Halloween Carnival Volume 5 – Brian James Freeman (editor)

I’ve been dragging my feet on this anthology series for years now. I was so excited to sink my teeth into some Halloween scares but they consistently disappointed me so I gave up. Now it’s Halloween month again and with one volume to go, I decided to dive back in and hope for the best.

Devil’s Night by Richard Chizmar – 🎃🎃🎃🎃

The newspapers reported the story of what happened that night but that’s not the whole story.

Halloween may be a night for make-believe ghosts and goblins, but you’d better be sure to turn on all the lights and lock your doors on Devil’s Night. Because that’s when the real monsters lurk …

The Last Dare by Lisa Tuttle – 🎃🎃🎃

The tower house is still there, all these years later. Going inside was the last dare between childhood best friends.

“Tell us the story about the tower house”

The Halloween Bleed by Norman Prentiss – 🎃🎃🎃

An interview with a difference.

“What if Halloween … bleeds into other days? It doesn’t matter when the story is written, or when you read it. What matters is that it has an effect on you. It casts its spell.”

Swing by Kevin Quigley – 🎃🎃🎃

Death follows love. Every time.

Most thought she was dancing because she was free, but I knew the real Jessica. She danced because she was trapped.

Pork Pie Hat by Peter Straub – 🎃🎃🎃

Hat, a story from his childhood and all that jazz.

“Most people will tell you growing up means you stop believing in Halloween things – I’m telling you the reverse. You start to grow up when you understand that the stuff that scares you is part of the air you breathe.”

While the stories included in this anthology were okay, I didn’t get the Halloween horror vibe I was looking for. I didn’t find any of the stories scary at all. I’m glad I finally made it through to the end of this series and there were some decent stories along the way, but overall I remain disappointed.

Content warnings include death by suicide.

Thank you so much to NetGalley and Hydra, an imprint of Random House Publishing Group, for the opportunity to read this anthology.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

Richard Chizmar, Lisa Tuttle, Norman Prentiss, Kevin Quigley, and Peter Straub unmask monsters hiding in plain sight in an anthology of heart-pounding short fiction assembled by horror author and editor Brian James Freeman.

DEVIL’S NIGHT by Richard Chizmar
You’ve read about what happened that night. What you don’t know is the true extent of the damage. The papers got it wrong – and the truth is so much worse than you thought.

THE LAST DARE by Lisa Tuttle
Elaine hasn’t been back to her hometown in years. The house she lived in is gone. The tower house isn’t – nor are the stories of the fate that befalls whoever dares to go there.

THE HALLOWEEN BLEED by Norman Prentiss
People think there’s some sort of mystical power that allows enchantments and witchcraft to come to life on Halloween night. But real magic obeys no calendar – and true evil strikes whenever it’s least expected.

SWING by Kevin Quigley
In Hollywood, everyone lives forever. At least that’s what I used to think … before Jessica. But no one seems to live long when they’re around me.

PORK PIE HAT by Peter Straub
When it comes to jazz, there are players, and there are legends. “Hat” was a legend. His real name didn’t even matter. Still, he had his secrets – secrets best left buried in the past. 

Mercy House – Alena Dillon

Spoilers Ahead! (marked in purple)

“Two eighty-four Chauncey Street. It’s the one with the angel doorknocker. Arrive any time. Day or night. You can be safe.”

Sisters Evelyn, Josephine and Maria have run Mercy House for twenty five years, providing a safe place for women who are escaping violence. Although they are undoubtably effective in their mission, they don’t always play by the strict rules of the Catholic Church.

“It’s what we’ve feared,” Josephine said. “It’s him.”

Bishop Hawkins is coming to visit Mercy House. His visit is part of the ‘nun-quisition’, which puts the actions of nuns under the microscope because of their “secular mentality” and “feminist spirit”. (Never mind that the same church actively moves priests between parishes and pays hush money to sweep much greater offences under the rug.) Besides the fear that the methods they employ in their ministry won’t stand up to close scrutiny, Evelyn has her own personal reasons for never wanting to see this ‘man of God’ again.

