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Catherine House

Today’s book review is of Elisabeth Thomas’s debut novel Catherine House. I read this novel as an e-book, and the cover is so lovely and I liked the story so much that I am going to be buying a physical book for my collection.

I don’t care if I there isn’t enough room on my shelves for more books! It’s still not hoarding, agreed?

Elisabeth Thomas’s website says that Catherine House will “leave readers breathless”. But I felt something better: a hunger. I had a craving to keep reading this book, not necessarily because I was on the edge of my seat, but because I was rooted in place and the words were my sustenance. The weight of imagery and Ines’s almost apathetic despair and even the artistic terminology built a story that felt just right for me.

I read some reviews that said they felt like it got too slow, or that something was missing, but I guess for me, it didn’t feel that way because it felt how I feel. It was like reading about a dream I’ve had, or a memory I can’t quite place, and it was comforting.

My one-sentence review: It is a hauntingly beautiful story.

Ines is selected to attend Catherine House, an exclusive and very mysterious three-year college. At Catherine House, Ines takes typical college classes such as Intro to Philosophy or Intro to World Religions, and eventually concentration-specific classes such as Russian and Italian Futurisms (she decides to pursue art), but the school is anything but typical.

After Baby, her roommate, is sent into the tower as punishment, Ines and their friends learn that Baby has died. Baby was obsessed with/passionate about plasm, a substance that an entire concentration had been created around. Part of the book revolves around defining plasm and how it’s used, but the way it’s described as being a part of everything and tethering everything together reminded me of the moldy house in Mexican Gothic, where the mold attaches itself to people, rendering them unable to leave the premises.

Eventually, Ines is sent to the tower, and is faced with the gruesome decision to make Catherine House her permanent home.

Catherine House explores the consequences of what it’s like to be a player in a world where people want to play god.

While the story isn’t overtly sinister, it does raise a lot of moral questions, and the passages of time where Ines is either languishing or making the best of it each have a place in revealing important information. Ines’s days meld together, and I have gone through long periods of time like that, where one day doesn’t end and another begins but rather time is meaningless and you feel like you’re just going through motions and nothing matters. Sometimes it’s hard to see life getting better when you feel like you don’t deserve it or that it doesn’t matter in the end. So it spoke to me a lot in that way.

The descriptions of the school and grounds were vivid and intriguing. There was almost a magic to Catherine House that reminds me of secluded schools in other stories. It just seems dark and grand and fun, and maybe makes me miss college a little.

(Although my undergraduate degree is in hospitality management, and if I think of a way to spice that up for a gothic novel, maybe one day I’ll write it.)

Another aspect I liked about Catherine House was the way Thomas melded art and science. Elisabeth Thomas is actually an archivist at an art museum, so it’s really cool that she was able to incorporate this part of her life into the story. I do not have a lot of knowledge in the art world, but that didn’t detract from recognizing the way art is used to add depth to the story.

Have I convinced you to read Catherine House yet? Let me know in the comments!

To learn more about Elisabeth Thomas and Catherine House, visit Thomas’s website at Elisabeth Thomas (elisabeththomasbooks.com).

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The Truth About Grief

This book discussion/review about The Truth About Grief is the second blog post in my bibliotherapy and self-development series. In this series of blog posts, I will post about some non-fiction works I’m reading and what I get out of them, as well as how I think they are helpful and useful. Fiction books are also useful, so I am going to do a separate fiction series at some point. (For example, The Last Tree Town deals not only with depression and relationships among siblings and friends, but also draws light on parents’ struggles with how best to help their children.)

Disclaimer: I am not a medical professional. Do not take medical advice from this post or any Oak & River Books content. I encourage you to do your own search into any topic presented on the Oak & River Books blog and to join in the discussion, but please reach out to a medical professional if you have questions, need advice, or want help. My content does not replace that of a trained professional.


The Truth About Grief by Ruth Davis Konigsberg is a book for anyone looking to learn more about grief research or the history of grief. Konigsberg turns the five phases of grief on their heads – in reality, the phases weren’t originally about grief and loss and there was no scientific study to back it up.

Ruth Davis Konigsberg explores how the five phases of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance) came to be so popular and oft-referenced. Humans like to have organization and making phases or stages of things helps us make sense of the world, especially the pieces of life that we don’t fully understand.

Says Frank Lawlis, “‘What sells is simplicity, making life a little more simple, so if you can give something that’s very complex and individual and unique a simple plan, it’ll stick.'” I think this simplicity isn’t inherently negative. Sometimes it’s a starting point. In terms of grief, I wonder how our grieving process would look today if those five phases hadn’t become part of our vernacular. Has it done more good than harm, or is it unethical because the original meaning got twisted and no one seemed keen to stop it?

The discussion around treatments and models was also interesting. “If a model can’t be relied upon to predict behavior for at least the majority, what purpose does it serve? Once again, psychological reassurance.”

Konigsberg emphasizes that no two people’s grief follows the exact same cycle, and that one prescribed treatment may not work for someone else even if they are both experiencing, for example, the loss of a spouse. Sometimes, it’s more practical to have a model to make adjustments to rather than making an entirely new model.

This is a book for anyone who needs the reminder that their grief isn’t wrong just because it doesn’t look like someone else’s, or because certain grief therapies aren’t working for them even if those therapies came highly recommended. Going back and forth among the phases makes us feel like we’re losing progress or are doing something wrong, when really we may be holding ourselves to a standard that is not so cut and dry.

Eventually, grieving became a gold-mine of the self-help industry.

“Entrepreneurs seized on the commercial possibilities of this mandate and opened up grief retreats, where you can get grief massages or do grief yoga. And the self-improvement shelves of the bookstore grew heavier not just with advice on how to survive loss but also grief workbooks and journals, illustrating just how prescribed our emotional behavior after the death of a loved one had become.”

Even if it’s not a clinical diagnosis, our tendency to “prescribe” ourselves a “treatment” can be seen with other topics as well – self-help books can be found on forming habits, grieving the loss of a dog, making a meditation practice, dieting and exercising, and more.

