All the stars for Erin Morgenstern’s The Starless Sea

I have a new ‘best book I’ve read this year,’ and it’s this breathtakingly beautiful piece of literature. I believe this is also now one of my top ten books of all time. I need more stars to rate it.

I enjoyed The Night Circus, but wasn’t totally blown away by it. Still, I have been looking forward to Morgenstern’s second novel since it was announced last year, and I felt like I won the lottery when I got a library copy of the audio on the day after it was released. Dreams really do come true, people! I’d like to thank my library, Overdrive’s lovely ‘recommend’ feature, my friend and constant companion, the Libby app, my mom… 😉

The Starless Sea is a story about stories. It’s a fairytale, and a tribute to storytelling, fantasy, and imagination. Masterfully written in such a way that for the first third of the book, I thought it was just a collection of unrelated tales, interwoven with the experiences of Zachary Ezra Rawlins as he tries to learn more about them. I was just fine with that, because all of the stories were that good. Then, all of the stories started to connect and merge with Zachary’s life, and the really extraordinary magic began.

We experience the stories in small bits, alternating between characters, places, and times, and these tales just flow along effortlessly. But… it’s like a puzzle slowly coming together, and I really had to pay attention to every detail. Morgenstern did not waste words here—everything that happens has meaning and value to the story, right up to the stunning ending.

So many fantastic, whimsical elements: doors that open to a hidden world that seems to run on magic, a literary party in Manhattan full of strange storytelling and people dressed as their favorite characters mingling with famous authors, a pirate and a pirate ship, lost loves, the moon and sun, fate and time, and a whole lot of cats.

The audiobook is beautifully done with some of my favorite narrators. I had to force myself to return it to the library (after listening to many parts repeatedly) so that the nine people waiting can experience this book, too. I’m definitely getting a hard copy for my favorites shelf, and I know that I will reread The Starless Sea many times.

In summary: stories, love, magic, and cats. Someone needs to give this book some awards. It’s perfection, and you should probably read it.

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Imaginary Friend by Stephen Chbosky

I was so excited to get a copy of this book through NetGalley. I loved Chbosky’s Perks of Being a Wallflower, and the premise of this new book sounded very Stephen King, which translates to very my-kind-of-book. I had just been approved when my 15-year-old daughter also picked it as her BOTM add-on for October, so clearly this was meant to be.

Single mom Kate Reese is running from an abusive man and a heartbreaking past with her seven-year-old son, Christopher. They are both drawn to a tiny, out of the way town in Pennsylvania, and Kate is determine to start fresh and provide her son with a good life. Both are haunted by the suicide of Christopher’s father, who was also the only good man Kate every knew. Just as they are settling in, Christopher vanishes for 6 days after being mysteriously led into the woods outside of town by unknown forces. When he comes out, he can’t remember his time there, but he has a voice in his head that only he can hear and a strange mission to complete to save his mom and the town.

First things first: this is a BIG book (720 pages), and I have seen some reviews that say it’s too long or slow. That was most definitely not my experience reading Imaginary Friend. I though the pacing was perfect, and the tension builds throughout in a slow, perfect burn. There is honestly nothing I would rather have been cut from the story, as everything seems very deliberate and purposeful. I was so drawn in to this story that I also downloaded the audiobook so that I didn’t have to stop reading when I couldn’t sit down, and I finished the story in less than 3 days.

The writing is really, really good. The characters are so well-developed and complete. At the beginning of the book, Christopher is clearly written like a young child who is possibly dyslexic, struggling with school, confused about the loss of his father, and worried about his mom; after his return from the woods, he is most definitely changed, which is evident from not only his ‘spontaneous genius’ but from his more mature character voice. Chbosky effortlessly slips between many different character narratives as the town slides into terrifying chaos.

For me, the mark of a truly great read is the books ability to take me through a range of feelings. I cared about Kate, Christopher, and his friends. I felt for many of the townspeople, and I giggled, smiled, cried, and was truly frightened. The comparisons to King are likely because of the horror elements, but I was very pleased with how this book delivered the total experience I treasure as a reader. Just like Stephen King does for me so often.

Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for my copy in exchange for an honest review. Thanks to Stephen Chbosky for writing one of my new favorite books of the year.

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

The Twisted Ones by T. Kingfisher

“Then I made faces like the faces on the rocks, and I twisted myself about like the twisted ones, and I lay down flat on the ground like the dead ones.”

Isn’t that a wonderfully creepy line? Every time it was repeated throughout this very entertaining book, I got chills.

I was expecting horror, and The Twisted Ones does deliver on that, with a pervasive, folksy-gothic atmosphere and some seriously unsettling moments. I was not expecting such a fresh, sarcastic narrator voice and so much humor weaved into the story, but both only added to my enjoyment.

The story starts with our narrator, a thirty something (maybe forty something?) single woman called Mouse and her adorably dumb dog, Bongo, heading into backwoods North Carolina on a mission. Mouse’s mean and nasty old grandmother has died, and Mouse is tasked with cleaning out her home. She discovers that grandma was a hoarder, and begins trying to sort through the mess. In the process, Mouse discovers the journal of her also-deceased step-grandfather, which contains the quote above, and soon strange things start to go bump in the night. And look in the windows in the middle of the night.

I’m not giving away any spoilers, but suffice it to say the things that Mouse and Bongo encounter in the woods outside are terrifying, and the book has more than a few scary moments. The pace is fast, the book is surprisingly modern, the writing is solid, and Mouse is a fantastic character. I loved her wit and realness, and maybe most of all her relationship with her dog.

Speaking of the dog, can I just say how refreshing to was to know early on that the dog was going to make it? Hooray for horror that doesn’t kill off the pet, and double hooray for an author who will tell us that upfront. 🙌🏻

I really liked this book… another perfect read for my October #screamathon. Thanks to the publisher and NetGalley a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

The Widow of Pale Harbor by Hester Fox

I’m discovering that I have a thing for historical fiction with a dash of romance and a hint of paranormal/spookiness. I feel like this very specific genre needs a clever name, since there seem to be a lot of books that fit in it nicely.

The Widow of Pale Harbor is the second novel by Hester Fox. I read her first, The Witch of Willow Hall, earlier this month. The two books have similarities: a gothic feel, strong female characters trying to make their way in 19th century America, creepy central mysteries, a little bit of witchcraft, and a little bit of romance. Both are well written, engaging, and great reads for me.

The titular character of The Widow is Sophronia Carver, a wealthy recluse in 1846 whom the townspeople suspect of being a witch and the murderer of her husband. Sophie lives with her spinster maid friend, Helen (who is also a real witch) in Castle Carver, editing her deceased husbands magazine and generally being shunned by everyone in town. Gabriel Stone is a recent widower and the new minister in town, hoping to leave behind the ghosts of his own past.

Strange, unsettling things are happening around town, and Gabriel and Sophie quickly realize that all of them are related to stories by Edgar Allan Poe that have been published in Sophie’s magazine. As the mystery culprit escalates from creepy pranks and threatening notes to gruesome murder, our characters struggle with who to trust and their own developing feelings for each other.

This book was pretty much un-putdownable, and I read it in a day. The writing is atmospheric and hauntingly beautiful, the mystery kept me guessing for quite a while, and the romance was just perfect: not too much, but enough to get me invested. I loved Sophie and Gabriel, and it was nice to have the story from both of their points of view. The Poe elements were very cleverly done and ratcheted up the tension and creepiness. A perfect read for a chilly, fall day.

Thanks to the publisher and NetGalley for the free copy in exchange for an honest review. I’m looking forward to more books from Hester Fox.

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

The Whispered Tales of Graves Grove: An Anthology

It took me longer to get through this than I had expected, but I sometimes struggle with short story collections if each story doesn’t keep me engaged. After a humdrum story, it’s awfully easy to just put the Kindle down and call it a day.

