2 reviews in 1 post: Deliverance Dane & Temperance Hobbs

The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane, by Katherine Howe, is a fun book with an intriguing premise. As the book opens, Connie Goodwin is concluding her orals for her PhD candidacy. Her specialty is early American history, and she’s looking for something to set her research apart. As luck would have it, she’s asked to clean out her ancestors’ abandoned home. There, she finds clues to a previously-unknown primary source: a book of charms kept through several generations, all the way back to the 1600s. She also finds a heritage she didn’t know she had.

Interspersed with Connie’s search is the story of the book’s history and the women who created it, beginning with one accused of witchcraft in the Salem witch trials.

The tidbits of historical village life were fascinating, and Connie’s attraction to Sam the steeplejack was engaging. At times the writing was splendid; in other places, however, it was lackluster and elementary. There were several instances where Connie didn’t know or realize something that any Freshman history major would know, even though she’s a PhD candidate. There were also some conflicting elements in the story (e.g., in one place Connie doesn’t remember her grandmother but in another place she reminisces fondly about her). The ending was…well, readers interested in this type of book should expect to suspend belief.

If I had picked this book up as a YA, instead of a NYT-bestselling adult novel, I could give it a higher rating. But considering the inconsistent prose and the too-simple “clues” Connie can’t comprehend without a lot of explaining for the reader, as a book for adults it doesn’t hold up. Still, the interesting historical aspect makes it an entertaining read. Three stars.

The Daughters of Temperance Hobbs by Katherine Howe is a follow-up to The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane. Although Temperance can be read as a stand-alone, there are several references to happenings in Deliverance, and reading the first book will enhance understanding of the second.

As Temperance opens, Connie hasn’t entirely come to terms with her heritage as a descendent of a Salem witch. She puts up with her mother’s hippie-new age ideas with barely-disguised scorn when she has to, and otherwise tries not to think about it.

Then she gets pregnant, and plans to marry Sam. She can no longer hide from the fact that every husband-father in her ancestry dies an early death. All, that is, except one. Why didn’t the husband of Temperance Hobbs meet the same fate? If Connie can discover that secret, she can have her happily-ever-after.

The modern-day story is told alternately with that of Temperance Hobbs, who lived in the 1600s, and her daughters. As such, the reader is privy to the secret before Connie is. What the reader doesn’t know is how on earth a modern-day woman will be able to replicate the required action—if she can find it.

Like the first book, this one has an intriguing premise, and it could be called fun. But it has the same inconsistency in its delivery. I’d hoped that since this book had a different publisher, a good editor would elevate the execution. But poor writing was found along with the good. The author found it necessary to over-explain everything. Worst of all, the ending was so absurd I may not have finished the book if it wasn’t for my book group. Up to that point, the story was enjoyable if still not entirely believable. Every book doesn’t have to be fine literature, after all.

I wish I could give this book—and Deliverance—a higher rating, for several reasons. I’d like to see more books explore various interpretations of historical events. The premise and the concept are promising. It’s a fun read. And, less importantly but still admittedly part of the picture, our book group received copies of The Daughters of Temperance Hobbs from GalleyMatch. It’s the first time we’ve been so privileged, and fear that with a negative review, it may also be the last. But I have to give an honest review, and honestly, this book didn’t live up even to the low expectations set by its predecessor. Two stars.

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Book Review: Bayou City Burning

It’s evident from the very first line that BAYOU CITY BURNING will be a throwback to the 1930-40s hardboiled fiction. The difference is that instead of Prohibition, in this book set in 1961 Houston, society is dealing with desegregation and space wars. But like any good hardboiled PI story, it still features a tough, wise-cracking PI with his own moral code, willing to bend the law for a good cause while dealing with both the mob and the corrupt political system.

Harry Lark is hired by a stranger to follow a couple NASA engineers and report on their activities. The stranger won’t say why, but he’ll pay—and Harry’s got bills. He thinks it’s over when he hands in the report, but the plot thickens when the stranger is later found murdered in Harry’s office.

Meanwhile, Harry’s 12-year-old daughter Dizzy—her father’s mini-me in personality if not looks—opens a Lost and Found with two friends. They aren’t expecting to be asked to find a “lost” father, but that’s what happens when 7-year-old Sissy doesn’t believe her father really died a train wreck. A Barbie doll arrived in the mail on her birthday, and she’s sure her father sent it. Dizzy and her friends agree to take the case.