When you think of nuns, Evelyn is probably not who you have in mind. She loves what she does but still grumbles at getting woken up in the middle of the night when it’s her turn to answer the door. Her beliefs aren’t as strictly tied to her faith as you’d expect and if there’s a loophole that will produce better results, you can be sure she’ll find it.

Actually, none of the Sisters who run Mercy House line up with stereotypical nuns. Would you ever expect nuns to have a conversation like this?

“Crap baskets,” Maria said.

“Yeah. Major crap baskets,” Evelyn agreed.

Love it!

As much as I loved the three Sisters, I hated Hawkins and spent much of the book overcome by a seething fury, imagining all of the ways that I wanted to see him suffer. You don’t want to just angry your way through a book though. Fortunately there were some amazing women who balanced out my rage with wonder at their courage and resilience. These women are dealing with shame and secrets, and trying their best to survive their past.

While I liked each of the residents of Mercy House, it was Desiree who stood out, and for good reason. Desiree has this in your face brashness. She acts tough but she’s vulnerable as well, although she definitely doesn’t want you to acknowledge that part of her. She speaks her mind and oftentimes says what everyone else is thinking. You’d want to be her friend but she’d make a fierce enemy so don’t get on the wrong side of her. She was responsible for most of my smiles while I was reading.

“This is sweet and all, but we were promised we’d get pizza if we came to church. So …”

The women of Mercy House have been through some really difficult life experiences, none of which are glossed over. Please be safe while reading, especially if you are likely to be triggered by any of the content.

Although it made the narrative neater, it seemed unlikely to me that during the course of the book, no new residents came seeking refuge at Mercy House after we met Lucia.

I don’t know if publishers don’t know about readers like myself but whenever there’s a website included in a book I’m going to look it up. There’s a website in this book, SaveMercyHouse.com, that doesn’t exist. Given the book’s themes, I would have loved to have seen a page that represented what was mentioned in the book, along with details of relevant helplines and organisations that readers could donate to.

I think I understand why the author left the story where they do. Although there are many characters who make their mark on the lives and/or hearts of the nuns who run Mercy House, this story really is Evelyn’s. Her story ends with possibilities for the future but overall the book didn’t give me the answers I hoped for.

😇 Did Mercy House stay open?

😇 Was Evelyn ever called Sister again?

😇 What happened between Evelyn and Eloise?

😇 Were there any consequences for the bishop?

😇 Were there any consequences for John?

😇 What happened to the five Mercy House residents we got to know?

What wonders can be built from broken stuff.

Content warnings include abortion, addiction, domestic violence, gun violence, homophobia, racism, self harm and sexual assault.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

In the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn stands a century-old row house presided over by renegade, silver-haired Sister Evelyn. Gruff and indomitable on the surface, warm and wry underneath, Evelyn and her fellow sisters makes Mercy House a safe haven for the abused and abandoned. 

Women like Lucia, who arrives in the dead of night; Mei-Li, the Chinese and Russian house veteran; Desiree, a loud and proud prostitute; Esther, a Haitian immigrant and aspiring collegiate; and Katrina, knitter of lumpy scarves … all of them know what it’s like to be broken by men.

Little daunts Evelyn, until she receives word that Bishop Robert Hawkins is coming to investigate Mercy House and the nuns, whose secret efforts to help the women in ways forbidden by the Church may be uncovered. But Evelyn has secrets too, dark enough to threaten everything she has built.

Evelyn will do anything to protect Mercy House and the vibrant, diverse women it serves – confront gang members, challenge her beliefs, even face her past. As she fights to defend all that she loves, she discovers the extraordinary power of mercy and the grace it grants, not just to those who receive it, but to those strong enough to bestow it.

How To Be Ace: A Memoir of Growing Up Asexual – Rebecca Burgess

When Rebecca was growing up they weren’t interested in talking about relationships and sex like the rest of their classmates. They didn’t understand why sex was such a big deal but assumed they’d “grow into” it when they got older.

