Review: Witches of America

Witches of America, Alex MarAlex Mar is a writer and skeptic. Like many people in her age bracket, she doesn’t feel a connection to the religion in which she was raised. But she envies those who do — in particular, the witches.

Witches of America is a chronicle of Mar’s exploration of witchcraft, from its (surprisingly contemporary) roots to its current incarnations. Along the way, Mar questions her own biases, as well as asks herself why we believe the things we choose to believe.

Eh…

For most, the term “witch” conjures images of green-skinned women, pointy black hats, or even the Salem Witch Trials. For the modern practitioners of Paganism, it’s a description of what they are.

Mar is a lapsed Catholic interested and confused by witches’ faith in their religion. What makes them choose pagan gods over mainstream ones? Are they different from the rest of us, or remarkably the same? How do they survive in a world that considers any kind of witchcraft evil?

I wanted to enjoy this book, but it couldn’t hold my attention. I don’t find Mar likeable, and many of the people and events she describes are too strange (and sometimes disturbing). I think it’s interesting that people are drawn to witchcraft and are able to find larger meaning in life because of it — but it’s just not my “thing.”

Witches of America would be perfect for those looking to learn more about the history of witchcraft and the practices of the different sects. I’m just not interested in Mar’s hand-wringing over her unsatisfactory professional and love lives.

Quickie Reviews: Cozy Winter Reads

If summer is the best time for light reads, winter is the best time for cozy ones. Here’s what’s keeping me curled up with endless cups of hot chocolate this month.

Meet the Austins

Meet the Austins, Madeleine L'EngleThe first in Madeleine L’Engle’s Austin Family series. 12 year-old Vicky Austin lives happily in a big farmhouse with her parents, three siblings, and two dogs. But the family’s life is turned upside down when they take in an orphan named Maggy. This book reminded me so much of The Boxcar Children, with its great characters and their adventures. A touch paternalistic, but otherwise a charming read.

Bonita Faye

Bonita Faye, Margaret MoseleyWhen her abusive husband is killed on a hunting trip, Bonita Faye seizes the opportunity (and Billy Roy’s insurance money) to leave rural Oklahoma for Paris, France. Can Bonita Faye outrun her past, or is she doomed to repeat it? Nothing like a good murder story to keep you warm on a chilly night. I’m not sure I like her as a character, but Bonita Faye definitely knows how to handle herself when the going gets tough.

Annual re-reading

I love the holidays, but they can be so crazy. I spend most of my brain power trying to finish up work projects, shop for presents, make travel plans, etc. that I just don’t have the ability to focus on new books. This is the time of year when I do a lot of re-reading.

Favorite yearly re-reads include Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House series, as well as Pride and Prejudice and Orczy’s The Scarlet Pimpernel.

Which books are keeping you warm this winter?

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?

Marvelous

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.

Review: Heroes Are My Weakness

Heroes Are My Weakness, Susan Elizabeth PhillipsPeregrine Island, Maine, is the last place on earth Annie Hewitt wants to be. Her career as a ventriloquist has fallen apart, she’s deep in debt, and her mother has just died. The only things she has left are her puppets and the island cottage her dying mother insisted hides some kind of “legacy” that will solve all her problems.

And if the island is the last place Annie wants to be, Theo Harp is the last person she wants to meet. Theo, the psychopath who tortured her as a kid and got rich and famous writing about other psychopaths. He wants Annie gone, but his threats no longer intimidate her.

For one thing, Annie’s got bigger problems. Every day she goes without finding her mother’s “legacy” is another day wasted, but strange things keep happening. Someone cancels her grocery order while everyone else’s is delivered by boat as normal; the cabin is broken into; and worst of all, someone is messing with her puppets.

Are these just harmless pranks, or does someone want Annie dead?

Gloriously Gothic

Nothing soothes the savage soul like a modern Gothic romance novel. Susan Elizabeth Phillips’ book has it all: a plucky heroine, a brooding hero, a creepy old house, and secrets, plus general skullduggery and puppets (that last one’s why it’s “modern”).

Annie is independent and stubborn, so of course I liked her immediately. She spends most of her time alone, and has come to rely on the voices of her puppets to guide her. This brings up some interesting themes, and I love the way Phillips integrates these “characters” into the story.

Theo did something horrible to Annie years ago, and clearly the reader is supposed to distrust him as much as she does. But the deeper in trouble Annie gets, the more she finds herself relying on Theo. And he is a rather amazing male specimen. If she has to be trapped on a freezing cold island for two months, she might as well have a little fun.

The mystery is well done, although the ending (spoiler alert!) felt a little anticlimactic — which made me think of Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, itself a critique of the Gothic genre. There’s also some really harsh and beautiful moments in a subplot featuring a little girl who’s seen things no one should see.

Heroes Are My Weakness may have a whiff of Gothic about it, but at its core it’s a romance novel — a damn good one. It’s steamy without being smutty or (overly) cheesy, and is overall a well-written novel that kept me hooking (and smiling) to the last page.

Review: Color Blind

Color Blind, Colby MarshallDr. Jenna Ramey’s career as a forensic psychologist began in childhood, when she was the only one who recognized her mother as a sociopath. Jenna was a smart, observant child, but it was her synesthesia that propelled her to fame and saved her family’s life.

For Jenna, everything she experiences is associated with a color. It’s not always straightforward: red can mean anger, but it can also mean love or strength; one pastel blue shade means something different than another pastel blue shade. These color associations help her profile criminals and make connections that others can’t.

Her skills are put to the test when a recently-arrested mass shooter asks for her by name, and pulls her unwillingly into a dangerous game of his own devising. The shooter’s partner is still on the loose, and Jenna must find him before it’s too late. And the clock starts ticking faster when Jenna discovers that her mother may be the one behind it all.

Positively glorious

A book featuring two sociopaths and the world’s coolest obscure medical condition? Sign me up!

Color Blind was so much fun to read. The author drops you into a continuing story (there’s so many references to Jenna’s childhood and mother that I had to make sure I hadn’t picked up the second in a series) with many threads, doling out clues to crimes past and present like a twisted Hansel and Gretel.

The synesthesia integration was the main reason I had this book on my TBR, and I think it was an excellent choice. I first read about the condition in college, and I’m still fascinated by the causes and results of getting two senses (hearing and sight, smell and hearing) mixed up in the brain. What would it be like to “taste” words, or associate each letter and number with a color? Can a person with synesthesia use what some people would consider a party trick to see patterns that save time, money…even lives?

Colby Marshall’s novel is craftily written, and — my favorite — full of great and terrible characters that feel as real as you or me.

I didn’t love Jenna as much as I usually love strong female characters (like Thursday Next from Jasper Fforde’s novels), but I think it’s got more to do with the greatness of the novel’s other characters and aspects — Jenna’s a good character surrounded by so many other good things that there’s no more room at the top. I found myself rooting extra hard for Yancy, who is smart and loyal…and possible a future love interest? And of course Jenna’s mom is a raging sociopath, so scenes with her were both fun and terrifying.

I enjoyed Color Blind immensely, and am excited to get my hands on the sequel, Double Vision. The third in the series, Flash Point, releases in the US in October 2016.