Book Review: The Uninvited: A Novel, Cat Winters (2015)

Wednesday, August 12th, 2015

Hope is the Girl with Bright Blue Butterfly Wings

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through Edelweiss. Trigger warning for violence.)

Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,
Old time is still a-flying;
And this same flower that smiles today
Tomorrow will be dying.

We were music. We were jazz. We were alive.

Like her mother Alice and her Granny Letty before her, Ivy Rowan can see Uninvited Guests. Ghosts, harbinger spirits who only appear to Ivy to herald a death. Instead of offering her comfort, the ghosts of her beloved ancestors inspire nothing but fear and dread in Ivy’s bleeding heart. Every time they visit her, someone dies.

The year is 1918. As the twin horrors of World War I and the Spanish Influenza rip across the globe, leaving millions of corpses in their wake – many of them the young and the healthy; those who should have their whole lives ahead of them – the ghosts seem to come at Ivy in droves. Death is a constant.

There’s her younger brother Billy, who was killed in the Battle of Saint-Michiel just a month ago. Eddie Dover, target of so many teenage crushes, also felled in battle. And Albrecht Schendel – the German businessman her father Frank and youngest brother Peter beat to death in cold blood.

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: Orphan Number Eight, Kim van Alkemade (2015)

Friday, August 7th, 2015

A Tense Psychological Thriller Tempered With a Heartrending Coming-of-Age Story

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through Edelweiss. Trigger warning for rape and violence, including illicit human experimentation. Also, this review contains a plot summary with minor spoilers.)

The question sounded strange in the present tense. I used to think that orphaned was something I’d been as a child and since outgrown. It occurred to me, though, that was exactly how I’d been feeling all summer.

“I guess anyone alone in the world’s an orphan,” I said.

The year is 1918, and four-year-old Rachel Rabinowitz has just landed in the Infant Home, an orphanage for Jewish kids under the age of six in New York City. After her lying, cheating, rapist father accidentally kills her mother* and then runs from the police, Rachel and her brother Sam are effectively orphaned, taken in by the Jewish Children’s Agency. Two years her senior, Sam is sent to the Orphaned Hebrews Home.

The children are considered lucky, in a sense: funded by wealthy patrons, the Infant Home and Orphaned Hebrews Home are well-regarded. Whereas gentile kids in their position – and there are many, left penniless, homeless, and/or without a family to call their own by the twin terrors of the so-called Spanish Influenza and World War I – would be left to fend for themselves, Rachel and Sam get a roof over their heads, beds to call their own, three square meals a day – even an education.

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: Church of Marvels: A Novel, Leslie Parry (2015)

Wednesday, May 6th, 2015

“I have witnessed the sublime in the mundane…”

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free ARC for review from the publisher.)

But this story, in truth, is not about me. I am only a small part of it. I could try to forget it, perhaps. I could try to put it behind me. But sometimes I dream that I’ll still return to the pageantry of the sideshow, hide myself beneath costumes and powder and paint, grow willingly deaf among the opiating roar of the audience and the bellow of the old brass band. It will be like the old days – when Mother was ferocious and alive, before the Church of Marvels burned to the sand. But how can I return now, having seen what I have seen? For I’ve found that here in this city, the lights burn ever brighter, but they cast the darkest shadows I know.

Why, he wondered, did he have to peddle his difference for their amusement, and yet at the same time temper it, suppress it, make it suitably benign?

How would it feel to know there were people who’d chosen to live as they felt, not as they appeared, and never looked back? Could she bear their happiness, as shunned as they were? Was she brave enough?

She had seen it done. Wherever they glittered in the afterlife – flying among the high rafters of heaven, swimming with her mother in an undersea cave – she hoped the tigers had known it, and roared.

For the first time in her seventeen years, Odile Church is alone. Her mother’s sideshow carnival, the Church of Marvels, burned to ash in the spring, the casualty of a freak fire. With it went her mother, many of her friends, and the only life she knew. Her twin sister, Isabelle Church, was spared – only to run off to Manhattan not long after. That was three months ago; three months without a word.

And then Odile receives a cryptic, ominous letter from Belle: “If for some reason this is the last letter I should write to you, please know that I love you.” Armed with little more than an old map of her mother’s and Belle’s letter, Odile hops the next ferry to Manhattan in search of her sister.

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: Forbidden (Forbidden #1), Kimberley Griffiths Little (2014)

Wednesday, February 11th, 2015

Rich in Detail and Drama

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free ebook for review through the book blog Batch of Books. Trigger warning for rape.)

