Our Crooked Hearts: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“So. Magic. It is the loneliest thing in the world.”

Our Crooked Hearts by Melissa AlbertIn the suburbs, right now Ivy is ready for summer–even one that starts with a breakup (hers) and a broken nose (not hers). Ivy feels like strange things always happen around her, like she’s always waiting. But she’s never sure what for. She’s even less sure when strange things start happening around her house. First there’s the dead rabbit on the driveway. There’s the open door she knows she locked. Then there are the cookies, each with one perfect bite taken out while she’s home alone.

In another life, Ivy might talk to her mom Dana about what’s happening. But it’s been a long time since Ivy and her mom have been able to discuss anything. It’s been a long time since her mom has even looked at her, since she’s been anything close to present for the family.

Back then, in the city Dana is waiting for things to start. She’s always been perceptive, some might call it uncanny. She had to be to survive her childhood. Back then, the summer she turns sixteen, Dana realizes she might be able to be more than uncanny. With help from her best friend Fee and a striving newcomer, they could all be magic.

In another life, Dana might have seen the risks and understood the costs before it was too late. She doesn’t.

Instead Dana’s choices here in the city will have lasting consequences leaving a mark on her and on Fee and, most of all, on Ivy who will be left alone to unravel her mother’s secrets and the havoc left in their wake in Our Crooked Hearts (2022) by Melissa Albert.

Find it on Bookshop.

Our Crooked Hearts is a stark urban fantasy where magic doesn’t come without a cost. Ivy and Dana are white, Dana’s best friend Fee is Latinx. The story alternates between Ivy’s narration (in the suburbs, right now) and Dana’s narration (in the city, back then) in Chicago and its suburbs.

Although the plot highlights their fractious relationship, Ivy and Dana follow similar character arcs in spite of their different trajectories. Both girls are brittle and filled with an abrasive vulnerability as they struggle to understand their place in a world that never feels like it fits–a theme that gains potency as more of their backstories are revealed. This dual storyline is used to great effect with each plot moving toward its inevitable and potentially painful conclusion.

It’s impossible to read any book now without considering the mental landscape where it germinated, particularly in the context of the global pandemic. Both Ivy and Dana struggle with isolation as they flirt with power in a literal (magical) sense and in relation to their own agency as teenage girls. These struggles can easily be writ large and applied to so many of the changes we have all had to make because of the pandemic. One quote in particular, “I could still observe the shock of it, the impossibility, but I’d run out of the energy to feel them.” encapsulates living and working through the pandemic so clearly–especially the burnout and stress and increasingly bleak current events.

Both narratives are imbued with a noir sensibility and a keen eye for detail that lead to observations like “It was one of those raw, unjust spring afternoons when the air is so bright and clean it focuses the whole world like a lens, but it’s cold still and you’re shivering.” Albert blends fantasy and horror elements into a tense story that feels like it could happen anywhere, to anyone, while also possessing a strong sense of immediacy that makes it impossible to turn away.

Our Crooked Hearts is a magic-filled, intergenerational story with all of the edges sharpened into razors; a dangerous fantasy with an eerie stepped-out-of-time otherness.

Possible Pairings: Book of Night by Holly Black, The Scapegracers by Hannah Abigail Clarke, Practical Magic by Alice Hoffman, Mayhem by Estelle Laure, Extasia by Claire Legrand, Tigers, Not Daughters by Samantha Mabry, Angel Mage by Garth Nix, Never-Contented Things by Sarah Porter, A Room Away From the Wolves by Nova Ren Suma, House of Hollow by Krystal Sutherland, The Insomniacs by Marit Weisenberg

You can also check out my exclusive interview with Melissa.

*An advance copy of this title was provided by the publisher for review consideration*

A Kind of Spark: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

A Kind of Spark by Elle McNicollAddie has always known that she’s different. But she’s also always had her older sister Keedie to help her figure out how to navigate a world that doesn’t always know what to do with her.

Addie and Keedie are autistic. Their family, including Keedie’s twin Nina, have learned how to help make things easier for both girls offering them space to process feelings and deal with sensory overload. But the rest of Juniper is far less accomodating–something Addie is learning firsthand as her best friend drops her to be more popular and her new teacher constantly bullies and belittles Addie.

