The Very Secret Society of Irregular Witches

The Very Secret Society of Irregular WitchesThe Very Secret Society of Irregular Witches
by Sangu Mandanna
Rating: ★★★★
isbn: 9781399709866
Publication Date: August 30, 2022
Pages: 318
Genre: Fantasy, Fiction
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton

As one of the few witches in Britain, Mika Moon has lived her life by three rules: hide your magic, keep your head down, and stay away from other witches. An orphan raised by strangers from a young age, Mika is good at being alone, and she doesn't mind it . . . mostly.
But then an unexpected message arrives, begging her to travel to the remote and mysterious Nowhere House to teach three young witches, and Mika jumps at the chance for a different life.
Nowhere House is nothing like she expects, and she's quickly tangled up in the lives and secrets of its quirky, caring inhabitants . . . and Jamie, the handsome, prickly librarian who would do anything to protect his charges, and who sees Mika's arrival as a threat. An irritatingly appealing threat.

As Mika finds her feet, the thought of belonging somewhere starts to feel like a real possibility. But magic isn't the only danger in the world, and soon Mika will need to decide whether to risk everything to protect the found family she didn't know she was looking for . . .


This was just what I needed after a run of mediocre reads.  It’s cute, but not cutesy or twee – it definitely has a cozy vibe going on, as nothing about the story is dark.  There is a lot of dysfunction though, and a lot of magic, and at least 1 overly-precocious 8 year old who talks like a sassy and hilarious 30 year old.  I enjoyed the little twist at the end that I probably should have seen coming, but I was too relaxed in the story to pay all that much attention to care about what was coming next.

A well-written, fun read.

Clarke

ClarkeClarke
by Holly Throsby
Rating: ★★★½
isbn: 9781760878740
Publication Date: November 1, 2022
Pages: 406
Genre: Fiction, Mystery
Publisher: Allen & Unwin

On a hot morning in 1991 in the regional town of Clarke, Barney Clarke (no relation) is woken by the unexpected arrival of many policemen: they are going to search his backyard for the body of a missing woman.

Next door, Leonie Wallace and little Joe watch the police cars through their kitchen window. Leonie has been waiting six years for this day. She is certain that her friend Ginny Lawson is buried in that backyard.

But the fate of Ginny Lawson is not the only mystery in Clarke. Barney lives alone in a rented house with a ring on his finger, but where is Barney's wife? Leonie lives with four-year-old Joe, but where is Joe's mother?

Clarke is a story of family and violence, of identity and longing, of unlikely connections and the comedy of everyday life. At its centre stands Leonie Wallace, a travel agent who has never travelled, a warm woman full of love and hope and grief, who would do anything in the world for Joe.


This is Throsby’s third book, and, I think, the … not weakest, but least complicated, in terms of story.  It’s also probably the most accessible in terms of vernacular; a few things were purely Aussie, but understandable in context.  I didn’t need my handy-dandy MT-dictionary to decipher cultural references or some of the more obscure slang.

Unlike in the previous books, that where the stories were more centred on the community, Clarke focuses on two people, neighbours but strangers, both of whom are deeply damaged people after suffering significant tragedies.  When the police show up to Barney’s newly rented home with a warrant to search for the body of a missing woman who lived there 6 years previous, Barney is forced out of his shell, and he begins to interact with his neighbours Leonie.

Throsby weaves the memories of each of their tragedies throughout the narrative, so that the real stories behind each unfurl every so slowly, as the search for Ginny Lawson’s body continues on.  It’s a bit maddening, but worthwhile at the end as she brings everything together.  It’s not a story with a happy ending, but it at least ends on a hopeful note.  Throsby does something a little different, too, as she leaves the reader with more information than the characters have, and I think it works.

The tag line on the cover isn’t really good marketing; this really isn’t a mystery.  But it is a very good story, that just happens to center on the search for a body.

Cat Lady

Cat LadyCat Lady
by Dawn O'Porter
Rating: ★★½
isbn: 9780008385408
Publication Date: November 3, 2022
Pages: 342
Genre: Fiction
Publisher: HarperCollins

CAT LADY [n.]
Single, independent, crazy, aloof, on-the-shelf, lives alone . . .

