BOOK REVIEW: Sin Eaters, by Megan Campisi

BOOK REVIEW: Sin Eaters, by Megan CampisiTitle: Sin Eater by Megan Campisi
Published by Atria Books
Published: April 7th 2020
Genres: Fiction, Historical
Pages: 304
Format: ARC
Source: Publisher
Goodreads

The Handmaid’s Tale meets Alice in Wonderland in this gripping and imaginative historical novel about a shunned orphan girl in 16th century England who is ensnared in a deadly royal plot and must turn her subjugation into her power.

The Sin Eater walks among us, unseen, unheard Sins of our flesh become sins of Hers Following Her to the grave, unseen, unheard The Sin Eater Walks Among Us.

For the crime of stealing bread, fourteen-year-old May receives a life sentence: she must become a Sin Eater—a shunned woman, brutally marked, whose fate is to hear the final confessions of the dying, eat ritual foods symbolizing their sins as a funeral rite, and thereby shoulder their transgressions to grant their souls access to heaven.

Orphaned and friendless, apprenticed to an older Sin Eater who cannot speak to her, May must make her way in a dangerous and cruel world she barely understands. When a deer heart appears on the coffin of a royal governess who did not confess to the dreadful sin it represents, the older Sin Eater refuses to eat it. She is taken to prison, tortured, and killed. To avenge her death, May must find out who placed the deer heart on the coffin and why.

“A keenly researched feminist arc of unexpected abundance, reckoning, intellect, and ferocious survival” (Maria Dahvana Headley, author of The Mere Wife) Sin Eater is “a dark, rich story replete with humor, unforgettable characters, and arcane mysteries. It casts a spell on your heart and mind until the final page” (Jennie Melamed, author of Gather the Daughters).

The Unseen is now seen. The Unheard is now heard. The sins of your flesh become the sins of mine to be borne to my grave in silence. Speak.

Megan Campisi’s Sin Eater defies genre. It is historical fiction, but not completely; it’s fantasy/fabulist¹, but not completely. This indefinite quality adds to its appeal. Sin-eaters did exist, but sin-eaters still remain more in folkloric history in which not much is widely known about them and their practices. Campisi brings an alternate speculative look at Elizabethan England that is rich and detailed, and I wanted more from the world she created. The comp titles listed with this are wide and varied, and for the most part I don’t know if they particularly fit, aside from Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale in the sense that this is a character study of a young woman in a society that prefers she stay in her place and not question anything. If anything, my comp would be The Handmaid’s Tale meets Parasite in an alternate Tudor England as this is very much about class, violent deception, and the fear that rules institutionalized religion.

May Owens, the fourteen year old girl sentenced to become a Sin Eater after stealing food, is the perfect set of eyes through which to experience this world, because like her, we are unfamiliar with a lot of the customs outside of our immediate recognition. May’s isolation and loneliness are present on the page, along with her discomfort and estrangement at her own acceptance of her life’s chosen path. When she delves into the mystery surrounding her mentor’s death, May discovers that the court for which she is performing the sin eating is rife with manipulative and deceptive people, and nobody can be trusted but herself, and even then she’s not entirely sure she can trust herself.

This is an excellent intrigue of a novel, grim and gruesome with a lot of heart, and it’s a contender to be one of my favorite reads of the year.

Thank you to Atria Books for a review copy! All opinions are my own.

¹ I’ve begun using “fabulist” for something that isn’t quite “real” and not quite “fantasy” in terms of genre, as “magical realism” is a style specific to Latin American literature.

BOOK REVIEW: To Have and To Hoax, by Martha Waters

BOOK REVIEW: To Have and To Hoax, by Martha WatersTitle: To Have and to Hoax by Martha Waters
Published by Atria Books
Published: April 7th 2020
Genres: Romance
Pages: 352
Format: ARC
Source: Publisher
Buy: Bookshop(afflilate link)
Goodreads

In this fresh and hilarious historical rom-com, an estranged husband and wife in Regency England feign accidents and illness in an attempt to gain attention—and maybe just win each other back in the process.

