Book Reviews – Magical Stories

One of the changes I’ve made in the past few weeks is to spend less time on social media. I’m not convinced that it makes much difference to my business, and the visibility of my books in the marketplace, plus there are some developments in the works (especially at Facebook, now Meta) that will change the audience and the interface, thus making those outlets even less useful. I also find that the more time I spend on social media, the less I write. I’m feeling quite excited about my upcoming projects and want to dive into them.

The most reliable interaction with readers for me has always been my blog, so I’ll be blogging more. My general posts will be on this site, along with posts about my contemporary romances. Posts about my historical romances will continue to be on the blog, and those about my paranormal romances will be on One of other wonderful things about cutting back online time is that I’ve been crafting more, and you’ll find those posts on my Alive & Knitting blog

I’m also reading more fiction, which is glorious. Over the past few years, I’ve been in the habit of reading non-fiction, not fiction, and I missed the adventure. At the same time, my eyes were fatigued from all the screen time so I didn’t want to read on my iPad. Now I’m back reading fiction again, both in paper and ebook. I thought I’d share some of my reads with you every week or two. Be warned that they’re not always “on-brand”—i.e. in the genres I write—I read lots of different things, and you might also find some of them interesting.

The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield

My ticket back to fiction was The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield. (That’s an Amazon link, with an affiliate code.) I read this book when it was new (in 2006) and loved it. I still have the hardcover on my shelf and pulled it out last summer, wondering whether it still had that magic for me. Not all books do, but this one does. I still loved the imagery and the mystery, the way the story unfolded. I loved the idea of an older author, famous but with secrets, who chose to confess. I loved the love of stories and the fragments of tales. The ending was satisfying. The characters were engaging and it was very evocative of England for me. It’s also a book about books, and a book about the love of stories and storytelling, which gets me right where I live. It was lovingly published, with rag edges on the paper, too. Overall, one of my fave books.

What did I love about it specifically?
• Stories within stories
• A tangled chronology that switches back on itself but becomes clear in the end.
• Beautiful and striking imagery
• A strong sense of place
• An intriguing (and maybe unlikely) protagonist
• A character arc for that protagonist
• A satisfying ending
• A love of books, fables, myths and stories

It’s been 15 years. I wondered what else the author had published since then.

Once Upon a River by Diane Settlefield

There were two books, Bellman & Black and Once Upon A River. I bought Once Upon A River, which had a similar nested story as The Thirteenth Tale. It’s more a story about the stories people tell, how stories twist and turn, how rumors evolve and gain weight, and maybe how legends are born. It had lovely prose and a strong sense of place—as well as a ghost (maybe?) and a wise pig. It was very atmospheric, almost beguiling, and I enjoyed it very much. It wasn’t quite as much of a page-turner for me as The Thirteenth Tale, maybe because it had a much larger cast and I lost rack of some of them, now and again. As a writer, I love a big cast, but the pacing is often more compelling if the cast is small. It’s on the shelf, though, and I know I’ll go back to it. I liked the idea of stories that need endings, and I really loved the ending of this book.

In the meantime, I had that hunger for another book.

The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern

I went into the Also Buys on Amazon (the section that says “Customers who bought this also bought:”) and found The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern, which had a gorgeous cover. I do shop by cover. Always have. So, that became my next read.

My copy, though, has a different cover than this. 🙂 I suspect it’s the UK cover.

This book is really evocative. The imagery is just wonderful—I want to walk into that house with all the doorknobs hanging from the ceiling by ribbons, swaying slightly in the moonlight—and I read some passages multiple times, just for their beauty. The story is very layered, always peeling back a little more. More magic. More mystery. More love of stories and tangled chronologies—plus the idea that what you do can change the story, which is an idea I love to bits. I wasn’t as engaged with the protagonist in this story, but in a way, there was so much unfurling that I didn’t need to be. It’s a book I’ll need to go back and read again.

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

It drove me to the author’s first book, The Night Circus. Once again, mine has a different cover, probably the UK cover. There are so many reviews for this book that I’m kind of amazed I didn’t hear about it sooner (It was published in 2012) but then I have been hiding in the writing cave.

I gobbled this one up. The magic and the stories, the imagery, the setting all wove a spell. Who wouldn’t love the notion of a night circus that suddenly appears and abruptly vanishes, as if it was never there? The tangled chronology was exactly what I love, and I adored the twist of star-crossed lovers. I loved the details of the historical setting, and how the two protagonists created magic for each other. What a debut novel! The book left me hungry for more, though, so I thought it might be first in a series, but it’s apparently a standalone. Well worth reading, though, if you like the items on my little bullet list above.

I’m reading some mysteries now, and will tell you about that next time, when I have a little collection of keepers to share. My goal is to do this once a month. We’ll see how it goes. In the meantime, happy reading!