Global Perspective

It’s important to recognize that around the world, there are multiple customs when it comes to death, loss, and mourning. (This is evident in books like mortician Caitlin Dougherty’s book From Here to Eternity: Traveling the World to Find the Good Death, which is on my re-read list.)

An interesting component of grief studies is that many of those studied are widowed women, and many studies take place from a Western perspective. “As Ethan Watters pointed out in Crazy Like Us: The Globalization of the American Psyche, ‘We are engaged in the grand project of Americanizing the world’s understanding of the human mind.'”

Another quote from professor Stanley Sue states, “Americans are the largest producers of psychological research. The overwhelming subject of the research is Americans. The United States constitutes less than 5% of the world’s population.”

That isn’t to say that other research doesn’t exist or that American research isn’t fruitful; this just emphasizes the need to not only recognize that this isn’t a one-size-fits-all situation, but also take other perspectives into account.

Differences and Social Pressures

Just as no two grief processes or customs are exactly the same, our biases about how someone should grieve can get in the way. How long before remarrying (if they choose to do so), how sad or happy they sound, how much they cry or don’t cry, etc. There also seems to be different societal expectations depending on if you are a man or a woman. (Gender fluid and nonbinary perspectives were not included, but I hope this research will one day account for all identities).

In terms of gender differences, Konigsberg shares how stereotype threat and deindividuation can have an impact.

She describes stereotype threat as a “self-fulfilling prophecy”: “In a classic example of stereotype threat, male and female college students with equivalent math backgrounds were recruited to take a math test. When participants were told that the test they were about to take had shown sex differences in the past, women scored lower compared to men. When participants were told that men and women had performed equally on the test they were about to take, there were no differences in their scores.”

Deindividuation describes someone’s sense of anonymity. “For example, in one study, men showed more aggressive tactics while playing a video game […] when they thought they were being watched. When participants thought they weren’t being watched, there were no significant sex differences, and in fact, women dropped a few more bombs.”

This kind of information relates to research, Konigsberg explains, because men who share anonymously about their grief have shown to be just as “emotive or expressive” as women.

Whether someone is a man or a woman has little predictive power about how he or she will adjust to bereavement. To view grief through a framework of gender is more likely to obscure than to clarify.”

I cannot definitively say that this book will help you in the deepest throes of grieving, but it may help you to know that your grieving is fine the way it is. It doesn’t need encouragement or to be considered proper. It is yours, and it is mine, and we are all going to do it differently.

The Truth About Grief has an index and an extensive notes section. If the topic of grief is of interest to you, a copy may be available at your local library or from your favorite indie bookseller. Here are links to the publisher’s page and Goodreads. It is also available in e-book and print from Barnes & Noble and Amazon. More information is also available at www.thetruthaboutgrief.com.

Grieving is not only for losing a loved one, but for anything you can miss, such as when you lose your job or sell your house. Sometimes we miss things we never even had because we have built an idea of how much better life would be if we had that job, that car, that house, that lover. And that’s okay.

Think about what you do when you’re sad or disappointed. Let yourself settle into those feelings. When I was in the Navy, one of our chaplains suggested we plan during the times we feel good so we’re ready for when we’re feeling bad. When you’re feeling well, maybe make a plan for what things you can do that make you feel better, or even just okay. Sometimes, feeling just okay is the best thing for me. It can be hard, but try to let your loved ones know what you need. Practice something that can become a long-term healthy coping mechanism.

If you feel like your grief is debilitating or becoming so, please reach out for help and contact a medical professional.


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Crow Planet

Crow Planet by Lyanda Lynn Haupt is an exploration of wildlife in the urban setting. What happens when wildlife and humans mix in the suburbs, in the city?

Crow Planet is the 2009 Sigurd F. Olson Nature Writing Award winner. Their website calls Crow Planet, A book that is a call to experience the wildlife in our midst, reminding us that we don’t have to head to faraway places to encounter ‘nature.’ Even in the cities and suburbs where we live we are surrounded by wildlife such as crows. Lyanda Lynn Haupt is a naturalist, eco-philosopher, and speaker whose writing is at the forefront of the movement to connect people with nature in their everyday lives.”

Maybe crows weren’t what Emily Dickinson was thinking about when she penned the now-famous “hope is the thing with feathers”, but it is what I thought towards the end of Crow Planet (and quite possibly Haupt did, too, since she references Emily later on).

I read Crow Planet as a story of hope, almost reconciliatory. In animal observation, cohabitating, and husbandry, we find countless opportunities to at once take care of nature and let it run its course.

Where my family is from, some critters are considered a nuisance (red squirrels), some are fun to watch (deer, turkeys), and others remind us of our mortality (wolves, bears).

When I returned to my hometown last year, I was surprised by the large amount of crows. Where did they all come from? I do not remember seeing crows in our rural, lake-adjacent community as a kid, but now they are prevalent. Their caws and cries even now in the dead of winter remind me that despite the 20-below-zero wind chill, their life persists. They seem to be thriving much better in winter than I do, that’s for sure.

Three crows fly over, land on their leafless branch, and ignore me. Portents of death? I try to see them as they are, as portents of nothing but themselves, swirling like all of us in our beautiful, tangled, transitory lives.”

crow planet

When people asked what Crow Planet was about before I read it, I told them that it’s a story of crows and what humans can learn from them. Now that I’ve read the book, I know that answer is true but simpler than the whole truth.

Crow Planet is not just an essay of collections put together in a format that makes sense; it is a call to action and reflection. What can we do in our every-day-lives that doesn’t just ensure our survival but also allows us to take care of the planet that takes care of us? Haupt’s work reminds us to slow down and take it all in.

It is also a reminder to notice nature, wherever you are, and redefine it. Trees in the park in the city may not be “wilderness” in the traditional sense, but their existence invites us to sit with nature – to read and walk our dogs and fly kites with our kids in it. Urban wilderness reminds us that we coexist with other creatures.