Five years ago, Lady Violet Grey and Lord James Audley met, fell in love, and got married. Four years ago, they had a fight to end all fights, and have barely spoken since.

Their once-passionate love match has been reduced to one of cold, detached politeness. But when Violet receives a letter that James has been thrown from his horse and rendered unconscious at their country estate, she races to be by his side—only to discover him alive and well at a tavern, and completely unaware of her concern. She’s outraged. He’s confused. And the distance between them has never been more apparent.

Wanting to teach her estranged husband a lesson, Violet decides to feign an illness of her own. James quickly sees through it, but he decides to play along in an ever-escalating game of manipulation, featuring actors masquerading as doctors, threats of Swiss sanitariums, faux mistresses—and a lot of flirtation between a husband and wife who might not hate each other as much as they thought. Will the two be able to overcome four years of hurt or will they continue to deny the spark between them?

With charm, wit, and heart in spades, To Have and To Hoax is a fresh and eminently entertaining romantic comedy—perfect for fans of Jasmine Guillory and Julia Quinn.

I have very much been in the mood for reading romances because they’re light and fun and take you away from the world for a bit, and To Have and To Hoax is a fun regency romance in which a husband and wife suffer from misaligned communication and miscommunication, and now resort to playing games with each other to try to win each other’s attention and affection. And of course none of it goes as planned.

The main characters are immature, stubborn, and insufferable, but it is a delight to read because the situations in which they found themselves resulted in witty dialogue and believable chemistry. For me, I thought that the games they played went on a little too long which made the middle of the book drag a bit, and I thought the chapters could be too long and possibly better broken into shorter ones, especially when the point of view changed. The core of the argument that drove Audley and Violet apart was not revealed until well into the book, leaving you guessing as to what could possibly drive two people apart for four years other than sheer stubbornness and an inability to talk about it. Otherwise the pacing was good and kept me interested to find out what shenanigans the characters got up to next.

Ultimately, I think my favorite parts of the entire book involved Violet’s friends and how each of them were involved in Violet’s schemes, and I hope Waters writes more about them, because I think their stories would be just as entertaining to read!

If you are in the mood for a more modern twist on regency romance, definitely check this one out.

Thank you to Atria for sending me an advance reader’s copy; all opinions are my own.

BOOK REVIEW: Things in Jars, by Jess Kidd

BOOK REVIEW: Things in Jars, by Jess KiddTitle: Things in Jars by Jess Kidd
Published by Atria Books
Published: February 4, 2020
Genres: Fiction, Historical
Pages: 373
Format: ARC
Source: Publisher
Goodreads

In the dark underbelly of Victorian London, a formidable female sleuth is pulled into the macabre world of fanatical anatomists and crooked surgeons while investigating the kidnapping of an extraordinary child in this gothic mystery—perfect for fans of The Essex Serpent and The Book of Speculation.

Bridie Devine—female detective extraordinaire—is confronted with the most baffling puzzle yet: the kidnapping of Christabel Berwick, secret daughter of Sir Edmund Athelstan Berwick, and a peculiar child whose reputed supernatural powers have captured the unwanted attention of collectors trading curiosities in this age of discovery.

Winding her way through the labyrinthine, sooty streets of Victorian London, Bridie won’t rest until she finds the young girl, even if it means unearthing a past that she’d rather keep buried. Luckily, her search is aided by an enchanting cast of characters, including a seven-foot tall housemaid; a melancholic, tattoo-covered ghost; and an avuncular apothecary. But secrets abound in this foggy underworld where spectacle is king and nothing is quite what it seems.

Blending darkness and light, history and folklore, Things in Jars is a spellbinding Gothic mystery that collapses the boundary between fact and fairy tale to stunning effect and explores what it means to be human in inhumane times.