From the Keeper Shelf – 7

When I was a teenager in suburban Toronto, we used to take the bus and subway to go downtown. When I went with my friends, we went to the Eaton Centre, tried on clothes, window-shopped, and often went up to Sam the Record Man to buy an LP. When I went alone, I went to Bakka Books, an SFF new/used bookstore on Queen Street W. I spent hours there and routinely traded in my paperbacks to get new ones. I bought Marian Zimmer Bradley’s Mists of Avalon there when it was a new release (yup, it was the cover that made the sale) as well as many MANY other books. They were great at finding older titles that were no longer available new – at one point, I had a complete Michael Moorcock collection. I used to have a keeper bookcase of SFF classics in well-loved paperbacks, but when I moved one time, I just couldn’t bear another box of books and off they went. I’ve regretted that decision ever since.

Bakka Books still exists. It’s been sold a couple of times and moved a couple of times. Now it’s called Bakka-Phoenix Books and is near the U of T downtown campus, on Harbord Street. It’s owned by my friend Kate’s son, Ben, which I think is pretty cool.

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le GuinToday I’ll talk about one book that’s still here from that collection, because I couldn’t bear to let it go. Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness is an amazing book. The premise is that an envoy (Genly Ai) goes to a planet (Winter), in order to convince them to join an intergalactic union. He’s a diplomat and an alien to this culture, and the book takes the form of his reports. The book is beautifully written. The world-building is intricate and vivid, perhaps particularly because Genly Ai is confused by the culture he visits and documents it with precision.

“Our entire pattern of socio-sexual interaction is non-existent here. The Gethenians do not see one another as men or women. This is almost impossible for our imaginations to accept….Yet you cannot think of a Gethenian as “it”. They are not neuters. They are potentials; during each sexual cycle they may develop in either direction for the duration of that cycle. No physiological habit is established, and the mother of several children may be the father of several more.

There is no division of humanity into strong and weak halves; protected/protective. One is respected and judged only as a human being. You cannot cast a Gethenian in the role of Man or Woman, while adopting towards “him” a corresponding role dependent upon your expectations of the interactions between persons of the same or opposite sex. It is an appalling experience for a Terran…”

This book was first published in 1967, but it raises enduring questions about gender assignments, roles and expectations. Genly Ai’s are shattered by his time on Winter and I enjoy watching his perspective change.

The other thing I love about this book is that Genly Ai believes it is his responsibility to give advice to the Gethenians. This doesn’t seem to go well, but he can’t understand why—until it’s explained to him that the Gethenians think it’s rude to give advice to others, that to do so is to imply that the recipient isn’t sufficiently bright or competent to figure things out on his/her own.

You can find the book on Goodreads, right here.

The 50th anniversary edition of The Left Hand of Darkness is on right here.

Ursula K. Le Guin’s website is here.



From the Keeper Shelf – 6

There are so many things that fascinate me about Agatha Christie and her books. First, there are the books themselves. I started to read her books as a teenager because I loved mysteries, and I was quickly hooked. There was a time when I had a list of which of her books I’d read – before the Internet, we had to scour “Also by the Author” lists in the front matter of print books to look for titles we might have missed. I admire how prolific she was, how consistent she was with each book (in terms of delivering to reader expectation over and over again, yet also mixing it up a bit) and how she obviously thought about the marketing of her books. I have a hard time thinking about my own books as products – even though I know they are – so am impressed that she clearly did as much, and did it before there were blog articles everywhere explaining why it was imperative for authors to do so. I read a few years ago that her literary estate sold 6 million copies of her books each year. That’s an incredible number, especially since she passed away in 1976 – that’s a lot of years without new content to drive visibility in stores.

The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha ChristieThe Mysterious Affair at Styles was her first published book and also the title that introduced her sleuth Hercule Poirot – as well as Captain Hastings and Inspector Japp. She wrote the book in her late twenties and it was published before she was thirty, which is impressive in itself. The mystery is fun – with Hastings missing the point a lot of the time – and has a strong sense of place. It’s set in England at a country house, near the end of the first World War. People’s finances and situations are changing and that’s reflected in the situations of the characters in the book. (This series of blog posts about favorite books is making me realize how much I enjoy complicated households and stories that explore the relationships between different characters.) It’s not my favorite Christie book, or even my favorite Poirot mystery, but it’s the beginning and an excellent place to start.

What’s my favorite of her books? Hmm. I don’t think I can pick just one. I like Peril at End House, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, The ABC Murders, Death on the Nile, and Cards on the Table. (These links will take you to the book’s page on the Agatha Christie website.) I quite like the books with Ariadne Oliver and have often wondered whether Christie was writing a send-up of herself. Ariadne is a mystery author. She appears in Cards on the Table and – another favorite of mine – The Pale Horse.

