Review: The Winter People

The Winter People, Jennifer McMahonWest Hall, Vermont is haunted by legends. In 1908 Sara Harrison Shea was found dead in the field behind her home. Since then more people have disappeared, perished under mysterious circumstances, or seen frightening things in the forest near the Devil’s Hand.

The latest person to disappear is Alice, mother of 19-year-old Ruthie and six-year-old Fawn. While searching for clues to her disappearance, the children find a copy of Sara’s diary under a loose floorboard in Alice’s room.

Ruthie and Fawn aren’t the only ones looking for someone they love. Sara’s diary holds a dangerous secret, one that some people would do anything to get their hands on. Can Ruthie find her mother in time, or will the secret Sara Harrison Shea died to protect be their undoing?


I’m a sucker for a good mystery, and The Winter People has tons of them. What happened to Alice? What terrible secret did Sara Harrison Shea know? What, exactly, lurks in the woods near the Devil’s Hand?

Author Jennifer McMahon packs some amazing themes — especially parents’ love for their children — and moments into just 314 pages. Every character is desperate to find what they’ve lost, and some go beyond desperation and into madness. It’s beautiful and brutal to read.

I love that the author chose to alternate her chapters between past and present. The book starts with Sara Harrison Shea, but her story is not linear. Her chapters skip back and forth through her timeline, slowly unspooling the secrets and horrors of her final days.

Sara is the most well fleshed out character, but that’s not to say that Ruthie, Fawn, and the others are two-dimensional. They’re all wonderful and exciting to read about. By the end of the book I was rooting for everyone.

Sara’s final secret may not be a complete surprise, but it’s definitely heartbreaking. The Winter People ends with the perfect balance of bitter, sweet, and frightening. An awesome ghost story, just in time for Halloween.

(I read this book as part of the Monthly Motif Challenge. October’s challenge was to read a cozy mystery, ghost story, paranormal creeptastic, or murder mystery.)

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Quickie Reviews: Landline and American on Purpose

In which I cut the fluff and get to the heart of some reviews.


Landline, Rainbow RowellWoman whose marriage is on the verge of crumbling discovers she can call a younger version of her husband from her mother’s landline. Drama ensues. Mainly I just ended up mad at the husband, who doesn’t seem to have any real dreams/plans of his own but sulks and is super passive aggressive at his wife when she goes after what she wants. Drop the dud and move on, girl!

American on Purpose

American on Purpose, Craig FergusonI love Craig Ferguson’s stand-up, but had no idea he’d written a memoir. The book covers his childhood in Scotland, his fight with alcoholism, and his rise to stardom in the US. A dark and fabulous read. “Between safety and adventure, I choose adventure.”

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Review: Mambo in Chinatown

Mambo in Chinatown, Jean KwokCharlie Wong was born in America, but has spent all of her 22 years in New York’s Chinatown. Her widower father, suspicious of Western ways, has kept Charlie and her 11 year-old sister Lisa close. In contrast to her bookish sister, Charlie is a bit of a screw-up. She didn’t do well in school, is chronically single, and works as a dishwasher in a Chinese restaurant.

But things change when Charlie accepts a receptionist job at a dance studio downtown. The lessons she learns at the studio force her to take a closer look at her life, what her father and community expect of her, and what she wants for herself.

As Charlie gains new strength, her sister is losing it. Lisa is sick, but their father refuses Western treatments. Can Charlie save her sister without losing herself?


I enjoyed Mambo in Chinatown. My heart hurt for Charlie, who’s clumsy and unhappy and doesn’t know where she fits in, or who she even is. As an ABC (American-born Chinese) she is expected to rely on tradition, even if it goes against what she has learned as an American.

The conflicts between these two worlds are central to the plot. Charlie likes the changes in her life, but has to hide them from a disapproving community. She doesn’t want to disappoint or anger her father, but she knows things can’t continue as they’ve been.

Jean Kwok’s novel focuses on Chinese culture and traditions, but I think young people from all backgrounds experience similar challenges. Families of all kinds can be resistant to change, reluctant to let their children leave the nest and do something different than their parents. It’s a universal experience, and made me feel closer to Charlie despite our differences.

All the dancing stuff was fun, too — mainly because it was Charlie’s springboard into better understanding herself. The romance stuff was nice (and secondary, which I appreciated).

I loved Charlie’s little sister Lisa as well. The two have an almost mother-daughter relationship, and it was fun seeing that progress through the novel. I suspected the truth of Lisa’s illness long before the truth was revealed, and am glad Kwok took it in the “better” of the two directions I thought it might go.

Mambo in Chinatown is a lovely book about growing up and making your own choices. I think almost anyone would enjoy it, but it would be especially cool book for parents and daughters to read together.

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Writing Prompt #10: Camera

(This month’s writing prompt is Camera: Take your camera for a walk and write based on one of the photographs you take.)

Photo of shady alley in South Carolina, with plants lining the walkway and a bicycle in the background.

Leta pulled the last clean dish from the hot, sudsy water and set it next to the others on the counter.

“That’s the last one, Hannah,” she said, wiping her forehead with the back of her hand. The head cook looked up from trussing a chicken.

“That’s good, Leta,” she said, still working quickly while inspecting Leta’s work from a distance. “Go on and have a stretch while I finish here. When you come back we need to start on the vegetables.”

