Romance

The Ex Hex

Title: The Ex Hex
Author: Erin Sterling (Rachel Hawkins)
Page Count: 320
Publication: September 2021

[Amazon | Indie Bound | BN | Find it at your local library]

More serious reviews: Kirkus and Publisher’s Weekly. Not to be confused with the band Ex Hex.

Reading this book has been a blur.

First, I’ve been following Rachel Hawkins / Erin Sterling on Twitter for some time so I have must have read something by her to follow her and her tweets are entertaining. (Also, this is how I follow most authors and journalists and then discover later on I cannot remember how I found them. This is not Hawkins (nee Sterling).)

Second, I saw The Ex Hex tweet promoted by another author that Hawkins (nee Sterling) maybe retweeted? Or I saw it in the wild? Nevertheless, when I read the description, I knew this book had to be mine.

(BTW, I am the proud owner of having library cards through three different systems and the average wait time is about 12 weeks per system.)

Paranormal romances can go in a variety of different ways: some bad (I’m looking at you Laurell K Hamilton and Stephenie Meyer) or good (hello J.R. Ward and Charlaine Harris). There really is no defining rule of what makes a great or awful story. You want charisma and heat between the characters, a fetching storyline that isn’t so up in itself you need note cards and sharpies to keep track, and a believable world.

This is why I love The Ex Hex. It’s got a pinch of Practical Magic mixed in with some Sabrina the Teenage Witch with the fun of Bewitched and a bit like Harry Potter but when Hawkins (nee Sterling) described it as “Hocus Pocus (But They F***),” which you know, is what sold me.

I’m a sucker for cozy romances – like cozy mysteries but with more skin and sex and less Jessica Fletcher. Hell, anything cozy. One day I want to own a bookstore in the Cotswolds with a sexy man at my beck and call while I solve mysteries in my free time. Alas, that is not to be but with books, I can be anywhere and do anything I want.

This is where The Ex Hex comes in. A fun romp of a witch who after a bad breakup, preforms what she doesn’t think is a spell but is a spell on the ex she has just dumped. Nearly a decade later, they are thrown back together when he comes back to Graves Glen, GA for Founder’s Day to give a speech and all that rot. But the curse is real! And Rhys is fucked and not really in a good way (well, he and Vivi do get it on considerably but that is later in the story). They must lift a curse and do it by the end of Halloween. Oh no! How will they survive?

The Ex Hex made me feel warm and fuzzy inside. I wanted nothing more to snuggle up on a hot cocoa by my side as I read. I could feel the whispering of fall at the back of my neck as I took in this charming story. My basic bitch was coming out in full force and look, I’m a basic bitch and this fills all the notches.

This book isn’t about a girl not understanding who she is, Vivi knows exactly who she is, or that she’s an underdog, she isn’t. It does fall in with a second time around romance trope which is fine when done well and here it is. The sex scenes build and it’s not gratuitous, which is a relief. Rhys isn’t a superhero coming to swoop in to save the day or a bad boy except Rhys has very good hair that does That Thing which makes VIvi swoon. They are just two normal people crushing on each other hard and have a task to complete.

The ending is nice and tidy (mostly) and the couple gets their HEA. The only thing I would ding this book on is that while Hawkins (nee Sterling) does a great job of blending in Rhys’ Welshness with Vivi’s southern charm, there isn’t enough of a backstory as to WHY his ancestor left Wales and came to America and that is very relevant to the story as the relationship between the two families, Rhys’ and Vivi’s, goes way back since the time of the town’s founding. So, why did Penhallow leave Wales? Why is Rhys’ father a dick? What’s up with Wells and Bowen? And what about Gwyn and Aunt Elaine? Hawkins (nee Sterling) has created a believable world where she can play around with the other characters. She gave them relatable and whole lives that intersect with Vivi and Rhys and are formed and not cookie cutter cut outs. Hawkins (nee Sterling) has written across many genres but I get the feeling here, and I’m probably not wrong, she had a lot of fun with this story and that there is much more in the world of Graves Glen in the future.

I also give points towards Hawkins (nee Sterling) using Welsh/British-isms (torch for flashlight; mate instead of dude). It is what has struck me about this book is she also pays attention to the culture she’s writing about and not just winging it.

Let’s cut to the chase: So dear reader, if you want a fast, fun, sassy, and enjoyable read with believable characters and setting, pick up The Ex Hex. I read the first half in one sitting before bed one night and I would have gone on if I hadn’t had to work in the morning. If that doesn’t sell you, you have a rotten and cold heart compatible with Rhys’ father Simon (the dick).

General Fiction

Beautiful World, Where Are You

Title: Beautiful World, Where Are You
Author: Sally Rooney
Page Count: 368
Publication: September 2021

[Amazon | Indie Bound | BN | Find it at your local library]

Note: If you are looking for a traditional review, let me point you to The New York Times,  Washington Post, and NPR as you will not find that here.

You’d be hard pressed in the beginning of September to not find either a glowing review or an ad for Beautiful World, Where Are You, the Irish wunderkind Sally Rooney’s third book. You may remember her from Normal People (now a series on Hulu which made me ugly cry) and Conversations with Friends. I’ve read both and enjoyed them. Rooney’s first two books were both widely acclaimed hence the “wunderkind” moniker since she’s barely broken 30 with three successful books under her belt and while I’m nearing 50 and find it difficult to maintain a chapter of my own fiction. Some days, I hate the bitch.

