The Spirit Engineer by A.J. West

Belfast, 1914. Two years after the sinking of the Titanic, high society has become obsessed with spiritualism, attending séances in the hope they might reach their departed loved ones.

William Jackson Crawford is a man of science and a sceptic, but one night with everyone sitting around the circle, voices come to him – seemingly from beyond the veil – placing doubt in his heart and a seed of obsession in his mind. Could the spirits truly be communicating with him or is this one of Kathleen’s parlour tricks gone too far?

Based on the true story of Professor William Jackson Crawford and famed medium Kathleen Goligher, and with a cast of characters including Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Harry Houdini, The Spirit Engineer conjures a haunted, twisted tale of power, paranoia and one ultimate, inescapable truth… (taken from Amazon)

Thank you to Netgalley for providing me with this book in exchange for my honest opinion. The Spirit Engineer will be available October 7th.

I will be honest: I didn’t know much about William Jackson Crawford going into The Spirit Engineer, so everything written was a surprise to me. That being said, if I had been an expert on his life, I still would have been engrossed. The Spirit Engineer is an engrossing book that delves deep into the subjects of loss, paranoia, belief, and what can happen when a person’s beliefs are questioned.

Professor William Jackson Crawford is a man of science who doesn’t subscribe to paranormal nonsense, thank you very much. He thinks himself too smart to fall for any trickery and is preoccupied with dreams of rising far in his field. However, William learns that his wife has been visiting mediums and takes it upon himself to disprove the idea of communicating with the deceased. Thus, the Spirit Engineer is born.

I don’t usually comment on the characteristics of those that are based on real people, but William is not likeable at all. Nor is he relatable. At most, I could say he’s pitiable, and even that is a stretch. William is condescending and feels he is superior to others. He is a man who desperately wants to be in control of himself, of his work, of others. The more he feels his orderly life slipping away, the more paranoid and desperate he becomes. Things go in unexpected directions when, instead of proving the medium is a fraud, William sees and hears the spirits himself. Is he deceived? Or has he stumbled upon something otherworldly? Of course, I don’t need a character to be likable or relatable to enjoy a book. Instead, he was fascinating, which is much more important to me.

The writing was fantastic. It was smart and engaging. I’m assuming that there was some embellishment, but the author obviously tried to stay close to the sprit (pun intended) of the facts. The story developed well and the pacing was perfect. It didn’t skip over details, but it also didn’t drag. I raced through this book because I just couldn’t put it down.

The Spirit Engineer is a riveting book. While it’s interesting from a historical standpoint, what really drew me in was the exploration of the human psyche because, when it comes right down to it, that’s much more fascinating and mysterious than anything supernatural.

A Girl Made of Air by Nydia Hetherington

This is the story of The Greatest Funambulist Who Ever Lived…

Born into a post-war circus family, our nameless star was unwanted and forgotten, abandoned in the shadows of the big top. Until the bright light of Serendipity Wilson threw her into focus.

Now an adult, haunted by an incident in which a child was lost from the circus, our narrator, a tightrope artiste, weaves together her spellbinding tales of circus legends, earthy magic and folklore, all in the hope of finding the child… But will her story be enough to bring the pair together again? (taken from Amazon)

Thank you to Netgalley and Quercus for providing me with this book in exchange for my honest opinion. A Girl Made of Air is available now.

I’m always fascinated by the idea of stories being told through collections of letters or diaries. The fact that this revolved around a circus was also intriguing. Ultimately, though, while A Girl Made of Air had a lot going for it, I found some things rather problematic.

The book follows Mouse, a famous tightrope walker, as she recounts her early life and the events that shaped her. She’s an interesting protagonist because the narration matures as the character does. The older she gets, the more complex and adult-sounding the narration becomes. It was a great detail, one that mirrors how people really develop. The book is peopled with distinctive characters: Marina, Mouse’s mother, Manu…and Serendipity Wilson, who is something else entirely. She is the bright light that Mouse is drawn to, and the story is viewed in relation to her. All of the characters were vivid and, in some cases, larger than life. They became almost caricatures of themselves, which was fascinating. I also think that was intentional and it gave the book a fantastical feel.

So, what did I find problematic? First of all, parts of the book felt repetitive. Some bits just didn’t really add to the story or character development at all and I found my attention wandering a bit. Secondly, and this is what really bothered me, is the unexpected rape scene. It was graphic and, as someone who prefers to avoid books with that sort of content, I really wish I’d known it was coming. As it was, I was blindsided and it really upset me. That being said, this isn’t something that will have a big effect on everyone. It just was something that dimmed the enjoyment of the book for me.

