fiction, Netgalley, Review

Review – Wildwood Whispers

At the age of eleven, Mel Smith’s life found its purpose when she met Sarah Ross. Ten years later, Sarah’s sudden death threatens to break her. To fulfill a final promise to her best friend, Mel travels to an idyllic small town nestled in the shadows of the Appalachian Mountains. Yet Morgan’s Gap is more than a land of morning mists and deep forest shadows.

There are secrets that call to Mel, in the gaze of the gnarled and knowing woman everyone calls Granny, in a salvaged remedy book filled with the magic of simple mountain traditions, and in the connection, she feels to the Ross homestead and the wilderness around it.

With every taste of sweet honey and tart blackberries, the wildwood twines further into Mel’s broken heart. But a threat lingers in the woods—one that may have something to do with Sarah’s untimely death and that has now set its sight on Mel.

GoodReads

I received a free copy of this book through Netgalley in exchange for my honest review.

I saw one review blurb from Hester Fox on twitter and rushed to Netgalley to request this book. In the words of the book itself; the wildwood called to me. It was right up my alley – witchy vibes in Appalachia with a dash of cult and true crime. And fortunately the book lived right up to my expectations.

If you’re a fan of the movie adaptation of Practical Magic you’ll become enchanted by this atmospheric novel. The beauty is in the details that Reece lingers on. The taste of fresh blackberries. The sound of the wind rustling through the trees. It’s a slow paced story that flows pleasantly along, never seeming to drag due to the mysteries surrounding the plot.

Many have written that the strength of Appalachia is in it’s women, a strength that’s recently been put at risk from waves of misogyny and racism in the area. This book perfectly demonstrates this conflict in action. From an outside perspective Appalachia can look like a very patriarchal region, but for generations the strength and the power is in the women.

When Mel, our main character, arrives in Morgan’s Gap there’s a feeling of draught; we learn people have been leaving the area and the old traditions. Progressively things have begun to look worse in terms of the town, the nearby religious sect, and the political and environmental issues closing in on the area. Through Mel’s arrival she’s able to bring the women back together, and in turn bring strength back to the area. It’s not the political men or the religious men who bring that strength back, it’s the women. (In fact, it’s the radical religious men and the cruel political men who have been harming the area.)

Over the course of the book Mel is introduced to a near coven full of women from all walks of life around the hills – beekeepers, basket weavers, wine makers, singers, glass blowers, hair dressers. Daughters, mothers and grandmothers. At it’s core the book is about generations of women. Generations who stayed, and those who left. Those close to the wildwood and those who broke the bond.

That’s not to say there aren’t men, there are good ones in the hills and their connection to the woods – while different from the women’s – is just as special and highlighted.

The plot to this book is very layered and not obvious at first. As the saying goes – don’t miss the forest for the trees. Although, I found it plenty enjoyable to focus on the present and not spend so much time trying to work the puzzle pieces into place. There were moments when I caught on before the characters, but reading the characters realizations was satisfying enough.

The only fault I could find in the book was at times the dialogue can feel stiff with exposition. There is a plot point where this could be explained, but due to it continuing to make me pause while reading the book I’m listing it as a fault.

An aspect I particularly loved was how relationships were developed and discovered in this book. Mel ends up going from having no one to having so many people in her life and Reece’s depiction of all the different types of love, especially between women, was beautiful. I don’t want to spoil anything, but how Reece incorporates the tradition of a witch’s familiar and their relationship was fantastic. I loved it.

This is a lovely, atmospheric book can obviously be read at any time of year, but I personally feel like now – in the late summer days where the weather gets unbearably hot and then cool at night – was well suited for the vibes of the book. I could go on gushing about this book, but trust me when I say if anything about the description intrigued you, you’ll love this book.

Title: Wildwood Whispers
Author: Willa Reece
Page #: 390
Published: August 2021
Goodreads: Here
StoryGraph: Here
Suggested Reading: Practical Magic by Alice Hoffman, The Rules of Magic by Alice Hoffman, The Familiars by Stacey Halls

historical fiction, mini review

Mini-review – The Toll-Gate

Captain John Staple, back from the battlefront, is already bored with his quiet civilian life in the country. When he stumbles upon a mystery involving a disappearing toll-gate keeper, nothing could keep the adventure-loving captain from investigating.