It’s safer for Mia to play the part that people expect. She’s a good wife to her husband Tristan, a doting stepmother, she slips on her suit for work each morning like a new skin.

But beneath the surface, there’s another woman just clawing to get out . . .

When a shocking event shatters the conventional life she’s been so careful to build, Mia is faced with a choice. Does she live for a society that’s all too quick to judge, or does she live for herself?

And if that’s as an independent woman with a cat, then the world better get ready . . .


When am I going to learn about impulse buying?  Anyone who knows me knows why I grabbed this book – how could I possibly walk away from a book called the Cat Lady?

I should have.  I’m not a prude by any stretch of the imagination, but this was the most gratuitously vulgar book I’ve read in memory and I mean gratuitously, graphically vulgar in that way that British writers can excel at and make it sound like that’s just the way everybody talks.  I realise everybody grows more conservative as they age, but I’d have found this as over the top offensive 30 years ago as I do now.

I really wanted to DNF it after chapter 3, the first time the author wallows in the vulgarity, but I really hoped it was a one-off thing, the way so many author’s will have that one, obligatory explicit sex scene.  In the space between chapter 3 and the next spree of vulgarity there was a compelling and touching story, so I committed myself to the end.

If this book had been written without all the how-disgustingly-explicit-can-I-get; if the author had left all that crap out – this would have possibly been a 4.5, maybe even 5 star read.  One  that required a box of tissues by one’s side.  Because the parts in between are lovely, touching, and so often on-point about how much love and acceptance pets bring to our lives and how important they can become to us.

There’s a character in this book that’s described as a genuinely kind, loving, grieving man who hide his true self behind a wall of angry tattoos that cover his body.  This story is exactly that – a genuinely lovely story hidden behind an almost impenetrable wall of graphic vulgarity.

The Homewreckers

The HomewreckersThe Homewreckers
by Mary Kay Andrews
Rating: ★★★
isbn: 9781250278364
Publication Date: May 3, 2022
Pages: 440
Genre: Fiction
Publisher: St. Martin's Press

Hattie Kavanaugh went to work restoring homes for Kavanaugh & Son Restorations at eighteen, married the boss’s son at twenty, and became a widow at twenty-five. Now, she’s passionate about her work, but that’s the only passion in her life. “Never love something that can’t love you back,” is advice her father-in-law gives her, but Hattie doesn’t follow it and falls head-over-heels for a money pit of a house. She’s determined to make it work, but disaster after disaster occurs, and Hattie’s dream might cost Kavanaugh & Son their livelihood. Hattie needs money, and fast.

When a slick Hollywood producer shows up in her hometown of Savannah, Georgia, she gets a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity: star in a beach house renovation reality show called The Homewreckers, cast against a male lead who may be a love interest, or may be the ultimate antagonist. Soon, there’s more at stake than bad pipes and dry rot: during the demolition, evidence comes to light that points to the mysterious disappearance of a young wife and mother years before.

With a burned out detective investigating the case, an arsonist on the loose, two men playing with her emotions, and layers upon layers of vintage wallpaper causing havoc, it's a question of who will flip, who will flop, and if Hattie will ever get her happily-ever-after.


I know Mary Kay Andrews is hit and miss, and yet I still can’t resist grabbing her new releases – although I’ve gotten better about getting them from the library when I can.  This was, thankfully, a library loan, because it was a very average effort on Andrews’ part.

Overall, it was too long; at 440 pages it would probably would have held my attention better with 100 fewer pages.  There’s a cold case mystery involved that’s actually pretty good, except that the killer was transparent in spite of the myriad suspects and red herrings thrown in. View Spoiler »

There’s also a ‘romance’, which is what the book is mostly marketed for, and it’s terribly contrived and thrown together, with no chemistry, no tension and no build-up.  Almost all the romantic page time was wasted on what every reader knew was the red herring romance: the super gorgeous TV star that’s just pretending to fall for his newbie co-host to bolster buzz.  Andrews’ romances are always low-key, which is why I read them; they’re never front-and-center, but generally the outcome of the real story line, but this one was just flat, even for a low-key romance.

