Drugs, sex, and a poisonous toad

Review: Somebody Tell Aunt Tillie She’s Dead by Christiana Miller

r/suggestmeabook: I want a mystery about a witch who is learning about her powers and trying to deal with a curse.

Movie rating: R

Pages: 372

Publisher: HekaRose Publishing

Series: The Toad Witch Mysteries

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From the publisher: Mara is having the worst month of her life. At least, that’s what her tarot cards tell her and they’ve never been wrong. Before she knows it, she’s evicted from her apartment, fired from her job and banned from Beverly Hills.

This almost feels like two different books: the first half, in Los Angeles, is the tale of Mara’s impending eviction, desperate need for cash, and a fear of exercising her magic. The second half, in Wisconsin, Mara no longer has the same pressures, no longer fears her magic, but has become involved with a haunted house.

As I flipped through the Templar deck, I noticed Lyra’s face blanching at some of the images: horned gods holding skulls, winged angelic figures challenging humans, lusty women cavorting with skeletons.

“It’s a question that’s always plagued me. Is forewarned really the same as forearmed?” I tapped the deck. “Can this give you the power to turn the Hand of Fate to your favor? Or is it just another way to ruin a perfectly good week?”

Christiana Miller, Somebody Tell Aunt Tillie She’s Dead

Mara is generally likable, and the first person narrative is breezy and fun for the most part. Mara’s bad luck, her run-ins with the judgmental Mrs. Lasio, and the backfiring of Mara’s magic is all entertaining. The second part of the book dragged a little more for me—rather than building tension, the repeated instances of supernatural heebie-jeebies got a little repetitive, and I was ready to get some explanations and resolution.

It didn’t take me long to drive through Devil’s Point. There was a small shopping district that included a mom and pop grocery store, an antique store, an old-fashioned diner, the movie theater J.J. had mentioned, and a bookstore. On the other side of the street, there was a hardware store, a thrift store, a bait-and-tackle shop and a mechanic’s shop that was right out of the 1950s, with an old-fashioned gas pump out front and vintage automobiles for sale. It really was an adorable, old-fashioned slice of Americana, preserved in time.

Christiana Miller, Somebody Tell Aunt Tillie She’s Dead

I’m a CIS hetero woman, so I can’t say how the book would affect a gay man, but there were a few things about it that gave me pause. Mara’s best friend is a gay man, and it almost devolves into the sassy gay friend trope but for the fact that Gus often saves the day (but he could be seen as the fairy godmother, so I’ll leave it up to those affected by this trope to judge). Because Gus is heavily involved in the first half, and a frequent cameo in the second, and is portrayed mostly in a positive light, it seems clear there’s no malevolent intent, but it still could be taken negatively in execution.

I still didn’t want to do it, but Gus had his heart set on being the center of attention. I had tried to talk him out of it, but it was useless. He had been dreaming of this moment ever since he got booted out of the last coven he was in. To be the biggest deal in the center of a large pagan gathering and thumb his nose at the people who had betrayed him, (at least, that was Gus’s version of events). And he had been doing so much for me this week, I just didn’t have the heart to stomp on his inner diva and destroy his fantasy. Especially after he spotted some of his ex-coven members roaming around.

Christiana Miller, Somebody Tell Aunt Tillie She’s Dead

The most problematic quote for me is the one below; the usage of “queer” in this manner by Mara, even if possibly quoting someone else, made me very uncomfortable. I can deal with pejoratives when they are used sparingly and for a particular purpose (such as illuminating the past or if the context is such that it would seem like white washing or inauthentic if it were omitted), but this didn’t seem to meet any of my internalized criteria.

But according to Lupe, the guy is a raging queer. I thought Mamma Lasio was going to wash her mouth out with laundry detergent and pool water. This place has been like a soap opera ever since they moved in and I’m the one getting evicted.

Christiana Miller, Somebody Tell Aunt Tillie She’s Dead

The quote refers to Mrs. Lasio’s priest. Again, the description may be Lupe’s (Mrs. Lasio’s daughter), but it still bugged me (clearly, or I wouldn’t be talking about it here). I can’t say categorically that it’s offensive, because it’s not my life experience here; I can just say that it bothered me.

Unlike most of the fantasy I read, this is not a wholly imagined magical system. Rather, this one appears to be derived from Wicca, as the author notes on Amazon that “For Wiccan readers, who are curious about the quarter system used in the book, this story uses the Northern Quarter system which is based in Traditional Witchcraft, rather than the Golden Dawn Quarter system, which is more widely used in Wicca.”

Ah, yes, the toad. I almost forgot. The toad is a recurring background figure, but his magical abilities are never quite substantiated. It’s unclear if he’s really doing anything or not, but as the series is named for him, I’m guessing that will be cleared up in future volumes.

Gus was beside himself. “Grundleshanks ate! Damn you, Grundleshanks. You treacherous amphibian. Traitor of the first degree. The minute my back is turned!”

“Gus, chill. It’s just a toad.”

“I have been watching him for weeks. I have fed him and watered him and watched him and waited and nothing. Nothing. He’s shy, he says. Doesn’t want to eat in public, he says. But let a pretty girl come over…” He glared at Grundleshanks. “Show-off.”

The eyeballs on top of the mud lump calmly blinked back at him.