They tried to have relationships but it just didn’t feel right. They thought that something must be wrong with them.

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It wasn’t until they were at university that they began to accept that being different was okay and that they didn’t have to pretend to be like everyone else.

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Rebecca’s story takes the reader from the bullying they experienced in childhood through to managing their mental health. Information about asexuality is scattered through the graphic novel, with insights into what relationships can look like for people who identify as asexual.

There was a greater focus on mental health than I had expected. I didn’t personally learn anything new about asexuality from the panels that provide information but they do give readers a good introduction. I anticipate that being able to follow Rebecca’s journey from struggling with their sexuality to their eventual acceptance of who they are will be helpful for readers who can relate to her experiences and provide new understanding for those who don’t understand asexuality.

There are resources at the end of Rebecca’s story. Because asexuality is so misunderstood I’m including them here so you can check them out for yourself.

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Content warnings include anxiety, bullying, emetophobia, OCD and mention of sexual assault.

Thank you so much to NetGalley and Jessica Kingsley Publishers for the opportunity to read this graphic novel.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

“When I was in school, everyone got to a certain age where they became interested in talking about only one thing: boys, girls and sex. Me though? I was only interested in comics.”

Growing up, Rebecca assumes sex is just a scary new thing they will ‘grow into’ as they gets older, but when they leaves school, starts working, and does grow up, they starts to wonder why they doesn’t want to have sex with other people.

In this brave, hilarious and empowering graphic memoir, we follow Rebecca as they navigate a culture obsessed with sex – from being bullied at school and trying to fit in with friends, to forcing themself into relationships and experiencing anxiety and OCD – before coming to understand and embrace their asexual identity.

Giving unparalleled insight into asexuality and asexual relationships, How To Be Ace shows the importance of learning to be happy and proud of who you are.

Dark Screams Volume Seven – Brian James Freeman & Richard Chizmar (editors)

I was disillusioned by some horror anthologies last year but October is calling to me, so here I am again. I’m not sure what it is about horror short stories but I don’t find them scary and would rarely even classify their content as horror. While all of these stories are okay, I didn’t find any scares amongst them.

My favourite was James Renner’s A Monster Comes to Ashdown Forest (In Which Christopher Robin Says Goodbye).

Lizardman by Robert McCammon – 🎃🎃🎃

The lizardman has been searching for Old Pope for a long time. Tonight he will find him.

Oh, yeah, the swamp had teeth. Eat you up, bury you under. That was how it was.

A Monster Comes to Ashdown Forest (In Which Christopher Robin Says Goodbye) by James Renner – 🎃🎃🎃🎃

You’ll never see Winnie-the-Pooh the same again.

“Sometimes the bad things take up the most room in your heart. Don’t they?”

Furtherest by Kaaron Warren – 🎃🎃🎃

Those boys died in the dunes but there’s more to the story.

“So don’t go into the dunes, kids. You never know who’s lurking in there.”

West of Matamoros, North of Hell by Brian Hodge – 🎃🎃🎃

This is the photoshoot from hell.

“Everybody’s got a plan until the knives come out.”

The Expedition by Bill Schweigart – 🎃🎃🎃

Nazis vs. the wolf.

Had they known then of the chest and the doom that awaited them all, Bruner would have chosen prison.

Snow Shadows by Mick Garris – 🎃🎃🎃

A man and boy are haunted by the death of a woman.

“Did you love her?”

Content warnings include death by suicide.

Thank you to NetGalley and Hydra, an imprint of Random House Publishing Group, for the opportunity to read this book.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

Robert McCammon, James Renner, Kaaron Warren, Brian Hodge, Bill Schweigart, and Mick Garris reveal sinister secrets and unsavoury pasts in a haunting anthology of short stories collected by acclaimed horror editors Brian James Freeman and Richard Chizmar.

LIZARDMAN by Robert McCammon
The lizardman thinks he knows about all the mysterious dangers of the Florida swamps, but there are things lurking in the bayou that are older and deadlier than his wildest dreams.

