Flashback Friday

Flashback Friday
Flashback Friday

Tuesday, October 19, 2021

Creatures of Passage- by Morowa Yejide - Feature and Review



With echoes of Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Yejidé’s novel explores a forgotten quadrant of Washington, DC, and the ghosts that haunt it.

Nephthys Kinwell is a taxi driver of sorts in Washington, DC, ferrying ill-fated passengers in a haunted car: a 1967 Plymouth Belvedere with a ghost in the trunk. Endless rides and alcohol help her manage her grief over the death of her twin brother, Osiris, who was murdered and dumped in the Anacostia River.

Unknown to Nephthys when the novel opens in 1977, her estranged great-nephew, ten-year-old Dash, is finding himself drawn to the banks of that very same river. It is there that Dash--reeling from having witnessed an act of molestation at his school, but still questioning what and who he saw--has charmed conversations with a mysterious figure he calls the "River Man," who somehow appears each time he goes there.

When Dash arrives unexpectedly at Nephthys's door one day bearing a cryptic note about his unusual conversations with the River Man, Nephthys must face both the family she abandoned and what frightens her most when she looks in the mirror.

Creatures of Passage beautifully threads together the stories of Nephthys, Dash, and others both living and dead. Morowa Yejidé's deeply captivating novel shows us an unseen Washington filled with otherworldly landscapes, flawed super-humans, and reluctant ghosts, and brings together a community intent on saving one young boy in order to reclaim themselves.



Creatures of PassageCreatures of Passage by Morowa Yejide
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Creatures of Passage by Morowa Yejide is a 2021 Akashic Books publication.

Nephthys Kinwell drives a haunted 1967 Plymouth. As she sits behind the wheel, the car will be enveloped in fog that allows Nephthys to taxi certain passengers to unique destinations.

Nephthys battles her own alcoholic demons, brought on by the death of her twin, and is recently made worse by her worries for her young grand- nephew, Dash, who talks to a ‘River Man’ no one else can see…

This book arrived in my mailbox just as I was lining up my lighter summer ‘beach’ reads. I tried reading the book twice during the summer, but both times I was unable to give the book the undivided attention it required.

As the temps cooled down, my mood changed accordingly, and I found this book calling to me again- and as they say- the third time was the charm.

The novel is not all that long- but it is a densely plotted novel with multiple threads, timeframe shifts, and a large cast of characters, which can be a little confusing if one isn’t paying close enough attention.

The writing doesn't appear at all cohesive, in the beginning, which added to my initial struggle- but once I grasped the connections, and the pieces began to click into place, I began to fall under the spell of the lush prose, and the building tension, which was mingled with an underlying melancholy.

The story is set in Washington, D.C.’s Anacostia neighborhood during the 70s - but in a re-imagined- world building manner. Those familiar with this area will certainly understand the author’s view- but for those unfamiliar with the neighborhood’s history, the imagery might not have the same impact.

This is a story centered around both the living and the dead. The novel visits, grief and anger, fear and pain, as well as criminal intent and dread.

The story strives for peace, healing, and understanding amid danger and the unknown. The language and various locations, worldly or otherwise, are mythical and entrancing. The atmosphere is often heavy and moody, but there’s a ray of hope for the characters I found myself quite concerned about, and for some there was long awaited peace.

I am still struggling with how to define this book. While surely, due to the supernatural nature of the story, it could be- and has been- categorized as horror- but while the story is scary, tense, and unsettling- this is not horror in the traditional sense-

Unless we put horror in the same frame as magic realism- which is where this book truly lands, in my opinion. It leans towards the spiritual and could fit right into the fantasy genre- but with a crime fiction element.

It's also technically a novel of historical fiction- but with the various shades of symbolism and allegory involved, the story has literary value, as well.

The book portrays America through both a realistic and fantastical lens, with spiritual battles leading the way to physical ones, taking the reader along for an epic, almost heart-stopping climax.

This small book packs a big punch. The author has a huge imagination. The writing, though very unconventional, is well-done. This novel is certainly different from anything else I’ve read in a good long while. I will be keeping my eye on this an author!!



MOROWA YEJIDÉ, a native of Washington, DC, is the author of the critically acclaimed novel Time of the Locust, which was a 2012 finalist for the PEN/Bellwether Prize, long-listed for the 2015 PEN/Bingham Prize, and a 2015 NAACP Image Award nominee. She lives in the DC area with her husband and three sons. Creatures of Passage is her second novel.

Sunday, October 17, 2021

Mary Jane by by Jessica Anya Blau - Feature and Review


"Almost Famous" meets Daisy Jones and the Six in this funny, wise, and tender novel about a fourteen-year-old girl’s coming of age in 1970s Baltimore, caught between her strait-laced family and the progressive family she nannies for—who happen to be secretly hiding a famous rock star and his movie star wife for the summer.

In 1970s Baltimore, fourteen-year-old Mary Jane loves cooking with her mother, singing in her church choir, and enjoying her family’s subscription to the Broadway Show Tunes of the Month record club. Shy, quiet, and bookish, she’s glad when she lands a summer job as a nanny for the daughter of a local doctor. A respectable job, Mary Jane’s mother says. In a respectable house.