Curtain by Agatha ChristieBy the time of the second World War, Poirot was established as a popular character in fiction. Here’s an example of that marketing savvy: Agatha Christie wrote the end of Poirot’s story in advance of her own death. She wrote the first version of Curtain during the war, when England was being bombed, in case she didn’t survive. The story is that she continued to update it over the years. It was published in 1975, right around the time of her own death, as Poirot’s last case. As a result, her long-running series has both a beginning and an end, which is very clever in terms of marketing. Poirot’s cases can also be read out of order, which addressed the potential issue of a bookstore not having a particular backlist title available in print when a reader was ready for it.

The Mysterious Affair at Styles was originally published in 1920 which means it is out of copyright. There are many versions available now which aren’t really great editions—I bought a print one by mistake and the typesetting was terrible. I ended up buying this older version (top right) published by Harper Collins in 2004, because I found a new copy. I like the editions with her signature and it’s cool that the design came full circle with the edition of Curtain at left. If you’re shopping at Amazon, read the reviews. The original edition of The Mysterious Affair at Styles included a layout of the house, which is often left out of these editions. You can also use the Look Inside feature to see what you’ll be getting. (There’s one, for example, with the cover top right on the product page, but the description is really long and different from the original copy. Look Inside shows a different cover and the reviews complain of the lack of a map.)

Here’s the Goodreads page for the book.

Here’s the Agatha Christie website and here’s the page for The Mysterious Affair at Styles there.

From the Keeper Shelf – 5

What the Body Remembers by Shauna Singh Baldwin

We’re going back to historical fiction today with What the Body Remembers by Shauna Singh Baldwin. Once upon a time, I used to discover new books and new authors by browsing at a bricks-and-mortar bookstore. I really did pick books by their covers, or at least I’d pick them up for the first time because of their covers. This trade paperback has a beautiful cover. It won the Commonwealth Prize in 2000 and was prominently displayed in the store at that time. The  quote from the NYT Book Review is on the back cover of this edition: “A sumptuous tour of [India}, that rich and poor and calm and chaotic country.”

“Sumptuous”. Sold!

And I wasn’t disappointed. Far from it. This is a glorious book. It’s a story of a man taking a second wife in the hope of gaining an heir, and the change in dynamics within his household. It tells of the new bride’s expectations and the existing wife’s struggle to accept the change. At the same time, the greater picture in India is one of political change and religious conflict. This is a layered story, rich with historical detail, teeming with strong characterizations and conflict. It’s so beguiling that it pulls you right into the story – I just looked for a pull-out quote and ended up reading for half an hour. The author’s voice is wonderful.

If you’ve never read Shauna Singh Baldwin’s work, give this book a try.

Edited to add: I wrote this post a few weeks ago when I was queuing up books in this series of blog posts about my keeper shelf. Recent events and initiatives made me realize that my keeper bookshelf needs more diverse voices. I’ll let you know what I discover to add to my shelf in the upcoming months in case you, too, want to hear some different voices.

Here’s the book at

Here’s the book on Goodreads.

Here’s the author’s website.

From the Keeper Shelf – 4

This choice might be another surprise for you. Today’s pick from my keeper shelf is Dolores Claiborne by Stephen King.

Dolores Claiborne by Stephen KingThe first Stephen King novel I read was his first book: Carrie was published in 1974 but I read it when I was in high school. I see that the paperback edition I read was the first one, published in 1975, but I didn’t read it until a couple of years later. I was in Grade 9 and I borrowed it from the library. It’s funny to see all the bans against this book, which I read at 13 and no one much worried about it. My favorite King book was The Dead Zone, and I’m surprised that I don’t have a copy on my keeper shelf. I think I wore out that mass market paperback – it was the one published in 1980. The Shining spooked me (as it’s supposed to) and I moved on to other authors. It was years later when a writer friend declared that Dolores Claiborne was King’s best book. I think The Dead Zone is pretty amazing, so I was intrigued and picked up a copy. (I have this one at right, which is a reprint.)

This is a really interesting book, both in terms of story and structure. It’s structured as a confession and is essentially one long scene, written in first person. The protagonist has a strong voice, so strong that her presence is tangible. Her story is one of secrets, and of maybe doing the wrong thing for the right reason. Dolores is accused of killing her employer, a rich woman who visits Maine during the summers and is known to be difficult. Dolores insists that she didn’t kill Vera, but confesses to a different murder—that of her husband, years before. She tells her story out of order, illuminating complex characters and revealing the intricacies of the relationships between them. By the time she explains how she did it, we’re totally on her side that her husband deserved his fate. Don’t start reading this book unless you have time to read it right through to the end. This is a compelling page-turner that holds tight. If you’re a writer, read it once for pleasure, then once again to analyze how King spins his web.

Now I need to find myself another copy of The Dead Zone to decide which I think is the stronger book…I think I know which one I still love best, though.

Here’s Dolores Claiborne at Amazon.

Here’s the Goodreads page for Dolores Clairborne.

Here’s Stephen King’s website.