A MONSTER COMES TO ASHDOWN FOREST (IN WHICH CHRISTOPHER ROBIN SAYS GOODBYE) by James Renner
Although every child dreams of visiting Hundred Acre Wood, only one has ever actually frolicked in that fabled forest – and survived.

FURTHEREST by Kaaron Warren
She’s been going to the beach since she was a child, daring the other kids to go out past the dunes where those boys died all those years ago. Now she realises that the farther out you go, the harder it is to come back.

WEST OF MATAMOROS, NORTH OF HELL by Brian Hodge
After the success of their latest album, Sebastián, Sofia, and Enrique head to Mexico for a shoot under the statue of Santa Muerte. But they have fans south of the border who’d kill to know where they get their inspiration.

THE EXPEDITION by Bill Schweigart
On a quest to bring glory to the Führer, Lieutenant Dietrich Drexler leads his team into the ruins of the Carpathian Mountains. But the wolf that’s stalking them is no ordinary predator.

SNOW SHADOWS by Mick Garris
A schoolteacher’s impulsive tryst with a colleague becomes a haunting lesson in tragedy and terror when he’s targeted for revenge by an unlikely, unhinged rival.

The Perfect World of Miwako Sumida – Clarissa Goenawan

Spoilers Ahead! (in the content warnings)

She’d said she wanted to tell me something. Maybe I could find out what, if I traced her path somehow.

Miwako Sumida was only 20 when she died. Her story is told by three people who each knew part of it. Ryusei was the man who loved Miwako. Chie, who began her life as a “transparent girl”, was Miwako’s best friend. Fumi, Ryusei’s sister, was Miwako’s employer. I want to tell you all about them but can’t, because spoilers.

I really liked Miwako. She was blunt. She could be stand-offish. If you wanted to know her at all, you had to work for it. But she was worth the effort.

“You know, she just made everything better. More intense. More colorful. When I looked at her, I used to think, ‘Hey, maybe the world isn’t such a bad place.’”

Her kindred spirit potential was evident to me early on, right about the time she bailed on karaoke with her friends to go to a bookstore. However, even though I saw her through the eyes of three people who knew her best, I still didn’t truly feel like I knew Miwako and I loved that about her.

Miwako was quite deliberately unknowable and although this would usually frustrate me, it somehow endeared her to me even more. It wasn’t until after her death that the secrets she was carrying were revealed and even then, it wasn’t an easy reveal. There was work involved.

I was sad that Miwako’s secrets weighed so heavily on her and that she never sought the support she deserved. Even though I knew from the blurb that she died by suicide I kept wanting her to reach out to one of the people who loved her, to trust them enough with the parts of herself that filled her with shame.

Miwako was not the only one keeping secrets. Ryusei, Chie and Fumi’s stories each highlighted, through their own stories or their memories of Miwako, the pain we feel when we keep parts of ourselves hidden and how secrets can change the course of our lives.

Given the difficult content that’s explored in this book I was surprised that I felt almost meditative while I was reading it. There’s something that I haven’t identified yet about the way it was written that made it feel like the words were washing over me.

It was really easy for me to get into. I found myself dreading the introduction of a new voice each time a new part began because I wasn’t ready to say goodbye to the one I’d been spending time with. Each time, though, the new voice would suck me in and I’d be wanting to learn more of their story.

I was keen to spend more time with Ryusei in the months between his part of the story ending and the next time I saw him. I need to know how he spent his days and how he managed his grief over time, and his story is unfinished in my mind because I don’t have those details.

I really liked Chie and enjoyed getting to know different aspects of Miwako through their shared experience. Overall, though, it seemed to me that Chie’s main role in this story was to provide information to Ryusei and I don’t think she will stay with me. In contrast, I expect Ryusei and Fumi’s stories to linger with me.

Although I’m still having trouble deciding between Miwako and Fumi, I’m almost positive Fumi is my favourite character. And I can’t tell you why, because spoilers. Again!

