In the Shadow Garden

In the Shadow GardenIn the Shadow Garden
by Liz Parker
Rating: ★★★★
isbn: 9781538708798
Publication Date: September 13, 2022
Pages: 326
Genre: Magical Realism
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing

There’s something magical about Yarrow, Kentucky. The three empathic witches of the Haywood family are known for their shadow garden—from strawberries that taste like chocolate to cherry tomatoes imbued with the flavors of basil and oregano. Their magic can cure any heartache, and the fruits of their garden bring a special quality to the local bourbon distillery. On one day every year, a shot of Bonner bourbon will make your worst memory disappear. But the Haywoods will never forget the Bonners’ bitter betrayal.

Twenty years ago, the town gave up more than one memory; they forgot an entire summer. One person died. One person disappeared. And no one has any recollection of either.

As events from that fateful summer start to come to light, there must be a reckoning between the rival Haywood and Bonner families. But untangling the deep roots of this town’s terrible secrets will expose more than they could ever imagine about love, treachery, and the true nature of their power.

Both what I was expecting and what I wasn’t.  Elentarri read this recently and liked it and the whole idea of a shadow garden that feeds off pain and sorrow appealed to me.

The story more or less covers three generations of the Haywoods; a family of witches whose gift is to remove some of the pain and sorrow of their fellow townspeople as a way to help them heal.  This pain and sorrow is fed into the shadow garden and helps the plants within to grow with extraordinary gifts themselves.

My only, biggest, issue was – and I have no idea why – I kept thinking of the youngest Haywood as a teenager.  She’s not, she’s in her latish-20’s.  Some of her behaviour probably contributed to this misconception, but either way it was a bit jarring.  I also kept mixing up who was with whom in a couple of the relationships – fortunately there was a family tree to reference.

I really like where Parker took the story; it was a direction I hadn’t anticipated, but it worked beautifully, even if some of the characters weren’t as wholly developed out as they could have been.  This appears to be Parker’s first book – if her character development catches up to her story and plotting development, she’ll have a lot of very good books ahead of her.

Spells for Forgetting

Spells for ForgettingSpells for Forgetting
by Adrienne Young
Rating: ★★★★
isbn: 9781529425314
Publication Date: September 27, 2022
Pages: 349
Genre: Magical Realism
Publisher: Quercus

'There were tales that only the island knew. Ones that had never been told. I knew, because I was one of them.'

Emery Blackwood's life was forever changed on the eve of her high school graduation, when the love of her life, August Salt, was accused of murdering her best friend, Lily. She'd once dreamt of running away with August, eager to escape the misty, remote shores of Saoirse Island and chase new dreams together. Now, she is doing what her teenage self swore she never would: living a quiet existence among this tight-knit community steeped in folklore and tradition, ruled by the seasons and ancient superstitions.

But when August returns after fourteen years to bury his mother's ashes, Emery must confront her first love and the reason he left so abruptly. But the town wants August gone again. And as the island begins to show signs of strange happenings, the emergence of deep betrayals and hidden promises threatens to reveal the truth behind Lily's death once and for all.

I don’t know what the heck to say about this book.  The writing is excellent, and I keep thinking about this book days after I’ve read it, so while I sort of want to give this a lower rating because I found the story a little unsatisfying, the writing and its lingering effects will keep it a 4.

This is definitely a magical realism story, and there’s a mystery too.  I loved the magical realism, but the mystery is what left me unsatisfied.  Specifically, the ending.  I can’t say anything else without potentially spoiling it; it was well-crafted, but unsatisfying.

The author brought life to the island, whose name I cannot pronounce, and to the characters.  It’s multiple POV, and one of the better done one’s that I’ve read, with Young managing to jump timelines and POVs without making the flow bouncy or jarring.

That’s all I’ve got; I’ve been sitting on this one for a few days, trying to figure out what I think about it.  It’s good, but I’m going to have to re-read it to dig a bit deeper.

In the Middle of Hickory Lane

In the Middle of Hickory LaneIn the Middle of Hickory Lane
by Heather Webber
Rating: ★★★½
isbn: 9781250774651
Publication Date: July 26, 2022
Pages: 308
Genre: Fiction, Magical Realism
Publisher: Forge

Emme Wynn has wanted nothing more her whole life than to feel like part of a family. Having grown up on the run with her con artist mother, she’s been shuffled from town to town, drawn into bad situations, and has learned some unsavory habits that she’s tried hard to overcome. When her estranged grandmother tracks her down out of the blue and extends a job offer—helping to run her booth at an open-air marketplace in small-town Sweetgrass, Alabama—Emme is hopeful that she’ll finally be able to plant the roots she’s always dreamed of. But some habits are hard to break, and she risks her newfound happiness by keeping one big truth to herself.

