On My Bookshelf: The Spellbook of Katrina Van Tassel by Alyssa Palombo

Title: The Spellbook of Katrina Van Tassel
Author: Alyssa Palombo
Genre: Romance, Fantasy, Gothic, Legends
My Rating: 3/5

In the years following the American Revolution, Katrina Van Tassel is the only daughter of a wealthy landowner in the town of Sleepy Hollow, an area plagued by the legend of the Headless Horseman. Katrina is of an age to marry and is expected to make a good match, preferably to her ex-childhood friend, Brom Bones. However, when the new schoolteacher arrives, Katrina finds herself falling in love with him, despite the fact that Ichabod Crane has little money and no land of his own. They begin a secret romance set against the backdrop of the woods where the ghost of the Headless Horseman is said to roam.

Katrina and Ichabod must find a way to be together, even as Brom pursues his courtship and Sleepy Hollow’s fear of the Headless Horseman grows.

Since moving back to the Hudson Valley last month, I’ve been intending to read more about the history and folklore of the area, as well as exploring some local landmarks. This book popped up when I was book shopping online and I knew I had to have it. The story has a liberal sprinkling of feminism, gothic themes, romance, history, and fantasy.

I liked the point of view of Katrina in this retelling of a popular legend, although her privileged naivete did get to be too much for me at times. An essential part of Katrina’s character is believing that nothing bad will ever really happen to her, a product of her upbringing during which she was denied nothing. It’s believable, but can be a little irritating. Nonetheless, Katrina is determined, intelligent, and rebellious. Her closest friend is Charlotte, another strong woman who is rumored to be a witch. Charlotte, in my opinion, is the real hero of the story, bearing the brunt of the town’s scorn while trying to find her place, and maybe some happiness, in the world.

It’s my understanding that this book was marketed as a historical fiction–which it is– but it would be far more accurate to call this a romance novel. The first half was solid romance, with a few other elements (fear of the Horseman, historical references) sprinkled in. The second half was more fantasy/gothic. While I did enjoy the romance aspect, it was a little jarring to me that there was such a distinct split in the structure of the story. I would have liked the romance thread to continue as an under-layer through the entire story with a lot more of the fantasy and gothic elements throughout. I came to be thrilled and creeped out and I ended up a little disappointed by the lack of ghostly things.

A superficial thing that caught my eye was the fact that nearly all the meals the characters have (except a few notable suppers) consist of bread and cheese. While this could have been irritating, it mostly made me laugh. Surely there were a few other options back then?

Overall, I enjoyed this novel. I liked the blending of the different genres and the fact that it was a fresh retelling of a local legend. It kept my attention throughout and I’d recommend it to anyone who has an interest in historic romance or Hudson Valley tales. If you’re looking for a goosebumps-inducing ghost story or a story about magic and witchcraft, you may end up being disappointed, as these elements were present, but not strongly represented.


Honestly, my biggest complaint about this book is that the cover says “Love is a thing even death won’t erase.” I knew Ichabod was going to disappear at some point, but they gave away his death before I even started the book. I was pretty miffed about that.


On My Bookshelf: The Hating Game by Sally Thorne

Title: The Hating Game
Author: Sally Thorne
Genre: Romance
My Rating: 5/5

Lucy Hutton adores her job as assistant to the co-CEO of a publishing company. The only problem is that she works opposite the worst person in the world: Joshua Templeman. Everything is a competition between the two of them, including the newly announced job opening for Chief of Operations. One of them will win the position. The other will resign.

As the interview approaches, the tension between them rises and their relationship starts to change. Lucy isn’t sure whether this is another game, but she realizes that whether she gets the job or not, she’s going to lose something important.

I borrowed The Hating Game from the library last year, read it in about a day, and then immediately reread it. I finally bought a copy for myself this month, read it in about two days (I savored it this time!) and then… immediately reread it. It will be a go-to comfort read forever, at this point.

