You Don’t Have to be a Witch About It

Adriana Mather’s How to Hang a Witch had me at the description: Mean Girls meets the Salem Witch Trials. I kept imagining a group of teen witches in black velvet pointy witch hats saying “On Thursday’s we wear black.” Pause. “And like, every other day of the week too.”

Sam Mather is going through a pretty crappy time. Her father had successful heart surgery but slipped into a coma. For the last four months the doctors can’t figure out why he’s not waking up. Sam’s mother died when she was little and her father remarried. Sam and her stepmother get along, but with the stress of the last few months their verbal sparring is right up there with Rocky fighting that Russian boxer. Money’s getting tight and the medical bills are piling up. Sam’s stepmom sells the only house she’s ever known and moves them from New York to Salem, Massachusetts.

Sam’s got an attitude problem. I know. Shocker. A teenager with attitude. But Sam is kind of a lone wolf, hanging out by herself and never really making friends. She says what she means and means what she says. In Salem, they move into the giant house of the eccentric grandmother Sam never met. Sam’s father never spoke of his mother and Sam thought it was to keep her oddness from tainting the rest of the family. Strange things begin to happen around the house: things moved, books knocked over, threatening notes left to tell Sam to leave. Sam begins attending her new high school and isn’t surprised when she’s both ignored and gawked at.

The Salem residents are huge on their history of witchcraft and the trials. There’s a group of girls who dress all in black and call themselves the ‘Descendants.’ You guessed it. They’re the daughters of the women and men accused of witchcraft hundreds of years ago. You know what else. Sam Mather is a descendant of Cotton Mather, the ring leader of the witch trials and the man who sent many innocents to their deaths. Once everybody catches wind of who Sam is, things go from worse to disastrous.

Bad things begin to happen the moment Sam arrives in town. There are sudden deaths and a food poisoning outbreak from cupcakes that Sam brought to school as a gesture of goodwill. At a party, everybody is struck by a rash except Sam. The students, especially the Descendants, believe it’s all Sam’s doing. Sam has found a secret room in her grandmother’s house full of books on the occult and her personal journals. Her grandmother believed there was a curse linked not only to her family but to the Descendants as well.

The odd happenings in the house coalesce and a ghost appears. An extremely angry ghost. And of course, extremely good looking. There’s chemistry between them. He’s over 300 years old and once lived in the same house. I like older dudes too, but have yet to meet one that has been around through several wars and can walk through walls. He decides he wants to help Sam with the curse. The Descendants and Sam come to an uneasy truce, forming an alliance to find the origin of the curse and break it. For awhile there, it seems like the town’s going to go all Walpurgisnacht on Sam and repeat history by blaming her for all the bad things going down. It’s a race to change both history and the present.

This book had so many unexpected plot twists that I actually yelled at my dog “You have to read this book!” and then felt bad because he looked at me like “You know I don’t have thumbs to turn the pages.” Witches and witchcraft have long interested me and I’d probably be a Wiccan if I weren’t so lazy. Look, if you want to read a book about family history that keeps repeating itself on a loop, ghostly love, and modern witchcraft, pick up How to Hang a Witch. It’s also about people not being what they seem at first blush and how we’re not our history but who we make ourselves in our time.

Pleasant reading, fellow book lovers. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have rituals to complete under a full moon while dancing around a bonfire and chanting. Nah. Like I said, I’m lazy. I’ll just light a bunch of candles, shuffle around in my version of a dance and my chanting will be just me messing up the lyrics to Led Zeppelin’s ‘Immigrant Song.’

You Spin Me Right ‘Round, Baby, Right ‘Round

The_Exorcist_1971I’ve been afraid of many things during my life, but for some reason the idea of being possessed by a demon has always horrified me. It’s right up there with nuclear winter and Donald Trump becoming president. With all the other evils in the world, I have to worry about demon possession because let’s face it: I don’t think I have a soul. If there’s some wisp of a soul it’s pretty weak and I’m almost 100% certain it’s gas.

William Peter Blatty, author of The Exorcist, was a comedy writer. Probably still is. I don’t know. I’d have to look it up. He read an account of a teenage boy who had been showing symptoms of an odd and inexplicable illness. The boy’s bed would levitate and he would rise from the bed like Lazarus from the dead at a beer pong competition. Words would be written on his skin-but from the inside. The kid’s parents were a mess. Was their boy gravely ill or was it a spiritual matter?

