Somebody Tell Aunt Tillie She’s Dead | Toad Witch #1 | ASIN B004XTS58I | HekaRose Publishing, 2011 | 4 out of 5 Points
“A little magic can go a long way — to really screwing up a girl’s life! Mara is having the worst month of her life. At least, that’s what her cards tell her and they’ve never been wrong. She’s evicted from her apartment, loses her job and is banned from Beverly Hills. So when the tarot cards predict her imminent demise, she uses a little magic to make her world right.
Suddenly, an aunt she’s never met dies, leaving Mara as her sole heir. But when Mara moves into her inherited home, she discovers Aunt Tillie never moved out. She’s still one pissed-off old lady, even post-mortem, and she blames Mara’s magical meddling for her death. When Mara accidentally releases a demon and awakens the spirit of the most powerful witch in history, Tillie’s ready to kill her — literally. It’s the only way she can think of to save the girl from herself. The witch and the demon, however, have other plans for Mara’s body.”
Puh, this book is difficult. Not that it’s difficult to read or anything – the writing style is a dream, even though the author uses ‘the feel of sth’ too much for my taste (but that’s kind of a pet peeve). No, the reason why this book is difficult is that I am not quite sure how to rate it. There are a lot of things that are awesome about Somebody Tell Aunt Tillie She’s Dead, such as the writing style, the main characters and the descriptions, but other things are just… Well, let’s start at the beginning, shall we?
THE CAKE IS A LIE
And by ‘cake’ I mean the title. Nobody has to tell Aunt Tillie she’s dead. Aunt Tillie is very aware of that. And when our protagonist Mara meets her the first time, she’s already very good at being dead. She definitely has the poltergeist-y part down for pats, at least.
But the thing is, we don’t actually meet Aunt Tillie for half of the book. The first half of the book is dedicated to Mara’s admittedly shitty life in LA. Scene after scene we see more of her attempts to find a flat or get enough money to find a flat, while the actual conflict is set up with the speed of molasses, and with about double the scenes we would have needed. Mara is having plenty of bad dreams, sees things in mirrors, ruins some edibles with her sudden bad energy, gets visited by dead relatives, has some more bad dreams, does a ton of magic – until finally, at nearly 50% of the book, she finds out that she inherited a cottage at the edge of Nowhere, Wisconsin.
The thing is, bad pacing aside, the first part was actually entertaining. Irritating, because I wanted the proper conflict to finally start, but entertaining. There was enough conflict to keep the story going – Mara getting evicted, her money troubles, her conflict about using magic for selfish reasons – and Mara and Gus, our heroine and her trusty gay sidekick, are very, very fun and interesting characters. And, hell, the magic stuff is fascinating, especially if you’ve got at least some interest in paganism and modern magic. But even though it I felt entertained throughout, the first half of the book just sounded like the type of exposition that lets authors go ‘Look at all the things I know, look at all the stuff I researched, isn’t this cool??’. And yes, it is cool, but you are an author, and this is a novel, and I expect you to give me the main conflict sometimes before the 50% mark, please.
Like I said, I just don’t know what to say about that. It’s unusual, it’s unpleasant from a story-telling point of view, but I didn’t get bored while reading. It’s just fun to read about Mara’s escapades, especially when Gus is around.
WITCHES GET STITCHES
Let’s talk about our main character, Mara, and her sidekicks. Mara is pretty goddamn awesome – she’s a competent, talented witch, but her talent doesn’t keep her from being unable to find a job, being kicked out of her flat and making some very, very stupid – but also very understandable – choices during the course of the book. The mistakes Mara make generally come from a place of good intentions, and as a reader, I felt that I would have made pretty much all of those mistakes too. Basically, she is relatable and admirable at the same time, which is something that definitely not a lot of protagonists can say of themselves.
Gus, Mara’s very energetic, very charismatic best friend, somehow manages to dip into a whole lot of gay guy stereotypes – the GBF, Agent Peacock, and, of course, Magical Queer – without actually feeling flat, over-the-top, or offensive. He is kind of an asshole, kind of childish, and definitely a risk to himself and everybody around him (I’m pretty sure this is what the next book in this series is about), but hell if he isn’t likeable. The only thing that sort of threatens this likability of his is the fact that he keeps making misogynistic jokes to rile up Mara. But, alas, nobody’s perfect, and his support of Mara and his childlike enjoyment of the world kind of reconciled me with his prepubescent one-liners.