Here is time held in suspension. Yesterday pickled. Eternity in a jar.

I love a good disturbing, yet still whimsical, historical fiction mystery. Jess Kidd’s Things in Jars is set in the Victorian era, but right away, you notice that something is different. With elements of fairy tales and the obscure, I felt that this world was both familiar and unfamiliar, and I wanted to know more about it. The novel focuses on Bridie Devine, a detective, who is commissioned to find the whereabouts of a strange young girl named Christobel who is not an ordinary child. With the assistance of her extraordinarily tall lady’s maid Cora and a ghost of a prizefighter Ruby, Bridie goes on a trek through the seedy, dirty parts of London to discover the history and whereabouts of Christobel and to discover more about herself.

The narrative shifts back and forth from Bridie’s current time and Bridie’s past interweaving to give us a glimpse of the person she was and how she became the person she is in her present day. Sometimes these narrative shifts can be jarring, but these were seamless, illuminating the current day’s dilemmas and mysteries with the past’s introspection and revelation. The world building was exquisitely described. There were times I felt like I was right there as invisible eyes watching everything unfold. The characters were so fascinating and multifaceted that I wanted to learn more about them in more books, especially Cora. She was such a fantastic character to me at seven feet tall and truly herself. And I was left completely heartbroken at the end with Ruby and his final words to Bridie. I’m not giving anything away, because it’s such a perfect ending for this story, closing off bits and pieces, and opening up the door to more, making me hope for future installments in this world, however they might come along.

If you’re in the mood for a good, dark, entertaining historical mystery, do look into this one. It was one of my favorite reads in January!

Thank you to Atria Books for a gifted ARC! All opinions are my own.

BOOK REVIEW: Love at First Like, by Hannah Orenstein

BOOK REVIEW: Love at First Like, by Hannah OrensteinTitle: Love at First Like by Hannah Orenstein
Published by Atria Books
Published: August 6th 2019
Genres: Romance
Pages: 336
Format: ARC
Source: Publisher
Goodreads

Eliza Roth and her sister Sophie co-own a jewelry shop in Brooklyn. One night, after learning of an ex’s engagement, Eliza accidentally posts a photo of herself wearing a diamond ring on that finger to her Instagram account beloved by 100,000 followers. Sales skyrocket, press rolls in, and Eliza learns that her personal life is good for business. So she has a choice: continue the ruse or clear up the misunderstanding. With mounting financial pressure, Eliza sets off to find a fake fiancé.

Fellow entrepreneur Blake seems like the perfect match on paper. And in real life he shows promise, too. He would be perfect, if only Eliza didn’t feel also drawn to someone else. But Blake doesn’t know Eliza is “engaged”; Sophie asks Eliza for an impossible sum of money; and Eliza’s lies start to spiral out of control. She can either stay engaged online or fall in love in real life.

Hannah Orenstein’s Love at First Like is her follow-up novel to one of my favorite reads of last year, Playing With Matches. In Love at First Like, Eliza owns a jewelry shop with her sister Sophie in NYC and, after finding out via Instagram that her ex-boyfriend is engaged, accidentally posts a photo of herself wearing a diamond ring on her left hand. Overnight, the post causes a social media stir and brings a lot of attention (and customers!) to her Instagram and her store. With it comes a lot of press and pressure to reveal more information about the ring, herself, and her new fiance. She has two choices – reveal the truth about the sensational post or find someone to be her fiance. When she meets Blake, Eliza feels enough of a connection with him to pursue a relationship with him and hopes his interest is reciprocated enough to actually be her fiance. However, when Blake finds out the truth, Eliza’s lies force her back to reality and to confront herself.

I’ve read a few reviews on this and noticed that some where really turned off by Eliza’s determination to fulfill her accidental Instagram post and bring success to her business, calling it careless and selfish, but would we say the same thing about a man who does the same? I don’t necessarily think so. I liked Eliza’s determination to see her business succeed and that it did take something like this to show her what she really wanted for her personal and professional life. It takes a lot of guts to put yourself out there personally and professionally, and Eliza did both. Maybe she could have done some things differently, but I think that would have detracted from the lessons learned.