Cora Bee Hazelton has her hands full with volunteering, gardening, her job as a color consultant and designer, and just about anything she can do to keep her mind off her painful past, a past that has resulted in her holding most everyone at arm’s length. The last thing she wants is to form close relationships only to have her heart broken yet again. But when she’s injured, she has no choice other than to let people into her life and soon realizes it’s going to be impossible to keep her heart safe—or her secrets hidden.

In the magical neighborhood garden in the middle of Hickory Lane, Emme and Cora Bee learn some hard truths about the past and themselves, the value of friends, family, and community, and most importantly, that true growth starts from within.

This one was not my favourite Heather Webber magical realism story, but that’s purely a matter of subjective taste for the theme.  I’m not interested in reading about con men (women), even unwilling ones seeking redemption.  But it had a garden with a dead body in it, and magical realism, so I was willing.

Putting aside the bits about living the life of a con, and keeping secrets, etc. there was a lot to like in this story.  Once I wrapped my head around just how huge the cul-de-sac had to have been to accommodate the garden described, it sounded magical, and all the characters, as usual with Webber’s writing, come to life on the page.  There is, as usual, the theme of ‘love conquers most everything’ but until the end it wasn’t dominant.

The dead body is discovered on page 1, but then just sort of lurks there in the background, while the police work at identifying the remains (they’re old).  But things come together at the end and I have to say I wasn’t really expecting them to come together in quite that shape.  I love when an author is able to surprise and blindside me.  It bumped the story up .5 a star.

I didn’t read this for Halloween Bingo, but looking at my card, I have Country House Mystery unread, and curiously, no desire to read anything for it, and my Lottery wild card still un-used, so I think I’ll use it and swap out Country House Mystery for the Home is Where the Hurt Is square, since this story definitely involves crimes that occur in nice, normal families.


South of the Buttonwood Tree

South of the Buttonwood TreeSouth of the Buttonwood Tree
by Heather Webber
Rating: ★★★★
isbn: 9781250198563
Publication Date: July 21, 2020
Pages: 335
Genre: Fiction, Magical Realism
Publisher: Forge

Blue Bishop has a knack for finding lost things. While growing up in charming small-town Buttonwood, Alabama, she's happened across lost wallets, jewelry, pets, her wandering neighbor, and sometimes, trouble. No one is more surprised than Blue, however, when she comes across an abandoned newborn baby in the woods, just south of a very special buttonwood tree.

Sarah Grace Landreneau Fulton is at a crossroads. She has always tried so hard to do the right thing, but her own mother would disown her if she ever learned half of Sarah Grace's secrets.

The unexpected discovery of the newborn baby girl will alter Blue's and Sarah Grace's lives forever. Both women must fight for what they truly want in life and for who they love. In doing so, they uncover long-held secrets that reveal exactly who they really are--and what they're willing to sacrifice in the name of family.

Of all the Heather Webber books in the Magical Realism genre, this is the one I put off reading because it appears to centre on an abandoned newborn, which failed to appeal to me.  It turns out that the newborn is really a catalyst for the rest of the story, one that ends up touching on a lot of themes like family, poverty, death and, of course, love.  There are a couple of romances here but they’re so far on the back burner as to not even be on the stove.

The structure of the book is the typical for Webber of dual POVs, but there’s an added little bit at the start of each chapter from the POV of the judge that’s overseeing the custody case of the found infant.  They’re rarely a page long, but each one is a conversation between the judge and someone from the community wanting to get their opinion of the custody case in the judge’s ear.  I thought this was a successful device for letting the reader gain insight into the townsfolk of Buttonwood, good or bad, but it also allowed a tiny bit of wry humor into the story as the judge is often cornered in unexpected places and his patience is sorely tried.

All in all, I enjoyed it – better than I expected to.  I love the magical realism of being able to find lost objects, or houses that talk to you, or trees that give advice on buttons.

I’m going to use this one for Halloween Bingo 2022 on the Genre: Supernatural square.  It’s also a gimme for Magical Realism.

Other Birds

Other BirdsOther Birds
by Sarah Addison Allen
Rating: ★★★★
isbn: 9781250019868
Publication Date: August 30, 2022
Pages: 290
Genre: Fiction, Magical Realism
Publisher: St. Martin's Press

Between the real and the imaginary, there are stories that take flight in the most extraordinary ways.

Right off the coast of South Carolina, on Mallow Island, The Dellawisp sits—a stunning old cobblestone building shaped like a horseshoe, and named after the tiny turquoise birds who, alongside its human tenants, inhabit an air of magical secrecy.