I enjoyed the details about Savannah, watching the house they were restoring come together, and as usual, Andrews’ writes likeable and realistic characters.  These highlights were enough to keep me reading, but overall it was a solidly average read and one I doubt I’d recommend when there are quite a few of her titles that are better reads.

Tales from Margaritaville

Tales from MargaritavilleTales from Margaritaville
by Jimmy Buffett
Rating: ★★★★★
Publication Date: June 11, 1989
Pages: 233
Publisher: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich

The singer/songwriter displays his gift for creating witty, laid-back Southern stories in a collection of bizarre tales and thoughtful essays


The cure for what ails a homesick Florida Cracker.  These stories age perfectly (especially since a lot of them take place in the 60’s anyway) and never seem to lose their charm.

My original review below, with any additional thoughts from this read in … green.


I bought a paperback copy of this book around the time it came out in the early 90’s. and I fell in love with the stories. I’ve been re-reading it over the years whenever I felt homesick or nostalgic, because truly these stories capture a flavour of the south, and Florida in particular, that is hard to find in the present day. Snake Bite Key (the setting for a lot of the stories, or the characters’ backgrounds) could just have easily been in South Florida in the 70’s as it is a fictional island in Alabama.  I’ll also add here that while the stories and the characters are fictional, the characters’ personalities exist in people all over the South, for good or ill.

I recently upgraded my poor old softcover copy to a lovely hardback I found when I was on vacation, and I just had to sit down and re-read it. Funny how certain things stick out once your perspective changes: I never paid much attention to Buffett’s references to Australia and Australian Aboriginal myths until I was living in Oz myself; suddenly these references have more relevance for me. But otherwise, the stories hold up – they aren’t all gems and I love some more than others.

My personal favourites – and they remain my favourites to this day:
Off to See the Lizard:  I hate American football, but you can’t grow up in the South without an intimate knowledge of just how much of a religion it is – especially high school and college football.  This story folds that fervour into an entertaining story about the ultimate David and Goliath match.
Boomerang Love – this is my all-time favourite of the stories in this book.:  This is still true, even though it’s a flat out romance.  But it’s not really the romance that pulls me in, but the main character’s return home in the face of a hurricane; take the romance out of the equation and there’s just so much in this story I identify with.  
The Swamp Creature Let One In:  Another one I shouldn’t care a fig about, because it’s about golf, but it’s just soooo good.  A snake-handling preacher turned swamp creature who curses the sixteenth hole.  It makes me smile all the way through, even though it’s ridiculous and outrageous.  It also reminds me of home (where we had our own swamp legends).

Good but not great:
Take Another Road:  Ok, this one gets better as I re-read it.  It’s still not my favourite, but there are parts that appeal to me more and more.  Tully’s luck as he travels from Montana down to Alabama is sadly unrealistic, but it’s nice to imagine that a string of good luck sometimes happens.
I Wish Lunch Could Last Forever:  This is actually a really good story, but it’s a melancholy story that has a perhaps realistic ending, but not a satisfying one.

Meh:
The Pascagoula Run:  Not as ‘meh’ or as tedious as I originally found it, but it’s definitely got a juvenile edge to it.  I remember days exactly like the one in this story, and how it felt to have to forge on the next day to face your commitments.  I remember thinking at the time it was all part of the wild ride of youth; now I just think about the mind numbing fatigue.

These are apparently semi-autobiographical:
You Can’t Take it With You: I wasn’t ever really sure there was much point to this one.  I still don’t.
Are You Ready for Freddy?: Tedious to the extreme. Freddy likes to hear his own voice.  Ok, this one didn’t strike me as tedious this time around.  Perhaps the difference this time is that since I read this last I’ve made the trip down the A1A/Overseas Highway to Key West, and a lot of the landmarks are still there, so I felt a more visceral connection to the trip Jimmy and Freddy make on their way to Key West.  Freddy’s stories still didn’t delight me, but I liked the rest better than I previously had.