The final revelation about Miwako’s life read a bit like an info dump to me and I wasn’t entirely sold on all of the details, but in the end it didn’t matter. I loved this book, so much so that I bought my copy of the author’s debut, Rainbirds, before I’d even read a quarter of this one.

But when it came to Miwako Sumida, nothing was as I expected.

Content warnings include abortion, bullying, death by suicide and sexual assault.

Thank you so much to Scribe Publications for the opportunity to read this book.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

A bewitching novel set in contemporary Japan about the mysterious suicide of a young woman.

Miwako Sumida is dead.

Now those closest to her try to piece together the fragments of her life. Ryusei, who has always loved her, follows Miwako’s trail to a remote Japanese village. Chie, Miwako’s best friend, was the only person to know her true identity – but is now the time to reveal it? Meanwhile, Fumi, Ryusei’s sister, is harbouring her own haunting secret.

Together, they realise that the young woman they thought they knew had more going on behind her seemingly perfect façade than they could ever have dreamed. 

Liar Liar – Laurie Katz

Before I say anything else, I want to make a few things clear. I believe Laurie. What she experienced – being sexually assaulted, the perpetrator’s subsequent behaviour, the harmful responses she received from friends and university staff members – was horrific and she is not to blame for any of it. She deserved to be believed and supported while she was at college and she deserves those same things now.

What Laurie has accomplished here is remarkable. Writing about the events of your life is a difficult task under the best of circumstances. Needing to write accounts of my own experiences of sexual assault for non-public reasons has given me a general idea of just how daunting and painful a process this can be. I can’t even begin to imagine the vulnerability people must feel sharing this publicly and I commend Laurie for the courage and resilience this finished book represents.

Laurie was raped on the third Saturday of her freshman year of college. She was not only discouraged from reporting this to the police by university staff members but was also denied justice through the university’s own reporting process. Worse still, she was formally accused of lying by the university.

After essentially trying to cope with this trauma by herself, managing the best she could by overachieving and self-medicating, Laurie eventually found the support she deserved from the very beginning.

Given the subject matter, this was always going to be a difficult read, even though the book itself is quite short. If you find descriptions of sexual assault triggering, please be safe while reading this book. I had psyched myself up for the details I knew would be coming but was surprised by a few additional descriptions that I didn’t have time to prepare for. In particular, I thought the book was winding up so I let my guard down, then got hit by a major new revelation in the final chapter.

The next part of this review is difficult for me to write. I don’t feel like I have the right to judge anyone’s experiences or the choices they make so this isn’t that. However, I’m also uneasy critiquing the way anyone writes about their experiences, and that’s what this feels like.

Having said that, at times Laurie’s story came across as quite disjointed and could have benefited from some further editing. I recognise that traumatic memories are not formed in the nice, neat, linear way that non-traumatic memories are. Sometimes memories are only retained in flashes. They’re not necessarily remembered in the right order. There may be aspects of a sexual assault a victim never remembers.

All of this makes it harder to form a step by step narrative in our own heads, let alone when we try to make sense of it with others. I asked myself if I needed to take that into consideration as I was reading this book. I’d wonder about things, like where Sarah was or why no one accompanied Laurie to court, only to find out the answers in later chapters. The narrative jumped back and forth in time, making it more difficult to get a clear idea of the order of events.

The publisher says this book is part of a series that “tells the stories of the people who have battled and beaten mental health issues.” Although this should be obvious I feel I need to point out that sexual assault is not a mental health issue. Granted, it can result in a wide variety of trauma impacts, some of which include depression, anxiety and PTSD, but in and of itself it is not a mental health issue.

Content warnings include bullying, eating disorders, mental health, self harm, sexual assault and suicidal ideation.

Thank you so much to NetGalley and Trigger Publishing for the opportunity to read this book.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

Like any student about to start university, Laurie Katz was excited to see what the year would bring. Little did she know that just three weeks into her first term, her life would come crashing down around her. What had started as a fun night out with friends ended with Laurie, alone with a terrible secret: she had been raped.