1759 BC, the deserts of Mesopotamia. Sixteen-year-old Jayden – daughter of Pharez, of the tribe Nephish – is about to perform the betrothal dance before the women of her tribe, sealing her fate as the soon-to-be-wife of Horeb, her adopted cousin and prince in training. Handsome, powerful, and wealthy, Horeb is considered a real catch by many of the young women in this desert-dwelling tribe. Only Jayden sees him for who he truly is – a cold, calculating man, filled with cruelty and sadism. (Perhaps because Horeb only drops his mask for her, delighting in tormenting someone completely lacking in recourse – for when they wed, she will become his property.)

Though their betrothal dates back to their childhoods, there might have been a time when Jayden’s father could have renegotiated or even broken it. Originally it was her older sister Leila’s marriage to Zenos, the elder of the two brothers, which took precedent. Zenos was first in line to become tribal King upon the death or retirement of his father, Abimelech, and Leila was to rule as his Queen. But all that changed when Zenos died during a raid the previous year – pinning all of her family’s hopes on Jayden’s thin shoulders.

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: To Find a Mountain, Dani Amore (2014)

Monday, December 8th, 2014

A Fictional Look at Rural Italy During WWII

three out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free book for review through Goodreads’ First Reads program. Also, trigger warning for rape.)

My children know very little of what happened to me during that time. The parts I have told them are the truth, but I have not told them everything. […]

They do not know how close to death I came. They do not know how close to death their father came. They do now know how close to death my entire village came – all because of the events that took place in my house the year the Germans arrived.

My children will learn that wars are fought not just on the front lines, but also in the dirt streets of poverty-stricken towns like Casalvieri, Italy.

They will learn that their mother killed a man during the war.

The year is 1943, and Nazi forces have just arrived in the small Italian town of Casalvieri. Located several miles north of Mt. Cassino – the single highest point in central Italy – Casalvieri is, much to its residents’ detriment, a strategic asset in the war for Italy. Seemingly overnight, the town is overrun with Germanesi, demanding food, housing, and – worst of all – male bodies to sacrifice to the German war machine.

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: The Sunken (Engine Ward Book 1), S.C. Green (2014)

Wednesday, November 12th, 2014

“By Great Conductor’s steam-driven testicles!”

three out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free e-copy of this book for review through Library Thing’s Member Giveaways program. Also, trigger warning for rape. I summarize some of the plot points below, but try to avoid any major spoilers.)

Set in London in 1820 and 1830, The Sunken imagines an alternate history in which dragons thrive in the swamps surrounding London; King George III is a vampire/cannibal/madman; and traditional, god-fearing religions have been abolished in favor of those that worship science. In this new old England, engineers, physicians, scholars, artists, and poets lead their own churches and sects, sermonizing on their latest theories and inventions.

The Sunken follows four childhood friends in boyhood (in 1820, they are fifteen years of age and on the cusp of going their separate ways) and adulthood (in 1830, they reunite in a London destined for radical change). The son of a Lord, Nicholas Rose is about to depart with the Royal Navy on a post bought and paid for by his cruel father – as is his adventure-seeking comrade, James Holman. Meanwhile, Isambard Kingdom Brunel is to continue studying engineering under the tutelage of his father Marc. Ditto: Henry Williams, who – as the descendant of the great dragon hunter Aaron Williams Senior – occupies one of the top social rungs among the lowly Stokers, the laborers who keep the great machines under London running. The day before Nicholas and James are to set sail, there’s an accident in Marc’s school which claims the life of Henry; Marc is tried for negligence and banished to Van Diem’s Land, leaving Isambard in the care of his abusive mother.

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: The Shining Girls: A Novel, Lauren Beukes (2014)

Monday, October 13th, 2014

Deserves every bit of the buzz – and then some!

five out of five stars

My introduction to Lauren Beukes came in the form of Broken Monsters, an ARC of which I had the pleasure of reviewing last month. Though I fell in love with Beukes’ writing style – the playful use of pop culture references, the skillful interweaving of multiple narratives and POVs, the casual interrogation of racism and sexism – the particular blend of fantasy/SF and crime fiction found in Broken Monsters didn’t quite do it for me. Thinking that it might work better in The Shining Girls, I bumped it up to the top of my TBR pile. I know it’s a little tired to say that this book shines, but. Yeah, it kind of does.