It seems that father and daughter are working two very different mysteries, though they help each other out with advice, ideas, and (sometimes unbelievable) actions. However, author D.B. Borton manages to bring the cases together slicker than Harry’s oiled hair.

The pleasure in reading BAYOU CITY BURNING comes from both the delightful prose—which is full of wit, slang, and similes—and the characters. For although Harry is a hardboiled PI, he’s also contemplative and a caring father; and Dizzy is as empathetic as she is precocious. They’re a perfect team. I look forward to their next appearance.

My review is given honestly although I was given an advance copy of the book.

Guest Blogging Today

I have a short guest blog over at One Woman’s Day. Come on over and see what lesson I learned from a pothole. https://bit.ly/2JHKFDx

Book Review: Sold on a Monday

Sold on a Monday was not what I expected.

When we’re first introduced to reporter Ellis Read, he’s killing time taking photographs. A couple of boys playing in front of a run-down house catch his attention. It’s not until he’s snapping their photo that he sees the sign on the porch: 2 children for sale.

Read’s editor wants to run the photo with a story, but the photo gets ruined. When Ellis returns to re-take it, the family is gone. In desperation, he takes the left-behind sign and stages a similar shoot with neighbor children (who are not for sale).

Sold on a Monday isn’t about either set of children. Rather, it’s about Ellis Read. How far will he go to make his career? More importantly, how far will he go to set things right when the far-reaching consequences of his actions are revealed?

Forgiveness, of self as well as others, is a major theme of the story. As one character states, “Even decent, well-meaning people could make poor choices under pressure.” How then can we determine, both individually and as a society, when leniency should be extended and when it should not? At what point should society make a judgement of a someone (for example, that a couple are not fit to be parents and should not be allowed to adopt children)?

Kristina McMorris obviously did her research for this historical novel. Elements of daily life in 1930s New York are sprinkled throughout, providing a firm setting. I could pick a few nits, but for the main part the book is well written. The characters are engaging and the chain of events is poignant. The pacing varies, as it should in any good story; however, it does drag in a couple of areas while racing too quickly in a couple of others. Overall, a good read worth the time. Four stars.

Sousanna

If you follow me on social media, you know that one accomplishment for me this year was the publication of SOUSANNA: THE LOST DAUGHTER by Sousanna Stratmann. This is the fictionalized memoir a woman who was taken from her family in Greece under false pretenses and adopted in the US in the late 1950s.

I learned some history I didn’t know while working on this book. I also heard, through the voice of one who’s lived it, the thoughts of a young child taken from her loving family and put into a foreign place, and how it affected the rest of her life.

Sousanna had her first book signing event tonight. There was a great turnout despite a cold front blowing in. I feel honored to have played a part in bringing her story—and the story of thousands of others like her—to the world.


Book Review: We Were the Lucky Ones

We Were the Lucky Ones by Georgia Hunter is based on the true story of the extraordinary holocaust survival of an entire Jewish family from Radom, Poland. Well-off and assimilated, they seem too pampered when we first meet them to endure the hardships that will come their way – especially knowing (as we do now) that fewer than 300 Jews of the 30,000 that lived in that town in 1939 survived WWII. As the family is separated and sent to different parts of the globe, each member has to find a way to survive the particular circumstances that come their way. 

It is a compelling story, and one that deserves to be told. This telling of it, however, is lacking in several ways.

Each family member (2 parents, 5 children + spouses, and a grandchild) has several chapters dedicated to their experience. While I understand why the author chose to use multiple perspectives, it did not allow enough time with each character to develop a connection with them.

It also did not allow the full story of any of them to be told. Chapters often ended with a “cliffhanger” but by time the story got back around to that character, time had passed and there was no follow through of the action. For example, (slight spoiler) in one place Mila hides her young daughter Felicia in a sack of fabric when the SS show up at her workplace. Mila has to leave Felicia when all workers are ordered outside. In the hiding place, Felicia hears the boots of the soldiers all around her. They start kicking the bags around her. The chapter ends here, and the story doesn’t get back to them for ten chapters. By then, it’s almost a year later and we join Mila and Felicia on a train. So obviously the soldiers didn’t find Felicia, but we don’t get the rest of that scene. Most chapter are that way.

In addition, the omniscient point of view created distance between me as a reader and the story, so that I could never feel immersed in it; I was being told the story rather than experiencing it with the characters.