The house may look respectable on the outside, but inside it’s a literal and figurative mess: clutter on every surface, IMPEACHMENT: Now More Than Ever bumper stickers on the doors, cereal and takeout for dinner. And even more troublesome (were Mary Jane’s mother to know, which she does not): The doctor is a psychiatrist who has cleared his summer for one important job—helping a famous rock star dry out. A week after Mary Jane starts, the rock star and his movie star wife move in.

Over the course of the summer, Mary Jane introduces her new household to crisply ironed clothes and a family dinner schedule, and has a front-row seat to a liberal world of sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll (not to mention group therapy). Caught between the lifestyle she’s always known and the future she’s only just realized is possible, Mary Jane will arrive at September with a new idea about what she wants out of life, and what kind of person she’s going to be. 




Mary JaneMary Jane by Jessica Anya Blau
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Mary Jane by Jessica Anya Blau is a 2021 Custom House publication.

Mary Jane, a fourteen-year-old from Baltimore accepts a summer job babysitting five-year old Izzy Cone. Izzy’s father is a psychiatrist who takes on a famous rock star with a serious drug problem.

The famous musician and his actress wife, moves into the home for the entire summer, a home that is already chaotic. Despite the respectable outward appearance, the Cone’s do not keep house, cook healthy meals, or live any sort of conventional life- a far cry from Mary Jane’s home life, where everything is prim and proper, neat and orderly.

If her mother had even the slightest clue how Mary Jane was spending her summer, and with whom, she would never allow her to continue babysitting. Meanwhile, Mary Jane is having the time of her life. She takes care of Izzy, and the entire household. She shops, cooks, straightens the house, and listens to everyone’s problems… some very adult problems- and comes to realize how important it is to have some structure in one's life.

But, as the summer progresses, she also realizes that love, expressing your feelings, and spending time for your loved ones- is equally important- which is something that is missing from her own home.

Her education, and awakening promises a break in the chain from her super conservative… and racist parents, and a future where Mary Jane steps outside the sheltered confines of her current life, and into the world, with a better understanding of how to blend the best of both environments she lived through during the summer of 1975.

Mary Jane takes her usual stability and expands it- coming to a better understanding of others around her, but most importantly an understanding of who she is, deep down, what kind of person she wants to become- learning to think independently, while learning from her own personal experiences.

This is such a quirky, offbeat tale, but I would imagine that most people will turn the last page feeling utterly delighted with our wonderful, wonderful, wonderful protagonist- Mary Jane.

This young woman was such a pleasure and her character, along with little Izzy, is what makes this story work.

I do have one slightly preachy concern- due to the attitudes of Mary Jane’s parents, it is easier to judge them more harshly than the Cone’s.

But, before you pick on side over the other- remember the Cone’s were neglectful parents, lived in filth, and had frank sexual conversations in front of the fourteen-year-old babysitter, for heaven's sake!

Yes, I know, what you are thinking, and no, I didn’t miss the point of the story. I just felt that, as ugly as the racism is, two wrongs don't make a right, it doesn’t justify or redeem the Cone’s lifestyle or behavior.

I also don't think we should give the celebrities a pass either- just because they are famous.

Neither side was ideal- but one side was presented as being a better situation for Mary Jane and the reader is expected to embrace that concept as well. Both sides were unhealthy, in my opinion, and that’s part of the lesson Mary Jane learned, and it’s a lesson that will serve her well.

I couldn’t have been prouder of Mary Jane- she handles herself beautifully. If only the adults in her life had a small portion of her intelligence and grace, and could open their hearts half as wide…

Overall, a super wacky coming of age story geared toward adults- (beware the YA label)- that captures the odd juxtapositions of the seventies.

Despite some uncomfortable topics, Izzy and Mary Jane will charm your socks off!!



THE WONDER BREAD SUMMER, Jessica Anya Blau's third novel, was featured on NPR's All Things Considered as a Thrilling Summer Read. Oprah.com's book club picked THE WONDER BREAD SUMMER as a Thrilling Beach Read. CNN featured THE WONDER BREAD SUMMER as a Best Beach Read.

Jessica Anya Blau's second novel, DRINKING CLOSER TO HOME, was featured in Target stores Breakout Author series. Novelist Irina Reyn calls it, "Unrelentingly, sidesplittingly funny." The Austin Chronicle says that, "The domestic relationships in the book are brilliantly rendered, a contemporary California version of Philip Roth." Author Dylan Landis says the book is, "So raw and funny I wanted to read parts aloud to strangers."

Thursday, October 14, 2021

FLASHBACK FRIDAY- The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde - by Robert Louis Stevenson- Feature and Review



"The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" Stevenson's famous exploration of humanity's basest capacity for evil, has become synonymous with the idea of a split personality. More than a moral tale, this dark psychological fantasy is also a product of its time, drawing on contemporary theories of class, evolution, criminality, and secret lives. Also in this volume are "The Body Snatcher," which charts the murky underside of Victorian medical practice, and "Olalla," a tale of vampirism and "The Beast Within" which features a beautiful woman at its center.

This new edition features a critical introduction, chronology, suggestions for further reading, explanatory notes, and appendixes, including an abridged extract from "A Chapter on Dreams" and an essay on the scientific context of Jekyll and Hyde.



The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Other Tales of TerrorThe Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Other Tales of Terror by Robert Louis Stevenson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson is an 1886 publication.

