Once Upon a River – Diane Setterfield

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Publication Date: December 4th, 2018

Page Count: 480

From the Jacket:

On a dark midwinter’s night in an ancient inn on the river Thames, an extraordinary event takes place. The regulars are telling stories to while away the dark hours, when the door bursts open on a grievously wounded stranger. In his arms is the lifeless body of a small child. Hours later, the girl stirs, takes a breath and returns to life. Is it a miracle? Is it magic? Or can science provide an explanation? These questions have many answers, some of them quite dark indeed.

Those who dwell on the river bank apply all their ingenuity to solving the puzzle of the girl who died and lived again, yet as the days pass the mystery only deepens. The child herself is mute and unable to answer the essential questions: Who is she? Where did she come from? And to whom does she belong? But answers proliferate nonetheless.

Three families are keen to claim her. A wealthy young mother knows the girl is her kidnapped daughter, missing for two years. A farming family reeling from the discovery of their son’s secret liaison, stand ready to welcome their granddaughter. The parson’s housekeeper, humble and isolated, sees in the child the image of her younger sister. But the return of a lost child is not without complications and no matter how heartbreaking the past losses, no matter how precious the child herself, this girl cannot be everyone’s. Each family has mysteries of its own, and many secrets must be revealed before the girl’s identity can be known.

Once Upon a River is a glorious tapestry of a book that combines folklore and science, magic and myth. Suspenseful, romantic, and richly atmospheric, the beginning of this novel will sweep you away on a powerful current of storytelling, transporting you through worlds both real and imagined, to the triumphant conclusion whose depths will continue to give up their treasures long after the last page is turned.

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Along the borders of this world lie others. There are places you can cross. This is one such place.

Diane Setterfield, I love you.

Once Upon a River is remarkable–expertly written, it is an enchanting and engrossing adult fairytale. Setterfield has woven a timeless story that is dark and sad, yet beautiful,  full of mystery and magical realism. Reader’s Digest calls it, ” a novel for book lovers” and I could not agree more.

Set in a fictional town on the bank of the Thames during a time when the world was still illuminated by gaslight, the story opens in a small inn called the Crown. Here the regulars gather each night to drink and tell stories. On one of these nights just as things are winding down, the door bursts open and a badly injured man comes inside carrying the body of a little girl. First thought to be dead, the girl lives and her survival sets an extraordinary course of events into motion.

Setterfield uses the next several chapters to introduce new characters, each one ending the same way: “Something is going to happen.” It is clear that the character introductions  are happening along the same timeline, creating an eerie groundhog’s day vibe which I absolutely loved! Representing the full range of humanity, the characters are vibrant and full of depth, with personalities that burst off the page. Mysterious and deeply enmeshed in folklore and magic, the river itself is perhaps the most important character and so much of the tone and pace of the story are set by the behavior of the water. At times slow and calm and at others rushing and fast, the storylines come together as the characters make their way towards and intricately plotted conclusion that I’m still thinking about days later.

Even after writing this review, I’m still trying to find the words to express how much I loved this book–trying and coming up short every time. Diane Setterfield is a magician, and with this book she has worked pure magic. Once Upon a River is such a quiet and powerful story, and the writing reflects the movement of a river so perfectly that I was completely swept up in it from the very first page.  I emphatically and enthusiastically recommend this one! The biggest thank you to Goodreads and Atria for the advanced review copy!

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Little Panic – Amanda Stern

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Publisher: Grand Central Publishing

Publication Date: June 19th, 2018

Page Count: 400 (hardcover)

From the Jacket:

In the vein of bestselling memoirs about mental illness like Andrew Solomon’s Noonday Demon, Sarah Hepola’s Blackout, and Daniel Smith’s Monkey Mindcomes a gorgeously immersive, immediately relatable, and brilliantly funny memoir about living life on the razor’s edge of panic.
The world never made any sense to Amanda Stern–how could she trust time to keep flowing, the sun to rise, gravity to hold her feet to the ground, or even her own body to work the way it was supposed to? Deep down, she knows that there’s something horribly wrong with her, some defect that her siblings and friends don’t have to cope with.
Growing up in the 1970s and 80s in New York, Amanda experiences the magic and madness of life through the filter of unrelenting panic. Plagued with fear that her friends and family will be taken from her if she’s not watching-that her mother will die, or forget she has children and just move away-Amanda treats every parting as her last. Shuttled between a barefoot bohemian life with her mother in Greenwich Village, and a sanitized, stricter world of affluence uptown with her father, Amanda has little she can depend on. And when Etan Patz disappears down the block from their MacDougal Street home, she can’t help but believe that all her worst fears are about to come true.
Tenderly delivered and expertly structured, Amanda Stern’s memoir is a document of the transformation of New York City and a deep, personal, and comedic account of the trials and errors of seeing life through a very unusual lens.

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I just started this a few days ago, but once I picked it up I couldn’t put it down. I stayed up until 130 in the morning and then set my alarm early so I could read the last few chapters. I had so many emotions while reading this book and it opened so many questions for me. About who I am, how I was raised, my own anxiety, what kind of parent I am versus the one I want to be, how I interact with those around me, especially my wife. I’m not sure if reading someone else’s memoir should make one introspective, but this one resonated with me in so many different places and ways that it did. Amanda’s life is incredible and the courage with which she opens herself up in such an honest and raw way is humbling. I loved reading this book. I loved learning about her life and how she interprets the world, especially as a child.