Harper is a psychopath living in a Chicago Hooverville circa 1931 when he robs a blind woman of her coat – in the pocket of which he finds a key, which leads him to the House. His House. By all appearances a dilapidated shack, once Harper steps through the front door, it magically transforms itself a mansion – shiny, new, and opulent – just for him. And when he passes through the front door again, he can step out onto any time he can imagine…just so long as the day falls somewhere between 1931 and 1993.

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: The Secrets of Life and Death, Rebecca Alexander (2014)

Wednesday, October 8th, 2014

A Mostly Fun Mix of Urban Fantasy & Historical Fiction

three out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free ARC for review through Library Thing’s Early Reviewers program.)

It is said in Poland that nowhere is the line between alive and dead finer, than in Transylvania. Only when a corpse is bloated and festering, or entirely beheaded, is it believed dead.

Poland, 1585. The scientist-slash-sorcerer Dr. John Dee and his assistant Edward Kelley are summoned to the castle of His Majesty King Istvan Báthory of Poland, King and Duke of Lithuania, King and Viovode of Transylvania, Prince of Hungary (say that five times fast!). His sister’s daughter, the Countess Elisabeth Báthory, is dying of a mysterious illness – one with symptoms eerily similar to the sickness that claimed her mother Anna and grandmother Katalin before her.

Caught between the warring forces of the Vatican and its brutal Inquisition; Elisabeth’s husband, the fierce Ferenc Nádasdy; and the angels (or are they demons?) who communicate with Dee through Kelley, the scientists risk death if they fail to cure the Countess – and possibly their mortal souls should they succeed.

(More below the fold…)

DNF Review: Enchantress: A Novel of Rav Hisda’s Daughter, Maggie Anton (2014)

Friday, October 3rd, 2014

(Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book for review through Goodreads’ First Reads program.)

DNF (did not finish) at 18% / 66 pages.

I took a chance on Enchantress: A Novel of Rav Hisda’s Daughter in a Goodreads giveaway; unfortunately, it’s just not for me. While Anton does a commendable job of explaining ancient Jewish beliefs, customs, and phrases for the reader, I often found myself lost and confused. I also didn’t realize that this is the second book in Anton’s Rav Hisda’s Daughter series, which is slated to be a trilogy. It’s hard to say whether reading the books in order would have drastically affected my enjoyment of Enchantress – which, for what it’s worth, I think can also be read as a standalone story.

I might have been willing to power through had I found any of the characters even remotely interesting or engaging – but, as it turned out, the only character for whom I could muster up any sort of feelings was Rava, who is a just an all-around shitty human being: sexist, arrogant, presumptuous, entitled, and narcissistic. And that’s just in the first 66 pages.

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: The Harlem Hellfighters, Max Brooks & Caanan White (2014)

Saturday, August 23rd, 2014

“How ya gonna keep ’em down on the farm after they’ve seen Paree?”

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book for review through Blogging for Books.)

In 1917 we left our home to make the world “safe for democracy.” Even though democracy wasn’t exactly “safe” back home.

We went by many names. The 15th. The 369th. And before going “over there,” we called ourselves “The Black Rattlers.” Our French allies called us “The Men of Bronze.”

And our enemies called us “The Harlem Hellfighters.”

Recruited in Harlem, trained in Camp Whitman, New York (and, disastrously, Spartanburg, South Carolina), and eventually deployed to the Western Front in France, the 369th Infantry Regiment – otherwise known as The Harlem Hellfighters – changed the course of history, even as its own government engineered its failure.

The 369th spent 191 days in combat – more than any other American unit, black or white. None of their men were captured by the enemy, nor did they lose any ground; in fact, they were the first men to reach the Rhine River. The 369th volunteered to stay behind in the front trenches for an expected German bombing the day after Bastille Day, 1918, even though it meant almost certain death. One of their soldiers single-handedly fended off German raiders with only a rifle and a bolo knife; for this, Henry Lincoln Johnson earned the nickname “Black Death” – and was the first American to receive the French Croix de Guerre (the Cross of War). In 2003, the US awarded Johnson the Distinguished Service Cross; his supporters are still lobbying for the Medal of Honor.

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: The One I Was, Eliza Graham (2014)

Wednesday, June 4th, 2014

All the world’s a stage.

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic copy of this book for review through Library Thing’s Member Giveaways program.)