Mostly auto-biographical:
Hooked in the Heart – this one couldn’t have been great – I can’t remember it!!  Now, this is wrong – I mean, I still can’t remember the story by looking at the title, but the story itself is memorable (an example, I think, of a bad title).  This is the story about Jimmy Buffett meeting the Cuban fisherman who inspired the ‘old man’ in Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea.  It’s a funny but touching story, and I thought Buffett wrote a compelling portrait of the man in just a few words.
Life in the Food Chain – Very good.  I’d probably downgrade this one to ‘good’.  It’s a laid back story about sailing – more an anecdote, really.
A Gift for the Buccaneer – I really liked this one.  I love this one – Savannah gets extra points for her reply; it elevates an interesting story into an entertaining one.
Sometimes I Feel Like a Rudderless Child – also thought this one was interesting, although it ended oddly.  I still think it ends a bit oddly, but this story – also a sailing one – is a notch above Life in the Food Chain.  It’s a complete story with drama and resolution, not merely an anecdote.

An oddball collection of stories, but most of them take me back home and leave me smiling when I’m finished; I’m not sure I can ask much more than that from Mr. Buffett.

The Most of Nora Ephron

The Most Of Nora EphronThe Most Of Nora Ephron
by Nora Ephron
Rating: ★★★½
isbn: 9781804991381
Publication Date: October 6, 2022
Pages: 452
Genre: Essays
Publisher: Penguin Books

A new, revised edition of the ultimate nora ephron collection, packed with wit, wisdom and comfort, with an introduction from candice Carty-Williams.

INCLUDING:
* Nora's much-loved essays on everything from friendship to feminism to journalism
* Extracts from her bestselling novel Heartburn
* Scenes from her hilarious screenplay for When Harry Met Sally
* Unparalleled advice about friends, lovers, divorces, desserts and black turtleneck sweaters


Not quite as good as I hoped it would be.  I’ve read Ephron before – Heartburn, and I Feel Badly About My Neck – and enjoyed her writing, finding her funny and astute. But this is a large collection of writing from all her different pursuits, and while I still found a lot of it funny and astute, I also found some of it un-relatable, whether because of differences in politics or faith (as in, her lack of it*, not her Jewish heritage); it just didn’t resonate with me.  Still, I enjoyed it more than I didn’t, and I admire anyone who has enough courage in their convictions that they can publicly, and without apology, admit that they’ve changed their mind – as Ephron did in a couple of her essays in regard to her lost admiration for the Clintons.  In fact, I admire her for a lot more than that, so even if I didn’t find this collection to be the laugh-out-loud riot I’d hoped it would be, I still can say I got a lot out of the reading of it.

*Here’s the thing: everyone’s got the freedom to believe in something greater or not – that’s their prerogative and I respect it.  What irritates me beyond all redemption is when someone expresses their thoughts on the matter as fact.  Atheism is not a fact, it’s a belief, and when writing about it, it should be stated as the writer’s belief, not as a fact. (Religion is also a belief, not a fact, and when I write about my beliefs (which is rarely, because they’re personal), I write to reflect that they are my beliefs, not facts.)

A Stitch in Time

A Stitch in TimeA Stitch in Time
by Kelley Armstrong
Rating: ★★★
isbn: 9781989046210
Publication Date: March 1, 2021
Pages: 322
Genre: Fantasy, Fiction
Publisher: Self-published

Thorne Manor has always been haunted…and it has always haunted Bronwyn Dale. As a young girl, Bronwyn could pass through a time slip in her great-aunt’s house, where she visited William Thorne, a boy her own age, born two centuries earlier. After a family tragedy, the house was shuttered and Bronwyn was convinced that William existed only in her imagination.

Now, twenty years later Bronwyn inherits Thorne Manor. And when she returns, William is waiting.

William Thorne is no longer the boy she remembers. He’s a difficult and tempestuous man, his own life marred by tragedy and a scandal that had him retreating to self-imposed exile in his beloved moors. He’s also none too pleased with Bronwyn for abandoning him all those years ago.

As their friendship rekindles and sparks into something more, Bronwyn must also deal with ghosts in the present version of the house. Soon she realizes they are linked to William and the secret scandal that drove him back to Thorne Manor. To build a future, Bronwyn must confront the past.


