The Keepers of Metsan Valo

The Keepers of Metsan ValoThe Keepers of Metsan Valo
by Wendy Webb
Rating: ★★★½
isbn: 9781542021623
Publication Date: October 1, 2021
Pages: 299
Genre: Fiction
Publisher: Lake Union Publishing

In Metsan Valo, her family home on Lake Superior, Anni Halla’s beloved grandmother has died. Among her fond memories, what Anni remembers most vividly is her grandmother’s eerie yet enchanting storytelling. By firelight she spun tall tales of spirits in the nearby forest and waters who could heal or harm on a whim. But of course those were only stories…

The reading of the will now occasions a family reunion. Anni and her twin brother, their almost otherworldly mother, and relatives Anni hasn’t seen in forever some with good reason are all brought back together under one roof that strains to hold all their tension. But it’s not just Anni’s family who is unsettled. Whispers wind through the woods. Laughter bursts from bubbling streams. Raps from unseen hands rupture on the walls. Fireflies swarm and nightmares stir. With each odd occurrence, Anni fears that her return has invited less a welcoming and more a warning.

When another tragedy strikes near home, Anni must dive headfirst into the mysterious happenings to discover the truth about her home, her family, and the wooded island’s ancient lore. Plunging into the past may be the only way to save her family from whatever bedevils Metsan Valo.


Wendy Webb is an author that shows up as similar/recommended for those that enjoy the ghost stories of Simone St. James, so when MT was headed to the library, I had him pick up the only title of hers currently available.  It was a quick read, done in a day, and it kept my attention with interesting main characters and rich atmosphere, but I have a couple of thoughts about the Simone St. James comparison.

Reading the acknowledgments at the end, the author states that this book came about much different from her others, that rather than starting with a particular house, The Keepers of Metsan Valo started from a desire to write about her Finnish mythological roots.  So that may, perhaps, explain why this is not a ghost story, or anything like Simone St. James.  This book is best described as Magical Realism, and its more apt comparative author would be Sarah Addison Allen, or maybe at a stretch, an edgy Heather Webber.

If I’d gone into this book with that expectation, I’d probably have enjoyed it more – it’s not a bad book, and I liked her writing enough that I’d probably read another.  The thing is, it appears that all the books she writes are the standalone type with overlapping characters.  I realised this midway through the book when one of the characters describes the synopsis of another of Webb’s titles that I recognised from prior research.  Unfortunately, the characters precedes to spoil that particular book’s plot.  The mc of this book also spoils the plot of another of Webb’s books, although not quite to the same degree, I suspect.  So if you want to try this author be aware that if you don’t start with the first of her books you may get more information about prior plots than you’d prefer.  The good news is that the town of Wharton is delightful, so reading more books set there might be enough to soften prior knowledge.

There were moments where the author got overly sentimental, and the characters all got a fairy tale happy ending which, for me, blunted my enjoyment of the book.  I like a HEA, but I prefer a realistic one, and this one was not realistic, and I’m not talking about the mystical elements.  This family came together with a lot of tension and they went away all happy-happy-joy-love with absolutely no effort in between.  It was all way too neat and pat.  Putting that aside though, there was enough to like that, as I said earlier, I’d read one more.

Midnight at the Blackbird Café (Re-read)

Midnight at the Blackbird CaféMidnight at the Blackbird Café
by Heather Webber
Rating: ★★★★
isbn: 9781250198594
Publication Date: July 16, 2019
Pages: 336
Genre: Magical Realism
Publisher: Forge

Nestled in the mountain shadows of Alabama lies the little town of Wicklow. It is here that Anna Kate has returned to bury her beloved Granny Zee, owner of the Blackbird Café.

It was supposed to be a quick trip to close the café and settle her grandmother’s estate, but despite her best intentions to avoid forming ties or even getting to know her father’s side of the family, Anna Kate finds herself inexplicably drawn to the quirky Southern town her mother ran away from so many years ago, and the mysterious blackbird pie everybody can’t stop talking about.

As the truth about her past slowly becomes clear, Anna Kate will need to decide if this lone blackbird will finally be able to take her broken wings and fly.


I’ve been struggling all week with the logic failure of a local government that builds a heated, indoor pool billed as a rehabilitation pool, then not only opens it up to children, but books it just about rock-solid with swimming lessons, leaving the oldies and the injured cowering in corners of the pool while parents let their young ones run amok like it’s a water park, not a rehabilitation pool.

All that to say I needed a comfort read this weekend.  The kind of comfort only magical realism can provide at the moment.  Midnight at the Blackbird Café was sitting on my shelf, and brought to mind by my recent read of Webber’s newest magical realism book, The Lights of Sugarberry Cove.  I read Midnight when it first came out in 2019, and I’d forgotten enough that it was time to re-visit it.