A Girl Made of Air meandered a little, but it was an interesting trip. At the end of the day, I’m not the right reader for this book. It would be much more enjoyable to readers who don’t mind a bit of harsh content and like a story with well developed characters.

A Declaration of the Rights of Magicians by H.G. Parry

It is the Age of Enlightenment — of new and magical political movements, from the necromancer Robespierre calling for a revolution in France, to the weather mage Toussaint L’Ouverture leading the slaves of Haiti in their fight for freedom, to the bold new Prime Minister William Pitt weighing the legalization of magic amongst commoners in Britain and abolition throughout its colonies overseas.

But amidst all of the upheaval of the early modern world, there is an unknown force inciting all of human civilization into violent conflict. And it will require the combined efforts of revolutionaries, magicians, and abolitionists to unmask this hidden enemy before the whole world falls to darkness and chaos. (taken from Amazon)

Thank you to Orbit Books and Angela Man for giving me this book in exchange for my honest opinion. A Declaration of the Rights of Magicians is available now.

I was interested in this book from the get-go. An alternate version of historical events? Yes, please! A book this ambitious sounds hard to pull off, but author H.G. Parry did it brilliantly. I was caught up in the politics, magic, and historical basis of it. The characters were written dynamically and the story flowed incredibly well.

I saw hints of early Anne’s Rice’s descriptiveness in the prose (high praise from me). The in-depth descriptions, explanations, and the slightly slower build all worked very well. The time taken by the author to really develop the story and setting made the payoff even better. The tension of the storyline built up to a roaring crescendo and I was transfixed.

I have a feeling that this will be one of those books that you either love or hate, nothing in between. I think some books can only evoke strong emotions like that. I fall firmly in the “love” category. Historical fantasy is such an interesting subgenre because of that real-life base that the author springboards off of. Parry obviously put a ton of effort into getting the historical aspects right and it made a huge difference.

I really can’t say that I liked any particular characters (it feels weird saying something like that about characters based on actual people), but I found every single one of them fascinating. H.G. Parry took me right into their heads and gave motivations and showed their reasons for their actions. Whether I agreed with a certain character or not, they were all engrossing.

Seeing as it’s based loosely on the French Revolution, don’t expect a lighthearted story. A Declaration of the Rights of Magicians is enthralling, however, and this is an excellent addition to the historical fantasy subgenre.

The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams

Esme is born into a world of words. Motherless and irrepressibly curious, she spends her childhood in the Scriptorium, a garden shed in Oxford where her father and a team of dedicated lexicographers are collecting words for the very first Oxford English Dictionary. Young Esme’s place is beneath the sorting table, unseen and unheard. One day a slip of paper containing the word bondmaid flutters beneath the table. She rescues the slip, and when she learns that the word means “slave girl,” she begins to collect other words that have been discarded or neglected by the dictionary men.

As she grows up, Esme realizes that words and meanings relating to women’s and common folks’ experiences often go unrecorded. And so she begins in earnest to search out words for her own dictionary: the Dictionary of Lost Words. To do so she must leave the sheltered world of the university and venture out to meet the people whose words will fill those pages.

Set during the height of the women’s suffrage movement and with the Great War looming, The Dictionary of Lost Words reveals a lost narrative, hidden between the lines of a history written by men. Inspired by actual events, author Pip Williams has delved into the archives of the Oxford English Dictionary to tell this highly original story. The Dictionary of Lost Words is a delightful, lyrical, and deeply thought-provoking celebration of words and the power of language to shape the world.

Thank you to Netgalley for providing me with this book in exchange for my honest opinion. The Dictionary of Lost Words is available now.

I agonized over what to write about The Dictionary of Lost Words. I love books about the love of words (The Grammarians and The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary come to mind) and I had high hopes for this one. Ultimately, I think I may have expected too much. I liked the book, but that indefinable thing that elevates a book from “good’ to “great” in my mind wasn’t there.

That being said, The Dictionary of Lost Words was very good. The story starts with Esme, the main character, as a girl. She grows up surrounded by words. Her dad works to gather words and their definitions for the Oxford English Dictionary, along with a team of other men. Esme gets the leftovers, so to speak; the words not deemed appropriate or good enough for the dictionary. I loved that idea. I loved the focus on the importance of words and the way they can affect change. The premise was fabulous.

I did feel that the book meandered a bit, and I found my attention wandering a little here and there. I had a particularly hard time during the second half of it. It just didn’t hold my focus. I think it might have been the switch in focus to include a little more about Esme’s personal life as an adult. It just wasn’t my thing.