But winning her will be his greatest yet…

The plot thickens when John encounters the enigmatic Lady Nell Stornaway and soon learns that rescuing her from her unsavory relatives makes even the most ferocious cavalry charge look like a particularly tame hand of loo. Between hiding his true identity from Nell and the arrival in the neighborhood of some distinctly shady characters, Captain Staple finds himself embarked on the adventure-and romance-of a lifetime. 

GoodReads

I love Georgette Heyer. For those not familiar, Georgette Heyer was a prolific writer from the 1920’s to 1970’s. She’s primarily known for Regency Romances and detective novels, but has also written historicals (I previously reviewed her The Conqueror) and Georgian era, a couple contemporaries and short stories. She was inspired and influenced by Jane Austen, which is very apparent in her writing.

I first started reading Georgette Heyer when I was in the mood for Jane Austen, but didn’t want to reread another Jane Austen book. Her writing is light-hearted and her characters are charming. Many have noted that her characters at times can have modern sensibilities, but this often times makes them more relatable. I would also note, since these are technically “historical fiction” Heyer does her research and it shows.

The Toll-Gate was a fun late summer read. Personally, it felt more like an adventure/murder mystery than a romance, but I’m pretty sure most of Heyer’s books are pushed as romances for marketability. The romance plot was really more like a subplot used as a catalyst than the main plot, which was fine by me. Lady Stornaway was a fine enough love interest, but I do wish we got some more time with her.

John Staple really is the main character, we spend most of our time with him and follow him through the plot. A bold choice to have a man be the main character in a romance, but I enjoyed it. I especially enjoyed his relationship with the toll keeper’s son who he almost immediately started taking care of. The narrative is surprisingly fast paced for a regency romance, owing to it’s adventure/murder mystery foundation, but John Staple’s “fish-out-of-water” domestic tribulations were also enjoyable and made easy reading.

The only flaw I had with the book was that there were so many men who would come and go so often I frequently got them mixed up. When one would show up I normally had to pause and remind myself who he was and how he was connected; was he the guy investigating the missing toll-gate keeper? Was he Staple’s rich friend in to help him? Was he the cousin? Was he the lovable highwayman? There was typically only one of them in a scene at a time so it got confusing.

Title: The Toll-Gate
Author: Georgette Heyer
Page #: 284
Published: 1967
Goodreads: Here
StoryGraph: Here

historical fiction, Review

Review – The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek

In 1936, tucked deep into the woods of Troublesome Creek, KY, lives blue-skinned 19-year-old Cussy Carter, the last living female of the rare Blue People ancestry.

The lonely young Appalachian woman joins the historical Pack Horse Library Project of Kentucky and becomes a librarian, riding across slippery creek beds and up treacherous mountains on her faithful mule to deliver books and other reading material to the impoverished hill people of Eastern Kentucky.

Along her dangerous route, Cussy, known to the mountain folk as Bluet, confronts those suspicious of her damselfly-blue skin and the government’s new book program. She befriends hardscrabble and complex fellow Kentuckians, and is fiercely determined to bring comfort and joy, instill literacy, and give to those who have nothing, a bookly respite, a fleeting retreat to faraway lands. 

GoodReads

I, like many people I’m sure, was introduced to The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek through a scandal. For those not aware, there was a bit of controversy surrounding the book concerning the publication of a suspiciously similar book published by Jojo Moyes mere months after Troublesome’s release. To be honest, the scandal made me want to read Richardson’s more, knowing she was seemingly the underdog, but more importantly – she was a Kentuckian writing about a Kentucky story.

And good news, I absolutely adored The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek. Growing up near the region, and with family ancestry from the area, I felt the setting envelope me in a hug. I could hear crickets and peeper frogs and see the flicker of lightning bugs as I read.

The book felt timeless and completely of the time period all at the same time – but that’s a bit of the magic of the area. It’s no secret that time moves slowly in Appalachia, and often times the area is a good decade behind the rest of the country in terms of infrastructure. The juxtaposition is highlighted in the book after chapters of horse riding, well water, coal mining, and simple living the reader is reminded that FDR is president, cars are frequently used just mere miles from the creek, and medical science is evolving.