In my original review, my biggest issue was that “The power of love is a wonderful thing indeed, but my nature is not one that is comfortable with being immersed in heart tugging storylines.”  This time around, that wasn’t so much an issue; either I was prepared for it, or I’ve read enough contemporary/MR since that I’m more accustomed to it.

What I did notice this time around, following as it did on the heels of The Lights of Sugarberry Cove, was the pacing.  This one started off much more slowly for me.  In fact it dragged for the first few chapters, until the two main characters started interacting with each other.  Once we’re there, the story finds its groove and it hummed along nicely for me.

I probably should have knocked the rating down to 3.5 stars because of the two, I like The Lights of Sugarberry Cove better, and because there’s no way any reader doesn’t know how this story ends.  But it’s meant to be a feel-good novel, and a comfort read.  I was comforted and felt better after reading it, so I’ll keep it at 4 stars.

The Lights of Sugarberry Cove

The Lights of Sugarberry CoveThe Lights of Sugarberry Cove
by Heather Webber
Rating: ★★★★
isbn: 9781250774620
Publication Date: October 26, 2021
Pages: 263
Genre: Magical Realism
Publisher: Forge

Sadie Way Scott has been avoiding her family and hometown of Sugarberry Cove, Alabama, since she nearly drowned in the lake just outside her mother’s B&B. Eight years later, Sadie is the host of a much-loved show about southern cooking and family, but despite her success, she wonders why she was saved. What is she supposed to do?

Sadie’s sister, Leala Clare, is still haunted by the guilt she feels over the night her sister almost died. Now, at a crossroads in her marriage, Leala has everything she ever thought she wanted—so why is she so unhappy?

When their mother suffers a minor heart attack just before Sugarberry Cove’s famous water lantern festival, the two sisters come home to run the inn while she recovers. It’s the last place either of them wants to be, but with a little help from the inn’s quirky guests, the sisters may come to terms with their strained relationships, accept the past, and rediscover a little lake magic.


This is a gentler, sweeter, more idealised version of Sarah Addison Allen’s brand of magical realism.  Having read quite a bit of Webber’s other work, I was prepared for the almost-but-not-quite saccharine theme, but after the ‘meh’-ness of my previous two reads I was in danger of slumping, and was in the mood for some magical realism.  This fit the bill nicely and I found myself delightfully pulled into the story, something I needed.

The book bounced between the POVs of the two sisters and how they deal with coming together after 8 years to help their difficult mother after a minor heart attack.  Everybody’s carrying guilt over something and not telling anyone else about it.  And of course there’s a love interest left behind, and a marriage in jeopardy.  But while the tropes are all there, Webber avoided dealing with those tropes in a cliched fashion.  Nothing outrageous (beyond being magical realism, of course), but just subtle choices that made for an interestingly predictable story instead of a boringly predictable one.

It all comes together a little too neatly at the end, but the story redeemed itself for me with the twist in the last few pages.  Webber surprised me and delighted me with that twist, so it gets 4 stars in spite of the too tidy ending everybody gets.  It is a feel-good kind of novel, after all.

And now I suspect I’ll be re-visiting Sarah Addison Allen’s books.

The Sugar Queen

The Sugar QueenThe Sugar Queen
by Sarah Addison Allen
Rating: ★★★½
isbn: 9780553905243
Publication Date: May 20, 2008
Pages: 210
Genre: Magical Realism
Publisher: Penguin Books

Josey Cirrini is sure of three things: winter is her favorite season, she’s a sorry excuse for a Southern belle, and sweets are best eaten in the privacy of her closet. For while Josey has settled into an uneventful life in her mother’s house, her one consolation is the stockpile of sugary treats and paperback romances she escapes to each night. . . . Until she finds her closet harboring Della Lee Baker, a local waitress who is one part nemesis—and two parts fairy godmother.

With Della Lee’s tough love, Josey’s narrow existence quickly expands. She even bonds with Chloe Finley, a young woman who is hounded by books that inexplicably appear when she needs them—and who has a close connection to Josey’s longtime crush. Soon Josey is living in a world where the color red has startling powers, and passion can make eggs fry in their cartons. And that’s just for starters.


 

The last of Sarah Addison Allen’s books (to date) that I’ve read, it’s also the one I like the least.  Which is what I expected, and why I waited so long to read it in the first place.  Something about the whole secret addiction to sugar turns  me off, which is ironic, really, since I used to go to great lengths as a child to sneak and hoard sweets.  But then again, I was a child, and Josey is an adult.