If I watch a red squirrel for long enough, what will I see? Skittering, nut gathering, etc. I usually don’t see a red squirrel unless it’s running up a tree or, alas, being eaten by my parents’ outdoor cat. (He likes to start with the heads. Ah, nature).

Last summer, a grouse became quite friendly with us down in the vegetable garden. I had never seen a grouse come around and warm up to humans the way this one did. It was a beautiful specimen, a rough necked grouse. I was told it got a little peckish, but we seemed to have an agreement. It’s not a secret. The agreement was space. I respect that you are a wild animal, and you do not peck me when I don’t feed you out of my hand.

Just like crows, it is difficult to tell the difference between male and female grouse unless it’s breeding season. Either way, this one had some *attitude*

And truthfully, despite their reputation, crows are not worse than humans. Their ability to adapt and survive is quite admirable. We go where we are not wanted and not invited but invite ourselves anyway simply by the virtue of a place existing and we want to go there. We multiply and consume and invade and agitate.

The persistence of the crow is evidence that we don’t have the kind of control we think we do. Haupt shares that the crow is one of the few birds that don’t have bag limits; a decade later, this is still true. Other limitations vary state to state.

I’ve never seen a city plagued by pollution so thick you couldn’t breathe, but I have seen a lot of crows. I know that both of these things exist simultaneously. When Haupt writes that crows will fare well upon human’s ecological demise, I agree with her.

The difference between us and crows is that they “return in whatever number the ecosystem – even if it is an urban ecosystem – can support.” Crows cannot make food or grow food, but humans can. It is much easier for human capacity to exceed the limit because know how to make and build and grow and consume – all the while knowing the damage it is doing to ourselves and the planet. In this way, are we not worse than the crow?

If the crow has managed to always find a way, perhaps we will too.

Beyond being enjoyable to read, Crow Planet shares cultural references, history, birding as leisure and recreation, Haupt’s personal anecdotes, and a suggested reading list. This book would be a beautiful edition to the book collection of any naturalist, bird lover, urban dweller, or anyone who just loves crows – and as you’ll see by reading the book, there are a lot of people who love crows.


Haupt’s latest book, Rooted, further explores the interconnectedness of life forms on earth.

Learn more about Lynda Lynn Haupt and her other works on her website.


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Olga Dies Dreaming

About Olga Dies Dreaming
Olga Dies Dreaming by Xochitl Gonzalez is a whirlwind story centered around Olga and Prieto, the adult children of Puerto Rican visionaries whose lives are largely dictated by their parents despite their parents’ absences.

After their mother leaves them in the care of family to head a revolutionary group in Puerto Rico, they don’t see her for decades, only sporadically receiving letters from her that – to me – felt like words filled with poisoned love. When their father – an addict – dies, they are left with their grandmother, aunts and uncles, and cousins.

With memories of the past mixed with confusion about the future, Olga Dies Dreaming is a character-driven novel that demonstrates the power of choice and identity. How something looks on the outside is not always indicative of what’s going on under the surface.

Puerto Rico and Puerto Rican identity are key components of the book. Says Gonzalez in this article from Refinery29, “So far I’m just eager to start a conversation within, specifically the Puerto Rican community and, in general, amongst Latinxs and Latinas, especially, and even if they don’t like it, it’s cool to hear all the different takes on it, you know?”

The article also states, “Gonzalez’ debut speaks thoughtfully to the complicated and introspective diasporic experience, all while looking at how power structures can change a community, and the mixed feelings of pride and guilt that can come along with moving into a gentrified neighborhood.”

Characters
Olga Dies Dreaming is told from the points of view of Olga, Prieto, occasional letters from their mother, and a surprising third character, Richard, aka Dick.

Olga
Olga is a successful wedding business owner; she caters to the wealthy and finds herself in social circles that allow her to advance. She is afraid of love, thanks in part to her mother’s neglect. To be truly happy, her character undergoes quite the developmental journey

Prieto
Prieto is a politician, father, and queer man who is disinclined to reveal his true self for fear of becoming an outcast from his family, friends, and constituents. After some pivotal plot points that I will not reveal, he must decide once and for all what face he will present to the world.

An interesting point that Prieto makes is that he recognizes how his family never says anything negative about queer people, but they don’t exactly invite the concept either. From an early age, he was asked if he had any little girlfriends at school. How many adults ask kids that, but also say that talking to children about being something other than straight or cisgender is considered “sexualizing” your children? If we support something, we need to show it. We can’t assume other people will know what side we stand on.

Dick
Dick is the only white character whose point of view we read. For a time, he is Olga’s lover; eventually, his passion for her is eclipsed by his rage at not possessing her. To me, Dick is a symbol of a theme in the novel: that Puerto Rico is inhibited from standing on its own because the powers-that-be do not allow it to be so.

Blanca
Throughout the narrative, we see a glimpse into the mind of Blanca, Olga’s and Pietro’s mother, through letters she sends them. She seems quite sneaky in her attempts to belittle them. My sympathy for her is that I feel bad that she accepted a little too late that she didn’t want to be a mother. I don’t agree with her sending her family members twisted letters, all in an effort to somehow make them act out to prove themselves to her revolutionary cause.

Thoughts
When hurricanes strike Puerto Rico, people are left without water, food, medicine, power. It reminded me a lot of the feelings expressed in What Storm, What Thunder in the sense that help was supposed to be on the way, but didn’t come from the sources it was supposed to. It also speaks to the resiliency people show when community members group together to help one another.

Another thing I found interesting was the idea of having a namesake. There are two individuals named Olga, for whom Olga’s mother Blanca based the name choice on. One she sees as powerful and the other as more of a sellout. Do names and intentions have the power to shape our identities?

On a personal note, there is a section of the book that hit home for me about experiencing traumatic events and seeking help, even when you don’t feel like you’re worth it. It’s something I’m going through right now and it’s encouraging to read about. Normalize therapy!

Olga Dies Dreaming is a love story – for yourself, your family, and your identity.

A pilot has been shot for Hulu. Personally I’m hoping to see a release date sooner rather than later!