They called in a couple of priests to do an exorcism on the boy and whip bang, old Split Hoof was out of there. Later, there was a story that the boy had been molested by his aunt. Whether the ‘possession’ was a side effect or a cry for help, I don’t know. Maybe in the 1940’s (and sometimes now) it’s easier to talk about being possessed by a demon than it is about sexual assault.

The story stuck with Blatty for years and the outcome was The Exorcist. Here’s the lowdown: Father Merrin is on an archaeological dig in Iraq and uncovers a small statue of a demon he’s come up against in the past. He knows – in the way that priests and prescient children seem to know – that evil is nearby. In the movie, this whole part never made a lot of sense to me, but then again I was six when I first watched it, so a lot of things didn’t make sense.

In the novel, Regan MacNeil is a sweet 12-year-old daughter of a movie star. Regan’s father isn’t in the picture and the mom, Chris, is an actually with-it famous movie star single parent. She and Regan have a very close bond. But while her Mom is filming a movie in Washington, DC something strange is beginning to happen in their house and to Regan herself. Weird noises are coming from the attic. The housekeeper convinces Chris there are rats up there because hey, who would hear scratching noises in the attic and think ‘Is that you Satan?’ (By the way, demonic possession is never by Satan himself in a lot of books and movies. He’s too busy juggling campaigns and suicide bombs and which Kardashian is going to have a “hard” year because her nude selfie didn’t break the Internet).

Regan begins speaking in a language she’s never spoken before. She vomits green stuff. GREEN stuff. That ain’t natural. Chris thinks her daughter is going through a period of pre-teen angst over the divorce of her mother and father. She does what every mom does, takes her kid to get tested for everything and when the doctors can’t find anything wrong, well, maybe her kid is having a breakdown. It doesn’t occur to Chris to search for spiritual support. She is an atheist. Luckily, the place where she’s wrapping up filming is rife with Jesuit priests. She turns to Father Damien Karras for help.

Father Karras is enduring his own struggle: his mother just died and he’s having a bout of ‘Are you there God, it’s me, Damien.’ He sees Regan as a psychologist at first, shooting down the idea of demonic possession until there is no other explanation. I guess once a little girl brags that your mother’s soul is in hell and you actually hear the weak voice of your mother coming from her mouth, there’s not much else to turn to. So he goes to the bishop and the God Network begins to gossip and Father Merrin gets wind of it and says “Hey, that’s the asshole I battled long ago in Africa!”

exorcistfilmRegan is aggressive and speaking in tongues and using swear words that would make a sailor blush. Yeah. This is beyond psychological. What ensues is not only a battle for a young girl’s soul, but also for restoring faith – not just religious but in humanity. What I loved about the novel was the fact that Blatty didn’t shy away from things he knew would be controversial – much like the 1973 adaptation of his novel that shocked and sickened theatre goers. There’s a scene with a cross and….well….if you’ve seen the movie, you know what I’m talking about. You’re going to a movie called The Exorcist, people! Not Fluffy Puppies on Clouds. And yeah, I even liked the restoration of faith stuff in the book, not the Roman Catholic ritual of Exorcism (although that is pretty gnarly) but the idea that dark matters can be overcome. At least for a little while. Or shipped off to the next unsuspecting soul.

But I do embrace my own darkness and demons, isn’t that right, Beelzebub? Bubs? Oh damn. He’s been exorcised again. Damn it.

Warlock Holmes: A Study in Brimstone

warlock holmes a study in brimstone by denning

Oh em gee, this cover is gorgeous! Here’s another straight-up book review all thanks to the power of advance reader copies from our publishers. Thanks, publishers!

Let me just start this review by saying that Warlock Holmes: a Study in Brimstone by G.S. Denning is one of those books that Sherlockians will either love or hate. Spoiler alert: I completely loved it!

Our story begins in a way that will seem familiar to most Sherlock fans: Watson is back in London after being injured during the war in Afghanistan and is desperate to find a place to live. Through a chance meeting with one of his old connections he learns about a man who needs a roommate. His name is Warlock Holmes and he is a consulting detective who sometimes works with Scotland Yard. Thus the literary world is gifted with another first meeting of Watson and Holmes.