What I loved was Chloe’s ‘affliction’.  If one is going to be saddled with an affliction, having the books you need at that moment not just show up, but follow you around, seems like a pretty good one to be saddled with.  Embarrassing, maybe, but definitely one I could cope happily with.

There’s a plot twist involving Della Lee that was obvious to me from their first conversation.  It seemed so obvious to me that I was sure I was going to be proven wrong, so I guess that kept me reading.  I thought the entire story line with Julian superfluous and detracted from the story line, rather than added to it.

Overall, an easy read I was able to complete in a day, and perfect for what I needed it for that day.

Midnight at the Blackbird Cafe

Midnight at the Blackbird CaféMidnight at the Blackbird Café
by Heather Webber
Rating: ★★★★
isbn: 9781250198594
Publication Date: July 16, 2019
Pages: 336
Genre: Magical Realism
Publisher: Forge

Nestled in the mountain shadows of Alabama lies the little town of Wicklow. It is here that Anna Kate has returned to bury her beloved Granny Zee, owner of the Blackbird Café.

It was supposed to be a quick trip to close the café and settle her grandmother’s estate, but despite her best intentions to avoid forming ties or even getting to know her father’s side of the family, Anna Kate finds herself inexplicably drawn to the quirky Southern town her mother ran away from so many years ago, and the mysterious blackbird pie everybody can’t stop talking about.

As the truth about her past slowly becomes clear, Anna Kate will need to decide if this lone blackbird will finally be able to take her broken wings and fly.


I’ve always enjoyed Heather Webber’s cozy mysteries; they’re fun, well-written and usually have better-than-average plots.  So when this was announced I was eager to see what she’d come up with when there was no murder.

She didn’t disappoint, though the overall tone of the book was a tiny bit too heavy handed for my tastes.  The power of love is a wonderful thing indeed, but my nature is not one that is comfortable with being immersed in heart tugging storylines.

The book centers on two main characters: one coming to the small town of Wicklow for the first time, to see to the affairs of her grandmother’s estate, and at the same time is confronted with her heritage and connection to a town she’s never been to.  The second MC is the emotionally neglected daughter of the town’s social maven, who has come back to town a widow with toddler in tow.  But the true main character of the book is the town itself and its curious connection to loved ones who have crossed over.

It was a good read, though I sensed the author was struggling to bring balance to the heavier emotions; hints of humour came from most of the characters, but never quite took hold.  If it had, I’d have probably enjoyed the book even more.  Still, I’ll happily keep an eye out for more of Webber’s work.

I read this book for Halloween Bingo’s Magical Realism square.

The Peach Keeper

The Peach KeeperThe Peach Keeper
by Sarah Addison Allen
Rating: ★★★★½
isbn: 9780553807226
Publication Date: March 22, 2011
Pages: 273
Genre: Magical Realism
Publisher: Bantam Books

Welcome to Walls of Water, North Carolina, a place where secrets run thicker than the town's famous fog.

Once upon a time, Willa Jackson's family owned the beautiful house on the top of the ridge. Now it symbolises her family's ruin and a legacy Willa longs to escape from.

Paxton Osgood also yearns to break free, especially from her parents' expectations, and the heartbreak of unrequited love. Desperate for a distraction, she decides to restore the empty mansion to its former glory.

But the discovery of a long-buried secret, a friendship that defies time, and a touch of magic, will transform both women's lives in ways they would never have expected.


 

I’ve thoroughly enjoyed all the Sarah Addison Allen books I’ve read, but I stayed away from this one for a long time because, frankly, I don’t like peaches*.

As reasons go to not read a book, it’s a pretty stupid one, so when I saw the title at a library sale for $1 I did the mature thing and bought it.

I LOVED this book!  It was SO good.  It had shades of Practical Magic in it, and a cameo by Claire Waverly from Garden Spells and a small but very important murder mystery.  The only thing it needed to make it perfect was Claire’s apple tree.

The Peach Keeper felt like Allen crossed from Magical Realism into straight magic; there aren’t a lot of logical reasons (or any) for why the strange events in Walls of Water were happening.  The character development felt a lot richer too; limiting the plot to only 4 people, and really focusing on the 2 female protagonists made it feel like a much tighter story.  The romantic tension was intense (although the sex scenes were almost non-existent).

Is this Pride and Prejudice good?  No, of course not (nothing is that good), but it is Practical Magic (the movie, not the book) good.  If you liked that movie, or you enjoy good stories about the power of friendship, I think you’ll enjoy this.

* It’s a tactile thing; peach fuzz = fingernails on a chalkboard.

Lost Lake

Lost LakeLost Lake
by Sarah Addison Allen
Rating: ★★★★
isbn: 9781250019820
Publication Date: January 6, 2015
Pages: 296
Genre: Magical Realism
Publisher: St. Martin's Griffin

The first time Eby Pim saw Lost Lake, it was on a picture postcard. Just an old photo and a few words on a small square of heavy stock, but when she saw it, she knew she was seeing her future.