What a strange case, indeed!

This classic tale of horror is one that, of all the old movies, like Dracula, the Wolfman and Frankenstein and all their various incarnations, I watched repeatedly growing up, I just didn’t really care for all that much. I did, later in life, watch a movie version of this tale starring Spencer Tracey, and an all- star cast, which was petty good.

Still, when it came to reading the book, unless it was a classroom assignment, I don’t think I ever volunteered read it, and if I did read it somewhere back there, I honestly couldn’t recall it, which is why I decided to select it for my classic horror Halloween read, this year.

Everyone knows the setup for this short story. A scientist, Dr. Jekyll, is resentful of having to repress the darker side of his nature and happens across a solution- one that allows him to express this side of himself by becoming, through the aid of ‘medication’, Mr. Hyde.

People who encounter this Mr. Hyde is put off by him, and do not understand his hold over the respectable and well-liked, Dr. Jekyll.

As the good doctor proceeds with his experiments, he discovers he is almost addicted to his alter ego- who is gradually becoming the dominant personality and becoming more and more dangerous with each passing day.

This is one horror/sci-fi story, one could find all manner of allegory, making it one of the more thought-provoking tales of this genre.

My mind went to the duality of people who often present one face in public, hiding their baser inclinations, exposing false morality, and hypocrisy.

Other themes are centered around the Victorian era itself, and some of the current political climate- a less obvious theme, in my opinion, but not to be dismissed.

Naturally, one could also go with the classic good vs evil trope-or even a more profound nod at spiritual warfare- as the good side of ourselves continually does battle with the dark side, and the fear that our darker impulses will win out in the end.

Bottom line- All these possible themes make sense, and they each give readers a great deal to chew on, so that the book is not just a horror novel, but a classic in many other ways as well.

Overall, I’m pleased I chose this novella to read this year. I’d considered it many times in the past, but always vowed to read it ‘next’ year. Now, I wish I had not waited so long!!



Robert Louis Stevenson was born on November 13, 1850, in Edinburgh.

Raised in the bosom of a wealthy family, his father was an engineer, he studied at the university in his hometown. From his childhood he had a penchant for literature. Influenced by Sir Walter Scott's narrative, many of his stories are set in the Middle Ages, although perhaps the Pacific is the literary space that he most successfully explored. Suffering from tuberculosis, he was forced to travel continuously in search of climates appropriate to his delicate state of health. His first published writings are descriptions of some of these trips. Thus, "Inland Trip" (1878) tells of a canoe trip through France and Belgium that he had made in 1876, and "Donkey trips through the Cevannes" (1879) the vicissitudes of a trip on foot through the mountains of the south of France, in 1878. One of his later trips took him, on an emigrant ship, to California (1879-1880), where, in 1880, he married the American divorcee Fanny Osbourne. Another of them consisted of a pleasure cruise through the South Pacific (1889) to the Samoa Islands,

where he and his wife remained until 1894, in a last effort to regain the writer's health. The natives gave him the name Tusitala ('the one who tells stories'). There he died at the end of that same year, died at the age of 44 of a brain hemorrhage on December 3, and was buried on top of a mountain, near Valima, his Samoan home. He wrote at least three masterpieces: "Treasure Island," "The Black Arrow," and "The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde." In two of them he created two characters that have passed into the gallery of archetypes of European literature: Long John Silver, the cunning pirate in whose dark plans there is always a drop of humanity that ends up winning the hearts of readers; and Dr. Jekyll,

His novels include "David Balfour and Weirde" (1886), "The Black Arrow" (1888) and "The Lord of Ballantree" (1889). The unfinished "Weir of Herminston" (1896) is considered his masterpiece, as the fragments that are preserved contain some of the most beautiful passages he wrote.

Tuesday, October 12, 2021

Little Secrets by Jennifer Hillier - Feature and Review


 Overwhelmed by tragedy, a woman desperately tries to save her marriage in award-winning author Jennifer Hillier's Little Secrets, a riveting novel of psychological suspense.

All it takes to unravel a life is one little secret...

Marin had the perfect life. Married to her college sweetheart, she owns a chain of upscale hair salons, and Derek runs his own company. They're admired in their community and are a loving family—until their world falls apart the day their son Sebastian is taken.

A year later, Marin is a shadow of herself. The FBI search has gone cold. The publicity has faded. She and her husband rarely speak. She hires a P.I. to pick up where the police left off, but instead of finding Sebastian, she learns that Derek is having an affair with a younger woman. This discovery sparks Marin back to life. She's lost her son; she's not about to lose her husband, too. Kenzie is an enemy with a face, which means this is a problem Marin can fix.




Little SecretsLittle Secrets by Jennifer Hillier
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Little Secrets by Jennifer Hillier is a 2020 Minotaur publication.

This is not your ordinary missing child saga-

Marin and Derek are living a charmed life. Both have successful careers, are upwardly mobile, and even recognizable out in public. They have a beautiful little boy, named Sebastian, who is the light of their lives…

Until he’s abducted by a man dressed as Santa…

From that moment on, Marin’s life turns upside down. She goes through the motions, but has lost interest in life. Just when she thinks things couldn’t be more grim, the private detective she has hired makes an uncomfortable discovery….

