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

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.


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.

Austenites: No Need for Smelling Salts

I’m a wee bit possessive about Jane Austen. I often wish her books were my secret, because all the starry-eyed gushing over romance plots and dopey quizzes on facebook telling you which heroine you are most like irritate me beyond belief.

Why would I want to be so selfish? What’s wrong with different people enjoying something at their own level and for their own reasons? In general, the answer should be there’s nothing wrong with people approaching something in their own unique fashion and evaluating it how they will–EXCEPT, that is, when they’re missing out on what makes something extraordinary.

There are thousands of Regency romances. There are thousands of costume dramas (admittedly, there’s only one scene where Colin Firth emerges soaking wet out of a fountain). There are many, many stories inspired by Austen’s works. But there’s only one Austen.

Colin Firth as Mr Darcy in Pride and Prejudice Photo: BBC

Austen is special because she created the kind of fiction that people have been loving for over 200 years now. We love the romance plots, of course. We also love the characters she brought to life. Even though people dress and occupy themselves differently, those sorts of characters still roam about the world. We all recognize the guy who thinks he’s God’s gift to humanity; the lonely old lady who wants nothing more than some company every now and then; and the reckless young person who is about to get a taste of reality.

She is special because her writing is elegantly restrained, her observations about human behavior are sharp, and, although she can be critical of people, she reigns her observations in with great sympathy.

Given my snobbishness on this subject, I may not have been the best person to review  Miss Bingley Requests by Judy McCrosky. Except I’m exactly the sort of person who would never pass up an opportunity to read something based on Pride and Prejudice. I am Ms. McCrosky’s target audience.


The problem with writing a novel based upon such a famous work is the same problem my friend Ted encountered when he was planning his set list for a musical gig. He suggested creating a special arrangement of Strawberry Fields. His teacher tried to talk him out of it. She said, “It doesn’t matter how well you play it. People love the Beatles so much that any other version just won’t hold a candle to the original–at least in their minds.”

Ted played Strawberry Fields anyway and he did a great job. However, he’s not one of the Beatles.

Miss Bingley Requests is a retelling of Pride and Prejudice from Caroline Bingley’s point of view. If you will recall, Caroline Bingley is the sister of Mr. Darcy’s best friend. She believed that she and Darcy would marry someday because it was the most sensible match imaginable–at least to her. They were connected by friendship and both belonged to the same social class. Much to her confusion, Mr. Darcy doesn’t respond to her flirtations and she finds herself dreaming of another man, Mr. Tryphone.

There’s a lot to recommend this book to a devoted Austenite. First, the author vividly paints the world we know and love and she ties in some of our favorite scenes from the original. It also contains some funny lines and observations:

“Great ladies are like onions,” Caroline said, and then paused for a moment when Lady Amesbury looked puzzled. “So many layers,” she hastily added…

Unfortunately, it was impossible for me to sympathize with Caroline Bingley throughout most of the novel. She is headstrong, blind to obvious clues, and snobbish. The moment when I finally felt like she showed some evidence of her humanity was when she was mortified by her brother’s chastisement. I held out some hope that she would use that feeling to make some changes and find true happiness, but that wasn’t meant to be. Miss Bingley didn’t change one bit.

Those are two faults Jane Austen wouldn’t have committed in her work. Every one of her heroines learns something and makes changes before the last chapter of the book. Even the character Austen thought would appeal to fewer readers–Emma–was cast in a sympathetic light. Emma is egotistical at first, but through a variety of experiences, she is humbled and learns to appreciate people who she once deemed beneath her.

What’s more, for a character who refuses to change, it becomes tedious to read her many expressions of the same sentiments and convictions in the face of ever more convincing evidence that she’s deluded. This is compounded by the fact that we already know how everything is going to turn out. I’m sure I’m not the only reader who would become exasperated with her.

At the risk of sounding like a prude, I will also admit that I did not care for the more blatant treatment of sexual attraction in this book. I like a steamy sex scene as much as most hot-blooded women, but when set in the context of an Austen world view, it feels cheap and silly.

“What is it like, Louisa, between a man and a woman?”

Sexual tension was rife in Austen’s books, but it simmered under the surface, it was never spelled out in vulgar fashion. Austen was more concerned with the minds and hearts of her characters, than their bodies.

I really wanted to like Miss Bingley Requests, and did appreciate certain scenes, but I had to slog through it. Fellow Austenites, I’d save your fits of the vapours for other works.

N.B. I received a courtesy copy of this book from Netgalley for an honest review. The publication date is November 23, 2018.