The Whispered Tales is a collection of 23 stories by 17 different authors, but all of the stories are focused on the town of Graves Grove, British Columbia and it’s unusual inhabitants. The town was founded by Samuel Graves, who is himself of mysterious origins, and a small band of followers in 1880. Throughout the years (the stories takes us past the year 2027), we get insight into the peculiar happenings in the town and the seemingly normal but actually rather disturbed residents. Over the years, many, many children have vanished without a trace, and the old sycamore tree that Graves planted on day one is somehow at the center of the disappearances.

The stories have a little bit of everything creepy: ghosts, witches, mysteries, murder, vampires, demons, shifters, you name it-—the short story format and multiple authors allows for this variety. Obviously, the writing styles vary, but all of the stories are decently written, and the book is well edited and fits together nicely as a whole. This is mainly horror, and at least one of the stories was genuinely disturbing, but there is a lot of dark comedy sprinkled throughout as well.

Each author sticks with the basic elements/themes of Graves Grove, including the daily-changing statue of Samuel Groves, the scary sycamore tree, the child disappearances, the local crazy lady, and the town stray dog, but from there the stories vary widely. A few of the stories have a very YA feel to them, a couple are almost pure comedy, and some are psychological thrillers.

As with any collection like this, some stories are going to be more successful than others for each reader. Personally, I thought the vampire story came out of nowhere and didn’t feel like it belonged, but I adored the funnier stories sandwiched in with the scarier ones.

My favorite story is ‘Magick’ by D.M. Kilgore, which is the hilarious tale of possibly the most unsuccessful witch I’ve ever read about. Magdala Agatha Mersy seems to be completely lacking in any kind of witchy skill, but gosh, does she try hard. Her struggles give us the background to one wacky element of the town, and I loved it.

This was an enjoyable read, despite the trouble I had sticking with it, and a perfect #screamthon read for me this October. Thanks to the publisher and NetGalley for the chance to read and review this fun, spooky collection. 💀

⭐️⭐️⭐️

The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein by Kiersten White

It’s October, and as I do every year, I’m focusing on reading horror, ghost stories, and general scariness through the month as part of #screamathon on Litsy. So far I’ve read some good stuff, and this is one of them. Warning: possible mild spoilers ahead!

This gem is a retelling of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, but it starts with what most readers of the original understand—who the real monster is—and takes it up a few giant notches.

Elizabeth becomes our main character, and gets so much more personality and development. No longer just the doomed fiancé of Victor Frankenstein, Elizabeth is a smart, relentless young woman doing what she feels she must in order to secure a future for herself after being abused and used as a young child. She’s complex and at times infuriating, but she’s ultimately a heroine with her heart in the right place (no Frankenstein pun intended). She’s a protector and an advocate for other girls, and the additional of Mary the independent female bookseller, whose life becomes intertwined with Elizabeth’s, adds more girl power to the story.

This book is full of gothic creepiness and horror, but perhaps some of the scariest parts have to deal with just being a woman in the 18th century. That’s some terrifying stuff.

Victor is not just an obsessively brilliant man who takes his scientific experiments too far, he’s a psychopath with a god complex. Through Elizabeth’s memories, we see how disturbed he has been since childhood. Elizabeth, in a desperate attempt to make a place for herself in a world that offers no help for girls and women alone and without means, becomes an unwitting accomplice in his grown-up atrocities. Even Elizabeth, the closest person to Victor, has no idea how depraved he truly is.

The ‘monster’ Adam is even more blameless for the horrors taking place in the story than he was in Frankenstein. He’s got his own sort of backstory, as he’s made of up some unexpected ummm… parts. Since the story is told from Elizabeth’s POV, we are also spared the incessant whining of the poor creation. This was a plus for me. 😂

I admit that, as a reader, I was following along with the story running parallel to the original, and I was blown away (in a good way) when White took her novel in a very different direction. The first two-thirds of the book were ok, but the last third, where the author really begins to deviate from the source material, elevated it to something truly excellent.

Also, I LOVED the authors note—White clearly has the utmost respect for Shelley’s genius and the trailblazing she did for women and for science fiction in general. White took the absence of women in the original book and found her own story there. With much success, in my humble opinion.