About Derek…

Suddenly, Marin is quickened, energized again She’s got a singular mission now. She’s already lost too much- she's not about to let another woman take her husband, too-

And she’ll do whatever is necessary…

Jennifer Hillier popped up on my radar with ‘Jar of Hearts’, - a book that made me sit up and take notice. While my sophomore foray into Hillier’s dark and twisted imagination felt less raw and much more polished, it was nevertheless a tense cat and mouse thriller ride!!

The book grabbed me right from the start, but then it seemed to shift gears, and Marin begins to morph into an entirely different person, obsessing over her husband’s lover, rather than on her missing child.

Curiously, her anger is hyper- focused on the other woman, and not Derek. It was an interesting character study, and a puzzling, shocking, tense and incredibly absorbing tale.

The characters are not especially likable, but that seemed fitting to the story, although there was no one to root for, really. Redemption, though, can be equally satisfying.

Overall, a taut, twisted, crazy psychological thriller! Will be reading more Hillier books in the future!



Jennifer Hillier imagines the worst about people and then writes about it. Born and raised in Toronto, she spent eight years in the Seattle area, which is where all her books are set.

She's the author of six novels, including JAR OF HEARTS, which won the ITW Thriller Award for Best Hardcover, and was shortlisted for the Anthony and Macavity Awards. Her newest psychological thriller, LITTLE SECRETS, was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and nominated for the Anthony Award.

Her seventh novel will be out in Spring 2022.

Learn more about her at jenniferhillierbooks.com

Sunday, October 10, 2021

The Invited by Jennifer McMahon- Feature and Review


A chilling ghost story with a twist: the New York Times bestselling author of The Winter People returns to the woods of Vermont to tell the story of a husband and wife who don't simply move into a haunted house--they build one . . .

In a quest for a simpler life, Helen and Nate have abandoned the comforts of suburbia to take up residence on forty-four acres of rural land where they will begin the ultimate, aspirational do-it-yourself project: building the house of their dreams.

When they discover that this beautiful property has a dark and violent past, Helen, a former history teacher, becomes consumed by the local legend of Hattie Breckenridge, a woman who lived and died there a century ago.

With her passion for artifacts, Helen finds special materials to incorporate into the house--a beam from an old schoolroom, bricks from a mill, a mantel from a farmhouse--objects that draw her deeper into the story of Hattie and her descendants, three generations of Breckenridge women, each of whom died suspiciously.

As the building project progresses, the house will become a place of menace and unfinished business: a new home, now haunted, that beckons its owners and their neighbors toward unimaginable danger.



The InvitedThe Invited by Jennifer McMahon
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Invited by Jennifer McMahon is a 2019 Doubleday publication.

Helen and Nate decide to go for their dreams instead of trying to compete in the never-ending rat race of the city. They move to Vermont, buy a parcel of land and begin building their dream house.

Before long they get wind of local folklore and legends about their property- and Helen is even given the side eye, with locals believing she’s been called there by Hattie, an alleged witch who died nearly a century ago. The place is supposed be haunted by Hattie- but of course, there’s no such thing as ghosts- right?

Still, Helen is fascinated by the history- while Nate has been drawn into the mysteries of the local wildlife. Something is off though.

Helen and Nate begin bickering, lying to each other and keeping secrets.
Meanwhile, Olive, a young local whose mother disappeared- is desperate to find her- is convinced Hattie left behind hidden treasure- and if she finds it- it could help her find out what happened to her mother.

After getting off to a rocky start with Helen and Nate, Olive, and her aunt, becomes a part of Helen’s obsession over including historical building materials in her home and with Olive’s treasure hunt- but mostly with Hattie’s shocking history that is somehow linked to Helen…

I don’t read paranormal or horror novels very often these days- but during the early fall months I always find myself ready to settle in for a good creepy tale- preferably one centered around haunted houses or ghost stories- and nothing too graphic.

This book fits the bill perfectly!!

This story has a historical element, hidden treasure, a mystery, and a ghost story. The suspense builds nicely, and the foreboding is palpable. I loved the way all threads came together and enjoyed the finale. I did figure some things out in advance- but it didn’t damper the effectiveness of the story at all.

It was tense, really creepy, and suspenseful without being too intense, and thankfully the atmosphere trumped all violence and gore!!

My kind of horror novel!!



I was born in 1968 and grew up in my grandmother’s house in suburban Connecticut, where I was convinced a ghost named Virgil lived in the attic. I wrote my first short story in third grade. I graduated with a BA from Goddard College in 1991 and then studied poetry for a year in the MFA in Writing Program at Vermont College. A poem turned into a story, which turned into a novel, and I decided to take some time to think about whether I wanted to write poetry or fiction. After bouncing around the country, I wound up back in Vermont, living in a cabin with no electricity, running water, or phone with my partner, Drea, while we built our own house. Over the years, I have been a house painter, farm worker, paste-up artist, Easter Bunny, pizza delivery person, homeless shelter staff member, and counselor for adults and kids with mental illness — I quit my last real job in 2000 to work on writing full time. In 2004, I gave birth to our daughter, Zella. These days, we’re living in an old Victorian in Montpelier, Vermont. Some neighbors think it looks like the Addams family house, which brings me immense pleasure.