Germany, December 1938. Only weeks after Kristallnacht (“The Night of Broken Glass,” an orgy of organized violence against Jews in Germany and Austria), eleven-year-old Benjamin Goldman boards a Kindertransport train for England. Carrying just his school satchel and his cherished leather football, Benny is traveling light; with his father long since imprisoned by the Nazis, and a mother who lay dying of diphtheria, Benny has no one to see him off, and is eager to put his life in Germany behind him.

Once in England, Benny is “adopted” by Lord Sidney Dorner and his young wife Harriet. The wealthy couple pledged to sponsor twenty Jewish refugees; the best and brightest six boys are to stay at their Fairfleet estate, where they’ll receive a top-notch education from university professor Dr. Dawes. For the next six and a half years, Benny tries his best to assimilate into his new, adopted country. Having always felt an outsider, he’s determined to shed his German roots and become a “proper” Englishman. From day one at Fairfleet, Benny struggles to speak in English rather than German, even outside of the classroom. He excels in his studies and forms tentative friendships with his dorm mates.

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: Katusha Book 2: The Shaking of the Earth, Wayne Vansant (2013)

Wednesday, April 30th, 2014

Coming of Age inside the Well of a T-34

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book for review through Goodreads’ First Reads program.)

Roughly 800,000 women served in the Soviet Armed Forces during World War II (also known in Russia as the Great Patriotic War): as pilots, snipers, machine gunners, tank crew members, and partisans. Of these, a quarter were decorated, and 89 received the highest honor, the Hero of the Soviet Union.

A number of children also fought in the war. Prior to WWII, the age of conscription for men was 19; just before the war began, it was lowered to 17. Teenagers and children fought in insurrections, belonged to youth movements, and in some cases, orphans were allowed join the Red Army in an official capacity. (See e.g.)

In the graphic novel series Katusha: Girl Soldier of the Great Patriotic War, Wayne Vansant shines a light on these lesser-known aspects of World War II.

Refugees from their native country of Ukraine, Book 2: The Shaking of the Earth sees Katusha and her adopted older sister Milla (“Big and Little Tymoshenko”) arrive in Russia just in time for the bombing of Stalingrad on August 23, 1942. The young women quickly graduate from partisans to militia members, as they’re recruited to defend the women and children still remaining in the city. In an attempt to keep them safe (wherein “safe” is a relative term), their father later arranges for them to attend tank driving school in Chelyabinsk. After several months of study, they’re sent to the front lines to fight with the Red Army, where Milla earns the honor of Hero of the Soviet Union for her bravery at the Battle of Prokhorovka in July 1943.

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: Number the Stars, Lois Lowry (1989)

Wednesday, April 9th, 2014

“the gift of a world of human decency”

five out of five stars

It’s September 1943, three years since German forces seized control of Denmark. Nazi soldiers patrol the streets and control the government, hospitals, schools, newspapers, and rail system; possessing an illegal newspaper like The Free Danes might very well get you killed. Copenhagen is under an 8PM curfew, and supplies are strictly rationed. And now, three years later, the Nazis are just beginning to “relocate” Jewish citizens, the way they have in so many other occupied territories.

But the Danish government received warning, which it passed on to Jewish religious leaders. Thanks to one German high official – not to mention countless courageous Danes – most of Denmark’s 7,000 Jewish citizens were smuggled to safety in Sweden. In just a matter of weeks. Right under the occupiers’ noses.

Against this backdrop, Lois Lowry weaves a story of courage and compassion that’s only partially a work of fiction. When word comes that they’re in danger, the Rosen family sends their only daughter, ten-year-old Ellen, to stay with family friends the Johansens: Ellen’s best friend Annemarie, her little sister Kirsti, and their parents. When Nazi soldiers come knocking, Ellen poses as the Johansens’ dead daughter Lise. Afraid of arousing the soldiers’ suspicions, the women travel to stay with Inge’s brother, Henrik, who lives by the sea. Before the war is over, young Annemarie will find her resolve tested. Will she undertake a dangerous mission in order to save her friend Ellen – or will she succumb to her fear of the soldiers?

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: Burning Girls: A Tor.Com Original, Veronica Schanoes (2013)

Friday, April 4th, 2014

Beautifully Conceived and Written

five out of five stars

(Caution: minor spoilers below!)