“Of course.” Leta dried her hands on her apron and stepped into the pantry to scoop up a generous amount of Hannah’s homemade liniment before walking out the side door. Charleston’s renowned summer heat meant that it was actually warmer outside than in the stuffy kitchen, but there was a nice breeze and the liniment felt good on her red, chafed hands.

She rubbed in the last of the sweet-smelling concoction and reached her hands up to the sky, twisting to a fro to stretch the tight muscles in her lower back. She took a few steps down the alley to look out on the main thoroughfare; a few carts meandered by, but mostly it was quiet.

Leta turned and headed down the alley in the opposite direction, her hands brushing over the lush plants as she walked.

Out of the corner of her eye she spotted a bicycle leaned against the wall of the neighbor’s home. The little basket on the back was filled with vegetables and neatly wrapped packages, and a sign draped across the handlebars declared that the produce inside was fresh from Wilson’s Market.

Leta hadn’t ridden a bicycle since she was a child. Surely the delivery boy wouldn’t be back for a few minutes.

After glancing up and down the alley to make sure no one else was about, Leta tiptoed over to the bicycle. It was old, but in good shape — clearly the delivery boy took excellent care of it. Leta pulled the bicycle away from the wall and climbed on. After one more quick glance around the alley she pushed off.

She was wobbly at first, but soon her muscle memory took over and she could put both feet on the pedals. She went to the far end of the alley and back, giggling as she barely missed the wall as she made the turn in the narrow alley.

She had already made her second turn and was halfway through her third when she heard a loud, angry voice behind her.

“Hey! Don’t you be stealing that!”

Leta nearly nearly took a tumble in her haste to hop off the bicycle. She recovered her balance and looked up just in time to see a young man striding quickly toward her.

“Now what in the blazes did ye think—” he began, then saw the ashamed look on Leta’s face.

“I’m so sorry, I just wanted to…” Leta trailed off. The man walked around Leta and inspected his produce for damage.

“It’s alright, lass, no harm done,” he said, tucking one package away more tightly. “I can’t think what you were doin’, though, makin’ off with a man’s livelihood.” Leta pushed the bicycle roughly back into the man’s hands.

“I wasn’t stealing. I’m a respectable girl. I merely…borrowed it for a moment.”

“Aye, ‘borrowed.’ Sounds much better than stealin’.” Leta turned on her heel and stomped away down the alley, doing her best to control her temper. The man leaned the bicycle against the wall and dashed to catch up, then stepped in front of her.

“Forgive me,” he said. “I was mostly funnin’ with you. I only saw you from the back first, but as soon as I saw your face I knew you weren’t a thief. I’m Declan.” He held out his hand.

“Leta,” finally said, shaking his hand.

“It’s good to know you. You work here?” Lena pointed down the alley.

“Just there. Number twenty-seven.” Declan nodded.

“I deliver there on Saturdays. Maybe I’ll see you sometime?” Leta opened her mouth to speak.

“Leta! Where are you?” Hannah stuck her head out the kitchen door. “We’ve got vegetables that need chopping!”

“Coming, Hannah!” Leta yelled, waving to the cook. She turned back to Declan. “Thank you for letting me borrow your bicycle.”

“No problem. Just maybe ask permission next time, eh?” Leta smiled.

“I will. Good day, Declan.” The man doffed his cap and bowed formally.

“Miss Leta.” Leta smiled one more time, then headed back into the kitchen. Hannah materialized from the shadows.

“Who’s the boy?”

“Hannah, you scared me!” she gasped, clapping a hand to her chest. “He’s the delivery boy. His name is Declan.” Hannah smiled like the Cheshire Cat.

“Oh, is it now?” Leta rolled her eyes.

“Let’s go chop vegetables.”   

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Scare Yourself Silly with These Spooky October Reads

October is a bizarre time of the year, especially in America. It’s a weird mix of history, the occult, slutty costumes, and candy corn. The weather is finally starting to cool off, which means winter isn’t far behind. As the world turns colder, humans draw closer to their hearths and homes. Wrapped up in the winter’s silence, our minds are free to dwell on the things that go bump in the night, the things that may be just outside our windows…

Now is the time to read dark things, frightening things that make you question the world, its inhabitants, and even yourself. Any of these books is a good place to start.

The Seeker

Aine Cahill arrives in Concord, Massachusetts in search of the truth about her ancestor. The more she digs for the truth, the faster her world unravels. There are old, evil things lurking in the forests, things that Aine slowly realizes have been with her since childhood. This one kept me up at night.

The Woman in Black

A young solicitor arrives in a remote village to settle a client’s affairs. There he is terrified by a ghostly figure in black. He’s determined to discharge his duties, but he has no idea of the horrors in store for him. This book is atmospheric in the extreme — the house itself is the best character — managed to terrify me without using a single jump scare.

Heart-Shaped Box

Judas Coyne loves the macabre, so when he’s given the chance to buy a “haunted” suit he does so gleefully. But it turns out the suit is truly haunted…and its ghost has a score to settle with Judas. This book was too scary for me, but if you enjoy being absolutely paralyzed with fright, this could be the book for you.

The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher

Sometimes true things are the scariest of all. The big house a little way out of town is locked up for the night, the 12 inhabitants asleep in their beds. In the morning one of them, a four year-old, is dead. A London detective nearly destroys his life uncovering the truth — but we may never know the whole story. I’m just as obsessed with this book as I am with author Kate Summerscale’s other book, The Wicked Boy.

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