Book Reviews: In the Shadow Garden by Liz Parker + Spells for Forgetting by Adrienne Young

It turns out these two books have far more in common than I thought when I requested them from NetGalley. I wanted to read In the Shadow Garden because it reminded me of Garden Spells and I requested Spells for Forgetting because I was curious about the author. Turns out they both have magic, mystery, and romance in common, as well as families with secrets, the return of a male character to the community, and alcohol (one involves a family business being bourbon and the other involves a basically functional alcoholic). There are also mysterious murders, second chance romances, tea leaf readings, grandmothers who will do anything to take care of their families, and isolated settings. Fortunately, they’re easy to tell apart. One has a magic garden and the other is perfectly autumnal and atmospheric. Though I can’t say I particularly liked either.

In the Shadow Garden by Liz Parker

in the shadow garden liz parker

Title: In the Shadow Garden | Author: Liz Parker | Publisher: Forever | Publication date: September 13, 2022 | Genre: Magical Realism, Mystery, Romance

The richly atmospheric and luminous debut about three generations of women whose magic is as much a part of life as love, death, and the rich, dark earth beneath their feet–perfect for fans of Practical Magic and Midnight at the Blackbird Cafe. 

There’s something magical about Yarrow, Kentucky. The three empathic witches of the Haywood family are known for their shadow garden—from strawberries that taste like chocolate to cherry tomatoes imbued with the flavors of basil and oregano. Their magic can cure any heartache, and the fruits of their garden bring a special quality to the local bourbon distillery. On one day every year, a shot of Bonner bourbon will make your worst memory disappear. But the Haywoods will never forget the Bonners’ bitter betrayal.

Twenty years ago, the town gave up more than one memory; they forgot an entire summer. One person died. One person disappeared. And no one has any recollection of either.

As events from that fateful summer start to come to light, there must be a reckoning between the rival Haywood and Bonner families. But untangling the deep roots of this town’s terrible secrets will expose more than they could ever imagine about love, treachery, and the true nature of their power.

Description and purchase link(s)

One Sentence Summary: Years ago, something happened in Yarrow, Kentucky and everyone forgot an entire summer, but when Kaden Bonner suddenly returns, the truth slowly comes to light.

My thoughts:

In the Shadow Garden immediately made me think of Garden Spells with a darker edge. But, while the garden was magical and fascinating, it was less about the magic of it all and more about the mystery of what happened that summer and a blossoming mature romance. It follows various members of the three founding families: the Haywoods and their magic garden, the Bonners with their magical bourbon, and the Bakers. It was difficult to tell who was supposed to be telling the story and who the primary character was as it started out strong with one and then switched to another telling most of the story. The mystery was probably the most interesting part, even if I felt the characters danced around it far too much. The romance felt too sudden and easy, but it had an interesting twist on a Romeo and Juliet story. It was also fun to read about two warring families.

In the Shadow Garden is set in the sweet Southern town of Yarrow in Kentucky. Appropriately, one of the families produces bourbon. But it’s a special kind of bourbon, one that can take a person’s worst memory. Their bourbon is only made possible by the corn gifted to them from the garden of the Haywood family. Their garden is darkly magical and utterly fascinating, though it did fall into being little more than a generic magic garden. It offers its bounty to whomever it wishes and imparts some magic to those who eat from it, but was most fascinating in terms of what makes it grow, which is closely tied to the unique magic of the Haywoods. Otherwise, Yarrow feels very much like a quaint Southern town. There were many times where I wondered where, exactly, all the people were. It seemed populated mostly by members of the three founding families, a couple of important personages like the mayor, and tourists. But it was fun to wander Yarrow with the characters, even if I did find myself wanting more of it.

But the story is mostly about the Haywoods, Bonners, and Bakers, primarily featuring what felt like a war between the Haywoods and the Bonners with the Bakers feeling like they were just onlookers, so, other than one of the romantic story lines, I couldn’t really figure out what their place was or what they were doing there, other than selling the produce from the Haywoods’ garden. The battle between the two families, though, was interesting and I loved how manipulative the matriarch of the Bonners was, even if I did tire of it by the end. She was just perfectly evil and it was all wrapped in a mother’s warped love for her family and their livelihood. It was a fascinating story of what greed and power can do, and how it can destroy lives and families. But it also spoke to the power and strength that lies in families. Neither of these families was particularly functional, but both still had something to say about family and what one might do for the sake of it.

There’s mystery and romance tied together in this book. The mystery was the more interesting piece to me, so I was frustrated when it kept being relegated to the back seat. It’s all about what happened that summer twenty years ago when a Haywood died and a Bonner vanished and the entire town gave up their memory of what happened the entire summer. I feel like I would have been frustrated about that sometime during those twenty years, but no one in Yarrow seemed to notice or care. Until the man who vanished returns and, even though his mother wanted him to return, opens a can of worms that eventually gets out of her control. There were some nice twists and turns, but I absolutely hated how it used one of the other characters. I also think this plot had most of the magic tied into it. I loved how it was used here. I was less impressed with the romance, as sweet as they were as they’re both second chance romances. One was between mature adults, but they managed to feel more juvenile than the other couple. The emphasis was also on them, but I didn’t care much for their entire relationship as it felt like it started up too quickly and burned too hot too fast. The other was between a couple of the younger characters, and they somehow felt more mature. I liked the pain that was behind it and how they still managed to come together despite it.

In the Shadow Garden felt very much like a soft story of magic and family. While there’s some danger and a whole lot of manipulation and even a gross overuse of family powers, I loved the twists and turns. There are some very nice elements in this book, but too much of it felt too easy and other parts felt like the characters were wandering around the main issues in this book. Overall, it made for a fast, simple read, even if I did get some of the characters mixed up and the fact that each chapter switches to a different character and sometimes their voices were way too similar, it was a pleasant read. The magic garden was my favorite part and I appreciated the mystery, but wasn’t won over by the romance.