What the book might have lacked in pacing, it more than made up for in detail. It is clear that the author put a ton of time and effort into making the book as close as possible to how things were at that time. The Dictionary of Lost Words might be a great read for readers who really enjoy historical fiction. However, readers who are looking specifically for a book about words and their power might be a teeny bit disappointed.

In the Garden of Spite: A Novel of the Black Widow of La Porte by Camilla Bruce

An audacious novel of feminine rage about one of the most prolific female serial killers in American history–and the men who drove her to it.

They whisper about her in Chicago. Men come to her with their hopes, their dreams–their fortunes. But no one sees them leave. No one sees them at all after they come to call on the Widow of La Porte.

The good people of Indiana may have their suspicions, but if those fools knew what she’d given up, what was taken from her, how she’d suffered, surely they’d understand. Belle Gunness learned a long time ago that a woman has to make her own way in this world. That’s all it is. A bloody means to an end. A glorious enterprise meant to raise her from the bleak, colorless drudgery of her childhood to the life she deserves. After all, vermin always survive.

Thank you to Netgalley and the publisher for providing me with this book in exchange for my honest opinion. In the Garden of Spite is available for purchase now.

Belle Gunness wasn’t always a murderer. Once she was a girl wronged. Once she was a child looking to escape. Once she was a hopeful mother. Maybe. Or maybe she was always vicious, always dangerous, and always hungry for violence. This book combines fact, rumor, and creative license to weave a tale both unsettling and engrossing.

I had honestly not heard of the Widow of La Porte prior to this book. I wouldn’t necessarily say I’m the most knowledgeable when it comes to the bloodier side of individuals. I was completely sucked in and spent most of the book wondering how much of this grisly story could possibly be true. It turns out, quite a bit.

Belle was originally named Brynhild and spent her childhood in Norway. The reader joins the story right at what could be viewed as the catalyst to Brynhild’s bloodlust. I have to be honest: I did skip past the opening experience that Brynhild suffered. I was able to infer what happened without reading it, and it is something that I personally choose not to read about in books. I don’t usually give trigger warnings, but please be aware that this book is harsh (it is about a serial killer, after all).

After her first murder, Belle traveled to America to begin a new life. This “new life” led to the deaths of many men, including two husbands. The way the story unfolds is nothing short of enthralling. Author Camilla Bruce had an amazing way of portraying a damaged woman who can hug her children and plan a murder in the same moment. It was disturbing and brilliant in equal measure.

In the Garden of Spite is told from two perspectives: one is Belle’s sister, who is initially unaware of Belle’s tendencies, and the other is Belle herself. It was fascinating to see Belle’s sister, Nellie, as she begins to notice that there are things that are off about Belle. As the story progresses, Nellie wrestles with her desire to protect her sister and her knowledge that she might be keeping secrets for a serial killer. I really felt sorry for her, while at the same time wanting to shake her. Her dream of “saving” her sister from a bad life in Norway left her with feelings of guilt and fear. It also left a hefty body count.

Belle herself was terrifying. She was cold-blooded but was able to mimic the emotions others expected from her. She was smart but rash. She was never overwritten, if that makes sense. Instead, she was incredibly well-developed with many layers. She definitely got under my skin.

I flew through this story and was equally fascinated by the author’s afterward, explaining where facts ended and speculation began. Holy crow, author Camilla Bruce was able to mesh truth and fiction brilliantly! I was left with shivers and the hope that In the Garden of Spite won’t be her only foray into the true crime genre.

Backstories by Simon Van der Velde

Dreamers, singers, talkers and killers
; they can dazzle with their beauty or
their talent or their unmitigated evil, but inside themselves they are as frail
and desperate as the rest of us. But can you see them?
Can you unravel the
truth?
These are people you know, but not as you know them.
Peel back the mask and see.

Thank you to the author for providing me with this book in exchange for my honest opinion. Backstories is available now.

Backstories is smart and enigmatic, encouraging the reader to be involved. Author Simon Van der Velde combines history and fiction to create something entirely different- the surprising stories behind famous figures. Instead of the public persona we all know, the veneer is stripped away to show the utter humanness underneath.

Interestingly, Backstories isn’t set up in any way that is run-of-the-mill. This collection of short stories isn’t a simple “this is their past” sort of book. Instead, it’s a mystery. The reader has to solve the puzzle: who is each story about? I have to be honest and say that a couple stories completely stumped me. It was fascinating to try and match up new details with what is already known about a person. It added a level of realism to what have always been almost unreachable, exaggerated famous (or infamous) people.

The writing is engaging and easy to connect with. It’s quite obvious that author Simon Van Der Velde put a lot of time and research into his book, but he left just enough to the imagination to encourage me to do my own digging. The little Easter eggs that were left throughout were clever and added so much to the story.