Little Panic opens in Amanda’s elementary school classroom, where the students–all except for her–have earned watches by learning to correctly tell time and are now playing a game to test their knowledge. Amanda’s best friend Melissa has been asked to sit out the game and help her catch up so she can join the rest of the class. As she asks frantic–and in my opinion, very valid–questions to make sense of it, Amanda can feel her friend’s frustration that she does not get it and her desire to just go join the game. My reaction to this first chapter was visceral and heartbreaking and plunged me back into my own childhood school experiences. While the writing style and language change as she gets older, it is perhaps these first chapters, written in this simple, honest, and straightforward voice that are my favorite.

After her parents divorce when she was only 2, Amanda’s mother move her and her siblings into a townhouse in the city that backs up to a shared outdoor space referred to as the secret garden by the residents. It is in this idyllic space that much of the story unfolds and Amanda shares the dichotomy of her life safely ensconced in her garden and the many terrors she faces on the street side. There are so many things to be afraid of on the street side, but it is the disappearance of Etan Patz from a bus stop near her house and the ensuing search for him that helps to shape and sharpen her many anxieties. I grew up without a knowledge of this case and the slow revelation of facts throughout the story added an air of mystery not resolved until the book concludes.

Little Panic spans Amanda’s childhood up through the present time. She discusses her deep attachment to her mother, the turbulent connection with her father, the relationships she has with her siblings, her failed romantic relationships, and everything in between. Interspersed with memories and anecdotes are questions from the many psychological tests she took and notes and observations from her doctors. I’m not a psychologist, but I do hold a degree in psychology and was so incredibly frustrated by the fact that no one suggested a panic disorder until she is 25 years old. As a child, she’s always trying to find something wrong with her on the outside that will help everyone understand what is wrong with her on the inside. Receiving her diagnosis doesn’t magically fix her, but it does finally give her the words needed to voice her anxiety.

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I was ecstatic beyond words when Amanda reached out to me to see if I would be interested in reviewing her book. One of my favorite parts about the book community on Instagram are the connections I’m able to build not only with the other readers of the books I love, but their writers too! Of all of the author interactions I’ve had, my exchanges with Amanda have been some of my favorite. She is incredibly kind and thoughtful and has written a truly incredible account of her life growing up in New York City with an undiagnosed panic disorder. I’ve read a lot of reviews about this book, and several suggest that anyone with anxiety read this book. While I think there are many reasons why a reader with anxiety would find maybe a sense of community here, they’re not the only relevant audience. I think Little Panic should be required reading for anyone sharing their life with a person who suffers from panic disorders–parents, partners, healthcare professionals, even friends–as it provides invaluable insight into an anxious mind.

The hugest thank you goes out to Amanda and Grand Central Publishing for this copy in exchange for my honest review.

Hag – Kathleen Kaufman

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Publisher: Turner

Publication Date: October 2nd, 2018

Page Count: 336 (Hardcover)

From the Jacket:

At this, the Cailleach would release a single drop of indigo dye onto the topmost layer. See, she would tell her daughter. See? It bleeds through the topmost path and onto the next. In this way, so many things from the next world touch ours, and our world touches the layer beneath.

High above the sea, hidden in the rocky Scottish cliffs, something stirs. An ancient matriarchal power has set the wheels in motion for a long line of descendants. But to what end?

Spanning centuries of human history, these daughters of the lowland hag, the Cailleach, must navigate a world filled with superstition, hatred, violence, pestilence, and death to find their purpose. With pasts half remembered and destinies denied, the daughters of Cailleach are women with uncanny, and often feared, abilities to heal, to see the future and to cause great destruction and pain when threatened. With each passing generation, the waves crash against the shore, and the Cailleach awaits a homecoming that will bring everything full circle.

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Confession. I did not even finish reading the synopsis for this one before pressing the request button in Edelweiss. The blurb above checks a lot of boxes for me–the occult, Scottland, multigenerational, women–I was in before I even turned the first page, and was left feeling anything disappointed at the last. Hag is an engrossing and atmospheric tale of magic and family connection. Kaufman moves effortlessly between past, present, and future to weave the story of the Cailleach and her powerful daughters.  The opening chapter pulled me in, and the rest of the story had me reading in every spare moment.

In Hag, Kaufman uses alternating chapters to switch between the story of the Cailleach and each generation of her daughters leading up to Alice Grace Kyles. The other chapters are dedicated to Alice and her family, and the two story lines move forward together before finally meeting in time for an explosive ending. The chapters written from the perspective of the Cailleach were my favorite–magical and enchanting–they reminded me why I love magical realism so much. It was a complete coincidence that I read this book while the Kavanaugh trial was going on, but so many of the scenes ended up being such a balm. The daughters of the Cailleach are incredibly powerful and are able to defend themselves against the violence put against them. Reading Hag during this political climate in our country felt like discovering  a girl power anthem in book form.

It’s been a couple of weeks since I finished, and Hag has stayed with me. I find myself thinking about it often, lost in the otherworldly landscape Kaufman created. This is an absolutely perfect book to read in the fall, especially during the month of October. Put on your comfiest sweats, get a soft blanket and some warm tea, settle in, and prepare to be spellbound by this beautiful and powerful story.

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The biggest thanks goes to Edelweiss and Turner Publishing for the advanced review copy in exchange for my honest review.