When Zoey comes to claim her deceased mother’s apartment on an island outside of Charleston she meets her quirky and secretive neighbors, including a girl on the run, two estranged middle-aged sisters, a lonely chef, a legendary writer, and three ghosts. Each with their own story. Each with their own longings. Each whose ending isn’t yet written.

Well, talk about author’s who try something different.

This is not the Sarah Addison Allen I know and adore.  This is something more ambitious, edgier, with sharp, uncomfortable characters that survived sharp, uncomfortable experiences.  Rather than 2 characters Allen bounces between, this is an ensemble cast, and every one of them are victims of abuse (TW for molestation, though never explicitly described) and neglect.  None of them define themselves that way, but all are living the lives they live, in part, as a reaction to that abuse or neglect.  Only one truly continues to suffer.

This is also almost more a ghost story than it is a magical realism.  The magical realism is still here, though muted and without playing a central role in the characters’ lives.  Instead, the ghosts that haunt the dellawisp condos are the driving force behind the characters, with one ghost in particular driving the plot of the book itself.  The ghosts range from kind and loving to horribly broken.

In spite of what may sound like a melancholy, depressing setup, the story is actually quite optimistic and full of hope.  These people aren’t damaged goods (save one of the characters and her part is a centre stage one, even though her story is pivotal); they’re all building their best lives, and after the death of a tyrannical neighbor, they come together as friends, some with the possibility of romance, although no romance occurs on these pages.

The dellawisp birds add a spot of comedy here and there, as these little tiny turquoise birds rule the roost at the dellawisp condos (named after them), bossing the residents around, stealing their stuff, attacking strangers, catching a ride on residents’ heads.

So, while this isn’t the kind of Sarah Addison Allen story I love so very much that re-reading them is like shrugging into a favourite blanket when it’s cold, it was a very good, well told, well-written story.

I read this for Halloween Bingo 2022 for the Magical Realism square, but it would work equally well for Ghosts & Hauntings.

A Cup of Silver Linings

A Cup of Silver LiningsA Cup of Silver Linings
by Karen Hawkins
Rating: ★★★★
isbn: 9781982105563
Publication Date: August 1, 2021
Pages: 354
Genre: Fiction
Publisher: Gallery Books

Ava Dove—the sixth of the seven famed Dove sisters and owner of Ava Dove’s Landscaping and Specialty Teas—is frantic.

Just as her new tearoom is about to open, her herbal teas have gone haywire. Suddenly, her sleep-inducing tea is startling her clients awake with vivid dreams, her romance-kindling tea is causing people to blurt out their darkest secrets, and her anti-anxiety tea is making them spend hours staring into mirrors. Ava is desperate for a remedy, but her search leads her into dangerous territory, as she is forced to face a dark secret she’s been hiding for over a decade.

Meanwhile, successful architect Ellen Foster has arrived in Dove Pond to attend the funeral of her estranged daughter, Julie. Grieving deeply, Ellen is determined to fix up her daughter’s ramshackle house, sell it, and then sweep her sixteen-year-old granddaughter, Kristen, off to a saner, calmer life. But Kristen has other plans. Desperate to stay with her friends in Dove Pond, she sets off on a quest she’s avoided her whole life—to find her absent father in the hopes of winning her freedom from the grandmother she barely knows.

The follow up to The Book Charmer, and the book that arrived yesterday.  I figured I should dive right into a book that inspired me to take my first solo walk in over 6 months.

Is there a fairy tale involving an evil grandmother?  If so, this is a take on that, sort of.  Kristen’s mom dies, she has no idea who her father is, and so her estranged grandmother comes riding in on her metaphorical bulldozer to rescue her grand-daughter, who, by-the-by, doesn’t need rescuing.  Grandma is a selfish, stubborn, wealthy cow, but Kristen is stubborn and as it turns out, rather wealthy too, so there.

In a parallel and connected story line, Ava Dove, one of the ‘gifted’ Dove sisters, is stressing about having kept a secret for a couple of decades, and the secret is fighting back.  Remember, this is magical realism, so the secret is literally fighting back, trying to escape its box and throw Ava under the bus for a stupid mistake she made when she was a kid.  Ava is also trying to get a tearoom reading for opening and the special bespoke teas she makes to help people are starting to cause some strange behaviours in those that drink them, leaving Ava scrambling to figure out why.

On the fringes of this is an unresolved plot point from the first book involving Ava’s sister, Sarah.  It all comes together into a fairly coherent story line, and if you suspend your disbelief enough to enjoy magical realism, the redemption of Grandma ice queen is believable.  Still, the secrets (Ava’s and who is Kristen’s dad) are both pretty transparent to the reader, the former especially if one remembers events from the first book.

Overall, it’s a charming read, with strong individuals and friendships that make the story work better than it might have otherwise.

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.

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.