Addie suspects Keedie isn’t doing very well at college herself where she is struggling to “mask” as neurotypical. But no one wants to talk to Addie about that.

When Addie learns about the witches who were hanged in Juniper during a witch trial, she immediately recognizes kindred spirits. The more she learns, the more clear it is that these witches were women who were a lot like Addie and her sister–women who didn’t quite fit the mold for what the town considered “normal”, women who had no one to speak for them.

Addie’s campaign for a memorial to the Juniper witches draws ire from her teacher and local officials. But it also brings a new solidarity with her family, new friends, and a chance for meaningful change in A Kind of Spark (2021) by Elle McNicoll.

Find it on Bookshop.

A Kind of Spark is narrated by Addie (whose voice is brought to life, complete with Scottish accent, in the audiobook by narrator Katy Townsend) and set in a small Scottish town. All characters are presumed white. This title received an honor for the Schneider Family Book Award which is awarded yearly by ALA to “honor an author or illustrator for a book that embodies an artistic expression of the disability experience for child and adolescent audiences.”

Addie’s first person narration is great and, as written by neurodivergent author McNicoll, authentic as she navigates everyday problems like making new friends alongside bigger challenges like campaigning for a memorial for the witches.

While it adds a lot of tension to the story, and leads to a dramatic conclusion with both Keedie and Nina rallying around Addie, the bullying Addie faces from her teacher feels over the top. The abuse is so extreme it had me questioning if I was actually reading historical fiction (even with Nina being a beauty vlogger) because it felt like the kind of treatment a character would face decades ago. I’ll add that I have no familiarity with Scotland or small town life so that might be part of the problem. But it also also felt very strange to have Addie tell her parents about how mean her teacher is (the book opens with Addie’s classwork being torn up because the handwriting is too messy) and they laugh it off and remark that Addie’s grandfather “got the strap” in school and he turned out fine. First of all, it’s hard to believe parents presented as being attentive and caring for Addie (and Keedie) would shrug that off–especially when the threat of forced institutionalization looms over both autistic girls after Keedie’s best friend was forced into a care facility. Second of all, my grandfather also had similar abuses in school–but I am at least twenty years older than Addie which again points to a dated portrayal. My best guess is that the author translated some of her own experiences as a neurodivergent young person to this modern book without fully factoring in changes to social norms/behaviors. And, again, maybe this is more of an issue in small towns that my urban self realizes.

A Kind of Spark expertly weaves Addie’s personal journey with her research and advocacy for the witches creating a multi-faceted and compelling story. The inter-family dynamics with Keedie trying to attend college without requesting accomodations and Nina choosing to pursue content creation instead of college add another layer to this story that, ultimately, reminds readers to celebrate what makes them different.

Possible Pairings: The Crossover by Kwame Alexander, Fish in a Tree by Lynda Mullaly Hunt, Rain Reign by Ann M. Martin, Tune It Out by Jamie Sumner

Your Basic Witch Reading List

A shorter version of this list originally appeared on LJ.com:

Basic Witch Reading List

With The Book of Magic (Alice Hoffman’s sequel to Practical Magic) releasing last year, now is the perfect time to round up some witchy fiction to get you in the mood. Read on to find essential reading for every witch including adult fiction and young adult titles.

You can shop the full list at Bookshop and Amazon.

Practical Magic by Alice Hoffman
The Owens women have been blamed for everything that has gone wrong in Salem, Massachusetts for more than two hundred years. After all, who wouldn’t blame every wrong thing on the local witches? Get ready for The Book of Magic with the book that started it all by introducing readers to sisters Sally and Gillian and their aunts Fran and Jet. Grab the prequels The Rules of Magic (about Franny and Jet in the 1960s) and Magic Lessons (family matriarch Maria’s story starting in the 1660s) to round out your reading experience.
Read my review.

Witch Please by Ann Aguirre
Danica Waterhouse, co-owner of Fix-It Witches, can fix almost anything except her family’s long-running feud over witches interacting with mundanes. Titus Winnaker wishes someone could fix his rotten luck when it comes to love. When the two meet, Danica thinks she’s found Mr. Right Now. But Titus won’t settle for anything less than being Danica’s Mr. Right.

The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden
In the Russian wilderness where winter lasts most of the year, Vasya grows up immersed in the magic of the surrounding woods and the chyerti (spirits) who call it home. When crops begin to fail and misfortune threatens the entire village, Vasya has to embrace her unique perspective and her magical gifts to save everything she holds dear–even if it means exposing herself as a witch.

