“Yet suffering has a way of begging to be remembered. Sometimes, as a story. Sometimes, as a wraith.”
Estranged siblings Bellatine and Isaac haven’t seen each other in years, and have only agreed to meet today to receive their shared inheritance. Inheriting a house isn’t that unusual; inheriting a sentient house that walks around on massive chicken legs is. Bellatine sees a chance at a real home, and Isaac sees dollar signs — but they’re not the only ones interested. Something, someone, has tracked the house called Thistlefoot through time and across countries, and will not rest until it’s destroyed.
What a way to start the month! I loved everything about this book, in particular the worldbuilding and fantasy feel — believe it or not, a house on chicken legs is the least magical aspect. It is in no way a light read, simply because no retelling of the Baba Yaga myth and its associated Jewish/Eastern European folklore and experience could be. It’s a beautiful, brutal tribute to creation, memory, loss, and the truths hidden and passed down through the blood of those who came before.
Read Thistlefoot if you enjoy books about magic, myth, and memory. But be warned: this book will stick with you long after you turn the final page.
Night of the Living Deed
“I felt like I was talking to myself, which was only about the seventeenth weirdest thing I’d done today. And it was just two in the afternoon.”
The only thing that newly-single Alison Kerby wants for herself and her daughter is to have enough to live on — hence the (arguably bad) decision to renovate a crumbling heap of bricks on the Jersey Shore and turn it into a guest house. But when a DIY project goes wrong, Alison discovers that the house already has guests: two ghosts who believe that she is the only one who can identify their killer. And Alison better do it fast, because she’s next on the hit list.
I’d say that my reading tastes are pretty varied, but at the core my favorite will probably always be the murder mystery. Night of the Living Deed is more cozy than creepy, and I liked the characters so much that I wasn’t mad about the predictability.
Give it a try if you like snark, oddball characters, and are looking for something fun to ease you into spooky season.
She-Wolves: The Women Who Ruled England Before Elizabeth
“To promote a woman to bear rule, superiority, dominion or empire above any realm, nation or city is repugnant to nature, contumely to God, a thing most contrarious to his revealed will and approved ordinance, and finally it is the subversion of good order, of all equity and justice.”
When Queen Elizabeth I gained the throne in 1558, the concept of a woman ruling England was unthinkable. And yet, it had happened before. Centuries before the birth of the “Virgin Queen,” four women — Matilda, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Isabella of France, and Margaret of Anjou — navigated sexism, betrayal, and the political machinations of their time to gain unprecedented power. They may not have been so by name or crown, but they were queens in heart, and paved the way for their female descendents.
I had high hopes for She-Wolves, but was let down by history itself. Castor’s book is billed as being about these powerful women, but there’s just not enough information — turns out when the only people who can write are the male nobility who have an interest in downplaying or discrediting women as legitimate leaders, there’s not much that gets preserved. I stopped reading when I got sick of seeing phrases like, “What Matilda thought of this was not recorded” or “We can’t know what Eleanor thought because her writings were not saved”. These women are kept in the periphery of a book about them because all the writings that were saved describe what the men around them were doing and thinking.
A well-researched book, it’s just a pity that most of the research was about people other than Matilda, Eleanor, Isabella, and Margaret.
Twelve Days of Terror: Inside the Shocking 1916 New Jersey Shark Attacks
Richard G. Fernicola, MD
“…many or most of the elements that gave Jaws its punch have a correlate in a real-life horror that unfolded a hundred years ago…at the beginning of July 1916 when five people were attacked off the New Jersey shore in the course of twelve days.”
1916 was expected to be the most popular and profitable year for New Jersey. Not only did President Wilson decide to make the area his White House’s summer location, thousands of people were going to crowd the beaches to make use of the newest pastime: sea bathing. That expectation was shattered on July 1 when a young man was brutally attacked and killed by an unseen monster. And that was just the beginning.
The best books give you what they promise, plus a little bit more. That was exactly my experience with Fernicola’s writing. It centers on the attacks and their aftermath, and also sheds light on the larger context: a spreading polio epidemic, German U-boats in American waters, and Pancho Villa leading attacks on the US-Mexico border. We were just beginning to see ourselves as a world power — but what can be more powerful and mysterious than nature itself? What prompted the attacks? Was it many sharks or a single man-eater? And where would it strike next?
Fascinating history book all around, despite dragging a little for me in spots where the author gets deep into the biology.
Outlaws of the Wild West
Terry C. Treadwell
“The outlaws…were not, as some ‘dime novelists’ put it, the Robin Hoods of the West. Far from it: the majority were just a collection of vicious, violent, devious low-life, who showed a complete disregard for anyone or anything.”
Many of us, especially Americans, were raised with romanticized stories and characters of “The Wild West,” where it was clear who was good and who was bad. The truth is much less glamorous. The outlaws of the Old West were feared and hated, not celebrated; they committed crimes that lined their pockets and left devastation in their wake. And while many of them lived for the adventure, they died at the bottom of a bottle, in the line of fire, or at the end of a rope.
You know that feeling you get when you pick up a book you set down awhile ago, start reading again, and think, “Have I read this chapter already?” That’s how I felt about most of this book. I wasn’t expecting the author to portray these figures sympathetically, but I was hoping for at least some nuance. All the stories read pretty much the same: dude is mad the South lost the Civil War, moves out west, steals money and horses, kills a couple other dudes in shootouts, and is eventually shot/hanged/imprisoned until dying of (what else) tuberculosis. Maybe that’s what the author was trying to emphasize: the fact that all these people were just bitter jerks. But why even bother writing the book at all?
Overall not a recommended read, other than as semi-interesting background noise while working on crafts or cleaning.
When Women Were Dragons
“The thinking went that the risk of insubordination with dragoned students was incalculable. How on earth could they be educated when they couldn’t be subdued?”
April 1955 was like any other month, the government kept insisting. Nevermind the 600,000 women who set down their sewing, dirty dishes, or half-folded laundry, and suddenly, inexplicably, became dragons — and took to the sky. Why this Mass Dragoning had occurred, its causes and implications, were censored by families, schools, churches, scientific organizations, and even the federal government. It became one of those embarrassing “things we don’t talk about,” like sex or periods. But the event, like the women it affected, cannot remain hidden forever.
I finished this book over a week ago and am still obsessing over it. Yes, the metaphors are extensive and a little on the nose (snout?). But it’s just so fucking good. The idea of a woman’s energy and life force becoming so big that she literally has to shed her skin and become something new…it’s visceral and confronting. When Women Were Dragons is on my shortlist for favorite read of 2023, and I can’t wait to discuss it with my book club.
Pick up a copy if you’re looking for something that will make your blood boil and long for a set of wings.
“Evil is unspectacular and always human, and shares our bed and eats at our own table.”
Jane Neal’s death in the woods just outside the town of Three Pines comes as a shock to everyone — except, of course, to her killer. Now it’s up to Armand Gamache of the Surêté du Québec, his team, and the residents of Three Pines to uncover the truth.
I can’t recall where I heard about the Chief Inspector Gamache series, but the first book has been on my shelf for several months. I picked it up at the end of September thinking it would be a good lead-in to October — and then finished it in one sitting. I just couldn’t stop reading. The mystery is well-crafted and I loved the characters, especially Gamache himself. Which is good, because he stars in another 17 books in the series.
Give this series a try if you’re looking for excellent character studies, tricky mysteries, and something that pushes you just past “cozy mystery” without wandering into “overly gruesome.”