The story has the perfect balance of plot and character development. Lucy is a quirky, likable character whose insecurities don’t hold her back from standing up to people in power. Josh is a snarky, yet shy and gentle, antagonist turned love interest. The enemies to friends to lovers trope is a tough one to get right because it has to be believable that the two people hate each other enough, yet not so much that they couldn’t form a connection (and then fall in love). Sally Thorne executes this trope well, in my opinion. Yes, Josh is Lucy’s adversary, but anyone who reads between the lines will quickly realize that Lucy is obsessed (not in a super creepy, weird way) with Josh and wants his attention and the same goes for him. The sexual tension between Lucy and Josh practically sizzles off the page and comes to a very satisfying (hah) conclusion.

The Hating Game is a really delightful romcom. I read Sally Thorne’s second book, 99 Percent Mine, and reviewed it a while back, because I liked The Hating Game so much. This is a stronger story than that one, but both are solid romcoms and earned Sally Thorne a spot on my “will read anything by this author” list.

Have you read The Hating Game? Do you love or hate the enemies to lovers trope?

“I have a theory. Hating someone feels disturbingly similar to being in love with them. I’ve had a lot of time to compare love and hate, and these are my observations.”

The Hating Game, Sally Thorne

Writing Prompt of the Week

Picture prompt!

[Image description: exterior photograph of a crosswalk at night. A yellow streetlight and a green traffic light illuminate the scene. A streak of red light sweeps across the center of the photograph, caused by a long-exposure of the camera.]

If you’re up for a challenge, try to write a complete story in 500 words or less.

On My Bookshelf: The Denial of Death by Ernest Becker

Title: The Denial of Death
Author: Ernest Becker
Genre: Psychology, Philosophy
My Rating: 2/5

Becker posits that humans have a deep, innate fear of death and that all human action stems from attempts to mitigate this fear in various ways. I read this book ten years ago for a college class and thought I’d pick it up again to see what I could glean. I liked the premise because it seemed logical to me. The execution of the argument, however, left a lot to be desired. 

The introduction outlines Becker’s arguments and got me interested in reading further. After that, however, he spends an inordinate amount of time describing the theories of philosophers/psychologists like Freud, Kierkegaard, and Otto Rank (with whom he seems to have an unhealthy obsession). I didn’t choose this book to go through all Freud’s nonsense again. I slogged through the middle section in hopes that it would end soon and we’d get to the good stuff.

Towards the end of the book, Becker discusses how different “mental illnesses” are a result of the fear of death. If he hadn’t lost me before that point, he would have when he describes how being gay or trans is a mental illness. On top of that, throughout the book women are treated almost as a separate species, barely worth mentioning except to describe their penis envy and the fact that their place is in the home, pushing out children. Needless to say, the book aged very poorly.

Becker never really developed an “answer” to the problem of the fear of death. A close contender was religion, with its belief systems, rituals, and afterlife, but since it’s a mythology, humans would always have the knowledge that it is fake. Becker’s solution is to suggest that psychology itself should become a religion. I’m still not clear on how that would work, but I found it a dissatisfying answer.

I pretty much finished this book out of spite. Despite the numerous shortcomings of Becker’s arguments, there are a few gems hidden in the text.

I really liked the idea that humans are creatures of opposites. They are animals in possessions of “creaturely” bodies that defecate and that crave food, sleep, and sex. However, they are also symbolic creatures, “gods” within their own minds and it is this dichotomy they constantly try to reconcile. 

I also found interesting the idea that culture is an illusory creation of humanity, a way in which to make sense of both power over their surroundings and impotence in the face of death. Similarly, routines are a means of avoiding living in the world and not dealing with the awesomeness of it.

I gave this book 2 out of 5 stars because I hate-read it about 90% of the time (when it wasn’t putting me to sleep). Becker’s intriguing thoughts on the fear of death could have been consolidated to a few pages or maybe a chapter. The premise was fascinating, but his analysis was soporific, at best, and his “answer” to the fear of death was basically nonexistent.