The Bone Witch by Rin Chupeco
Tea never meant to raise her brother Fox from the dead or expected to become a dark asha—a bone witch to those who fear and revile them. But that is exactly what happens when Tea comes into her powers, setting her life on a dramatically different course.
Read my review.

Labryinth Lost by Zoraida Córdova
When Alex’s spell to get rid of her magic on her Death Day backfires her entire family disappears from their Brooklyn home. She’ll have to travel to the world of Los Lagos to get them back with help from her best friend Rishi and a strange brujo boy with his own agenda.
Read my review.

Witches of East End by Melissa de la Cruz
Joanna Beauchamp and her daughters, Freya and Ingrid, have lived quietly in North Hampton, Long Island for years. All of that changes when Freya’s upcoming wedding forces them to reveal the truth–and embrace the magical powers they’ve been banned from using for centuries.

The Wicked Deep by Shea Earnshaw
Two hundred years ago in the town of Sparrow three sisters were drowned as witches. Every year since then the Swan sisters have returned to Sparrow, claiming the bodies of unwitting local girls and using them to wreak their vengeance on the town by drowning boys foolish enough to fall under their sway. Penny is used to watching the Swan Season unfold with wary detachment, except this year there is a new outsider in town—a boy that Penny is determined to protect.
Read my review.

The Nature of Witches by Rachel Griffin
Clara is the first Everwitch in a century–her powerful magic tied to every season. In autumn, Clara fears her magic. In winter she accepts that she might be the only one who can help combat the dangerous effects of climate change on the weather witches are struggling to control. In spring she falls for Sang, the witch training her and the witch she’ll risk everything to protect. In summer Clara will have to decide if she’s brave enough to embrace her magic no matter the danger.
Read my review.

A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness
Diana Bishop would much rather be a scholar than a witch. After she discovers a magical manuscript in Oxford’s Bodleian Library, Diana finds herself at the center of a magical awakening as daemons, witches, and vampires are drawn to the library and the treasure the book offers–provided anyone can break its spell.

Payback’s a Witch by Lana Harper
Emmy Harlow isn’t a very powerful witch. And that’s fine so long as she can stay away from her hometown Thistle Grove and her player ex-boyfriend, Gareth. Emmy’s return home to visit her best friend gets complicated when she meets Talia Avramov–a powerful dark witch looking to get revenge after a bad breakup … with Gareth. Emmy is all about revenge. The bigger question is why Emmy can’t stop thinking about Talia. And what she’s going to do about it.

The Once and Future Witches by Alix E. Harrow
There’s no such thing as witches in New Salem in 1893. But there used to be. You can still catch traces of them in the witch-tales collected by the Sisters Grimm. You can see them in the second name every mother gives every daughter. You can hear them in the special words shared only in whispered songs and stories. In the beginning, there’s still no such thing as witches. But there will be.
Read my review.

The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane by Katherine Howe
Connie’s plans to begin work on her dissertation, specifically on finding a new primary source for it, are derailed when she has to clean out her grandmother’s long-vacant house in Salem. When a mysterious key leads Connie to the name Deliverance Dane and mention of an elusive “physick book” that could change everything previously known about witchcraft in colonial America, Connie’s personal and professional lives merge in pursuit of the book.
Read my review.

Vanessa Yu’s Magical Paris Tea Shop by Roselle Lim
Tired of her unerring ability to read fortune (and misfortune) in tea leaves, Vanessa Yu tries switching to coffee and running away to Paris with her aunt. But some gifts can’t be ignored and Vanessa will have to embrace hers before she can start living on her own terms.

The Witches of New York by Ami McKay
Spiritualism is gaining popularity in New York in 1880. When Beatrice Dunn answers an ad reading “Respectable Lady Seeks Dependable Shop Girl. Those averse to magic need not apply,” her fate is tied to tea shop owners Adelaide and Eleanor as the three women confront dark forces converging throughout the city.

The Age of Witches by Louisa Morgan
In Gilded Age New York, when Annis becomes the pawn in a feud between two witches–one using magic to help others like herself and one using dark magic for personal gain–Annis must awaken her own powers if she wants to keep control of her own fate–and her life.