Follow Xochitl Gonzalez’s journey and learn more about her here:
Author website
Goodreads
Instagram
Olga Dies Dreaming

Trigger/content warnings for book: neglect, drug abuse/overdose, rape/assault, natural disasters/recovery, medical issues, and pregnancy-related issues

If you’re interested in learning more about PROMESA, I am not an expect but here are some links I found. I recommend you do your own search into PROMESA.
CNE
– Department of Labor Resources for Puerto Rico and Q+A
Here’s How PROMESA Aims to Tackle Puerto Rico’s Debt

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Everything’s Trash, but It’s Okay

If you appreciate quippy hashtags, you’ll like this book.

If you enjoy humor mixed in with your statistics, you’ll enjoy this book.

Everything’s Trash, but It’s Okay is Phoebe Robinson’s second essay collection (of three collections). Her first, You Can’t Touch My Hair, is more focused on what it’s like to be a black woman in America, while Everything’s Trash, but It’s Okay explores the life of an adult woman in terms of money, body image, feminism, work, and more.

Through hardships such as financial struggles and workaholism, to successes like meeting Bono and Oprah and building a podcast following, Phoebe Robinson shares stories that are relatable and humorous. There are a lot of pop culture references, and I definitely did not get a lot of them, however, for me that didn’t detract from the story.

In this post, I’ll explore a few themes from Everything’s Trash, but It’s Okay, and at the end of this blog, you’ll see a links to an excerpt from Don’t Sit on My Bed in Your Outside Clothes and to an apartment tour of Phoebe’s NYC home (because yes that is something I want to see and I think Phoebe would appreciate that).

Money and Work

In the chapters “Money Is a Trifling Heaux and Also Your BFF” and “You’re Not Curing Cancer (Unless You Are-Then Carry On, My Workaholic Son)”, Robinson talks about her financial woes and obsession with work. It’s no secret that in the United States how much money you make and what you do for a living are at the center of many conversations.

When meeting other people, one of the first things we ask is, “What do you do for a living?” Part of it is curiosity and finding something to talk about, but the other part is more subconscious – fitting your narratives together. If I’m a writer and I meet a CEO, am I supposed to feel intimidated, jealous, or awestruck? Or some other feeling altogether? Regardless of job title, many people are guilty of putting in way too many hours at work because it is part of our identity. In our system, workers contribute to society and everyone else is a burden. And things like vacations are pendulum swings – you take no vacation or one you can’t afford, no in-between. If you’re putting that vacation on a credit card, you may be hurting yourself even more. Not only do you end up working more because it’s an addiction, but you have to earn more money to pay off what you’ve spent, plus interest.

As Phoebe Robinson demonstrates, not everyone is perfect with money 100% of the time, and it made me feel better about the times I haven’t had my finances together. I never felt like I had someone I could talk to judgment-free about the things I was experiencing with money, especially after some *ish went down with my ex. It’s difficult to do, but the important part is seeking assistance and doing better in the future.

Complicity

If you read my post about What Storm, What Thunder, you may remember a section devoted to turning a blind eye to things. It comes up in Robinson’s book as well. When discussing the Women’s March, she says that those who were unable to attend could still make an impact in other ways, such as donations or being more vocal about women’s issues, “…and if you didn’t do that, then you clearly weren’t for the advancement of women. Rather you were silently complicit in keeping status quo or, worse, adamantly against women progressing.”

This notion of being silently complicit is not new. It is the same as turning a blind eye. If you aren’t actively trying to stop something, then you are okay with it happening because it’s not happening to you. We can amplify the voices of those who know what they’re talking about (instead of putting ourselves at the center of those narratives) and donate money to organizations that make an impact and live up to their claims.

Body Image

Robinson discusses her body in “I Was a Size 12 Once for Like Twenty-Seven Minutes” – a scary and taboo topic for many of us. In fact, unless we are disparaging or making jokes about our bodies, it seems like our bodies aren’t acceptable the way they are. Loving your body and showing it off is not “humble” or “proper”. Women in particular are conditioned from a young age that their bodies should be enjoyable for the male gaze. They are to be toned, tightened, curvy or small in the right places, unblemished. Basically, if you’re not always a work in progress, you’re trash.

I’m so tired of feeling like I have to tell total strangers that I just met that I’m trying to lose weight. In fact, I’m not even actively trying anymore. And it’s zero people’s business what my weight is anyway. After I separated from the military with worse body image than I joined with, I spent the last half of 2021 trying to accept my body the way it is right now regardless of what anyone wants it to, or thinks it should, look like. People disguising their hatred or disgust for someone’s body with unwanted advice or opinions to sound “helpful” is not a good disguise for said hatred and disgust.

When I was younger, I had a very slender friend who made a remark about how it’s not her fault that she can’t gain weight. And it was true – she could eat anything and it didn’t seem to matter. When Phoebe mentions how she suddenly finds herself at a size 12 after being a size 0, she recognizes that women who are usually a 12 or above may think “oh no boo hoo” – but Phoebe is totally right. It is horrifying to wake up one day and realize you don’t recognize your body. And that’s something that is not size-specific. It can strike any of us.

Robinson ends the chapter with, “Dare to do for yourself what Bridget [Jones from Bridget Jones’ Diary] couldn’t do: Look at yourself in the mirror and say, ‘I like myself just the way I am.'”

Life is too short to let people who want to dictate how you look or act be in your life and make decisions on your behalf. Or the people who want to take advantage of you, or the people who don’t want you to succeed.

And after reading this, I feel like I want to call her Pheebs. I would definitely give her a hug. I’d ask first, of course, but she seems like such a fun, warm person.

Phoebe Robinson’s latest book, Please Don’t Sit on My Bed in Your Outside Clothes, released in September 2021.

Learn more about Phoebe Robinson at these links:
Creator Website
Instagram
– Adapted essay from her 2021 book Please Don’t Sit on My Bed in Your Outside Clothes
– If you’re extra/obsessed like me, you’ll enjoy this photographic apartment tour of Phoebe’s and her S.O.’s home
– Entertainment Weekly article about Tiny Reparations Books


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The Turn of the Key by Ruth Ware

Can you tell I’m on a Ruth Ware kick?