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️1/2

Note: I listened to this book on audio, and highly recommend it. The narration by Katherine McEwan was excellent.

Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury… oh, my heart.

I was never a young boy in the 1920s (ha), but I did grow up in a small town in the Midwest, and wow, did this book resonate with me. Reading this incredible book made me nostalgic much like when I read Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead series.

The book has no real plot; rather, it’s a collection of stories from the summer of 1928 in the fictional town of Green Town, Illinois, all involving 12-year-old Douglas, his family, and his neighbors. While this format took me a hot minute to get into, it was extremely effective in making the book really about many things all at once: childhood, family, happiness, death, aging, true love, even witchcraft and a serial killer… it’s all over the place and it’s just magic. The writing is beautiful, and Bradbury somehow manages to say so much without a lot of words.

“Important thing is not the me that’s lying here, but the me that’s sitting on the edge of the bed looking back at me, and the me that’s downstairs cooking supper, or out in the garage under the car, or in the library reading. All the new parts, they count. I’m not really dying today. No person ever died that had a family.”

I especially enjoyed the chapters full of simple small-town life anecdotes. The neighbors all know each other, the mailman reads the postcards, tries on mail-order shoes, and peruses books before he delivers them, the ladies attend meetings at the Honeysuckle Lodge, the kids all play together outside until sundown, people get together at the ice cream shop, the arcade, and the movie theater. I spent my childhood in a tiny Midwest town of about 200 people, and even though I was living it 60 years after Douglas, it rang so true for me.

I listened to the book on audio (Blackstone Audio from 2011, read by Paul Michael Garcia), often out for audiowalks. I found myself laughing out loud as I walked along listening to Elmira Brown becoming convinced that her rival for president of the ladies’ club, Clara Goodwater, is a witch. Absolutely hilarious. Alternately, I was walking and crying as great grandma’s long life was summed up, as Doug’s best friend spends his last day in town before moving, and listening to the unusual relationship between Bill and Helen. I even spent one walk really, truly scared as Lavinia Nebb was stalked by a bonafide serial killer as she walked home alone after the movies.

For me, the hallmark of a really good novel is its ability to make me feel things deeply, and this book checked all of the boxes. This book doesn’t address any of the major social, political, and world issues of the time period. It doesn’t try to do any more than show the very small world of a young boy who is just starting to realize he’s alive at the same time he’s realizing all things die; a boy who doesn’t want the summer to end as his own childhood is ending. It made me smile, laugh, and cry; it made me think about my childhood, miss my grandparents, and want to hug my mom and dad. I adored this beautiful, quiet book, and I plan to gift copies to several people that I love.

“And, after all, isn’t that what life is all about, the ability to go around back and come up inside other people’s heads to look out at the damned fool miracle and say: oh, so that’s how you see it!? Well, now, I must remember that.”

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

ARC review: The Weight of a Soul by Elizabeth Tammi

Gorgeous cover, right? The description on NetGalley also grabbed my attention – young sisters in a Viking clan, grief and mourning, Norse gods and maybe even Ragnarök? Yes, please! I was thrilled to be approved for a free ARC of this book. Unfortunately, the book fell flat for me.

The blurb sounds very promising: when Lena’s sister, Fressa, is found dead, the whole Viking clan mourns, but Lena can’t move on. She needs to know how and why her sister died, and feels like the wrong sister was taken. Lena will do anything to bring her sister back, including striking a dark deal with Hela, the goddess of death. As she moves closer to bringing her sister back, she discovers family secrets and does the unthinkable, all while darkness, cold, and possibly the end of the world descend on their world.

I really think this concept could have been developed into a good story, but unfortunately this book suffers from lack of structure and not-so-great writing. While it is clear that a lot of research went into creating the Nordic/viking culture in the story, I don’t feel like the characters themselves are well developed. It’s hard to really feel anything for Lena or any of the other characters when they are so one-dimensional and incomplete. It’s hard to invest in the strong bond between Lena and Fressa when we have no backstory or reason to believe their closeness, and the same is true of the love story – it doesn’t feel special or intense at all. The story is told in third person, which in this case didn’t help me to connect to the characters. The plot itself is wandering and clunky, with a big event at the beginning, followed by a lot of randomness, and some more action right at the end. I felt lost throughout and ultimately unsatisfied at the end. The writing itself is ok but in need of some editing – that’s likely just because my copy is an ARC and not the final product.

