The Spellbook of Katrina Van Tassel by Alyssa Palombo

Ichabod Crane is an unlikely hero for a historical romance. In Washington Irving’s famous tale, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, he is described thus:

He was tall and exceedingly lank, with narrow shoulders, long arms and legs, hands that dangled a mile out of his sleeves, and feet that might have served for shovels. His head was small, and flat at top, with huge ears, large green glassy eyes, and a long snipe nose . . . To see him striding along on a windy day, with his clothes bagging and fluttering about him, one might have mistaken him for some scarecrow eloped from a cornfield.

Soooooper sexy, amiright?

Everyone deserves a chance at love, of course, no matter how they look; however, the gangly and shovel-handed generally don’t appear in bodice rippers. We usually see specimens of this sort:

photo of man in body of water wearing white brief
Photo by Samad Ismayilov on Pexels.com

We wouldn’t know if his clothes were ill-fitting, since the romance hero usually walks around shirtless.

Alyssa Palombo manages a feat of extraordinary magic by tranforming Ichabod Crane into a believable romantic figure. In The Spellbook of Katrina Van Tassel, her “feminist” retelling of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, she describes him in this way:

He was young, that much was certain–likely only in his early twenties. He was tall and gangly, with long arms and legs; he nearly towered over me. Were my father to stand, his own considerable height would be no match for this man. His brown hair, which he had tied back at his nape with a simple black ribbon, was shot through with gold. Wide eyes stared back at me, a startling deep green, like the moss that grew at the banks of the stream in the woods. His ears, I noted, were unfortunately large, yet somehow made his already pleasant face even more endearing. He was handsome, but not too much so.

I was delighted by the idea of this nerd turned hunk. Unfortunately, I have grown into a hard-hearted creature in middle age and find myself impatient with effusive romantic scenes in books and movies. The first half or so of The Spellbook was little more than overwrought lust between two young people who, by society’s standards, were ill-suited for one another. I’m sure some people will enjoy this depiction of forbidden love, but it wore me out.

51y3u8J94HL._SX324_BO1,204,203,200_

I still believe in love, but I’m much more moved by relationships that are grounded in reality, established and nurtured over time, developed through thick and thin…and expressed primarily in small, but consistent loving gestures. The great romances of stories seem too impetuous and inflamed for me. I have a hard time believing those sorts of relationships will last beyond the initial burst of lust.

The second half of the book redeemed itself primarily because Katrina matured. Her adult voice and perceptions were much more tolerable to me. Kudos to the author for developing her heroine so successfully! I particularly liked how Katrina’s relationship to her best friend and her housekeeper deepened as she weathered her trials. Her own sufferings prompted her to consider those of these two special people in her life and she stepped up, offered them her attention and care.

When I first began reading this book, I was worried that it was going to be a slog because the dialog was so awkward. The author attempts to recreate the language used in colonial America. I can’t judge how accurate her rendition is because I don’t know enough about how language was used then; however, I wasn’t impressed with it because it made the exchanges between the characters seem so stilted.

Mr. Crane laughed, a warm, rich sound. “I had hoped I was not too bold, nor overstepping. But it did seem that you had no particular desire for that gentleman’s company.”

“How correct you are, Mr. Crane,” I said.

I don’t know if this is entirely accurate, because I haven’t sat down to analyze the text closely, but I was left with the impression that the characters always spoke in complete sentences. Who does that? Finally, the language had the unfortunate effect of making the character’s emotional outpourings seem more melodramatic than necessary.

Fortunately, I didn’t give up on the book because of my issue with the linguistic style. At some point–probably one third to halfway through, I was completely drawn into the drama of it all. I had to know what happened. Just like the characters, I wanted to know whether or not the spectre would prove to be real. I wanted to know if Katrina would be able to tap into the magic of the world and I wanted to know if there was any possibility of a happy ending.

Overall, I thought the book was really well done. The author’s post-script added to my appreciation of what she had been trying to achieve with this work: infusing a previously two-dimensional female character with spirit, agency and a voice. She did her research, but knew when to allow her artistic license to dictate one deviation or another in order to keep the story compelling and the atmosphere rich. I liked the bits of Dutch culture and language that were sprinkled throughout the tale and the grounding of the story in a particular time by references to events outside the small world of Sleepy Hollow. I look forward to reading more books by Alyssa Palombo!


Netgalley provided me with a free copy of this book for an honest review. It is due for publication on October 2, 2018.

A Court of Thorns and Roses by Sarah Maas

When I was in junior high, I wanted nothing more than to fit in with my peers. I wore the neon clothes, the parachute pants, and the jelly shoes. I listened to Michael Jackson and Madonna along with the rest of them (although I had a secret crush on the Monkees). All these years later, I still want to fit in, but darn it if my perverse nature doesn’t make that impossible.

My book blogging coterie ADORES(!) the Court of Thorns and Roses trilogy by Sarah Maas. I wanted to love it as much as my friends did, but wasn’t able to muster up the same level of enthusiasm as everyone else. The trilogy was entertaining enough with high adventure and epic romances. At times the language was poetic and the fictional world almost came to life for me, but…

  • It was kind of cheesy. Such melodrama!
  • And it dragged on a bit too long. I was bored by the interminable hand-wringing and the overly drawn out battle scenes.
  • But most troubling to me were the depictions of roles assigned to men and women and by the relationships between the two. This particularly surprised me because Sarah Maas is touted as a feminist author.