The first Ruth Ware novel I read was The Death of Mrs. Westaway, then In a Dark, Dark Wood, followed by The Woman in Cabin 10, and finally The Turn of the Key.

Ware’s books present just the right amount of description without being mundane, and nowhere is that as important as it is in The Turn of the Key. If too many details are revealed, the jig is up. Coupled with the dialogues, the overall feelings of helplessness yet utter determination are intoxicating.

The Turn of the Key tells the story of Rowan, new live-in nanny to three young children. Right in the beginning of her post – literally the second day she is there – the parents, Sandra and Bill, leave town for work. When Bill is pulled away to Dubai, Sandra cannot return as early as she originally planned.

Rowan befriends the maintenance man, Jack; meanwhile the housekeeper, Jean, is quite unpleasant towards her, adding to her distress in the house.

An interesting aspect of The Turn of the Key is that the entire thing is written as letters from our main character, who is in jail awaiting trial for the murder of one of the children, to someone she hopes will be her defense attorney.

She hopes that by revealing the truth to him, she will be absolved of guilt in at least the eyes of the law, for she will never be free of the blood that is on her hands.

In her letters, she reveals that previous nannies hired by the family didn’t stay long, possibly succumbing to stories of hauntings or worse. The murderer of an 11-year-old girl died at the home in the 70s had never been brought to light; it’s possible it was a genuine accident. Throughout, our letter-writer maintains her innocence even as she sympathizes with the girl’s nanny, who quit a couple months before the incident.

What future was there for a nanny whose child had died in her care, after all? A very bleak one indeed.

As the letters progress, we learn more about the inner workings of the house – which is described as an unfortunate (and not eclectic) mix of traditional architecture and modern smart home.

There was a strange feeling of split identity too – as though the house was trying hard to be one thing, while Sandra and Bill pulled it relentlessly in the other direction, chopping off limbs, performing open-heart surgery on its dignified old bones, trying to make it into something against its own will – something it was never meant to be, modern and stylish and slick, where it wanted to be solid and self-effacing.

Sandra and Bill own an architecture company together. We read a mention of vernacular architecture, which utilizes materials from the area of construction in the building. It isn’t necessarily important to the plot as far as I can tell, but the design of the house is.

While Rowan does not have access to all the features of the smart home app, her physical realm is only limited by one locked door – and it’s in her bedroom.

After a couple nights, she can no longer bear the creaking footsteps coming from above her at night. She enlists Jack to help open the door, and although they don’t discover a secret stowaway in the attic, what they do find is a burden in itself: gruesome writing on the walls, a dead bird, and old children’s toys.

There was something… not quite powerful, but at least an illusion of control in holding the key in my own hands. That door was locked. And only I had the power to unlock it.

Will the truth be enough to set her free? You’ll have to see for yourself.

While reading, I was reminded of The Haunting of Hill House (haunted house, writing on the walls) and The Haunting of Bly Manor (nanny watches over creepy children and falls for maintenance person/groundskeeper/etc). These spooky things are quickly becoming my creature comforts.

Learn more about Ruth Ware at her website!

Until next time, friends


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What Storm, What Thunder by Myriam J. A. Chancy

Myriam J. A. Chancy’s What Storm, What Thunder is a fiction novel that explores the lives of multiple characters (Ma Lou, Sonia, Taffie, Olivier, Leopold, Richard, Ann, Didier, Sara, Jonas, and more) as their choices and circumstances lead them to where they will be during the fateful 2010 earthquake that struck Haiti, which ultimately resulted in the injuries or deaths of hundreds of thousands of people.

There is a lot you could unpack in What Storm, What Thunder. If I were to do a full discourse, or even a focused one, it would easily be pages and pages long. To keep things blog-length, today I’ll share my thoughts, a couple key themes, and some quotes that stuck out to me.

Content warning for book: trauma, sexual abuse/rape, death, suicide

My Thoughts

What Storm, What Thunder is a moving fictional account centered around core characters. In each chapter, we grow closer to the them as we learn about their day-to-day lives. As circumstances are revealed, it becomes clear that “good” and “bad” are not so black and white.

I was 20 when the 7.0 magnitude earthquake hit – oblivious to the world around me in my privileged life of college, visiting relatives over holiday break, working second shift, etc.

Wisconsin doesn’t see a lot of earthquakes, and the one time I “experienced” an earthquake in California, I slept through a tiny tremor so really didn’t experience anything at all.

I had the audacity to be disappointed.

What Storm, What Thunder is an privilege and honor to read – both because it is in honor of the thousands of lives lost and because it is humbling to read.

I was sheltered from many things growing up, then told I was naive. As an adult, I understand the importance of learning about the world. But even that’s romanticized, isn’t it? How fortunate am I, to learn about something in a book instead of experiencing it.

While What Storm, What Thunder is not a novel of happy endings, it remains a story of resilience and humanity in the face of on-going turmoil.

In October 2021, Myriam J. A. Chancy wrote an article for Oprah Daily to talk about Haiti and her experiences with family members surrounding the earthquakes. She points out how in the United States, there’s this expectation to just move on.

“My well-meaning friend responded by saying that the drift of one’s childhood was inevitable, that I needed to put this behind me. I retreated to my apartment. For those of us with ties to Haiti, there was no ‘putting behind.’ The death toll of the 2010 earthquake matched the population of Cincinnati, and I realized that hardly any U.S. resident would be able to even imagine waking up one morning to find their American landscape wiped out, destroyed. Disasters happen elsewhere, never at home, until they do.”

Myriam J.A. Chancy on Haiti’s Uncertain Future and What We Must Learn from It

Definitely read her article to gain more insight!

Where did the money go?

Something that stuck out to me in What Storm, What Thunder was the notion that we don’t always understand where our donated money goes and what it’s being used for. One of the characters mentions how people donated money to an organization, but that organization ended up saying they weren’t going to use the funds for Haiti because they actually don’t don’t use funds for current disasters. Nonsense, basically.

