ARC Review – “Parting The Veil” by Paulette Kennedy

Read if you like: angst, romance, mystery, old mansions, independent American women shaking up 1800s Britain, ghosts, divination, female solidarity, family complications, family secrets, ancestral legacy, betrayals, LGBTQIA historical representation, fickle weather, clever multi-layered plot twists, atmospheric writing, equestrianism (pretty horses, really).

Content warnings: suicidal ideation, self-harm, sexual content, murder, forced captivity, assault/mild violence, drug use/alcoholism, arson, racist and colonial dynamics in historical context, child and pregnancy loss, war, blood, sexism and misogyny, toxic power dynamics, implied incest.

Goodreads summary:

Some houses hold secrets that are meant to be kept forever…

When Eliza Sullivan inherits an estate from a recently deceased aunt, she leaves behind a grievous and guilt-ridden past in New Orleans for rural England and a fresh start. Eliza arrives at her new home and finds herself falling for the mysterious lord of Havenwood, Malcolm Winfield. Despite the sinister rumors that surround him, Eliza is drawn to his melancholy charm and his crumbling, once-beautiful mansion. With enough love, she thinks, both man and manor could be repaired.

Not long into their marriage, Eliza fears that she should have listened to the locals. There’s something terribly wrong at Havenwood Manor: Forbidden rooms. Ghostly whispers in the shadows. Strangely guarded servants. And Malcolm’s threatening moods, as changeable as night and day.

As Eliza delves deeper into Malcolm’s troubling history, the dark secrets she unearths gain a frightening power. Has she married a man or a monster? For Eliza, uncovering the truth will either save her or destroy her.

(Goodreads book profile here)


Review:

I read this book in one sitting – and I was completely enthralled.

Paulette’s grasp on prose, character and atmosphere was what made this book for me, giving me strong Daphne du Maurier vibes. She has a knack for picking verbs that both carries the atmosphere of a scene (“furred with hoarfrost”, “the passageway snarled”, “tucked into her eggs”, “walls crawled around the edges of her eyes”), while also providing you with a subtle understanding of her characters without shoving it in your face. Rather, she demands that you pay attention to the details and wait around for them to be explained. Which you’ll happily do. In fact, the mystery of the book is built up around the characters, as is the custom of the gothic genre, and Paulette has created delightfully intricate characters that reveal themselves to the reader at just the perfect pace to keep you hungry for more, yet satisfied with your current scraps.

To continue with the mystery of the book, I was left with definite clues that kept me guessing throughout the book, yet the plot twists were so well-crafted that I could never quite pinpoint the how and the why – even if I could pinpoint the what. I particularly loved how Paulette used twists as diversion tactics, planting an obvious twist for me to focus on so I’d miss the subtler twist hiding behind it. Layered mysteries; that takes skill. I had complete faith that the many twists would make sense at the end of the book, like a perfect crescendo, and I wasn’t disappointed.

Then there’s the romance. While the romance isn’t always at the center of the plot, it remains the emotional backbone of the story as a whole. Like I mentioned earlier, the mystery of the book is built up around the characters, like all good gothic novels, so it’s no surprise that romantic angst is prominent throughout most of the book while the romance itself takes a backseat at times. More so than many other gothic novels I’ve read, in fact. I was far more interested in seeing the protagonist’s marriage fall apart than I was in seeing it come to life. Romance readers should take note that the sex scenes were fade-to-black (or artfully implied in-scene), so if you’re looking for a (gothic) romance with high heat levels, you might be disappointed.

Lastly, there’s the research. So much research has gone into this book and it absolutely shines, adding enough plausibility to the setting that I felt transported to the world and the time within the first few pages alone. And, yes, I had to look up plenty of objects and fashions, which tells me the research is solid. The same goes for the feminist and LGBTQIA elements, which all felt plausible for the time and place. They ended on happier notes, no less, adding a hopefulness to the book that was a nice breather from the heavier themes of assault, violence, self-harm and suicidal ideation befitting of the genre.

If you enjoyed Jane Eyre, Rebecca, My Cousin Rachel, Mexican Gothic, and Crimson Peak, then this book is for you.


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SJ Whitby’s “Cute Mutants” – a superhero scenario that’s all heart, voice & inclusivity

Read if you like:

Voice, snark, diverse cast, superpowers, badassery, shit-talk, anarchy, talking objects, fast pacing, found family, ensemble cast, A+ parenting/D- parenting, healthy representation of sexuality/ies, coming-of-age themes, X-men, Stray Kids

SJ Whitby’s writing is all about heart. Heart, heart, heart. Broken hearts, happy hearts, hopeful hearts, fearful hearts. Alongside all that heart, you’ll find a voice so discernable and palpable that it drives you to read the next page, and the next, and the next, and the—you get my point. I read the first page of Cute Mutants and instantly felt like I’d known Dylan, the main character, forever.

When I first opened my package and held the book, it felt so polished. The physical feel of it was incredible. It’s definitely one of the most thoroughly processed self-published books I’ve had the fortune of holding in my hand. The formatting is perfect, and the cover art is stunning. It literally looks like it could’ve been printed by a publisher, which tells me just how much work and effort that went into finalizing the project. I was so, so, impressed and find it so, so, admirable.