I went into Backstories expecting to be entertained. Instead, I was sucked in and ended up being incredibly invested in the “who was” aspect. Expect an engrossing book, one that will keep you guessing.

Where to find Backstories:

Amazon: Backstories

Book Spotlight: Backstories by Simon Van Der Velde

Dreamers, singers, talkers and killers; they can dazzle with their beauty or  their talent or their unmitigated evil, but inside themselves they are as frail and desperate as the rest of us. But can you see them? Can you unravel the  truth? 
These are people you know, but not as you know them. 
Peel back the mask and see.

Author’s Quest:

“Whatever happened to all of the heroes”, The Stranglers 1977.

I was twelve years old when I first heard this song and although there was something in the feral tone that grabbed me, I didn’t really understand it. I do now. I get the angst, and the loss, and the emptiness, which is why, in Backstories, I aim to answer the question.

So join me on my quest, and together we’ll uncover the fears and passions and prejudices that made our heroes what they were, and perhaps catch a glimpse of ourselves along the way.

Whatever happened to all of the heroes?
They turned out to be human beings, in all their diverse glory.
Simon Van der Velde, January 2021

P.S. I am proud to be sharing 30% of all profits from Backstories with Friends of the Earth. Stop Hate UK, and The North-East Autism Society.
See simonvandervelde.com for further details.

About the author:

Simon Van der Velde has worked variously as a barman, labourer, teacher, caterer, and lawyer, as well as traveling throughout Europe and South America collecting characters and insights for his award-winning stories. Since completing a creative writing M.A. (with distinction) in 2010, Simon’s work has won and been shortlisted for numerous awards including: The Yeovil Literary Prize (twice), the Wasafiri New Writing Prize, the Luke Bitmead Bursary, the Frome Short-story Prize, the Hary Bowling Prize, The Henshaw Press Short Story Competition, and the National Association of Writers’ Groups Open Competition- establishing him as one of the UK’s foremost short-story writers.

Simon now lives in Newcastle upon Tyne, England, with his wife, Nicola, their labradoodle, Barney, and two tyrannical children.

For the authors: thank you


I’ll start this post by saying the now overused phrase, it’s been a tough year. I kind of think that’s the unspoken assumption at this point: “I’m doing well” (considering it’s a tough year), or “It’s been a bad day” (in the middle of a tough year). The book community isn’t exempt from the “tough year” unfortunately. I could go into the nitty gritty, but smarter minds than mine have already done that. So, this one is for the authors: you are appreciated.

I know it must be a discouraging time for so many of you, either with news you might have received, or just with life in general. Being an author is not for the faint of heart. You do not have it easy. To take the words in your mind and share them with others requires a massive amount of bravery. It also requires being willing to relinquish a little bit of your vision, knowing that the reader will picture your characters differently in their mind than you do. That takes guts.

This year has been full of changes in schedules, jobs, and lifestyle. There has been worry, and there has been loss. I cannot tell you what a godsend it has been to be able to curl up with a book – either an old friend, or a new discovery – and leave it all behind for a bit. From familiar favorites such as Dragonlance and The Night Circus, to more recent favorites, like The Ventifact Colossus and The Devil and the Dark Water, these books have kept me calm(ish).

Authors, what you do is important. So, so important. You aren’t just writing words on a page. Rather, you are building an escape pod. Your words are reminding us that even though we’re all stuck in our homes bunker-style, we aren’t alone. Good still exists and so does hope, laughter, creativity, new worlds, and mystery.

So, THANK YOU. Thank you for all you do. Keep writing. We’ll keep reading.

With Love,

A Voracious Reader

The Once and Future Witches by Alix E. Harrow- ARC Review

Amazon.com: The Once and Future Witches (9780316422048): Harrow ...

In the late 1800s, three sisters use witchcraft to change the course of history in a Hugo award-winning author’s powerful novel of magic amid the suffragette movement.
 
In 1893, there’s no such thing as witches. There used to be, in the wild, dark days before the burnings began, but now witching is nothing but tidy charms and nursery rhymes. If the modern woman wants any measure of power, she must find it at the ballot box.
But when the Eastwood sisters — James Juniper, Agnes Amaranth, and Beatrice Belladonna — join the suffragists of New Salem, they begin to pursue the forgotten words and ways that might turn the women’s movement into the witch’s movement. Stalked by shadows and sickness, hunted by forces who will not suffer a witch to vote — and perhaps not even to live — the sisters will need to delve into the oldest magics, draw new alliances, and heal the bond between them if they want to survive.