Traumatised and confused, she set out to get justice against her attacker. But when the authorities at her university dismissed her case, and warned her that she could be expelled, she was left unsure where to turn. It seemed as though things couldn’t get worse, then her attacker filed his own case.

Laurie’s story is a brave and honest reminder of the injustice still felt in society around sexual abuse. Laurie offers readers her advice, and provides them with the hope that they too can overcome a similar trauma.

The Once and Future Witches – Alix E. Harrow

Spoilers Ahead! (in the content warnings)

Once there were three sisters.

The Ten Thousand Doors of January was my favourite read of 2019 and The Once and Future Witches is my favourite read of 2020. I know there are still plenty of pages to fall in love with this year but trust me, friends, this is the one!

The wise one, the strong one and the wild one. There’s a bit of each of us in at least one of the Eastwood sisters; hopefully all three. This is a story of sisters and suffragists. Of fairytales and the power of words. Of survival and sacrifice. Of transforming the story you were given into a better one. Of “witchcraft most wicked”.

The wayward sisters, hand in hand,

Burned and bound, our stolen crown,

But what is lost, that can’t be found?

Sometimes you read a book that feels like it was written with you in mind. Sometimes characters will draw you into their world and you feel like they’re kin or, at the very least, kindred spirits. Sometimes a story speaks to your soul in such a way that when you lift your head after the final page you are certain you grew wings while you were reading. That’s just some of what this book was for me.

I want to ramble about characters, surprises and heartbreaks, love found and battles waged but, consistent with other books that have so deeply worked their magic on me, this review is more personal. Sorry if this isn’t the review you were looking for.

Don’t forget what you are.

As I read I felt my spine straightening. My will strengthened. My courage blazed. My heart opened, warming and knitting itself together, even as it broke. My tears threatened many times before the inevitable ugly cry (it was so ugly!). This was the perfect book for me at the perfect time.

I made a deal with myself weeks before I started reading. I had a really difficult task ahead of me and I wanted this book to be my reward for completing it. Not allowing myself to dive in before I won my battle was its own special brand of torture but knowing the witches were waiting for me spurred me on. Being able to finally immerse myself in the lives of Agnes, Bella and Juniper was worth the wait. And then some.

I now have a task equal, if not greater, to face than the one that preceded it but this book has fortified me and given me the courage I need to shine a light on the next shadow on my path.

Together they dared to dream of a better world, where women weren’t broken and sisters weren’t sundered and rage wasn’t swallowed, over and over again.

I can’t wait until someone I know has read this book so I can get all gushy about the specifics. Until that time, a warning: if you see me out in the wild, prepare yourself. Our interaction is likely to consist of me emphatically telling you to “Read this book!” as I shove it in your face. Protect your nose accordingly.

“Maleficae quondam, maleficaeque futurae.”

Content warnings include “Child abuse, both physical and psychological; parental death; arrest and imprisonment; mind control; pregnancy and childbirth, including forced hospitalization; racism; sexism; homophobia, both external and internalized; threat of sexual assault, averted; torture (mostly off-the-page, but alluded to); execution (attempted); child abandonment; major character death.” The author lists these on Goodreads. I’m adding to these the mention of abortion, on page death of an animal, physical abuse of an animal and sexual harassment.

Thank you so much to NetGalley and Orbit, an imprint of Little, Brown Book Group, for the opportunity to fall in love with this book early.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

In 1893, there’s no such thing as witches. There used to be, in the wild, dark days before the burnings began, but now witching is nothing but tidy charms and nursery rhymes. If the modern woman wants any measure of power, she must find it at the ballot box.

But when the Eastwood sisters – James Juniper, Agnes Amaranth, and Beatrice Belladonna – join the suffragists of New Salem, they begin to pursue the forgotten words and ways that might turn the women’s movement into the witch’s movement. Stalked by shadows and sickness, hunted by forces who will not suffer a witch to vote – and perhaps not even to live – the sisters will need to delve into the oldest magics, draw new alliances, and heal the bond between them if they want to survive.