Born in Bialystok, Poland at the turn of the century, Deborah is possessed of the power like her bubbe. Deborah is a witch, and spends her summers in training with grandmother Hannah: learning to assist in childbirth, cure common ailments, terminate unwanted pregnancies, craft blessings and talismans, and drive away demons. But Deborah’s magic is little help against the growing tide of antisemitism sweeping through Europe; and when the Cossacks lay waste to Hannah’s village, killing Deborah’s beloved grandmother and mentor, it becomes clear to her family that they must escape to America. America, where “they don’t let you burn.”

While the family – mother, father, and sister Shayna – work overtime to save enough money for the trip, Deborah discovers a horrifying secret. There, among grandmother’s sparse belongings, is a mysterious contract: “The ink seemed to be made of blood and vomit. A stench like cowshit rose off the page. My stomach churned every time I unfolded the paper.” When a demon tries to steal her newborn brother Yeshua, Deborah realizes that her grandmother did the unthinkable: traded her daughter’s next child in exchange for the family’s safe passage to America. Though Deborah succeeds in destroying the contract, it’s at great personal cost; and while Deborah and Shayna eventually make it to the New World, they’re ultimately unable to escape the lilit’s clutches.

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: The Abyss: A Journey with Jack the Ripper, David Ruffle (2013)

Friday, March 14th, 2014

Speculative Fiction for the Ripperology Set

three out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book for review through Goodreads’s First Reads program.)

A quirky little novella, The Abyss: A Journey with Jack the Ripper imagines the birth and development of infamous serial killer Jack the Ripper. Born into a staunchly religious household, only child James is routinely abused by his traveling lay-preacher father and arguably sadistic mother. When mum dies in her sleep (supposedly of natural circumstances – but what of her bloodshot eyes?), James is sent to live with his Uncle George and Aunt Katherine in Surrey. After several peaceful years in this household, a now sixteen-year-old James discovers that Katherine is cheating on her husband. His reaction? He blackmails her into buying his silence with sex, and then arranges for his uncle to accidentally walk in on one of her trysts anyhow. An enraged George murders Katherine, and James is unleashed on the world.

The man who would eventually come to be known variously as “Jack the Ripper,” “the Whitechapel Murderer,” and “Leather Apron” finds his way to the East End of London, where he takes on a series of menial jobs, many of them involving the slaughter and butchering of animals. Unhappy, poor, and a perpetual underachiever, he begins to take out his aggression and low self-esteem (to say nothing of his misogyny) on the local population of sex workers.

Told in the third person, James’s story is interspersed with chapters written from the viewpoints of his “canon” victims: Polly Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes, and Mary Kelly. I appreciate this approach, since it helps to humanize and give voice to women who are so often overlooked (or worse, objectified and demonized). This is somewhat undercut, though, but the chapter titles, which refer to the women by number: one through five, corresponding to her sequence in Jack the Ripper’s killing spree.

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: Escape from Berlin, Irene N. Watts (2013)

Wednesday, October 30th, 2013

“For those who do not look away”

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book for review through Library Thing’s Early Reviewer program.)

In the nine months before the outbreak of World War II, and thanks to the efforts of Jewish and Quaker delegates from Germany and Austria, some 10,000 children were ferried to safety in Great Britain. Most of the children rescued through Kindertransport were Jewish, living in Nazi Germany and neighboring Austria, Czechoslovakia, and Poland, and thus in danger of persecution; others were orphans in need of more permanent care during wartime. The children were transported to England, where they were placed in foster homes, hostels, schools, and farms. (Among those rescued? None other than noted American sex therapist – and former Israeli scout and sniper – Dr. Ruth Westheimer. The Wiki entry on Kindertransport makes for interesting reading, and also provides a list of memoirs and historical novels written about this oft-forgot piece of WWII history.)

Author and playwright Irene N. Watts arrived in England via Kindertransport on December 10, 1938. She was just seven years old (the same age as protagonist Sophie) and traveled alone. While the events in Escape from Berlin are not autobiographical, the story is no doubt heavily influenced by the experiences of Watts and children like her. December 1, 2013, marks the 75th anniversary of the first Kindertransport; Good-Bye Marianne, Remember Me, and Finding Sophie are published together here for the first time in honor of the occasion.