It can be difficult to explain the issues in the area. There’s the pride of the people to not want to accept help, and to be untrustworthy of differences and those from outside the area. These blights are shown, but Richardson also does a lovely job of showing the other side – those trying to better themselves, those hopeful few working to make things better, and those who still refuse to break but are willing to bend. Cussy is a lovely mouthpiece for those concerned for the area and it’s problems, but hopeful of what could be.

I really enjoyed the history of the pack horse librarians and Richardson did a great job interweaving exposition into the narrative. The short peeks into Cussy’s stops and different types of readers did a great job showing off the different ways the programs was used and the people of the region, and acted a bit like an anthology of short stories within the greater narrative.

Cussy herself was a surprising highlight for me. I often find it difficult to bond with a main character, but Cussy was shockingly relatable to me. Richardson did a wonderful job depicting a strong character, shaped by past experiences, without falling into cliché. Cussy is kind, but cautious due to a lifetime of mocking. She places others before herself, but sticks up for herself when there’s something she really wants. Her dynamic with Jackson was truly refreshing to me, though I could see where others would find it dull. And her relationship with Queenie was

As a bit of a warning, Cussy does go through a series of traumatic events. In my opinion, these were handled well, and not merely forgotten by the narrative. The balance between events occurring with both a seemingly religious man and a place of science was interesting.

I understand that not everyone will have the same reaction to this book. For those not from near the area, those without a great-grandfather killed in a mining accident in eastern Kentucky, those who didn’t grow up reading when others didn’t see the value in it you might not adore the book in the same way. But I hope you still see the bright spots.

Title: The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek
Author: Kim Michele Richardson
Page #: 309
Published: May 2019
Goodreads: Here
StoryGraph: Here

historical fiction, Review

Review – Hadrian’s Wall

For three centuries, the stone barrier we know as Hadrian’s Wall shielded Roman Britain from the unconquered barbarians of the island’s northern highlands. But when Valeria, a senator’s daughter, is sent to the Wall for an arranged marriage to an aristocratic officer in 367 AD, her journey unleashes jealousy, passion and epic war. Valeria’s new husband, Marcus, has supplanted the brutally efficient veteran soldier Galba as commander of the famed Petriana cavalry. Yet Galba insists on escorting the bride–to–be on her journey to the Wall. Is he submitting to duty? Or plotting revenge? And what is the mysterious past of the handsome barbarian chieftain Arden Caratacus, who springs from ambush and who seems to know so much of hated Rome?

GoodReads

So, I had bought this book years ago at a clearance sale. I knew of Hadrian’s wall, but not a lot. I finally decided to read the book after playing a video game…yeah I know. (If you’re wondering – Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla. The game takes place in 9th century England and Hadrian’s Wall is an accessible area.)

The book itself was not bad, and I did like aspects of the plot. The historical perspective of the book was interesting. The context (especially of society and how society in Rome differed from the society in Rome occupied England) and explaining the workings of the wall and even the explanations of the military formations and workings I liked. And I did thoroughly enjoy the political intrigue that was happening.

The odd thing about it is…I would describe this book as a romance book for men.

It was very clearly written by a straight man for straight men featuring the straight masculine ideal of a romance plot. It was a romance through the male gaze. Something I hadn’t really read in such an obvious way before. Within the plot there are two men we are clearly not supposed to be rooting for- one, the obviously jealous, cunning man who should have just accepted his fate (brought on him because he was born into the lower class) instead of seeking revenge against the system that wronged him. The other is the man who was wrong to accept a role he wasn’t qualified for, thus not having the respect of his men, and is a horrible husband because he does not have an insatiable desire for the wife he just met and would rather just leave her be.

The “hero” of the novel is the ideal masculine man who despite being a violent rogue treats the woman with common decency (something she’s so not used to she can’t stop thinking about). She eventually falls in love with him because unlike her husband, all the men respect our hero and he gives her an unforgettable night of pleasure. The woman herself is seen as the ideal “Strikingly beautiful, feminine woman who is also athletic and able to fight with no training and capable of amazing feats to impress the men, while also giving a sassy quip.”

I liked the book when we stopped the agrarian larping, romanticization of the Picts and Stockholm Syndrome romance plot, and got back to the political back stabbing and unneeded theatrics for drama sake. Those were the fun times. Accepting it for what it is, a History Channel show in a book, it was an easy enough read that had it’s high points and also presented a little looked at moment in history.