There’s no such thing as witches. But there will be. (taken from Amazon)

Thank you to Netgalley for providing me with this book in exchange for my honest opinion. This book will be available on October thirteenth.

Do you know how sometimes people get so angry they feel like punching a wall? This book is the literary equivalent of punching a wall. It’s packed with the fury of women oppressed. And it works perfectly.

In Alix E. Harrow’s The Ten Thousand Doors of January, the prose flowed like a stream building into a river. It was beautiful and it took its time. The Once and Future Witches does not have that feel at all. Instead, it is told in staccato bursts of cause and effect. This book rose and fell like a giant wave. I’d take a breath-and get pulled under again.

The story follows three estranged witchy sisters. Juniper is the wild child, the one who starts it all. When she comes across both her sisters in New Salem, they are reunited, past baggage in tow. Never content to sit on the sidelines, Juniper jumps straight into the suffragist movement, from there doing her absolute best to make everyone and their dog mad. Juniper was unpredictable and interesting to read. I never knew what to expect from her character, only that it would cause trouble.

Beatrice is the middle child and the wise one. Books are her refuge (sound familiar, anyone?) and she is the researcher who makes sure the sisters have any knowledge they need. She is often unsure of herself. Really, she is her own worst enemy. Her story arc is quieter, but no less important. When the other sisters break down, she is there to pick up the pieces.

Agnes is a force to be reckoned with. It takes her quite a while for her sense of injustice to boil over and turn into action. Once it does, though – yikes! Don’t make her mad. While I enjoyed her character, she is my least favorite of the three.

The concept is a unique one: take the suffragist movement and chuck in some magic. If it was written by any other author, it might have floundered. However, Alix E. Harrow is a fantastic writer. She could write a novel about paper cuts, and I’d be excited to read it.

If you like books with angry characters, vengeance, and more than a touch of magic, this one is for you.

Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Mexican Gothic' Review: Silvia Moreno-Garcia Reinvigorates A ...

After receiving a frantic letter from her newly-wed cousin begging for someone to save her from a mysterious doom, Noemí Taboada heads to High Place, a distant house in the Mexican countryside. She’s not sure what she will find—her cousin’s husband, a handsome Englishman, is a stranger, and Noemí knows little about the region.   
 
Noemí is also an unlikely rescuer: She’s a glamorous debutante, and her chic gowns and perfect red lipstick are more suited for cocktail parties than amateur sleuthing. But she’s also tough and smart, with an indomitable will, and she is not afraid: Not of her cousin’s new husband, who is both menacing and alluring; not of his father, the ancient patriarch who seems to be fascinated by Noemí; and not even of the house itself, which begins to invade Noemi’s dreams with visions of blood and doom.
 
Her only ally in this inhospitable abode is the family’s youngest son. Shy and gentle, he seems to want to help Noemí, but might also be hiding dark knowledge of his family’s past. For there are many secrets behind the walls of High Place. The family’s once colossal wealth and faded mining empire kept them from prying eyes, but as Noemí digs deeper she unearths stories of violence and madness. 
 
And Noemí, mesmerized by the terrifying yet seductive world of High Place, may soon find it impossible to ever leave this enigmatic house behind. (taken from Amazon)

I don’t usually give trigger warnings in my posts. However, I’m going to give one here because I really wish I’d been given one. This book contains more than one instance of sexual assault. If I had been aware of that going in, I would not have read this book. So. There’s that.

In many aspects, this is a typical gothic novel. It contains many of the things often found in creeptastic books. Isolated rundown mansion? Check. Help staff that has been there forever and is eerily silent? Check. Possible mental illness? Check. Tragic, violent past? Check. Hallucinations-or are they hauntings? Check.

However, Noemi is a fresh take on the heroine. She’s a little spoiled and quite used to getting her way. Being thwarted at every turn only serves to increase her determination to figure out what’s going on. I liked that it explained why she wouldn’t cut and run when it became clear that something wasn’t right.

The other cast of characters were original spins on the usual tropes. There’s Virgil, who personifies the word “vile”; Florence, a strict woman who really dislikes Noemi; Howard, the old and wizened patriarch; Frances, the pale tortured young man; and Constance, the cousin who might be having a nervous breakdown.

In case you haven’t realized it by now, I didn’t care for this book. I was disgusted by the sexual aspects in this book, I was not surprised by any of the “twists,” and the final reveal bordered on the ridiculous. That being said, the descriptions were well done. The author made sure to use all the sense when describing the setting, which made it feel much more real.

If you can handle harsher content, you might enjoy this book. As for me, I was underwhelmed.