One thing that hung in the air between me and the book is how prescient Beautiful World, Where Are You must encapsulate echoes of Rooney’s own life. One of the main characters is Alice, a tortured novelist whose first two books were beyond successful and she hops from literary festivals winning literary prizes, where she feels exhausted and overwhelmed after each event. The weight of her fame and her inability to access her own self, or accessing it too much, lead to her nervous breakdown where she now recovers on Ireland’s western coast where she knocks around in a big and drafty rental house.

I wondered as I continued on with BWWAY if this was not Rooney’s way of communicating that yes, she writes wonderfully nuanced, Hemingway like prose that suffers from lots of acclaim and as one person put it about BWWAY, “Twilight for literary lovers.” How must, or can, one person take that level of scrutiny success and noise because they happened to write beautiful and nuanced stories that capture the heart of the current climate both politically, emotionally, and mentally?

What is that like, I wondered as I read to be Rooney: did she think she would become this successful or was she merely filling a gaping void she saw that needed some kind of plug? Was BWWAY a way to communicate to her critics that look, you’re putting me under a lot of stress and I’m on the verge here so fuck off – which seems entirely possible. Was Eileen, Alice’s best friend, a stand in for someone or something? Rooney is notoriously private and is not on social media which seems difficult to comprehend in this day and age. Granted my partner is also not on social media and I often have to explain what and how to him networks work but he’s a 42 year old body with a 105 year old mind. What is also odd is that social media,  hell the internet as a whole, is the way that authors work and communicate. The notorious aesthete Salman Rushdie is on Twitter. Paulo Coelho has over 2 million followers on Instagram. These are two men over 60 who are cultivating a following while producing literary prize work. And it’s not just Rushdie and Coelho but award winning authors such as Margaret Atwood interacts with her 2M fans on Twitter and the estate of Ursula K. Le Guin keeps her alive on Twitter and Instagram.

Where is Rooney? Does it really matter if she’s on the internet or not?

Let’s cut to the chase: Should you read BWWAY? Yes. Her prose is clear and accessible. The lives of Alice and Eileen and Felix and Simon are recognizable. The questions Rooney asks, outside of telling her critics to fuck off, are relatable. But keep in mind that the frailty of her characters could be a symptom of the world as they struggle to figure it out themselves. The older generations have left us younger ones with a mess and finding the beauty in the world is a small and grand feat at once. Take slow deep breaths, do not get sucked into how BWWAY pacing has you turning pages with haste, and relish that the beautiful world is out there and we need to just look and appreciate it.

General Non-Fiction

A Libertarian Walks Into a Bear

A libertarian Walks into a Bear
Title: A Libertarian Walks into a Bear
Author: Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling
Page Count: 288
Publication: September 2020

[Amazon | Indie Bound | BN | Find it at your local library]

I hate libertarians.

When I say “hate,” I mean I want to throat punch their selfish asses. 90% of libertarians I have met or come across tend to cling onto the Ayn Rand (a hack), The Federalist Papers (if they are “academic” libertarians who like writing by dead white guys whose concerns rejected the notion of equality for anyone not white or male), and the 1st and 2nd Amendments. The premise of libertarianism seems a bit, not much but a bit, sane enough: limited interference by the government with self-rule at the helm, images of Orwell’s salient 1984 dancing like sugar plums in their heads to keep them on the straight and narrow. Socialism, democracy, republicanism, and every other ism is a pox upon humanity. Man, as Rand was known to wank, is only so much free as the property they own and living by their own moral aptitude or as we know it, capitalism.

So we find ourselves in Grafton, NH, a free hold for libertarians of all kinds who come to live in the near wild state of New Hampshire with the promise of limited government. Townies, I think at first a bit amused and then horrified, find their town and its services gutted after motion after motion by the now majority libertarian council and town folk reject proposal after proposal. Potholes are not filled, water sanitation becomes sketchy, schools are severely underfunded, and let us talk about the fire department. Oh, yes, they even gutted the fire department BECAUSE TAXES with the ideology that someone, anyone, will step up and buy the truck, train or hire the fighters, because that is what life is like in Grafton: Being selfless is for wussies, bring on the selfish!

I’ve spent nearly 300 words raging against the movement and not so much the book itself, which I would decry, is very good. A Libertarian Walks into a Bear was recommended to me by Brendan who sent me to read The Town That Went Feral, a review of the book over at The New Republic (which, tbh, reads more as a long form article then a review but who am I to judge?). Intrigued, I libraried the book and here we are.

Hongoltz-Hetling takes you through the foundation of Grafton as a freehold, it’s more colorful characters, and then there are the bears! We’re introduced into a brief history of bear activity in New England, specifically into NH, and how with management by the DNR, black bears have started to grow and flourish once more and they love Grafton. Especially the Doughnut Lady who started out leaving donuts for the bears and then it turned into feeding frenzy of bears waiting, docile even, for her daily feedings, but with grains now and doughnuts on top. Bears, at the most, were known to stay away from human life but with people in the area actively feeding the bears, the bears have grown bolder to stealing farm and domestic animals, even while the humans are still standing there.

There was even a bear attack on a human, which is thought to have been rare, but now is no longer.

The freeholders in Grafton dove tails nicely with the story of the overrunning bears as each runs on a parallel path towards the same goal: destruction of a once quirky town where there hellbent on living free, doing what they like, and who gives a fuck at the outcome?

Well, we should give a fuck even if the freeholders do not.

A Libertarian Walks into a Bear is a wonderfully constructed tale of a two utopias gone absurdly wrong and a larger parable of what happens when we stop caring.