Next to her second half Gus Mara also has a love interest, who, honestly, fell very flat, especially given the author’s obvious character-building talents. He’s hot, he’s a teacher and he writes. And did I mention he’s hot? Yawn. Maybe he is going to become more interesting in the next book, but in this one, all I can say about him that he fulfilled his role, but not really much more than that.
As far as villains go, we have a bit of a divide here. Our first villain is the recently (at about 40% of the book) deceased Aunt Tillie, who is actually her late mom’s aunt. Tillie has the temper and the powers of an angry witch ghost and she knows how to use them – resulting in one hell of a first week for Mara in her new cottage. Seriously, all the things that happen to her because of Aunt Tillie’s My Way or the High Way philosophy re: getting Mara out of her house made me flinch something fierce while I was reading the book. In comparison, the ancient witch and the demon we already get prepared for by the blurb are sure very powerful and dangerous (and… surprisingly promiscuous?) but they don’t really have Aunt Tillie’s entertainment value. Seriously, if I want to read about two ancient beings visiting orgies and banging each other silly, I read an Anne Rice book, not an urban fantasy with a toad on the cover.
Also, I just really have to say a few things about Lisette and Lucien, our dangerous duo: Lisette’s history-talk just sounds strange. I’ve read quite a few books from the actual period Lisette was supposed to be from, and people just didn’t talk like her. Miller should just stay in the 21st century, she’s definitely better at our lingo than 17th-century-speak.
Also, somebody please explain to me how the banished ex-mistress of James I manages to grab herself a lover with ‘skin the color of Kahlua’ and ‘tribal tattoos’, with a French name and an African-sounding surname?? Did she make a detour through the Caribbean on her journey from Scotland to Visconsin?? Where is that guy from? And why do we need ‘tribal tattoos’?? Why make the evil, super damn promiscuous guy the most ethnic dude in your book???
(This rant was brought to you by the Council of ‘Why do people put racist stereotypes into good books???’)
IT’S RAINING GAY MEN
Speaking of minorities, this book has a queer-to-straight rate of 4:4 among its male characters (not counting the 112 year old gentleman who acts as Mara’s informant on her quaint new cottage). Our villainess (Lisette, not Aunt Tillie) is also portrayed as queer, buuuut since that is only an issue while she’s at an orgy, let’s just, y’know, ignore that. (I already had a rant about her partner, I don’t need to climb up my bisexual barricades for her too).
The thing is, while that number sounds kind of awesome, only one (1) of those 4 queer dudes is portrayed in a positive way. That one decent queer dude, of course, is Gus – and even Gus is portrayed as promiscuous, which is one of the less nice clichés levelled at gay guys. And the other three? Well, the first of them is a two-faced, weak-willed, vindictive ass of a landlord who throws out Mara just so he can keep banging his newest boy toy, the second is said boy toy, who is fundamentally Christian and fundamentally bigoted, but still okay with being with a guy (yay I guess?), and, well, a guy from the past who had a thing with James I (for power, of course) and who then killed Lisette? I mean, I guess representation is great and all, but… Really now? You couldn’t just have made the landlord straight? Maybe only have one asshole gay dude?
But well, despite these short-comings, I have to say that I actually enjoyed this book quite a lot. Miller knows how to make you love her protagonists, and hell if I didn’t get sucked in by her descriptions of that haunted, but incredibly quaint cottage (if the ghosts and vermin weren’t an issue…. *sigh*). Also, her knowledge and descriptions of magic are just so fascinating, I actually found myself looking at books about white magic at amazon while reading. That’s something I can’t say about every book with magic in it.
So, my final verdict for this book is a score of 4 stars. Was it perfect? Nope. Did the strange pacing annoy me? Yep. But if I like a pair of characters as much as I loved Mara and Gus, then that book just really deserves 4 stars.
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