Friday, October 8, 2021

FLASHBACK FRIDAY- Monster, She Wrote: The Women who Pioneered Horror and Speculative Fiction by Lisa Kroger- Feature and Review


Meet the women writers who defied convention to craft some of literature’s strangest tales, from Frankenstein to The Haunting of Hill House and beyond.

Frankenstein was just the beginning: horror stories and other weird fiction wouldn’t exist without the women who created it. From Gothic ghost stories to psychological horror to science fiction, women have been primary architects of speculative literature of all sorts. And their own life stories are as intriguing as their fiction. Everyone knows about Mary Shelley, creator of Frankenstein, who was rumored to keep her late husband’s heart in her desk drawer. But have you heard of Margaret “Mad Madge” Cavendish, who wrote a science-fiction epic 150 years earlier (and liked to wear topless gowns to the theater)? If you know the astounding work of Shirley Jackson, whose novel The Haunting of Hill House was reinvented as a Netflix series, then try the psychological hauntings of Violet Paget, who was openly involved in long-term romantic relationships with women in the Victorian era. You’ll meet celebrated icons (Ann Radcliffe, V. C. Andrews), forgotten wordsmiths (Eli Colter, Ruby Jean Jensen), and today’s vanguard (Helen Oyeyemi). Curated reading lists point you to their most spine-chilling tales.

Part biography, part reader’s guide, the engaging write-ups and detailed reading lists will introduce you to more than a hundred authors and over two hundred of their mysterious and spooky novels, novellas, and stories.



Monster, She Wrote: The Women Who Pioneered Horror and Speculative FictionMonster, She Wrote: The Women Who Pioneered Horror and Speculative Fiction by Lisa Kröger
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Monster, She Wrote: The Women Who Pioneered Horror and Speculative Fiction by Lisa Kroger is a 2019 Quirk Books publication.

Just in time for Halloween, Monster, She Wrote, will give you a host of books to add to your Fall/Winter reading list!

This book is also a tribute of sorts and is a reminder of the major contributions that women have made to the horror, Gothic, and science fiction categories. These pioneers of horror fiction were trailblazers, creating some of the most thought-provoking and spine-tingling literature ever written, and influencing many authors in the future.

Personally, as a big fan of Gothic literature, I was familiar with many of the names listed in the book- at least half of them, but some background information and biographical details were new to me. The author also provided a recommended reading list along with each author profiled, which gave me plenty of new authors and books to try. Some of these authors are lesser known, but have an impressive body of work to explore.

Elizabeth Gaskell

I’m grateful to Lisa Kroger for giving these writers the long overdue credit they deserve, and for reminding me of authors and books I had forgotten about.

There is plenty of history introduced in this book, as well as many interesting stories about the featured writers, and of course, this is also a ‘book about books’ and who can pass that up?

Amelia Edwards
(Precursor to Barbara Michaels/ Elizabeth Peters)

The book is well organized, well researched, with a terrific presentation that made it easy to follow, and held my interest, while avoiding pointless minutiae. I fully intend to hunt down the books on the recommended reading list- especially the Gothics! - And I will use this book as a reference in the future.

Vernon Lee

There is a little something in this book for everyone- no matter what horror sub-genre you prefer. Not only that, it is informative, entertaining, and even inspirational, serving as a reminder that we owe these great writers a debt of gratitude. They have helped pave the way for female writers today who must bravely compete in a mostly male dominated genre and, with a few notable exceptions, still struggle for the same respect.

Anne Rice

So, now that I’m inspired to tap into more horror novels written by women- tell me who some of your favorite female horror writers or your favorite horror novel written by a woman.






Lisa Kroger lives on the gorgeous Mississippi Gulf Coast with her husband and two boys. For upcoming releases, please visit her website at www.lisakroger.com

Tuesday, October 5, 2021

Cult-ish by Amanda Montell- Feature and Review


The author of the widely praised Wordslut analyzes the social science of cult influence: how cultish groups from Jonestown and Scientology to SoulCycle and social media gurus use language as the ultimate form of power.

What makes “cults” so intriguing and frightening? What makes them powerful? The reason why so many of us binge Manson documentaries by the dozen and fall down rabbit holes researching suburban moms gone QAnon is because we’re looking for a satisfying explanation for what causes people to join—and more importantly, stay in—extreme groups. We secretly want to know: could it happen to me? Amanda Montell’s argument is that, on some level, it already has . . .

Our culture tends to provide pretty flimsy answers to questions of cult influence, mostly having to do with vague talk of “brainwashing.” But the true answer has nothing to do with freaky mind-control wizardry or Kool-Aid. In Cultish, Montell argues that the key to manufacturing intense ideology, community, and us/them attitudes all comes down to language. In both positive ways and shadowy ones, cultish language is something we hear—and are influenced by—every single day.

Through juicy storytelling and cutting original research, Montell exposes the verbal elements that make a wide spectrum of communities “cultish,” revealing how they affect followers of groups as notorious as Heaven’s Gate, but also how they pervade our modern start-ups, Peloton leaderboards, and Instagram feeds. Incisive and darkly funny, this enrapturing take on the curious social science of power and belief will make you hear the fanatical language of “cultish” everywhere.



Cultish: The Language of FanaticismCultish: The Language of Fanaticism by Amanda Montell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Cultish- The Language of Fanaticism by Amanda Montell is a 2021 Harper Wave Publication.