There’s no such thing as witches. But there will be.

Manga Classics: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn – Mark Twain

Story Adapter – Crystal S. Chan

Illustrations – Kuma Chan

Lettering – Jeannie Lee

I absolutely loved the manga version of Anne of Green Gables so I was keen to explore some more Manga Classics. I read The Adventures of Tom Sawyer when I was a child but I never got around to reading about Huckleberry Finn. I thought this was a great opportunity to find out what I’d been missing. I expected I’d want to read the novel once I finished the manga version but it turns out I’m not a fan of this story.

In the introduction we are told that Twain’s “use of coarse vernacular and racial stereotypes in this novel was intended not to endorse but rather to ridicule the racism of his day.” Despite knowing this I still hated all of the racism in this story, especially the consistent use of racial slurs. Even if I could find a way to ignore the racism I still don’t think this would be the book for me. While adventures on rafts sounded interesting to me I found myself getting bored.

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But you know what? The revelation that this story is not for me has made me want to read more Manga Classics, not less. The manga version Anne’s story made me want to read Anne of Green Gables. I now know for sure I don’t want to read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. It turns out that manga is a great way to get a feel for a book.

Even though I didn’t like Huckleberry Finn’s story I really liked the artwork. The story was easy to follow and the illustrations helped bring the characters to life. There’s definitely going to be more manga in my life in the near future.

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Content warnings include alcoholism, physical abuse, racism and slavery.

Thank you to NetGalley and UDON Entertainment for the opportunity to read this book.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

Chafed by the – sivilized – restrictions of his foster home, and weary of his drunkard father’s brutality, 14 year-old Huck Finn fakes his own death and sets off on a raft down the Mississippi River. He is soon joined by Jim, an escaped slave. Together, they experience a series of rollicking adventures that have amused readers, young and old, for over a century. The fugitives become close friends as they weather storms together aboard the raft and spend idyllic days swimming, frying catfish suppers, and enjoying their independence. Their peaceful existence ends abruptly, however, with the appearance of the King and the Duke, an incorrigible pair of con artists who take over the raft. After many difficulties, Huck and Jim escape their tormentors, and with the help of an imaginative rescue by Huck’s old friend Tom Sawyer, Jim gains his freedom. Manga Classics breathes new life into this American Classic with a faithful adaptation of Mark Twain’s masterpiece.

Watch Over Me – Nina LaCour

“I hope you aren’t afraid of ghosts”

Mila has just aged out of foster care and been offered an internship teaching children. She will live and work with her employers, Terry and Julia, on a farm in the middle of nowhere.

Everything was beautiful and nothing was perfect, and I didn’t know how I could have been chosen to be there.

Mila is searching for a place to call home and desperately wants to keep the past in the past. No one told her about the ghosts, though.

I flew through this book. Granted, it was short but I don’t remember the last time I finished a novel in under a day. For months now my attention span has been appropriately equivalent to that of a fruit fly.

People need to know where they fit in in the world.

I didn’t have to work to get into Mila’s story and it was easy to lose myself in it. I loved imagining the flowers, the fog and the walk to the beach. For a while I wondered if the farm was going to turn out to be a cult because the atmosphere was so intoxicating; my wanting it to be a safe place warred with my suspicion that it was all too good to be true.

Because this book is so short there wasn’t a lot of time spent on developing the characters. I wanted to find out more about Terry and Julia’s backgrounds and I didn’t get much of a sense of Liz and Billy’s personalities. I found most of the children fairly interchangeable, although I adored Lee and would like to formally register my interest in adopting him.

I spent much of this book thinking about the hold memories can have over us and how daunting it can be to face our fears. Although Mila feels shame about the past, she is also resilient. The wounds of the past continue to haunt her but she is still able to care deeply about people. I always love found family stories and was keen for Mila to find the acceptance and sense of belonging she’s craved for so long.

I wish I could be one of you

Content warnings include mention of abandonment, drug addiction and gaslighting.