Marianne Kohn has spent all of her eleven years in living Berlin with her mother and father. The growing air of anti-Semitism, while sometimes puzzling, is part of Marianne’s daily landscape: she’s used to signs barring admittance to “Jews and dogs,” and public park benches (or entire parks) which are reserved for Aryans only. In the days leading up to World War II, however, life grows increasingly perilous for her family. Marianne is expelled from school when the government passes a new law preventing Jews from attending public schools; similarly, the Nazis prohibit Jews from owning businesses, thus forcing her father to sell his beloved book shop. Even this doesn’t save him from scrutiny, however; the new owner finds some banned books in stock and promptly reports him to the authorities. (“Berlin was full of eyes,” Marianne recalls.) Though he’s ultimately released by the Gestapo, Vati goes into hiding. Faced with dwindling options, Mrs. Kohn decides to do the unthinkable: send Marianne away to England, where she’ll be safe from persecution. Thanks to her volunteer work at an orphanage, Mutti is able to secure a place for Marianne aboard the very first Kindertransport run. The adults wait with bated breath: will the Nazis honor their agreement and allow the train to leave undisturbed? What will become of their children? Is this goodbye their last?

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: The Cure, Sonia Levitin (2000)

Wednesday, October 9th, 2013

Living While Jewish in the Middle Ages

five out of five stars

* Caution: Minor spoilers ahead! *

It is The Year of Tranquility 2047, and humanity has eradicated violence, poverty, and bigotry – at the expense of diversity and emotion. If “diversity begets hostility” and “passion begets evil,” as the United Social Alliance Elders believe, then the only path to utopia is conformity: “Conformity begets Harmony begets Tranquility begets Peace begets Universal Good. (Shout Praises!)” The result is a rather sterile society devoid of family, love, intimacy, history, and art, a community in which all members think as one (and indeed, don’t seem to think about much at all).

To achieve this “Universal Good,” years of genetic engineering and selective breeding have made the human brain compliant; standardized, even. Babies are created in batches, each male paired with a female twin with whom he becomes mated for life. Though the siblings live, work, and parent together (if they so choose), sex is prohibited, a relic of the past. Instead, when females turn 16, their eggs are harvested (a mandate euphemistically referred to as “the process”), so that the next generation can be made in a lab. Touching is taboo, and to further emphasize the sense of oneness, citizens wear smooth, featureless masks at all times. Not even twins are allowed to gaze upon one another’s faces.

Disease and sickness have mostly been eradicated, but in lieu of immortality, citizens can choose to be “recycled” (i.e., euthanized) at any time. The maximum allowed lifespan is 120 years, after which time recycling is mandatory. If one is found to be “deviant” – a nonconforming thinker – most likely he or she will be recycled. A select few are offered the option of “The Cure.”

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: Witch Child, Celia Rees (2000)

Monday, February 4th, 2013

“Words have power. These are mine.”

four out of five stars

Mary Nuttall was just sixteen years old when her grandmother Eliza – the only family she’d ever known – was murdered. Accused of practicing witchcraft, the old woman was tortured, stripped naked, bound, and “floated” – tossed into a river to sink or swim. Her buoyancy taken as a sure sign of guilt, Eliza was pulled from the water only so that she could be hanged in public. Once trusted to heal their loved ones, Eliza’s friends and neighbors in this rural English town proved eager witnesses to her execution.

Rescued from similar persecution by her long-lost mother, Mary is sent away to the “New World” in search of a better life. She’s to travel with a group of Puritans bound for Salem, where they’ll join their brethren and pastor. Upon arrival, the group is dismayed to discover that their kin have moved on, to the isolated town of Beulah. After much deliberation they decide to follow, forging ahead into the wilderness with two Natives – of the Pennacook tribe – acting as their guides.

Unsurprisingly, Beulah couldn’t be further from the safe haven Mary’s mother envisioned for her child. Ruled by a Puritan preacher so strict and demanding that he proved unwelcome in Salem, Mary is in constant danger, just by virtue of being a newcomer to the community. Though she tries hard to stay under the radar, her “transgressions,” real and imagined – which include befriending members of the opposite sex; spending time alone in the forest to gather food and herbs; harboring anything more than uncharitable thoughts about the “heathen” natives; and proficiency in transcription – don’t escape the notice of Reverend Johnson. When items suggestive of witchcraft are discovered in the forest and several of the town’s teenage girls start exhibiting strange behavior, Mary’s worst fears are realized.

All of this we learn from Mary’s journal, which spans roughly a year from 1659-1660. Urged to burn it by her protector/surrogate mother Martha – its opening sentences (“I am Mary. I am a witch.”) alone being sure proof of guilt – Mary instead hides its pages inside a quilt. Discovered more than three hundred years later by one “Alison Ellman” (one of Mary’s descendents, perhaps), Mary’s journal stands testament to the horrors she and her kind endured.

(More below the fold…)