The NPR article 5 Years After Haiti’s Earthquake, Where Did The $13.5 Billion Go? shares, “With few exceptions, donor nations and nongovernmental organizations insist on keeping control of their projects, which are set according to their own priorities . . .

“A growing reliance on U.S. and other international contractors helps explain why the payoff of foreign aid in Haiti often seems so low. For instance, it cost more than $33,000 to build a new housing unit in one post-earthquake program, a report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office said last year. That’s five times more than one nonprofit, called Mission of Hope, spends per house, using local contractors.

‘International companies had to fly in, rent hotels and cars, and spend USAID allowances for food and cost-of-living expenses,’ Johnston wrote in the Boston Review last year. So-called danger pay and hardship pay inflated salaries by more than 50 percent.”

Essentially, money went to other countries coming in to “help” instead of the people who wanted to do the most good.

It turned out that the poor prayed to the wrong gods and the rich didn’t pray at all: they demanded.”

(Check out the articles linked in the above quote if you’re interested in learning more.)

“Out of Sight, Out of Mind”

A current that runs through the chapters is the idea that if people do not see something, it is not real for them. If we can turn a blind eye, we can ignore whatever has happened, as if it isn’t even there, as if there isn’t a living, breathing soul before us.

Yet we still think, Whatever happens to them could never happen to me.

In October of 2021, Chancy wrote an article for Oprah Daily in which she stated, “The death toll of the 2010 earthquake matched the population of Cincinnati, and I realized that hardly any U.S. resident would be able to even imagine waking up one morning to find their American landscape wiped out, destroyed. Disasters happen elsewhere, never at home, until they do.”

We do not know how to help because we do not bother to understand, or we understand enough to know that we don’t what happened to them to happen to us – as if it’s somehow contagious (it’s not). What Storm, What Thunder shows us that not everyone’s compassion needs to extend around the world; being there for your neighbor is a big way to make a difference.

Have you ever seen a homeless person on the street corner and looked away, pretending you weren’t there? Me, too. Let’s be honest with each other about it. Sometimes we just don’t know how to help, or we were taught that our help doesn’t make a difference (it does). It’s not realistic to give $100 to everyone you see, but every little bit makes a difference. While a smile won’t put food on the table, the humanity of acknowledging someone shows them that they are still worthy as a person.

Here are some quotes from the book related to the notion of turning a blind eye:

In Tibet, monks and nuns are setting themselves on fire to send smoke signals, trying to get us to look at what China is doing to their people. But we all look away unless it’s us, or someone we love, going up in flames. You don’t know what collective you belong to until your own house is on fire.”

Even if the unthinkable did happen where he was from, such things were invisible or unclear: there were no obvious signs of vulnerability.”

The below quote occurred before the earthquake took place. Mother Nature literally said, Be careful what you wish for. And she didn’t discriminate. Rich, poor, any race, any gender, any age – they all perished.

Pouf,’ said the first man’s wife with a flap of hand. ‘Ni vu, ni connu.’ The French phrase might be translated as ‘out of sight, out of mind,’ but here it had the macabre implication that if you were never conscious of someone, you were freed of the guilt of their disappearance: never seen, never known…. / ‘Make everything disappear? … That would be quite difficult. And anyway, we might be swept up with the others.’ He smiled wickedly. ‘We would need a very selective, method, no?'”

Favorite Quotes

Chancy’s writing style is easy to follow while also being descriptive. I found these lines poetic:

“Out they went, little arms flailing in that smooth, devil-may-care way that only children have – miniature dancers with hidden internal choreographers named happiness and simplicity, love. That’s what they were – love in movement, her love, Olivier’s, all the world’s love wrapped up in their little fists pumping through the air, feet following, drumming the earth for joy.”

He wondered what it would feel like to be a sea turtle now, to know the secret of survival beneath the water, to plunge deeper down knowing how to survive for a time without the need for air, collapsing into a smaller mass, having faith in an inner circuitry designed for collapse in atmospheric pressure, not being afraid of cold, of heat, of darkness.”

“We’d lost our legs – sea legs, land legs, the ability to stand up for ourselves. I needed to cleanse the bones myself, to put all this behind me, return to the land, to my mother’s land, remember everything, and forget the last two years of death begetting death. But, for some time, before going to the waterfalls, I did not know where to start. How to rise again and set out. I am just an old market woman. A relic.”

I wanted to leap out of my own skin, become a werewolf, or a soucouyant. Leave my life behind, like a heavy coat, shed it all and fly away between the shards of light in the night sky, stars and faraway bodies. I understood them, the soucouyants, their cries, desires, even their insatiability. I dreamed, once, when I was a child, of becoming like them: of flying away.”

Overall, What Storm, What Thunder is a novel with messages that linger, encouraging you to learn more and think about how we are all connected.

I would recommend this book to anyone looking to learn about Haiti and its peoples, and the impacts of the earthquake, as well as anyone who enjoys historical fiction and literary fiction.

To learn more about Myriam J. A. Chancy and her work, check out these sites:
Author website
Goodreads
Myriam J.A. Chancy on Haiti’s Uncertain Future and What We Must Learn from It

If you wish to make a donation to Haiti relief funds, research the organization to understand how monies are used before making a decision. Chancy provides a page on her website with suggested relief fund organizations.

(Oak + River Books assumes no responsibility for losses or damages occurring as a result of making a donation or utilizing other parties’ websites.)

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The Woman in Cabin 10 by Ruth Ware

Secrets and lies come together quite swimmingly in this chilling tale.

The Woman in Cabin 10 by Ruth Ware is a suspenseful mystery about a woman named Lo Blacklock, a journalist who ends up with passage on a brand-new, sleek 10-cabin luxury liner called the Aurora.

Right away, Lo is thrown off when she borrows some mascara from her neighbor, the woman in cabin 10, only to later learn that the room is vacant.

When she awakes in the night to realize that someone has been thrown overboard from the balcony of cabin 10, no one believes her.

Will Lo be able to convince the other passengers before the killer strikes again?

First of all, how about that textured cover? I am a sucker for a nice cover and I won’t bother denying it.