Thank you so much to NetGalley and Text Publishing for the opportunity to read this book.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

Mila is used to being alone. Maybe that’s why she said yes. Yes to a second chance in this remote place, among the flowers and the fog and the crash of waves far below. But she hadn’t known about the ghosts.

Newly graduated from high school, Mila has aged out of the foster-care system. So when she’s offered a job and a place to live on an isolated part of the Californian coast, she immediately accepts. Maybe she will finally find a new home – a real home. The farm is a refuge, but it’s also haunted by the past. And Mila’s own memories are starting to rise to the surface.

Magic Lessons – Alice Hoffman

Spoilers Ahead!

Do as you will, but harm no one.

What you give will be returned to you threefold.

Colour me bewitched! I say this with the utmost respect: with each Alice Hoffman book I read, I become more convinced that she is proficient in the Nameless Art.

If you’ve ever wondered how the Owens curse came to be, wonder no more. The answer lies in this book. The story of Maria Owens and her daughter, Faith, is one of love, revenge and the fear of powerful women.

Any story involving witchcraft in the 1600’s, especially one partially set in Salem, is bound to include all manner of horrors perpetrated against women. I prepared myself for the likelihood of witnessing immolations and drownings but I was still surprised at times by the darkness of some of the events that unfolded, particularly those involving the death of animals. I probably needed to brew myself a cup of Courage Tea before settling in.

It was a dangerous world for women, and more dangerous for a woman whose very bloodline would have her do not as she was ordered, but as she pleased.

There was so much to love about this book: the bond between mothers and daughters, the importance of keeping the door open to those in need, the power of words and finding the courage to be who you are. While I really liked Maria, it was Faith’s journey that really sucked me in.

A few times in the first quarter of the book I caught myself thinking that if something could be said in two sentences it was said in five, but over time I got used to the descriptions and backstories.

I was left with a few outstanding questions:

If a witch’s touch turns silver black, then why was the hairpin still silver when Maria first received it? Wouldn’t Rebecca’s touch have already turned it black?

How do Maria’s red boots still fit her as an adult? Is there a spell that allows clothing to grow with you?

What happened to Elizabeth?

Did Finney ever return to Penny Come Quick?

Reading this Owens origin story made me want to reread Practical Magic and finally read The Rules of Magic. Practical Magic and I have a long history. I fell in love with Alice Hoffman’s early books in the 90’s, so of course I found Practical Magic then. I also managed to wear out the movie on VHS before the DVD made its way into my life. I would still have that DVD, if not for a friend who ‘borrowed’ it and failed to return it. Never fear; I found the perfect incantation in my Grimoire so they aren’t likely to do it again. 😜

“You never told me what happens if someone falls in love with us.”

“We ruin their lives,” Maria told her daughter.

Content warnings include child abuse, deaths of animals, domestic violence and some marriages that creeped me out, where the man was in his 30’s or older and the girl was in her early teens.

Thank you so much to NetGalley and Simon & Schuster for the opportunity to read this book.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

It’s no secret that love has plagued the Owens family for centuries. But when did the curse begin, and why? It all began with Maria Owens, who arrived in America in 1680, with a baby in tow …

Born with pitch-black hair and pale green eyes, Maria was abandoned in the English countryside by her birth mother and raised by Hannah Owens who warned her, “Always love someone who will love you back.” She inherits Hannah’s Grimoire – a magical book of enchantments that include instructions to heal illnesses, ingredients for soaps that restore youth, and spells that make a person burn with love for another. When Hannah dies in an attack, Maria leaves for Curaçao, where she meets John Hathorne, a magistrate from Salem living freely for the first time in his life as he falls in love with Maria. But Hathorne soon abandons her, before Maria realises she’s pregnant. When she gives birth to a red-headed baby girl, Faith, who possesses immense magical talent, Maria embarks on a voyage to Salem to face her destiny, with or without magic.

But aboard the ship bringing her to America, fate intervenes and she meets a man who will change her life, if she’ll only let him. Her journey, laced with secrets and truths, devastation and joy, magic and curses, will show her that love is the only answer, always.