The lack of any faults among the characters also made them unrelatable. Every one of them was beautiful, smart, brave, patient, selfless—none of them ever fought or even complained. No one is that perfect, especially in such trying times.

The story tries to be told in present tense, but there is so much remembering and backstory that there is just as much past tense, and the switch was jarring at times. And there were several instances of anachronism.

I give it three stars.

How Urban Legends Are Born

I love research, and I love holidays. So it should come as no surprise that researching holiday history and traditions is a special hobby of mine. Sometimes, this leads to bunny trials that go so far, it becomes impossible to trace the ending back to the beginning. That’s the case in a recent discovery: how did I get from old Christmas traditions to witch’s ladders? However it happened, I discovered along the way how urban legends are born.

Almost all information these days says witch’s ladders are an old, traditional, homemade cord spell. Legend has it that witches would knot a string (or rope, hair, etc.) with feathers while cursing someone, then hide the string. The only way for the victim to escape the curse was to find the string and untie every knot.

Deeper research reveals another story.

“In the town of Wellington, in Somersetshire, [stood a] building of considerable antiquity…Some eight or nine years ago [1878] it was discovered that this building was in so unsafe a condition that its instant demolition was become a necessity…In pulling down the upper storey [sic] there was found in a space which separated the roof from the upper room, and to which there was no means of access from below—First: six brooms. Second: an old arm-chair. Third: a rope with feathers woven into it.”

The above is from an article entitled “A Witch’s Ladder” by Dr. Abraham Colles in the 1887 Folk-Lore Journal (Vol 5, No 1).

The original “witch’s ladder,” AKA sewel.

The article goes on to say, “The workmen who made the discovery of the articles declared them with confidence to be for the following purposes:—The chair for the witches to rest in: the brooms for them to ride on: the rope to act as a ladder to enable them to cross the roof… they had no hesitation in at first sight designating the rope and feathers ‘A witches’ ladder.’”

An associate of Colles, Edward Burnett Tylor, a Reader in Anthropology in Oxford and Keeper of the University Museum, presented the item to a meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science later that year. Immediately two members of the audience stood up and informed him the object was a sewel, and would have been held in the hand to turn back deer when hunting.

SEW’EL, noun Among huntsmen, something hung up to prevent deer entering a place. —American Dictionary of the English Language, Noah Webster, 1828

Sew’el, n. [Etymol. uncertain.] A scarecrow, generally made of feathers tied to a string, hung up to prevent deer from breaking into a place. –Webster’s New International Dictionary, 1909

Undeterred, Colles’ continued to try to connect the object with witchcraft. He asked some elderly women thought to have knowledge of witchcraft, and a couple of them supposedly mentioned a “rope with feathers” but denied knowing what they were for or how they were used.

Colles published the article quoted above in an attempt to gather more information. He got several responses; among these was a claim that such items were used in Germany and Scotland for “getting away the milk from the neighbor’s cows.” Another came from a man in Italy, who wrote that in that country, such a tool was called a witch’s garland and was used to cause ill fortune. No documentation could be found of either, however.

Then, in 1893, a Reverend Sabine Baring-Gould wrote about a witch’s ladder in his novel Mrs. Curgenven of Curgenven. Colles’ associate, Tyler, wrote to Baring-Gould to ask where he’d gotten his information on witch’s ladders. Unfortunately for the two seekers, the author said he’s made it all up. But on entreaty by Tyler, Baring-Gould asked a local woman known as a witch about the object in question. She said it was “nothing but a string set with feathers to frighten birds from a line of peas.” Another novel about a witch’s ladder appeared a few years later, but again with no documentation.

With no further information to be found, the feathered string was forgotten until 1911, when Tyler’s widow sent it to the Pitt Rivers Museum of Oxford with a note that read, “The “witches’ ladder” came from here. An old woman, said to be a witch, died, this was found in an attic, & sent to my Husband. It was described as made of “stag’s” (cock’s) feathers, & was thought to be used for getting away the milk from the neighbours’ cows – nothing was said about flying or climbing up. There is a novel called “The Witch Ladder” by E. Tyler in which the ladder is coiled up in the roof to cause some one’s death.”

The string is on display at the Pitt Rivers Museum, labeled as: “Witches ladder made with cock’s feathers. Said to have been used for getting away the milk from neighbour’s cows and for causing people’s deaths. From an attic in the house of an old woman (a witch?) who died in Wellington.”

See how a sewel became a witch’s tool? Urban legend born.