Right, so, let’s move on to the actual content of the book.

There’s transgender rep, there’s asexual rep, there’s pan rep, there’s BIPOC rep. It’s one of the most inclusive books I’ve read in a long, long time – and that’s partly because it’s self-published and thus doesn’t answer to the biases in the publishing industry. There’s been no gatekeepers here, and it makes for a glorious reading experience. It’s a safe space. You feel welcome. You feel bold.

The inclusivity doesn’t mean there’s no struggle in the book, however. The cast all struggle with your typical coming-of-age problems. Think first loves, discovery of sexuality, separating from parents, disinterest in school, peer pressure, pressure to conform, battling social anxiety in various forms. These more generic struggles are mixed in with the struggles of newly discovered superpowers, an event that happens after the whole cast kiss the same girl at the same party.

What’s mind-numbingly clever here, I think, is the way that Whitby has made the superpowers a physical manifestation of the cast’s deeply personal struggles that often show in their social interactions. Dylan, for example, can talk to objects as a result of social anxiety. Another character’s appearance physically morphs into matching her inner mood at all times because she struggles with her self-esteem. A third character has literal demons crawling around inside her chest as a manifestation of psychological trauma. It’s a clever and fresh spin on the superpower trope that adds a healthy amount of character depth to the conflict at large.

Given that it’s not a book focused on prose, but rather on voice, the pacing does get fast at times, which worried me at the beginning, but overall, it didn’t disconnect me from the characters. I think a lot of that has to do with Whitby’s chokehold grasp on voice. In other books, the fast pacing might have frustrated me, but it worked for me in this case.

This is a book about family, friends and first loves. It’s a book about acceptance and hope, although it doesn’t feel like that at first glance. It feels rather like the opposite. It’s a book about growing up and successfully making a space for yourself in a world that doesn’t give you much room to do so—at whatever cost it takes. It’s a book worth reading, basically.



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Molly Aitken’s “The Island Child” – atmospherically and emotionally-haunting magical realism

Read if you like:

Family dynamics, coming-of-age themes, the troubles of motherhood, superstition versus religion, nature as a force of its own, beautiful prose, dual timelines, emotional depth, tragedy

Triggering content:

Emotional and physical abuse, parental neglect, rape, infant death, suicidal thoughts

I owned this book for about a year before I picked it up to actually read it. Amazingly, I picked it up on its 1-year birthday – and proceeded to read it in one sitting. I can count on one hand the books I’ve ever read in one sitting. Two of them are Fahrenheit 451 and Rosemary’s Baby, so it’s fair to say that the Island Child is in solid company. But it’s also fair to say that The Island Child is a longer book than those other two, which perhaps makes it even solider than them. Especially when counting in the fact that it made me cry several times, yet I read on.

So, what kept me glued to the pages?

This book tackles some heavy-hitting (and potentially triggering!) topics related to motherhood. Although I’m not a mother myself, I still connected strongly with the main character and those topics. Perhaps because it’s as much a book about motherhood as it’s a book about childhood, and how those two are connected.

We follow Oona in two timelines – the past as a child, and the present as an adult. Throughout the book, these two timelines slowly merge and puts us in the present. As such, it’s a book that’s built largely around mystery as the reader gradually comes to understand Adult-Oona’s conflicts by discovering Child-Oona’s circumstances. And they are not nice circumstances.

Child-Oona grows up on the small Irish island of Inis (fictional) in a village of 50 people where the superstition of the sea is ripe, clashing with institutional religion. The village has few amenities of any sort, despite being the 1960s. Like children in general, the adventurous Child-Oona is fascinated by the superstition that shrouds the island, meaning she clashes constantly with her overly religious and punitive mother, who refuses to let Oona go to school and believes female biology is a sin. They clash to the point that their relationship is unsalvageable, and has made Adult-Oona believe she herself is unfit to be a mother, unable to properly show love for her own child, Joyce.

Oona escapes Inis as a young adult when she’s pregnant with Joyce and settles down in Canada. This also makes this a story about immigration in a time before the digitalized world, meaning immigration truly meant leaving your old life behind. While battling the trauma of emotional abuse from her mother and rape by a stranger, Oona struggles to fit into this more modern world to the point that she is unfit to care for her daughter. Indeed, she’s unfit to care for herself. As her daughter grows up, Oona hides her past from Joyce, ashamed and fearful of it. The book is centered on Oona coming to terms with that past when Joyce run away to Inis island for the answers Oona always refused giving her. 

Given the small cast (a natural consequence of the island setting), the plot was somewhat predictable, but Aitken still threw in enough minor plot twists that she planted doubt in me several times. In the end, however, it did turn out as I had predicted.

This is a story about tragedy. There’s death, rape, neglect, isolation, and much more. It’s just not a cuddly story. It doesn’t hold your hand. Rather, it opens your eyes. And, on the last few pages, the tragedy finally turns, leaving you with hope stirring in your stomach.

It’s a cathartic book, I’ll say, and it’s worth all the heartbreak when you reach that final page. So don’t let yourself be scared off, but do be aware of the triggers it may or may not have for you.


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