Uprooted by Naomi Novik
In exchange for ten years of service from Agnieszka, the Dragon will continue to protect the valley from the enchanted Wood that plagues them with strange creatures and the threat of encroachment. But the Wood is changing; the creatures are growing bolder. With secrets and strange revelations at every turn it will take everything Agnieszka and the Dragon have to fight what’s coming for them.
Read my review.

The Near Witch by VE Schwab
There are certain truths in Near: The Near Witch is an old story to frighten children, nothing more. The wind is lonely and always looking for company. There are no strangers in the town Near. For all of her life, Lexi has known these three things to be true from the town, from her life, and from the stories her father told her. What happens when two of those truths turn out to be wrong?
Read my review.

Witches Steeped in Gold by Ciannon Smart
Iraya has grown up a prisoner waiting for her chance at revenge. Jazmyne, the Queen’s daughter, knows her position is precarious when her death will strengthen her mother’s powers. Always meant to be enemies, the two form an uneasy alliance to fight a common enemy in this Jamaican-inspired fantasy.

The Ex Hex by Erin Sterling
Vivi doesn’t expect big results when she uses a scented candle to curse her ex-boyfriend after their breakup. That is, of course, until Rhys comes back to Graves Glen, Georgia to recharge the town’s ley lines and gets hits by the full force of the curse. Now Vivi and Rhys have to work together to break the hex before it destroys their town.

The Hawley Book of the Dead by Chrysler Szarlan
When her husband dies under mysterious circumstances during their magic act in Vegas, Revelation “Reve” Dyer flees to her childhood home in the forest of Hawley Five Corners. While there, Reve will uncover the mysterious Hawley Book of the Dead–an ancient book that might hold the truth of Reve’s own past and a path toward her future.

A Lesson in Vengeance: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Regret always comes too late.

A Lesson in Vengeance by Victoria LeeAfter a year away, Felicity Morrow hopes to keep a low profile at Dalloway School while she completes her senior year. Then she’ll never have to think about the prestigious boarding school or what transpired there ever again.

Being back at Godwin House feels wrong for so many reasons but especially because her girlfriend Alex is dead and won’t ever return.

Still grieving, still haunted, Felicity doesn’t know what to expect from her new housemates, especially the enigmatic Ellis Haley. Everyone knows Ellis. Everyone has read her prodigious debut novel while eagerly awaiting her sophomore effort. As much as Felicity is drawn to Ellis–as much as everyone is drawn to Ellis–Felicity balks at the cult of personality the writer has erected around herself.

Ellis is drawn to Dalloway, and particularly to Godwin House, because of its bloody history. Like Felicity herself, she’s fascinated by the story of the Dalloway Five–the five students who all died under mysterious circumstances with accusations of witchcraft hanging over them.

Everyone knows magic isn’t real. After what happened last year, Felicity needs magic to not be real. But as Ellis draws her back to the school’s dangerous not-so-hidden, arcane history Felicity will have to decide if she has the strength to face the darkness festering at Dalloway and in herself in A Lesson in Vengeance (2021) by Victoria Lee.

Find it on Bookshop.

A Lesson in Vengeance is a standalone novel. Felicity and Ellis are white with secondary characters adding more diversity and brief conversations of the history of segregation and exclusion inherent to elite boarding schools like Dalloway.

This novel is an ode to all things dark academia with vivid descriptions of Dalloway’s ivy-covered glory, brittle winters, and its gory past. Lee also carefully subverts the genre using both Felicity and Ellis’ queer identities to inform the story. Pitch perfect pacing and careful plot management further help this story pack a punch.

A Lesson in Vengeance is a clever, suspenseful story filled filled. Come for the satisfying mystery and evocative setting, stay for the moral ambiguity and plot twists.

Possible Pairings: Little Women by Louisa May Alcott, When All the Girls Are Sleeping by Emily Arsenault, Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood, The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie, The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, “The Night Migrations” by Louise Glück, Roses and Rot by Kat Howard, The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson, Malleus Maleficarum, Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, “The Shroud” by Edna St. Vincent Millay, The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison, Dear Life by Alice Munro, All Our Hidden Gifts by Caroline O’Donoghue, What is Yours is Not Yours by Helen Oyeyemi, Wilder Girls by Rory Power, Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys, If We Were Villains by M. L. Rio, Last Seen Leaving by Caleb Roehrig, Strong Poison by Dorothy L. Sayers, I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith, These Witches Don’t Burn by Isabel Sterling, Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf, How We Fall Apart by Katie Zhao

Cazadora: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Cazadora by Romina GarberManu thought that being a Septima means she finally belonged somewhere. She thought she could stop hiding the star-shaped pupils of her eyes. She thought she could stop hiding as an undocumented immigrant.