Tannat recently read this, and it has ghosts – and most importantly, cats, that feature prominently enough in the story line to make the story qualify for the Black Cat square in Bingo, so I snagged an ebook copy from my library.

It’s an easy read, well written, and totally not my jam.  Ghosts or no ghosts (and there are ghosts) this is a straight up romance, with really nothing else to interfere with that romance – even the Victorian age murders didn’t detract from, or distract me from, all the love and devotion.  The cats, ember and Pandora, were the stars of the show though.  That they were calicos just made it even better.

While I found the story to be ‘meh’ – that’s a personal taste; to my friends that enjoy the romance genre, this is a story that might be worth checking out.

As I mentioned at the start, I needed a book for my Black Cat square for Halloween Bingo 2022, and this fits the bill perfectly, so thanks go to Tannat for saving me a lot of angst and a wild card.  🙂

A Spear Of Summer Grass

A Spear Of Summer GrassA Spear Of Summer Grass
by Deanna Raybourn
Rating: ★★★½
isbn: 9780778314394
Publication Date: May 1, 2013
Pages: 373
Genre: Fiction, Historical
Publisher: Harlequin

Paris, 1923

The daughter of a scandalous mother, Delilah Drummond is already notorious, even amongst Paris society. But her latest scandal is big enough to make even her oft-married mother blanch. Delilah is exiled to Kenya and her favorite stepfather’s savannah manor house until gossip subsides.

Fairlight is the crumbling, sun-bleached skeleton of a faded African dream, a world where dissolute expats are bolstered by gin and jazz records, cigarettes and safaris. As mistress of this wasted estate, Delilah falls into the decadent pleasures of society.

Against the frivolity of her peers, Ryder White stands in sharp contrast. As foreign to Delilah as Africa, Ryder becomes her guide to the complex beauty of this unknown world. Giraffes, buffalo, lions and elephants roam the shores of Lake Wanyama amid swirls of red dust. Here, life is lush and teeming—yet fleeting and often cheap.

Amidst the wonders—and dangers—of Africa, Delilah awakes to a land out of all proportion: extremes of heat, darkness, beauty and joy that cut to her very heart. Only when this sacred place is profaned by bloodshed does Delilah discover what is truly worth fighting for—and what she can no longer live without.

Don’t believe the stories you have heard about me.

I have never killed anyone, and I have never stolen another woman’s husband. Oh, if I find one lying around unattended, I might climb on, but I never took one that didn’t want taking.

And I never meant to go to Africa.


So many random thoughts; I picked this up at the library purely on the strength of Deanna Raybourn and my enjoyment of her other novels.  I knew it wasn’t a mystery, but I grabbed it anyway because it was set in Africa, and I really enjoy Raybourn’s writing; the dry wit, the sass.

The only thing this novel had in common with her Julia Grey / Veronica Speedwell novels is the male love interest; it’s safe to say Raybourn has a type, and she sticks with it.  Brisbane, Stoker and Ryder could all be the same character with different hair styles.  As for the rest of the story, it’s utterly different from anything else of hers I’ve read.

A Spear Of Summer Grass starts off slowly – so very slowly – and its plot is tenuous, at best, for the first … 70% of the book?  For that first 2/3, it was a 3 star read and that was because Raybourn captured the romance of interwar Africa (Kenya, specifically) perfectly for a reader whose chance at experiencing it herself has been postponed.  The main character, Delilah, is not a typical Raybourn heroine.  She looks like it on the outside, as she does what she pleases and apologises to no one, but it’s not coming from a core of strength; Delilah’s core is pretty amoral when it comes to sex.  She’s Phryne Fisher without a purpose.  Eventually, the reader learns where this comes from, but Raybourn makes the reader work for it.

Round about that 70% mark it’s clear that this story comes closest to a coming of age story mixed with a romance, whose chemistry is also every bit like the chemistry between the characters in her other books.  There are also some developments that really work towards ratcheting up the pace – and the reader’s interest.  Some of the secondary bits and characters were clunky, but for that last third of the book, I was hooked; I was invested, and I was sorry to see it come to an end.