I liked that the books included some strong female characters. Feyre, for all her faults, was brave and determined to do the right thing. Nesta and Mor were also impressive. Unfortunately, the scope for how women can be strong or effective seems rather narrow in this world. Strength, at least as depicted here, involves facing physical threats, whether it’s starvation, confrontation with wild beasts or repulsing malignant magical forces.

The strong people in these books possess either a cruel or rude streak. Consider, for a moment, the play acting that’s required by Feyre and Rhysand in the Court of Nightmares, or Nesta’s nasty behavior as she tries to protect her little sister. The strong ones either use brutality or threats to protect those important to them. I would have liked to have seen more episodes where kindness and diplomacy were shown as strengths. Showing the kind and gentle Elain as something more than a pawn would have gone a long way to assuage the dissatisfaction I felt in this regard. The one moment of bravery she is given is so out-of-character that it didn’t work for me. The only notable example of kindness being a strength was when Feyre gave her jewelry to the creepy starving water creatures.

I personally find it distasteful when main characters use their sexuality to manipulate others. As long as humans feel sexual urges, I suppose we can’t get away from that as being a primary way to motivate some; however, if a text is being promoted as feminist, then I think it shouldn’t rely so much on its characters being able to get what they want because someone wants to fuck them. We’ve seen plenty of examples of that in books for decades upon decades. Give us something where the characters effect change through cleverness, hard work, kindness, toughness, etc. I’m not going to argue that these books don’t include examples of those things, but they rely overly much on sexuality.

Of course, much of the appeal of these books is the romance and steamy sex scenes. I love a good romance as much as anyone and can be titillated by a good sex scene. Other bloggers (here’s one) have already detailed their concerns with consent issues in these books. Given some of the troubling outcomes we’ve seen with rape trials (she was drunk or asleep; she wore provocative clothing; she was outside after dark; she was nice to me), I concur with readers who reject as unsatisfactory any explanation for the non-consensual sexual acts in these books. I believe we need to keep the lines of acceptability less muddied than they are. There are a number of troubling scenes, but Rhysand’s treatment of Feyre while under the mountain seems to be widely processed in the following manner: Sure, so and so forced her to wear revealing clothes, dance seductively for him and drink a beverage that made her black out–but he did so to protect her. FUCK THAT NONSENSE! That’s NOT ok.

The author has a fertile imagination. Surely, she could have come up with some other scenario where Rhysand could have protected Feyre by keeping her dignity intact and by allowing her some say in her treatment. What’s worse is that Feyre forgives him so quickly for all of this. If you ask me, it’s like the pathetic sentence given to Brock Turner. It devalues the crime. I also think it’s a version of a rape fantasy–watered down, yes, but upsetting all the same.

I, along with a lot of womankind, have been indoctrinated into the cult of “bad boys are sexy.” I’m trying my damndest to break free of that though. I would much rather see good boys shown as drool-worthy. Why? I suffered through a long relationship to someone who didn’t treat me right.  I didn’t recognize certain behaviors as unacceptable for far too long. There’s a lot of complicated psychology involved there, but I do partly blame the bad boy trope in romances as something that made me think being treated less than well was ok. It’s not. End of story.

Psssst…Wanna Know a Secret?

I’ve hit a lot of important milestones in my life.

  • I ate solid foods.
  • I learned to walk.
  • I learned to talk and haven’t shut up since.
  • I learned to read and do it obsessively.
  • I learned to print and write in cursive.
  • I learned to tell time.
  • I learned to read music and play the piano…and the french horn…and the trumpet…and now, in a rudimentary way, the guitar (I WILL MASTER THE Bmin CHORD IF IT’S THE LAST THING I DO).
  • I learned to drive a stick shift.
  • I graduated from high school. And college. And another college.
  • I earned a certificate from a night school program.
  • I landed several jobs.
  • I got married.
  • I had kids.
  • I got unmarried.
  • I braved okCupid, tinder, coffeemeetsbagel. I didn’t end up hating all men. (Trust me, that’s noteworthy.)
  • I did my own taxes.
  • I bought a car.

All these things are great. I’m proud of what I accomplished. But, there’s one thing I’ve wanted to do since I learned to hold a crayon: write a novel. I’ve written a lot of poetry and short stories. I’m a daft hand at flash fiction. I can write an essay that would convince you to sell all your belongings and join a circus. What I haven’t been able to do (yet) is come up with an idea for a novel that sustains me past the first 5,000 words or so.

But, 40-something years later, I haven’t given up. I keep buying books on how to write novels. I read them. I try some of the exercises. The latest book in my arsenal is The Secrets of Story by Matt Bird.

secrets

I was hooked by the first paragraph:

You’ve just boarded a plane. Your iPhone is loaded with all your favorite podcasts, but before you can get your earbuds in, disaster strikes: The guy in the next seat starts telling you all about something crazy that happened to him–in great detail. This guy is an unwelcome storyteller trying to convince an extremely reluctant audience to care about his story. We all hate that guy, right?

~Matt Bird, The Secrets of Story

I hope Mr. Bird is going to explain how to capture a reluctant audience’s attention and hold it. From the table of contents, it looks like he might. He includes “the thirteen essential laws of writing for strangers.” But that’s not all! He also provides “The Ultimate Story Checklist.” This should help me keep a reader’s attention after I’ve first caught it. I’m really excited about this book!

Now, if I could only come up with a really excellent idea…I’ve already scrapped the idea about the Sasquatch hunter who is allergic to pet dander.

sassy

P.S. I’m going to participate in Nanowrimo again this year. While I didn’t get far the last time I tried it, I did end up generating a lot of material that became short stories. Will any of you be participating?