Things start out pretty normal for Dr. John Watson. He feels lucky to have landed a roommate who only asks for a one-time payment of just one sovereign for the rent. Things get even better for Watson when Holmes chooses the smaller of the two bedrooms as his own. So now we have a war veteran staying with a successful, if eccentric, consulting detective. Their companionship slowly evolves into a friendship, but even so, Watson is initially clueless as to what he’s gotten himself into by handing over that sovereign.

From the beginning though, it’s clear to the reader that this Holmes is unlike any other Holmes we’ve met before. It’s not just the fact that his name is Warlock and we highly suspect (especially after reading the blurb on the book cover) that magic flows through this Holmes. It’s more like we’re realizing for the first time in literary history that Watson is the one well-versed in deductive reasoning and investigative expertise, especially when it comes to handling evidence correctly at a crime scene. Holmes, on the other hand, seems a bit…distracted. Easily distracted by things that Watson cannot or will not notice, things that seem to have very little if anything to do with the crime being investigated.

Soon enough Watson discovers Holmes’s not-so-well-kept secret: he’s got the magic touch. The spirit of Holmes’s nemesis, Moriarty, is trapped inside his head. And Holmes can command demons to do his bidding. This would normally be a shocking scandal worthy of the penny dreadfuls, but in this Victorian society there are certain creatures that, though not embraced by society, live among them. For example, here’s our cast of characters:

warlock holmes character blurb

Yup! Inspector Lestrade is a vampire, aided by an ogre. Most of Scotland Yard is uncomfortable around Lestrade and Grogsson, if not downright terrified of them. But their record for closing cases (with Holmes’s help, of course) keeps them on the payroll despite others’ misgivings.

I’m laying all this out there to illustrate a point. While this could easily be some weird standalone parody of one of the most famous friendships in literary history, it is instead a faithful retelling of Sherlock Holmes–just a little twisted. And sometimes smoking. Because, ya know, brimstone and stuff.

True to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s original format, Warlock Holmes: a Study in Brimstone is composed of several short stories. The first is the longest by far, but it kind of needs to be since it’s setting up the world and the characters. Despite the length, that story flew by for me, as did the others. I actually pouted when I was finished, and was a little bummed out to leave that world behind. Luckily for me this is just the first book in what I hope is a very long series, with Warlock Holmes: the Battle of Baskerville Hall  heading our way in May 2017.

So take a chance on something new! Let me know if you want to read this or not, and definitely get back to me if you end up actually reading the whole thing. I am desperate for people to talk to about this book that will be published May 17th.

Sleuthing from Beyond the Grave

Okay, I’ll admit it: from the moment I cracked open my very first Nancy Drew book, given to me as a Christmas present from my late, great Aunt Judy, I have been hooked on mysteries. Nancy, Poirot and Sherlock have lived quietly in my subconscious for decades, coming out to play whenever I pick up a new whodunit and joining me on an adventure that usually ends up lasting way past my bedtime.

As an adult I’ve discovered that my love for puzzling out solutions includes not only amateur detectives and cozy mysteries, but also thrillers and police procedurals. I am also diving headfirst into young adult fiction–and loving every second. Much like the present my Aunt Judy gave me back in the late 80s, I now give to you the gift of discovering a great book: The Dead Girls Detective Agency by Suzy Cox.

New York City teenager Charlotte is pushed in front of the F train subway and is killed. She wakes up in a hotel lobby and is told she is dead. The only way to get out of this weird limbo-like state is to solve her murder, get the murderer to confess it out loud, and only then will she get her key to “The Other Side.” With the help of the other dead teens in the Dead Girls Detective Agency she stands a chance at solving this thing and moving on…right?

This book is aimed at teens but will appeal to adults as well. Any mystery-lovers fascinated with the afterlife should read this book. There are laugh-out-loud hilarious moments and passages where I was tearing up. The author, the editor of Cosmopolitan UK, manages to write so descriptively you feel like you’re actually standing in NYC. How this Londoner manages to do that is beyond me.

If you want more proof of her good writing, take this in: she aptly describes the motivations, hormones, and attitudes of being a teenager without resorting to foul language (which we all know teens use, like I did) or sex. Warning: the ending sets itself up for a sequel and I can’t wait!

Carol