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:

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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.

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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.

The Lonely Witness by William Boyle

lonely witnessI haven’t read many books where the main character shared my first name. This may seem trivial, but it set me up to looking for similarities between myself and the protagonist in William Boyle’s The Lonely Witness. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much I could cling to. She was Catholic and I *used* to be Catholic. She liked Chinese food and so do I. She was also very lonely.  That was the extent of it.

Amy–the main character, not me–was a former party girl who worked in bars and had a tempestuous relationship with a girl who was possibly even more wild than she. When her girlfriend moved across the country, Amy withdrew from her former friends, stopped frequenting her former haunts, and gave up her work in bars.

She started doing volunteer work for the nearby church by taking communion to shut-ins. While visiting one of her regulars, she encountered Vincent, whose odd and menacing behavior woke up something in her. She had to know what he was up to, ostensibly to make sure the old lady she was taking care of would’t come to harm at his hands, but also because she craved the feeling of adrenaline coursing through her system. When tailing him through the streets of Brooklyn, she witnessed something that shook her up and destroyed the quiet life she had built for herself.

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I’m torn about The Lonely Witness. I enjoyed some passages and found others tedious. This was due to the precarious balance created by the character’s decision-making.

The main problem with this book is that Amy does many things that make the reader cringe. Most of us would recognize her choices as bad ones and just wouldn’t do those things–and seeing her do them can be infuriating and make it hard for us to empathize.

At the same time, her perversity is one of the intriguing things about this book. We are wise enough not to do some of the things she does, but we’re not above watching the fall-out. The suspense of the book comes from wondering if she can extract herself from all of the messes she has made.

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For me, what made the book worth reading was the excellent way William Boyle handled the setting. He made Brooklyn come to life. He painted the scene so vividly that I could see the old churches, bodegas, run-down restaurants, apartment buildings and funeral homes. I knew the sounds and smells, and felt the energy of the people treading its streets. It wasn’t a vacation to the Caribbean, but it was excellent armchair traveling.