Title: Hadrian’s Wall
Author: William Dietrich
Page #: 372
Published: March 2005
Goodreads: Here
StoryGraph: Here

historical fiction, Review

Review – Daughter of a Daughter of a Queen

Though born into bondage on a “miserable tobacco farm” in Little Dixie, Missouri, Cathy Williams was never allowed to consider herself a slave. According to her mother, she was a captive, bound by her noble warrior blood to escape the enemy. Her means of deliverance is Union general Phillip Henry “Smash ‘em Up” Sheridan, the outcast of West Point who takes the rawboned, prideful young woman into service. At war’s end, having tasted freedom, Cathy refuses to return to servitude and makes the monumental decision to disguise herself as a man and join the Army’s legendary Buffalo Soldiers.

Alone now in the ultimate man’s world, Cathy must fight not only for her survival and freedom, but she vows to never give up on finding her mother, her little sister, and the love of the only man strong and noble enough to win her heart. Inspired by the stunning, true story of Private Williams, this American heroine comes to vivid life in a sweeping and magnificent tale about one woman’s fight for respect and independence.

GoodReads

This book haunted me. Haunted me in the sense that it was in the Barnes & Noble clearance section and I must have seen it and picked up at least three times before I finally bought it. It was always just there staring at me.

One of the major factors that made me weary about reading it was the fact that it was the story of a Black woman during the civil war era in America, written by a white woman. I dug through reviews on Goodreads in search of POC reviewers and saw many giving it 4+ stars, and so I decided to give it a chance. I would also recommend reading Sarah Bird’s interview here for further background where she discusses her choice to finally write the novel after years of feeling it was not her story to tell and her hope that it would inspire others to tell Cathy Williams’ story.

The novel is split in two sections, the first half covering Cathy’s time working as a cook during the civil war under General Philip Sheridan and the second half covering her stint in the U.S. Army. I will admit, this historical fiction had a bit more fiction than I prefer. This is most notable in the second half the novel. Despite this, I still thoroughly enjoyed it and was able to suspend my disbelief to go along with the story.

I don’t know if I’m alone in this, but when a historical fiction novel is told in first person (which this novel is) I always view the narrator as slightly unreliable. Not an outright liar or the typical depiction of a unreliable narrator, but if you were telling your own story wouldn’t you exaggerate a little? It’s with this in mind that I can suspend disbelief in many historical fiction novels, including this one, and view it simply as creative freedom on behalf of the narrator choosing how to tell their own story. First person POV grants the author a bit of freedom in being completely accurate.

It is also with the first person perspective in mind that I can give leeway to certain depictions. Cathy herself is figuring out the way of the world and so her opinion on certain types of people will not be highly refined. For example, was the description of the Native Americans in the second half problematic? Yes, but Cathy was passing on the information she had received from her mostly white commanders who were giving this information to their soldiers to make them think this way in order for them to be more willing to kill and capture these people. Context is key.

One of the most decisive elements of the novel was the inclusion of a love story. I am typically of the mind that if you don’t absolutely need a love story – leave it out. As with most things, I enjoyed how this particular plot was handled in the first half as opposed to how it was handled in the second. In the second half it started to eclipse every other plot point and started to annoy me. But I will admit, I had a soft spot for Cathy as a character and so her getting to be happy for awhile made me happy. I just wish it was handled a little differently.

I’ve said a lot in this review, and yet feel as though I said nothing.

Overall, I enjoyed this story. Cathy, in my opinion, was an interesting character and depicted realistically. She is not the typical “strong” female character in the search for more, she just wants what she deserves. There was thought given to this plot, of how a woman could actually hide herself in plain sight in the U.S. Army (which is very well known for it’s lack of privacy and agency). Bird was also very successful in depicting just how severe the danger was for Cathy – that being killed was the least of her worries hiding amongst and lying to a group of men. Along those lines, I also commend her for the subplot of Cathy’s sister.

If anything, I believe this novel is a good introduction to the story of Cathy Williams, and like Bird I hope this inspires others to tell her tale.

Title: Daughter of a Daughter of a Queen
Author: Sarah Bird
Page #: 399
Published: Sept 2018
Goodreads: Here
StoryGraph: Here
Suggested Reading: Dread Nation by Justina Ireland, Conjure Women by Afia Atakora