Christiana Miller, Somebody Tell Aunt Tillie She’s Dead

Overall, Somebody Tell Aunt Tillie She’s Dead was not a book I regretted reading, but I don’t think I’ll pick any more in the series because, by the end, I’d spent enough time with Mara in Wisconsin and am happy to move on to a new world.


A Harlem ghost story

A Little in Love with Death by Anna M. Taylor

r/suggestmeabook: I want a novella about a deadly haunted house that came between lovers.

Movie rating: R

Pages: 97

Publisher: Self

Series: Haunted Harlem

The woman in the banner photo is Hazel Scott, who doesn’t actually appear in the novel, but the photo is from the correct time period. She shouldn’t be erased, as she was a pioneer, the first black woman to host her own television show.

From the publisher: Ten years ago no one — not even the man who said he loved her — believed Sankofa Lawford’s claim she had been brutally attacked by a ghost. Ten years later an assault on a new victim brings her back to Harlem to a mother going mad, a brother at his wits’ end and a former love who wants a second chance. Sankofa longs for her family to be whole again, for love to be hers again, but not if she must relive the emotional pain created by memories of that night.

This is the story of a couple haunted by the past—more literally than most. Sankofa and Mitchell were the loves of each other’s lives until the incident in haunted Umoja, the house Sankofa grew up in. Reunited at Sankofa’s mother’s bedside, they have to decide how to confront the past, which includes confronting some ghosts.

The pain of the separated lovers provokes any pain of separation in your heart, as Anna M. Taylor’s skillful descriptions burrow in past your defenses. It’s hard not to root for the couple to reunite, even though you can feel the frustration of each side’s point of view. In many ways, this novella is more romance than ghost story, although the ghost story is intrinsic to the couple’s problems.

I didn’t believe you before, but I do now. Is that apology enough?

Apology enough for calling her loony when she tried to get him to see the spirits she saw? Apology enough for laughing when her mother and aunt alike tongue-lashed her for hearing voices, for repeating information she had no business knowing?

Ann M. Taylor, A Little in Love with Death

The shifts of point of view from Sankofa to Mitchell were occasionally a little abrupt, but overall served the story well. The atmosphere of the haunted house is evocative. However, despite the fact that the characters fear the house, I never was afraid; there’s more of a sense of uncovering mysteries than facing unknown terror.

Its gothic facade contrasted majestically with the soulless brick, glass, and steel make-up of the neighboring buildings. Umoja’s four-cornered tower looked between two four-story wings topped with crenellated walls. Arched windows framed in contrasting white keystones gave the gray-stone exterior a bejeweled aspect. However, unlike City College and Cannon Pres, no amount of sunlight dispelled the exterior bleakness Umoja retained.

Ann M. Taylor, A Little in Love with Death

Themes of faith and rationalism are deftly explored with an apparent attempt to reconcile them. I’m not convinced by the recitations of faith, but I can respect them. The notion of family secrets and who should be told the truth is more intriguing to me; a refrain through the book is the saying, “Them that tell don’t know, and them that know don’t tell.”

Mitchell dry scrubbed his face. Could he accept his answer wasn’t the truth? He studied his friend. A scientist and an evangelical believer, John Mortimer was Mitch’s bumblebee: the thing defied all the reasons it shouldn’t exist by its very existence.

Ann M. Taylor, A Little in Love with Death

Mental health issues are also explored, in particular the stigma it creates. Can someone who has mental health issues be trusted? The novella raises the question through the mouths of various characters, most notably Sankofa’s brother, but never quite resolves the question.

As always the memory of the attack thrust Sankofa into the wintriness of insanity. She shuddered, despite the sunshine bathing the spot where she stood.

Ann M. Taylor, A Little in Love with Death

Overall, this novella is an absorbing story demonstrating how ghosts, both figurative and literal, affect the people that live with them.


Ghostbusting, dystopia style

The world of Archivist Wasp is unrelentingly bleak. Abuse, alienation, hunger, cold, poor medical, dying children: check. No apparent infrastructure: check. Malevolent religion to control behaviors: check. It all adds up to not much to live for, so the ghosts are understandably more interesting than the living.

Categorizing this book as children’s completely floors me, and the YA designation is a little misleading. For children, the swearing is a bit too much, but that’s not my objection so much as the dark tone and subject matter–I know kids can go through some bad shit, but it’s a bit much for a child who hasn’t.

As for the young adultiness of it…I get why the publisher would want to position it as YA (a hot market). But I think that’s a little limiting, as this novel doesn’t have the tropes that stamp it as YA only. Yes, the protagonists are teens. Yes, the book deals with a theme of interest to adolescents: how do you deal with a difficult past? But aside from those things, there’s none of the overwrought high school drama that tends to turn off some adult readers. 

But I noted “Chosen” as a descriptor. Isn’t the “Chosen One’ a YA trope? Yes, but Archivist Wasp does not follow the rules of the Chosen One that you’ve seen over and over.

My only gripe about the book is a tendency to keep hitting the same note. There were times where I thought, “I get it, it’s bad. You don’t have to keep telling me it’s bad.” Of course, I felt that way about Tor‘s Magic for Liars by Sarah Gailey—the repetition there was about the character feeling she should have had a different life over and over. Aside from overstating the obvious at times, though, the writing served the story well.

For me, the plot was a little light on complications and I felt like it was dragging at times, so there’s the three instead of more stars.

In sum: Want to feel like your world isn’t so awful? This novel might do the trick.