I thought this was cute, enjoyable, and a good examination of modern dating and the questions we ask ourselves when putting ourselves out there. It touches on how we compare ourselves to others on social media, and the reservations we have in revealing our “true” selves, thoughts, and feelings. I also liked seeing some of the characters from Orenstein’s first novel make an appearance as well! I think the only bummer for me in the whole fake dating trope that I like is that I like it when both sides of the relationship are “in” on the fake dating, but it’s a variation on the trope and it works in this novel!

Thank you to Atria for sending me a copy to review! All opinions are my own.

BOOK REVIEW: We Are All Good People Here, by Susan Rebecca White

BOOK REVIEW: We Are All Good People Here, by Susan Rebecca WhiteTitle: We Are All Good People Here by Susan Rebecca White
Published by Atria Books
Published: August 6th 2019
Genres: Fiction, Historical
Pages: 304
Format: ARC
Source: Publisher
Goodreads

From the author of A Place at the Table and A Soft Place to Land, an “intense, complex, and wholly immersive” (Joshilyn Jackson, New York Times bestselling author) multigenerational novel that explores the complex relationship between two very different women and the secrets they bequeath to their daughters.

Eve Whalen, privileged child of an old-money Atlanta family, meets Daniella Gold in the fall of 1962, on their first day at Belmont College. Paired as roommates, the two become fast friends. Daniella, raised in Georgetown by a Jewish father and a Methodist mother, has always felt caught between two worlds. But at Belmont, her bond with Eve allows her to finally experience a sense of belonging. That is, until the girls’ expanding awareness of the South’s systematic injustice forces them to question everything they thought they knew about the world and their places in it.

Eve veers toward radicalism—a choice pragmatic Daniella cannot fathom. After a tragedy, Eve returns to Daniella for help in beginning anew, hoping to shed her past. But the past isn’t so easily buried, as Daniella and Eve discover when their daughters are endangered by secrets meant to stay hidden.

Spanning more than thirty years of American history, from the twilight of Kennedy’s Camelot to the beginning of Bill Clinton’s presidency, We Are All Good People Here is “a captivating…meaningful, resonant story” (Emily Giffin, author of All We Ever Wanted) about two flawed but well-meaning women clinging to a lifelong friendship that is tested by the rushing waters of history and their own good intentions.

Susan Rebecca White’s We Are All Good People Here follows the lives of two women – Daniella and Eve – and their daughters, spanning from the 1960s to the late 1980s. Throughout these three decades, Daniella and Eve face changes in their personal lives and in the world around them, and even though they try to be good people, their actions often have consequences for which they weren’t prepared. Daniella veers toward social reform and justice while Eve becomes a sometimes-violent radical, and the paths each of them take strain their relationship throughout the rest of their lives culminating in a revelation to each of their daughters that changes how they each view one another.

White’s writing in this book is incredible. It starts off rather naive, reflecting the views and experiences of the characters, and eventually morphing into something complex and heady. White doesn’t shy away from the difficult aspects of the Civil Rights Movement in the 60s, the Vietnam riots in the 70s, and the racial tensions throughout each of the decades in which these women live. The descriptions of the era are spot on, and I could often vividly imagine the rooms in which these women walked and the clothes they wore to the tensions and struggles of each setting. The character’s voices are unique, honest, and at times flawed, and each of the women feel so real and I felt as if I got to know each of them very well.

The novel was a reflection on the past as well as a reflection of our current time of unrest and upheaval. I read it in about two sittings because I absolutely had to know how it ended, and it’s a perfect end of summer read. However, if you are affected and prefer not to read about animal violence, there is a violent scene involving a cat that was unsettling.

Thank you to Atria for sending me a complimentary copy to review! All opinions are my own!