Since I did enjoy the concept, setting, and addition of Norse mythology, and the story managed to keep me reading until the end, I’m giving this book two stars instead of one. If YA/historical fiction/fantasy is your thing, don’t let my review sway you – Goodreads has many glowing ratings of this book, so maybe it’s just me?

Thanks to the published and NetGalley for the free ARC in exchange for an honest review.

⭐️⭐️

A Place for Us by Fatima Farheen Mirza just broke my heart.

I’m on a roll lately… one really excellent book after another. This one is absolutely heartbreaking, but so very good.

The novel opens with the wedding of Hadia, the eldest of three children of a devout Muslim Indian-American family. Attending the wedding is Amar, the youngest sibling, who has been estranged from his family for three years. From here, the storyline jumps back to the to the arranged marriage of parents Rafiq and Layla, and then back and forth through the family’s lives leading up to the wedding.

The writing is phenomenal. The narrative jumps around to crucial moments in the family’s history, moving forward and backward in time, but this is done so masterfully that it all fits together seamlessly. There is so very much emotion packed into these beautiful words. I found myself going back over passages just to hear them again. All of the characters are fleshed out completely, and I really felt all of the highs and lows, betrayals and joys, right along with them.

The book deals extensively with members of the family’s relationship to their Muslim faith, and to each other. We experience 9/11, and later the hateful political rhetoric beginning in 2016, from their prospective. There is conflict and disagreement, but it is clear that this family loves one another deeply. Equal parts sad, infuriating, and uplifting.

The final part of the novel switches to the POV of one character, several years after the wedding. I won’t spoil it, but I will say that I was initially surprised at the character choice for this, but ultimately felt it was the perfect way to end the story. There is some repetition as we revisit points in the story through this character’s eyes, but this added so much more to the story.

This book made me think and feel on almost every page. It’s an immigrant story, a story of Muslim faith, and a family saga, and manages to be perfect in every way. I am certain that it will stay with me for a long time.

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Another #1001books review! Possession by A.S. Byatt

Two books in one week checked off my 1001 books tbr, and I loved this one just as much as The Namesake. I finished the book early this morning, and originally thought it was a 4 1/2 star book, but I’ve been thinking about it since and can’t think of a single thing I didn’t love about it… so I’ve upped my rating.

A pair of young academics in the 1980s are researching the intersecting lives of two Victorian poets: Roland Michell is studying Randolph Henry Ash when he finds some partial letters from Ash to an unknown woman. Some sleuthing leads him to consult Dr. Maud Bailey, an expert on Christabel LaMotte, and the two embark on a rather thrilling literary quest to discover the previously unknown link between the Ash and LaMotte.

This book is absolutely wonderful. The writing is stunningly good—it’s so wordy, but in the best way, and Byatt has squeezed every little bit of beauty possible in to every page. I adored the layered storylines. I generally enjoy stories set in the 1800s, and the smoldering love story of Ash and LaMotte is the perfect mix of melancholy and romance. The more modern-day story is a fast-paced mystery with scholarly intrigue and a slowly-developing romance. As much as I love Ash and LaMotte and Roland and Maud, there is a full cast of interesting, well-developed characters. Leonora and Beatrice were fantastic in the modern story line, and Ellen and Blanche add layers to the Victorian story.

I’m not normally drawn to poetry, so I was pleasantly surprised at how much I loved the poems and prose that are laced throughout the book. If only we could really read all of Ash’s poetry on Norse mythology and Christabel LaMotte’s Melusina. Their letters to each other were beautiful as well.

Truly deserving of the awards and praise it has garnered, I think this novel will end up being a treasured classic. I will definitely be buying a ‘forever’ copy for my shelves. I’m certain this will be a rare reread for me someday.

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️