Would I recommend it?  I don’t know.  I’m glad I read it – it was beautifully written, well researched (even if some of her research came from funny sources), and ultimately it was a good story – but I think it’s one the reader has to be in the mood for more so than for most books.

 

I did NOT read this for Halloween Bingo, and it doesn’t fit any of the squares.

The Cartographers

The CartographersThe Cartographers
by Peng Shepherd
Rating: ★★★★
isbn: 9780062910691
Publication Date: March 15, 2022
Pages: 391
Genre: Fantasy, Fiction
Publisher: William Morrow

What is the purpose of a map?

Nell Young’s whole life and greatest passion is cartography. Her father, Dr. Daniel Young, is a legend in the field and Nell’s personal hero. But she hasn’t seen or spoken to him ever since he cruelly fired her and destroyed her reputation after an argument over an old, cheap gas station highway map.
But when Dr. Young is found dead in his office at the New York Public Library, with the very same seemingly worthless map hidden in his desk, Nell can’t resist investigating. To her surprise, she soon discovers that the map is incredibly valuable and exceedingly rare. In fact, she may now have the only copy left in existence...because a mysterious collector has been hunting down and destroying every last one—along with anyone who gets in the way.

But why?

To answer that question, Nell embarks on a dangerous journey to reveal a dark family secret and discovers the true power that lies in maps...


I need to get this part out of the way first:  this is a great story, well written, with great characters.  It started slow for me, but once the momentum kicked in, it didn’t let up.  I love how the author did multiple POVs without actually doing multiple POVs (well, there are two legitimate POVs, but the other’s were tucked seamlessly into the narrative).  The story is what I’d call a variation on the scavenger hunt theme, centering on a seemingly cheap, pedestrian road map that’s really one-of-a-kind, and how it tore a group of friends that were as close as family apart, with a side helping of how obsessive love can corrupt.  My biggest gripe is that, while the ending is hopeful and happy, it wasn’t really an ending to my mind; I wanted at least a little bit more explanation.

But beyond all of that, and I know this makes me a massive nerd, what I loved most was what was in the author’s note at the beginning, coupled with what was in the acknowledgments at the end.  The story that emerges in these two is, to me, even better than the fictional story between, and no, I’m not sharing it; it would put a dent in the plot of the story, and might sap the joy of discovery from some other nerd out there that might find it as delightful as I do.

I read this for Halloween Bingo 2022, for the Relics and Curiosities square.  I’m pretty sure it also fits Splatter, because a serial killer is involved.

The Hunt for Red October (Jack Ryan, #4)

The Hunt for Red OctoberThe Hunt for Red October
by Tom Clancy
Rating: ★★★★★
isbn: 0870212850
Series: Jack Ryan #4
Publication Date: October 1, 1984
Pages: 387
Genre: Political Fiction, Thriller
Publisher: Naval Institute Press

I haven’t read this since soon after it came out in the late 80’s, although I’ve seen the movies numerous times over the years.  It’s every bit as good as I remember – even better, really, because this time around I didn’t have any trouble keeping track of the boats and the subs.  True, bits of it are dated (the average American salary being 20k a year, or even more startling, the superiority of the CRAY-2 supercomputer, which cost tens of millions of dollars, was available only at NASA and a few military centers, ,,,  and had the same computing power of the first iPad.), but overall the action is fast, the writing intelligent, and the suspense top notch.

Having gone so long between reads, and having seen the movie enough times in between, I had forgotten how much the movie deviates – especially at the end – from the book.  I’m generally pretty vitriolic about movie adaptations, especially when they significantly alter things, but full credit to the screenwriters; I don’t know that the book’s ending would have worked as well on-screen, but the spirit of the thing was caught perfectly.  Re-reading this ending was like experiencing it for the first time and it was tense.

I’m thankful to Peregrinations for getting me thinking about this book again.  I’m sort of tempted to re-read a few other Ryan books now.  Or, at least, after Halloween Bingo.

I read this for Halloween Bingo 2022, but I’m still not sure which square I want to use it for – either Fear the Drowning Deep, or Film at 11.  For now, I think I’ll assign it to Fear the Drowning Deep, since that square has already been called.