I have not read, ‘Wordslut’, so this is my first experience with Amanda Montell. As a person with a genuine concern, and curiosity, about cults, how they operate, and what draws people to them, this book was a no -brainer for me.

It did not surprise me one bit that language is a foundation upon which cults are built. In order to understand how the cult gains its momentum, one must look at the language employed to lure people into making a dedicated commitment to whatever activity, group, organization, or religion is being promoted.

Today, the word 'cult' is used in a variety of ways, and it doesn't necessarily conjure up a sinister connotation- Like 'cult' movies, for example.

I grew up in an age of cults-and the word was not tossed about so glibly. Cults got lots of press, for good reason, and it was serious stuff.

It's a phenomenon, under any guise, that never ceases to amaze me. A con man- like Charles Manson could convince people to commit murder, Jim Jones could coax, ( or force), people into drinking poison.

Now, though, as religion has diminished in our country, instead, of the usual cult behavior centered around a religious-like belief system, no matter how fundamental or far-fetched- that same cult-ish language is showing up in other places- like in exercise and fitness groups, online influencers, and QAnon, for example.

Other than language, the biggest lure is being a part of a group or filling a need for a sense of belonging. It’s also on some level a desire to better oneself – spiritually, intellectually, and physically.

Nxivm started out as a self-help group. Synanon started out as a drug rehab program. Today’s ‘wellness’ gurus and influencers zero in health and well-being.

People who ‘follow’ and participate in the rituals of these groups, teams, or clubs- spout off a specific jargon unique to them, they wear the clothes, eat the food, and adhere to rigid rules- all without realizing, in the moment, they are exhibiting the same cult-ish loyalty as those fanatical religious cults in the seventies.

This book makes a strong case for the way people fall into these patterns, how language plays a role, and the way the cult-ish vernacular has invaded seemingly innocuous groups or organizations- and are often heard in motivational or marketing speeches, in our everyday world.

While, in the past, we have often dismissed cult members as having been brainwashed- the author cautions against thinking in those terms. While I can see her point, I still think people can be mentally conditioned over time.

It’s a fascinating book, and certainly gives one pause. I still think people are searching for something – but are looking in the wrong places for it. I did learn about some disturbing behaviors I had not heard of and took into consideration some phrases we toss about that are offensive, if you think about it.

The author has recommended some further reading as well- so I’m off to look for Tara Isabella Burton’s ‘Strange Rites’- so stay tuned…

Meanwhile, I'll stick to self motivation- on my elliptical- at home- no instructor needed- and nothing cult-ish about it.



Amanda Montell is a writer and language scholar from Baltimore. She is the author of the critically acclaimed Wordslut: A Feminist Guide to Taking Back the English Language (Harper Wave, 2019), which has earned praise from the New York Times, Time Magazine, Harper's Bazaar, Kirkus Reviews, Publisher's Weekly, and others. Amanda is currently developing Wordslut for television with FX, serving as creator, writer, and executive producer. Amanda's second book Cultish: The Language of Fanaticism, about the language of "cults" from Scientology to SoulCycle, will be published by Harper Wave in June 2021.

As a reporter and essayist, Amanda's writing has been featured in Marie Claire, Glamour, Cosmopolitan, Nylon, The Rumpus, Byrdie, and Who What Wear, where she formerly served as the Features & Beauty Editor. She holds a degree in linguistics from NYU and lives in Los Angeles with her partner, plants, and pets. Find her on Instagram @amanda_montell.

Sunday, October 3, 2021

Miss Eliza's English Kitchen by Annabel Abbs- Feature and Review


In a novel perfect for fans of Hazel Gaynor’s A Memory of Violets and upstairs-downstairs stories, Annabel Abbs, the award-winning author of The Joyce Girl, returns with the brilliant real-life story of Eliza Acton and her assistant as they revolutionized British cooking and cookbooks around the world.

Before Mrs. Beeton and well before Julia Child, there was Eliza Acton, who changed the course of cookery writing forever.

England 1837. Victorian London is awash with exciting new ingredients from spices to exotic fruits, but Eliza Acton has no desire to spend her days in the kitchen. Determined to be a poet and shamed by the suggestion she write a cookery book instead, she at first refuses to even consider the task. But then her father is forced to flee the country for bankruptcy, shaming the family while leaving them in genteel poverty. As a woman, Eliza has few options, so she methodically collects recipes while teaching herself the mysteries of the kitchen. And to her surprise, she discovers she is not only talented at cooking—she loves it.

To assist her, she hires seventeen-year-old Ann Kirby, the impoverished daughter of a war-injured father and a mother losing her grip on reality. Under Eliza’s tutelage, Ann learns about poetry, cookery, and love, while unravelling a mystery in her mistress’s past. Through the art of food, Eliza and Ann develop an unusual friendship and break the mold of traditional cookbooks by adding elegant descriptions and ingredient lists, that are still used today.

Told in alternate voices, this is an amazing novel of female friendship, the ensuring struggle for freedom, the quiet joy of cookery, and the place of food in creativity all while bringing Eliza Acton out of the archives and back into the public eye.



Miss Eliza's English Kitchen: A Novel of Victorian Cookery and FriendshipMiss Eliza's English Kitchen: A Novel of Victorian Cookery and Friendship by Annabel Abbs
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Miss Eliza’s English Kitchen by Annabel Abbs is a 2021 William Morrow Paperbacks publication.