Lo’s character is desperate to prove her mettle as a writer and move up in the journaling ranks. Even after she’s injured when her apartment is burgled, she refuses to back down.

After witnessing what she believes is a murder – a woman thrown overboard – Lo resolves to solve the mystery herself when no believes her. When a couple others learn of her recent burglary, suspicion is cast her way that she’s overreacting or it’s all in her head.

Coupled with the pre-existing dislike of small spaces, and the dimness cast by the Aurora that occasionally reminded me of the third-class and servant areas from Titanic, it’s a wonder that Lo went digging at all. She even described the flotation device in the ship’s spa as a “sealed plastic coffin full of water”. My feelings are not dissimilar…

The ominous warnings she receives telling her to stop meddling only spur her intentions to find the killer before they can strike again.

I darted back into the room, slamming the French windows behind me, and checked the cabin door was double-locked. Then I put the chain across. My heart was thumping in my chest, but I felt calm, calmer than I had in ages.
This was it. This was real danger, and I was coping.

Chapter 10, The Woman in Cabin 10 by Ruth Ware

Adding to the tension is her relationship with her boyfriend, who is unable to get ahold of Lo during her trip.

The use of nature in this book is great. The Aurora is in the Black Sea, which is cold, dark, and menacing. Until they dock at a port, the passengers and crew are utterly alone.

And when you’re all alone, anything can happen.

Fans of The Woman in Cabin 10 will also enjoy The Sanatorium by Sarah Pearse! While The Sanatorium takes place at a snowed-in luxury ski hotel, these stories invoke the feelings of claustrophobia and being trapped with no way out.

To learn more about Ruth Ware, please check out the following sites:

Drop the title of your favorite suspense story in the comments!

Special Guests

A Clan of Wolves and Author Q+A

Emma Steinbrecher makes her author debut with the high fantasy duology A Clan of Wolves.

A Clan of Wolves begins the story with Ingrid – a powerful witch in hiding – alone in a destroyed house. With no friends and family, Ingrid must fend for herself.

There was no other motivation out in those woods. There was nothing to live for other than the fear of death.

a clan of wolves

When she encounters and is captured by a clan of wolves, lessons in love, life, and loss abound. After a series of events lead her and the clan leader Cason to fall for each other, Ingrid is received with mixed feelings from Cason’s crew. Together, they formulate a plan to take down a power-hungry witch – who happens to be Ingrid’s aunt.

In A House of Witches, Cason and Ingrid must deal with the aftermath of their failed attempt to assassinate Izina, an Overseer of the witch houses. Their friend Sophie makes the ultimate sacrifice by exchanging her shifting ability for assistance from the goddess Artemis. Eventually, Ingrid and Cason also team up with witches from the Dark House and the Fire House to try to finish Izina once and for all.

Above it all, Ingrid’s life is at steak no matter what. In A Clan of Wolves, Ingrid and Cason are imprisoned in Izina’s dungeon, so Ingrid makes a deal with the dead souls trapped there that she will kill Izina, but if she doesn’t before two months’ time, the souls will claim her. How do you know what choices to make when your life is on the line?

A Clan of Wolves and A House of Witches are told from a multi-POV perspective. The characters are passionate and eager, and the secondary characters’ chapters add to the world-building.

Ingrid’s memories bring depth to her character; she is in a dark place mentally and emotionally. With Cason’s support, she is able to grow into her power and make a new life for herself.

Death is the huntress that prowls under the light of the moon, seeking souls to claim and devour. Death is the whispering voices that echo through the night, begging witches to answer the call.

a house of witches

I first saw Emma Steinbrecher on a social media platform and was drawn to the duology’s book covers. After learning about the animosity between the wolf-shifters and witches, I was eager to see if the two groups could form some kind of alliance.

Full of dark undertones and women owning their power, this duology played like a movie in my head.

Read on to learn how the story got started, what Emma does in her spare time, and what we can look forward to next.

Q+A

content warning for q+a: depression

Q. What prompted you to begin writing the A Clan of Wolves duology?
A. I actually started writing A Clan of Wolves a year ago. I was driving to work sometime in the middle of December, and I thought of the idea during my commute while listening to music. Everything kind of took off from there, and the first draft was done in about a month. I was listening to the Evermore Album that Taylor Swift released, and the song Evermore was where the idea came from.

Q. Did you always know it would be a duology? 
A. I knew it would be at least two books, but I didn’t know if it would stretch beyond that. Once I had the second book, A House of Witches, planned out, I knew that would be the last one. When I first started it, I didn’t really know exactly where it was going. I will say that anything longer than a Duology intimidated me as a first-time author.

Q. Some parts of the story brought the main character, Ingrid, to a dark place, and her memories were some of my favorite parts to read. What was it like for you to write about someone who is dealing with trauma? 
A. The easy answer would be to say that I did a lot of research and tried to get into character while writing, but that wouldn’t be the honest answer. I had depression during my pregnancy with my son, and it lingered afterward as I tried to pull myself out of that hole. I work as a third-grade teacher, and people don’t realize how much of a performance teaching is. You are expected to be everything for everyone, and you have to be “on” all day. I was then coming home to my son, whom I LOVE, but I really struggled to share any of the challenges I was facing. I’m not someone who shares my innermost thoughts with others, and I’m actually very closed off. I think attaching some of the emotions I was having to a character that really wasn’t anything like me was very healing. I just multiplied the emotions by making the situations more traumatic.

Q. Are there any plans for more stories with these characters or in this world? Possibly any prequels? 
A. I have been toying around with the idea of a Kai novella. Originally, I was going to include his POV throughout the story but cut all of his chapters pretty quickly. I have a really good plan for that, but I’m not sure when I would get to it. I’m currently working on a separate trilogy, and I have a completed outline for an Epic Fantasy novel. 

Q. What were your favorite scenes and characters to write about? 
A. I had a huge heart for Lucas and his story. I was obsessed with the scenes between Lucas and Alana in the cave, and I really loved the dynamic between the two. He was originally supposed to end up with another character, but I scrapped that idea. I then changed who he would end up with about ten times before I settled on the ending. I just loved them so much. No spoilers here, but my love for them really showed in the end.