My rating: 3 cups

Spells for Forgetting by Adrienne Young

spells for forgetting adrienne young

Title: Spells for Forgetting | Author: Adrienne Young | Publisher: Delacorte Press | Publication date: September 27, 2022 | Genre: Magical Realism, Mystery, Romance

Emery Blackwood’s life changed forever the night her best friend was found dead and the love of her life, August Salt, was accused of murdering her. Years later, she is doing what her teenage self swore she never would: living a quiet existence on the misty, remote shores of Saoirse Island and running the family’s business, Blackwood’s Tea Shoppe Herbal Tonics & Tea Leaf Readings. But when the island, rooted in folklore and magic, begins to show signs of strange happenings, Emery knows that something is coming. The morning she wakes to find that every single tree on Saoirse has turned color in a single night, August returns for the first time in fourteen years and unearths the past that the town has tried desperately to forget.

August knows he is not welcome on Saiorse, not after the night everything changed. As a fire raged on at the Salt family orchard, Lily Morgan was found dead in the dark woods, shaking the bedrock of their tight-knit community and branding August a murderer. When he returns to bury his mother’s ashes, he must confront the people who turned their backs on him and face the one wound from his past that has never healed—Emery. But the town has more than one reason to want August gone, and the emergence of deep betrayals and hidden promises spanning generations threaten to reveal the truth behind Lily’s mysterious death once and for all.

Description and purchase link(s)

One Sentence Summary: Fourteen years ago, August and his mother abruptly left Saoirse Island after the mysterious murder of one of his friends, and now he’s back to bury his mother, but no one wants him there.

My thoughts:

Spells for Forgetting is the perfect atmospheric, autumnal read. Set on an isolated magical island, it’s right at the end of apple picking season and right before Samhain, heightening the darkly sinister edge given to the story and making me see shadows in the pages. Yet, for as perfect as it is for the season, there were too many holes in the story and world building and I had a difficult time believing in the maturity of the main characters, making this more disappointing than I had hoped.

Spells for Forgetting took that autumn look and feel and translated it into a book. It was incredible the way I could practically hear the dry leaves skittering down the street and the chilled autumn air whistling through the apple trees. I even got a sense of a lovely reddish gold as I was reading, and could practically smell apple pie spice. There was also just enough magic to charm me, not so much that it felt like the characters relied on it and not too little where I was forced to really hunt for it. Instead, it was lightly woven in, heightening that atmospheric autumnal feel. Though I did wish that the island itself was more of a character since there were so many hints, but not much beyond that. Unfortunately, that was the one thing I actually loved about the book.

For one, the characters annoyed me. August and Emery were high school sweethearts who were torn apart when their best friend Lily was found murdered and everyone decided to assume August was the murderer, driving August and his mom off the island for fourteen years. Just doing the simple math, August and Emery should be in their early 30s, an age I’m very familiar with. Together, they felt like adults, like they were in their 30s and rediscovering the love they still shared, making for a rather bittersweet love story as their re-connection is fraught with so many potholes from all sides. But, when in the presence of the older generations, the parents and grandparents, they’re treated like children so acted like they were younger, so I had a hard time believing they were not in their late teens-early 20s. They felt like they reverted every time they spoke to someone older than them, so it was annoying the way the older generations refused to treat them like the capable, responsible adults they’ve shown themselves to be. On the other hand, their love story was just heart breaking. I wanted nothing more than for them to find their way back to each other, though the intensity felt a little scary at times. It is, though, the focus of the story, so it was sweet to get their story from the very beginning and track it all the way to a rather abrupt and surprising time leap in the last chapter.

As for the story, it’s a love story wrapped in two mysteries. One mystery has to do with who the actual owner of the apple orchard is and the other involves who killed Lily. The former really felt like the real focus as it was continually hinted and referenced at. Overall, I felt it would be a lot simpler if the same piece of information had actually been given instead of withheld and hinted at over and over. Besides, if I thought about it, it really made no sense. Owned by the Salts, the remaining heir didn’t want it, so I had a hard time with the mystery surrounding ownership, though it did make for an exciting ending. The other mystery was tied up with the first, but also felt more like its own separate mystery. It’s mentioned so many times, but is never an actual focus until the last 30% or so, probably because it ended up being so simple that, if the people actually looked, it would have been solved fourteen years ago, but it would have impacted their own greedy ends. In the end, it was predictable, though written in an exciting way. I was disappointed I’d solved both well before the ending, so I was really only there for all the breathtaking action.

As beautifully atmospheric and autumnal as I found Spells for Forgetting, the world itself was a huge letdown. It perfectly captured that autumn feel, but I also felt like the island kept trying to kick me off. It seems to be a well-established fact that the residents strongly dislike the tourists that are necessary for their livelihood, so the people never felt welcoming to me, and, considering all the secrets they were keeping, they didn’t feel like they really wanted me there reading their story. It was a strange feeling to be enveloped in this gorgeous autumn setting and still be kept at a distrustful distance. Many of the residents also ended up feeling like they were more than a little nutty, making me want to edge away from them on my own. Overall, kind of a bizarre reading experience.

Spells for Forgetting simply wasn’t my cup of tea. There were too many holes and too many inconsistencies for me to not notice and get swept away in the story. I did like the dark, sinister edge. I loved the atmosphere and how it made me feel like I stepped into autumn. I loved the magic that was so deftly woven in. But I was left with too many questions, making me feel like things were sacrificed for other elements, and I really wanted those things that were left out.

My rating: 3 cups

Thank you to NetGalley and the publishers for review copies. All opinions expressed are my own.

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