Eliza Acton’s original plan to become a poet came to an abrupt halt when a publisher dismissed her work and then had the audacity to suggest she write a cookery book. To make matters worse, her father suffered a reversal of fortune, prompting him to leave the country. Eliza, with limited options, reconsidered the publisher’s suggestion that she write a recipe book.

But first, she must familiarize herself with a kitchen and gather recipes to add to her book. To help her with this task, she hires Ann Kirby, an impoverished young woman hoping to provide proper care for her ailing mother. Together, these women forge a bond while creating a series of popular cookbooks. It was a friendship that grew over time and endured for a lifetime.

The story is told in dual narratives. Eliza’s thoughts and personal goals and challenges are very different from those Ann Kirby endured, but the women complemented one another beautifully.

The characterizations are well done, with both women growing emotionally, gaining confidence and strength as individuals and as partners, each achieving their own personal and professional satisfaction.

I really enjoyed this story, based the real Eliza Acton and her English cookery books, which I must confess, I was totally unfamiliar with.

As a frequent reader of historical fiction, it is common to encounter dual timelines these days, which is okay most of the time, but not really my favorite, which was why I enjoyed the format the author used in this novel. Instead of a dual timeline, she used dual first-person narratives from the same time period. This made the story much more effective for me.

The truth about Mrs. Beeton’s book is also interesting, and is something people should be made aware of, in my opinion.

Overall, this is a lovely story of two very different women, from very different walks of life, coming together to create something worthwhile and helpful to generations of cooks who have benefitted from Eliza’s organization and instructions on not only the proper ingredients, but the steps needed to make the dishes a success. This format is still widely utilized today and has influenced several high-profile chefs over the years.

Culinary enthusiast, and fans of strong historical female characters will not want to miss this one!



Annabel Abbs is the award-winning author of The Joyce Girl, a fictionalised story of Lucia Joyce, daughter of James, and her relationship with Samuel Beckett. It won the Impress Prize for New Writers and the Spotlight Novel Award, and was longlisted for the Bath Novel Award, the Caledonia Novel Award and the Waverton Good Read Award. The Joyce Girl was a Reader Pick in The Guardian 2016 and was one of ten books selected for presentation at the 2017 Berlin Film Festival, where it was given Five Stars by the Hollywood Reporter. It is currently being adapted for stage and screen.

Her second novel, Frieda, is a fictionalised story of Frieda Weekely, the German aristocrat who eloped with DH Lawrence and who was the inspiration for Lady Chatterley. It was a 2018 Times Book of the Year. Her 2019 non-fiction book, The Age-Well Project, explores the latest science of longevity and has been serialised in the Guardian and The Daily Mail.

Her journalism has appeared in The Guardian, The Telegraph, The Irish Times, Tatler, The Author, Sydney Morning Herald, The Weekend Australian Review, Psychologies and Elle Magazine.

She earned a BA in creative writing from the University of East Anglia, where she now sponsors a post-graduate scholarship in creative writing, and an MA from Kingston. She was born in Bristol, and now lives in London and East Sussex. Follow her on Twitter at @annabelabbs, or visit her website, www.annabelabbs.com.

Friday, October 1, 2021

FLASHBACK FRIDAY- Finding Dorothy by Elizabeth Letts- Feature and Review


A richly imagined novel that tells the story behind The Wonderful Wizard of Oz , the book that inspired the iconic film, through the eyes of author L. Frank Baum's intrepid wife, Maud--from the family's hardscrabble days in South Dakota to the Hollywood film set where she first meets Judy Garland. 

Maud Gage Baum, widow of the author of the book The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, met Judy Garland, the young actress playing the role of Dorothy on the set of The Wizard of Oz in 1939. At the time, Maud was seventy-eight and Judy was sixteen. In spite of their age difference, Maud immediately connected to Judy--especially when Maud heard her sing "Over the Rainbow," a song whose yearning brought to mind the tough years in South Dakota when Maud and her husband struggled to make a living--until Frank Baum's book became a national sensation.

This wonderfully evocative two-stranded story recreates Maud's youth as the rebellious daughter of a leading suffragette, and the prairie years of Maud and Frank's early days when they lived among the people--especially young Dorothy--who would inspire Frank's masterpiece. Woven into this past story is one set in 1939, describing the high-pressured days on The Wizard of Oz film set where Judy is being badgered by the director, producer, and her ambitious stage mother to lose weight, bind her breasts, and laugh, cry, and act terrified on command. As Maud had promised to protect the original Dorothy back in Aberdeen, she now takes on the job of protecting young Judy.



Finding DorothyFinding Dorothy by Elizabeth Letts
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Finding Dorothy by Elizabeth Letts is a 2019 Ballantine Books publication.

A different and captivating perspective on the magical,’ Wonderful Wizard of Oz’, L. Frank Baum, and his exceptional partner in life- the irrepressible Maud Baum!!

I had no idea what to expect when I began reading this book, but I must say it was surprising. For the most part this is a fictionalized account of Maud Baum’s life. However, the story alternates between Maud’s background and the Wizard of Oz movie set in 1939, where Maud has appointed herself the protector and overseer of Frank’s beloved characters. However, once ensconced in the studio, it is Judy Garland she feels the most protective of.