        As for just characters, Azar was by far the most fun character I have ever written. She is just so close to crazy that it was fun. I wrote a scene where she licks a knife for pretty much no reason other than intimidating people. She was just a character you could get really wild with.

Q. In your duology, witchcraft combines with ancient goddesses. Did you have to do a lot of research or are witchcraft and mythology topics you’ve always been interested in? 
A. I had to research almost everything! I actually really enjoyed this part, but I’m pretty sure whatever FBI agent watches my Google history was having a panic attack daily while I was writing. Googling the aftermath of being suffocated probably set off some alarms.

Q. What does your writing practice look like? (Do you have a special place or certain music you listen, etc) 
A. I listen to a lot of music while I write. This really helps me envision what I want the tone of the scene to be. For example, I mentioned Evermore inspiring a lot of A Clan of Wolves. The song is incredibly reflective, and I think that came across in Ingrid’s character and the way the story was told.

            I am a big planner though. I will get an idea, and write out an outline so I know how we are getting from A to B. Before I write a chapter, I will outline it with very confusing notes and a bunch of dialogue. This makes writing the actual chapter go so much faster. I also want to know the goal of the chapter before I get into it. Is the chapter serving to develop a relationship between two characters, provide more depth with a character’s back story or development, push the plot forward, or build on the world I’ve created? I need to know the purpose before I begin, or I get lost in the sauce.

         As for special location or time, I just write when I can at home. I usually write in the evenings when my son is in bed.

Q. What do you like to do when you’re not reading and writing? 
A. I love going on hikes through the forest with my son, Silas. Those long walks have been my favorite, and occasionally my husband will join us. I also enjoy painting, archery, and the occasional hyper fixation hobby (making soap, making paper, crocheting, gardening, etc.). 

Q. What is your favorite genre to read? 
A. I really enjoy epic fantasy. I actually greatly enjoy very political plotlines with a lot of scheming, blackmailing, and a sprinkle of dragons. At least that’s what I’ve been in the mood for recently. I’ll read pretty much anything.

Q. What are your reading and writing goals for 2022? 
A. I think I’m going to stick with my fifty-book reading goal this year since I was successful in 2021, and I’m all about being realistic. I’m such a mood reader that it really depends on what is going on, but I’m incredibly excited for the sequel to Fortune of Emerald and Salt by Monroe A. Wildrose, every single book K.S. Villoso has ever even considered writing, and, of course, the next Crescent City book. 

Q. And lastly, what are you currently reading?
A. I’m currently reading the seventh Zodiac Academy book. I’m really rather unhinged and am certain the ending will be brutal and painful. Caroline Peckham is somewhat sadistic in the way she ends her books. Either way, I am thoroughly enjoying myself, and I would do absolutely anything for Lance Orion. 

Many thanks to Emma Steinbrecher for being today’s special guest! You can follow her journey on:
Instagram
TikTok
Goodreads
Linktree (head here for a bonus chapter with Kai’s POV)

Content warning for duology: death, murder, captivity, depression/PTSD

If you or anyone you know is struggling or has concerns about their mental health, check out these resources listed on the National Institute of Mental Health website. An internet search of resources will also yield results specific to your local area.

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Malice by Heather Walter

Malice by Heather Walter is the fairytale story of Aurora, Sleeping Princess, spun on its head once again.

Seriously, though, the history of Sleeping Beauty is kind of a whirlwind.

cover of the book Malice by Heather Walter

Alyce – who her Grace sisters unaffectionately call Malyce – is the Dark Grace, part human, part Vila. The other Graces serve up blood elixirs for things like beauty, wisdom, music, even pleasure, but Alyce’s elixirs have always been relegated to serve those with secrets, conducting dealings in darkness and shadow.

A terrifying part of my soul whispers that I can do far more than spoil a jug of cream. That I want to.

When Alyce finally makes an appearance at the castle for a ball instead of to put an ill life at ease (by helping them die, a merciful killing you could say), she meets Aurora.

One of the promising points of this story is the LGBT+ representation. The budding romance Heather Walter has crafted between Alyce and Aurora (sidenote: I love female names that start with A) is formed with murky beginnings. I was reminded of this quote from To Wong Foo Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar: “They only grow in darkness and dank but sweetness, how they blossom.”

As Aurora and Alyce work together to try to break that curse that will either end Aurora’s life or be broken by true love’s kiss, their common goal unites them. Alyce wants to see Briar flourish under Aurora’s rule – especially with more freedom for the Graces.

Relief blooms in my gut, then just as quickly wilts at the look in her eyes. They’re determined and sure. Reckless.

I love thinking of the emotions between Alyce and Aurora as something floral. Floral things are beautiful, but short-lived. Whether an intentional or incidental metaphor for their relationship, I do not know. But Walter’s writing really shined through Alyce’s voice.

This story is not complete without a healthy dose of magic, temptation, bloodlust, and the ill effects of an ancient war.

Here are a couple other quotes I liked:

Inside the wide columns, I note the kinds of elixirs I was asked to create, as well as the amount of blood I’d spilled, in drops, for each. Every Grace is required to report these details to her housemistress and the Grace Council, who then use the information to determine the strength of a Grace. Concerns arise when a Grace who once needed only three drops of blood to craft an elixir begins to need four or more. Or when her elixirs began to Fade faster than in the past.

Walter’s worldbuilding was magical. The description of how the Graces provide their magic to paying customers and the way the Graces are controlled on multiple levels enhances the lingering feelings that almost everyone is trapped in a cage – some cages are just more gilded than others.

“Honestly, did you two read the books you stole from the library?”

This quote was said by Laurel, one of the wisdom graces. Laurel gave me Hermione vibes!

To learn more about Heather Walter visit her at the following:

Misrule, the sequel to Malice, is set to release in 2022.

Fairytale retellings have been making a bigger appearance in my book selection this past year. Can’t wait to see what 2022 has in store!