That was half a life ago. Now Lost Lake is about to slip into Eby's past. Her husband George is long passed. Most of her demanding extended family are gone. All that's left is a once-charming collection of lakeside cabins succumbing to the Southern Georgia heat and damp, and an assortment of faithful misfits drawn back to Lost Lake year after year by their own unspoken dreams and desires.

It's a lot, but not enough to keep Eby from relinquishing Lost Lake to a developer with cash in hand, and calling this her final summer at the lake. Until one last chance at family knocks on her door.

Lost Lake is where Kate Pheris spent her last best summer at the age of twelve, before she learned of loneliness, and heartbreak, and loss. Now she's all too familiar with those things, but she knows about hope too, thanks to her resilient daughter Devin, and her own willingness to start moving forward. Perhaps at Lost Lake her little girl can cling to her own childhood for just a little longer... and maybe Kate herself can rediscover something that slipped through her fingers so long ago.

One after another, people find their way to Lost Lake, looking for something that they weren't sure they needed in the first place: love, closure, a second chance, peace, a mystery solved, a heart mended. Can they find what they need before it's too late?

At once atmospheric and enchanting, Lost Lake shows Sarah Addison Allen at her finest, illuminating the secret longings and the everyday magic that wait to be discovered in the unlikeliest of places.


I’d heard through the book vine that Lost Lake was one of Allen’s weaker offerings, but its synopsis pulled me in more than The Peach Keeper‘s and it was the only one my library had.

Reading it, I can understand the meh reactions; emotionally, the book doesn’t have much of a build-up of tension.  But I read First Frost and compared to that one, this was (sorry Ms. Allen) stellar.  I really liked Eby and Kate… I pretty much liked all the characters.  Even Selma, and I think that went a long way towards offsetting the lack of dramatic arc. Lisette did get on my nerves a tiny bit, but wasn’t so bad that she overshadowed the rest.  I loved Billy.  Like the apple tree in Garden Spells, Billy was my favourite of this book.

The climax of the story line between Kate and her mother-in-law Cricket ended weirdly: very much with a whimper instead of the bang I was expecting, although Cricket’s disappearance for the second half of the book didn’t feel odd except in hindsight.  I thought it was refreshing to have two main characters that were not emotionally damaged or needed fixing; bad things happened to them but they pulled themselves up instead of running to someone else.

Overall, I just enjoyed the book.  I didn’t love it like The Girl Who Chased the Moon or Garden Spells but I did like it enough to lose myself in the story.

This is my book for the Magical Realism square in 2016 Halloween Bingo.

The Girl Who Chased the Moon

The Girl Who Chased the MoonThe Girl Who Chased the Moon
by Sarah Addison Allen
Rating: ★★★★½
isbn: 9781444706628
Publication Date: January 1, 2010
Pages: 273
Genre: Magical Realism
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton

Emily Benedict came to Mullaby, North Carolina, hoping to solve at least some of the riddles surrounding her mother's life. But the moment Emily enters the house where her mother grew up and meets the grandfather she never knew, she realises that mysteries aren't solved in Mullaby, they're a way of life. Here are rooms where the wallpaper changes to suit your mood. Unexplained lights skip across the yard at midnight. And a neighbour, Julia Winterson, bakes hope in the form of cakes, offering them to satisfy the town's sweet tooth - but also in the hope of rekindling a love she fears might be lost forever. Can a hummingbird cake really bring back a lost love? Is there really a ghost dancing in Emily's backyard? The answers are never what you expect. But in this town of lovable misfits, the unexpected fits right in.


I bought this one on the strength of how much I enjoyed Garden Spells and I think I ended up liking this one even more.

The story centers primarily on two women:  Emily, a teen-ager (who doesn’t act like one) who moves to Mullaby North Carolina to live with her grandfather after the death of her mother.  She’s determined to learn about her mother’s history and finds a lot more than she bargained for.  Julia Winterson has a plan; one that involves not being in Mullaby, but she has 6 more months of saving, scrimping, and avoiding Sawyer and her teen-age past before she can enact her plan.

I love the towns Sarah Addison Allen creates in her books; they’re small, magical, quirky and nobody thinks they’re odd.  Living in Mullaby sounds like fun.  In Garden Spells, I had a hard time liking or sympathising with the characters, but there wasn’t a character in this book I didn’t immediately like (at least none of the living ones).

The plot might not have been the most climatic one I’ve read, but I just lost myself in it and stayed up last night long after the point of reading comprehension because I just didn’t want it to end.  It was a magical surprise.