I often explain that when I start writing a book review, all I’m really doing is thinking out loud and rambling. This book had my mind wandering all over the place, so this review is bound to skip from one random thought to another.

Two things about the movie, and Judy Garland, were on my mind while reading this book. One was a fascinating article about a pair of stolen ruby slippers used in The Wizard of Oz film, which was featured in the Washington Post.


The other thing was that after seeing Rene Zellweger’s movie trailer, I was reminded of the tragic turn Judy’s life took in her later years. This weighed on my mind while I read portions of this book, describing the abuse Judy was subjected to during the filming of the movie. I’m looking forward to seeing Rene’s performance, though.

But as to my thoughts about this novel-

I found Maud’s character to be an interesting one. She is definitely her mother’s daughter in many ways. She absorbed more of her mother’s lessons than her sister did and practiced what she preached in an era of time when such behavior was unheard of. Yet, when it came to Frank… well, he wasn’t what her mother had in mind for Maud, but despite his obvious flaws, the two were a passionate couple, despite having opposite temperaments. While many misconstrue the meaning of ‘Happily Ever After’, this couple did, despite everything, enjoy a long- lasting love story.

( On the night of Frank's death on May 16, 1919, Maud imparted in a letter to her relatives, Helen Leslie and Leslie Gage: He told me many times I was the only one he had ever loved. He hated to die, did not want to leave me, said he was never happy without me, but it was better he should go first, if it had to be, for I doubt if he could have got along without me. It is all so sad, and I am so forlorn and alone. For nearly thirty-seven years we had been everything to each other, we were happy, and now I am alone, to face the world alone.)

Maud did not live a charmed life by any means, but I was fascinated by her life experiences and loved Lett’s version of events which gives the reader a few insights on where Frank found his inspiration for his book characters and stories.

The segments where Maud forces herself onto the Wizard of Oz studio set may seem a bit more dubious, but the author manages to juxtapose the magical quality of the picture with the darker realities of Judy Garland’s life as a young actress at the mercy of a monstrous stage mother, sexual harassment, and the pressure to stay thin and childlike.

The story is often very bleak, as good times, contentment, and joy are rare occurrences. There were times when I felt I needed a little break from reading this book, as a result. Not only was it a bit depressing, it was also slow moving at times, and I felt some segments could have been shortened. However, I am glad I stuck it out, as it did give me a lot to feel thankful for and an appreciation or the hardships many endured during this time period, especially women.

However, one thing the author manages to translate in the midst of all the hardships and trials, is that despite the constant difficulties in Maud’s life, and the sinister aspects of Hollywood, it is healthy, no matter what your age, to believe in a little magic sometimes. Indulging in a little make believe or fantasy can be cathartic. Frank’s stories were a gift and he intended them to bring joy and pleasure, which they did, for children and adults alike.

In an age where the bar is set high for authors to create books and write stories which are realistic, girding their creative license and stripping them of the right to simply make up a town, country, or even a name of a restaurant,or take liberties of any kind, insert the improbable or implausible for effect, this story slams home the danger of binding creativity and imagination or shaming those who like to indulge in fairytale romances, folklore, or fantasy of any kind. When did encouraging the freedom to dream or fantasize become a cardinal sin?

“Folklore, legends, myths and fairy tales have followed childhood through the ages, for every healthy youngster has a wholesome and instinctive love for stories fantastic, marvelous and manifestly unreal. The winged fairies of Grimm and Andersen have brought more happiness to childish hearts than all other human creations.

Yet the old time fairy tale, having served for generations, may now be classed as “historical” in the children’s library; for the time has come for a series of newer “wonder tales” in which the stereotyped genie, dwarf and fairy are eliminated, together with all the horrible and blood-curdling incidents devised by their authors to point a fearsome moral to each tale. Modern education includes morality; therefore the modern child seeks only entertainment in its wonder tales and gladly dispenses with all disagreeable incident.

Having this thought in mind, the story of “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” was written solely to please children of today. It aspires to being a modernized fairy tale, in which the wonderment and joy are retained and the heartaches and nightmares are left out.”

L. Frank Baum

Chicago, April, 1900.

Elizabeth Letts reminds us to simply allow ourselves to sit back and enjoy a good story, and let our imaginations roam freely, without feeling guilty for having indulged in something outside the realm of reality for just a little while. Sure, Maud may have lost faith a time or two, but she knew Frank’s stories were a gift - and that gift keeps on giving, even today.

So, go ahead- dream a little dream, believe in love, believe in magic, and dare to hope.

“Magic isn’t things materializing out of nowhere. Magic is when a lot of people all believe in the same thing at the same time, and somehow we all escape ourselves a little bit and we meet up somewhere, and just a moment, we taste the sublime.”






ELIZABETH LETTS is an award winning and bestselling author of both fiction and non-fiction. The Perfect Horse was the winner of the 2017 PEN USA Award for Research Non-fiction and a #1 Wall Street Journal bestseller. The Eighty-Dollar Champion was a #1 New York Times bestseller and winner of the 2012 Daniel P Lenehan Award for Media Excellence from the United States Equestrian Foundation. She is also the author of two novels, Quality of Care and Family Planning, and an award-winning children's book, The Butter Man. She lives in Southern California and Northern Michigan.