mark always plays to win. And with Rainey, he’s planning on playing very dirty, too…”

Here’s the thing, I love baseball. I’ve been rooting for the Mariners since I was a little girl in the 90s watching games on TV with my grandpa. One of the highlights of the decade was finally going to a Mariners game. But even with my love of the sport, the only time in this book I wasn’t annoyed was when the people were having well written sex and even then sometimes I rolled my eyes.

I didn’t really care about or like the characters. And my mandatory reporting self was enraged by the clumsy mishandling of the domestic violence subplot where a student is very clearly being abused and the heroine decides that the way to handle it is to THREATEN the abuser with reporting which, shock and awe, only increases the violence. They get an HEA but I wasn’t happy about it. Bah humbug.

Review: In the Presence of Absence by Mahmoud Darwish and Sinan Antoon (translator)

This will be my last memoir post for the year, just in case anyone was growing tired of them and wants to go back to the realm of fiction. This is also the last book club review of the year because for December our genre was Palestinian authors and this autobiographical book of poetry was the winner.

I was thoroughly unaware of Darwish when I read In The Presence of Absence, because my literary education has been comprised of primarily British and American authors. At first I was nervous about taking on the work because I don’t have a strong grasp of the conflict between Israel and Palestine and was worried I would need to do a lot of research to connect with the book. While I know the book would impact me on a deeper level more consistently if I was more educated about this issue, the book still resonated in many ways. I don’t feel incredibly confident about writing a review of a work by an author who means such a great deal to his country so I will simply state that it was a deeply moving book and provided a voice from a country whose pain I’ve only seen discussed peripherally by white news anchors in clips from CNN and it’s a damn shame there isn’t more space given to own voices during these conflicts.

As written in the Amazon synopsis:

“One of the most transcendent poets of his generation, Darwish composed this remarkable elegy at the apex of his creativity, but with the full knowledge that his death was imminent. Thinking it might be his final work, he summoned all his poetic genius to create a luminous work that defies categorization. In stunning language, Darwish’s self-elegy inhabits a rare space where opposites bleed and blend into each other. Prose and poetry, life and death, home and exile are all sung by the poet and his other. On the threshold of im/mortality, the poet looks back at his own existence, intertwined with that of his people. Through these lyrical meditations on love, longing, Palestine, history, friendship, family, and the ongoing conversation between life and death, the poet bids himself and his readers a poignant farewell.”

 

Review: No Time To Spare by Ursula K. Le Guin

No Time To Spare: Thinking About What Matters is a collection of blog posts by famed novelist Ursula K. Le Guin, lovingly curated and published shortly before her passing. It is divided into different subgenres including pieces about her cat, her experiences receiving fan mail, and takes on modern life.

I haven’t read many of Le Guin’s works, I think I may have read a couple of short stories in undergrad and that is probably about it. Her traditional genre, SciFi, isn’t one I often read so I don’t think that will change a great deal. But I am very glad I read this. Le Guin’s voice in these posts is sharply intelligent but not lacking the humanity we often associate with genius. They are also perceptive and poignant in turn. I especially loved her writing about her cat because I too am a cat lady and could relate to her on that point.

Fans of Le Guin’s work will greatly enjoy this book I think, especially reading about how she views her legacy and the work she’s done. But even for those of us who are generally unfamiliar with it, it’s a beautiful collection and made me feel that loss all over again. It is a bittersweet experience but one that shouldn’t be missed.

Review: Wildflower by Drew Barrymore

I grew up in a household that had strongly opposing views about Drew Barrymore. My dad hated her and considered her trashy liberal scum. My mom loved her and considered her fun, engaging, and liked her movies. I mostly struggled with feeling torn about whether I was attracted to her or wanted to look like her (answer: both). Suffice it to say I was interested in reading more about this person whose movies I grew up with and was told to reject/admire/maybe kiss a little I dunno.

Wildflower is a collection of vignettes from Barrymore’s life, recounting her youth pre-fame up through present day. The vignettes bounce around from years but cover a broad spectrum of time including her first steps into stardom at a very young age and memories of ET and Spielberg, to her complicated relationship with her parents and her father’s death, to becoming a mother and the concerns that also brought. She talks a bit about her experience developing her own production company and her goals and values. There is a section about her experience helping out children in Africa that felt a little bit white savior-y, especially as the focus was on how this changed her perspective and her life and just felt a little bit cringey. But I do feel that her heart was in the right place. I wouldn’t blame people, especially people from the country she visited, to be a little miffed by her representation of it though.

I usually like books where I feel a connection to the author and can sort of curl up in that world and this wasn’t the case at all. I definitely felt like an outsider looking in, but not in a cold or bad way. It didn’t feel distant, more like Barrymore was taking me through her memories like the ghost of hollywood past and I was along for the ride.

Ultimately, it’s a book that I would recommend my dad avoid and my mom read ASAP.

Review: Stay Sexy & Don’t Get Murdered by Karen Kilgariff and Georgia Hardstark

Trigger Warning: This book is a dual memoir of two people who have an interest in true crime so heinous acts are referenced including sexual assault and murder. There are also stories shared about their own near misses with assault and child endangerment. People should also be aware that they both discuss addiction, eating disorders, and one of them relays the experience of losing their mother to Alzheimer’s which could be especially distressing to those with personal experience with that kind of loss.

I’ve been a My Favorite Murder listener for a couple of years now and my feelings about it kind of wax and wane, especially since it has become only about 50% murder and 50% sad/weird/disaster things. However, I still appreciate the podcast and when I heard this book was coming out I knew I’d read it but it took me til November to actually give it a read. I’m so glad that I did.

Even if you are not a listener of this podcast, the writing is solid and I laughed and cried at different times throughout. It’s not easy to get me to do either thing so the fact that they were both able to make me express both says something.

I also enjoy that it’s a unique format by writing a dual memoir. Even though there is a decade between the two, their stories and perspectives are very in sync and touch on broad human experiences. There is also less talk of murder than you would expect though they do explain how and why they came to love the macabre subject and what their friendship and its bond over true crime has meant to them.

Stay Sexy & Don’t Get Murdered is a poignant, well crafted memoir and stands alone as a work apart from the podcast or the true crime genre in general.