“Man is literally split in two: he has an awareness of his own splendid uniqueness in that he sticks out of nature with a towering majesty, and yet he goes back into the ground a few feet in order to blindly and dumbly rot and disappear forever.”

The Denial of Death, Ernest Becker

Short Story: The Night Harvest

No one ever returned. None before. None after. Just him.

Until now.

A figure exploded from the edge of the forest, scattering twigs and scraps of mist. Donafel let out a sharp breath, a plume of condensation. Ghostly antlers crowned the figure’s head and, for a moment, the familiar terror gripped him. But no—the antlers were merely the crisscross of branches.

He took a shuddering breath, letting his fear and disappointment dissipate into the chill morning air. The wooden porch creaked as he shifted.

The figure spotted Donafel and careened to a halt, still shadowed by the towering trees. Mud streaked his face and clothes and he cradled his wrists, scabbed with dried blood. Donafel and the boy stared at each other.

The weight of another’s gaze—a human gaze—made Donafel feel naked. For so long his companions had been the silence of the cabin walls, the forest that crouched just beyond the fence, and the unseen watchers in the trees.

The sight of the boy brought back flashes of memory.

At the center of town, the fog dissipated until a rough circle cleared around the hitching post and the child tethered there. Out of the viscous, billowing white, a figure emerged.

His old life seemed more dream than reality. But that one night remained sharp, pungent. On the days the fog crawled from the forest, so, too, did the memories.

Once, it had been yearly; the fog would slink from the east, defying wind and sun to creep from between the trees, across the fields, through the town’s main gate.

Now… now it came far more often.

Each month, at the dark of the moon, the scars around Donafel’s wrists started to throb. The pain heralded the wall of white that oozed from the forest and occluded the cabin. When the ache in his left wrist extended to his elbow, he knew the fog had reached the town, and preparations had begun—quietly, so as not to alarm the children.

Donafel remembered the fear in his parents’ eyes. The children would be scared anyway.

The townsfolk would lock their doors, keep the children hidden beneath beds. Livestock would huddle in the farthest corner of each barn. The main gate would stand open to the abandoned streets: an invitation.

Donafel whimpered, throat too raw to scream anymore. He tugged at his bonds, frantic, until his wrists bled down his arms, but the hitching post was set deep into the ground. The figure stepped forward...

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On My Bookshelf: Abhorsen by Garth Nix

Title: Abhorsen
Author: Garth Nix
Genre: Fantasy, Young Adult
My Rating: 5/5

Abhorsen is a continuation of the previous book, Lirael, and picks up where the last one left off. The Destroyer, an ancient and terrible evil, has been released and is intent on the destruction of the world. Lirael, sent away from her home in the mountains, has just discovered that she is the Abhorsen-in-waiting, charged with laying the dead to rest and protecting the Kingdom. She and her friends the Disreputable Dog, Prince Sameth, and Mogget, the talking cat/imprisoned magical beast, continue on their journey to rescue Sam’s friend and defeat the Destroyer before it obliterates the world.

Like Lirael before it, Abhorsen is not a standalone book. These are basically parts one and two of the same story and cannot be read independently of each other. Abhorsen continues with a quick pace, starting in media res, and the action piles on until the very end. Lirael and Sam are much more likable in this book, as they’ve started to grow into their powers.Their companions, the Dog and Mogget, have strong personalities and mysterious backgrounds that come into play towards the end. Like threads being woven together, all major and minor storylines join beautifully in the conclusion. I have read Abhorsen dozens of times and I cry at the end every single time. A worthwhile read. 

“…It is better to do something than nothing, even if the cost is great.”

Abhorsen, Garth Nix

Full disclosure: I photoshopped the photo of the book for the this post because I’m still in the process of moving and wasn’t able to take a picture. So I reused an old photo and inserted a picture of the cover over top.