Instead, Manu is in more danger than ever. As a female werewolf, a lobizona, Manu’s existence puts the strict gender binaries undperpinning Septimus society into question. With a human mother and a Septima father, Manu shouldn’t even exist.

With so much riding on Manu’s identity, magical law enforcement known as the Cazadores want to control her. While the Coven, an underground resistance group, hope to use Manu as a rallying point.

Manu never wanted to be a symbol for anyone. All she wants is the chance to embrace every part of her identity. Surrounded by friends and hunted by the authorities, Manu will have to determine how much she’s willing to risk for the chance to be exactly herself in Cazadora (2021) by Romina Garber.

Find it on Bookshop.

Cazadora is the second book in Garber’s Wolves of No World series. The story picks up shortly after the conclusion of the first book, Lobizona, which readers will want to have fresh in their memories.

All characters are Latinx or Argentine with a range of skintones. This book also delves more into the LGBTQ+ community as readers are introduced to the Coven and other resistance members who push back against the strict laws that force Septimus into gender binaries.

Cazadora blows the Septimus world open as Garber moves beyond her Argentine folklore inspiration to explore a magical world not dissimilar from our own filled with political unrest, inadequate authority figures, and justice that does more in name than in fact. This fast-paced story delves deep into Septimus folklore and legalities as Manu struggles to make a place for herself in a world that continues to find her inconvenient if not downright dangerous.

With sweeping drama, action, and fierce loyalty between Manu and her friends, Cazadora is an apt conclusion to a powerful and timely duology. Readers can only hope Garber will return to Manu’s world and the other Septimus stories waiting to be told.

Possible Pairings: Labryinth Lost by Zoraida Cordova, Don’t Ask Me Where I’m From by Jennifer De Leon, Somewhere Between Bitter and Sweet by Laeken Zea Kemp, Sanctuary by Paola Mendoza, Shadowshaper by Daniel Jose Older, The Witch Boy by Molly Knox Ostertag, Infinity Son by Adam Silvera, Sia Martinez and the Moonlit Beginning of Everything by Rachel Gilliland Vasquez

Be sure to check out my interview with Romina Garber on the blog.

Lobizona: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Lobizona by Romina GarberManuela “Manu” Azul has always been told that her father is part of an infamous criminal family in Argentina. She has always been told her strange eyes with their star-shaped pupils, could be fixed with a special surgery. She has always been told that hiding is the only way to stay safe.

None of these things are true.

Manu’s small world as an undocumented immigrant is blown apart when her mother is detained by ICE. After years of dodging raids and hiding with her mother in Miami, Manu doesn’t know what would be worse: leaving her mother in ICE detention or being caught herself.

Plagued by debilitating menstrual pains unless she takes medication provided by her mother and terrified that she’ll be separated from her mother forever, Manu knows she has to do something. But she isn’t sure how one girl can stand strong with so many obstacles in her way.

Manu’s quest to find her mother leads to surprising truths about her father, her strange eyes, and Manu’s powerful connection to a world she thought only existed in Argentine folklore in Lobizona (2020) by Romina Garber.

Find it on Bookshop.

Lobizona is the first book in Garber’s Wolves of No World series. She has also published the Zodiac series under the name Romina Russell. All characters are Latinx or Argentine with a range of skintones and other identities that are further explored throughout the series.

Garber expertly blends Argentine folklore surrounding witches, werewolves, and the powerful magic of so-called “Septimus” the seventh children of seventh children into a nuanced and enchanting urban fantasy. Complex magic and highly evocative settings draw readers immediately into a story where magical powers are no guarantee of belonging and secrets have power.

As Manu struggles to find a world willing to make space for her, Lobizona offers a scathing commentary on our own world where children are left in cages and the government can callously decide who does and does not belong or qualify as “legal”. Manu thoughtfully interrogates these concepts as she learns more about the world of the Septimos and her own tenuous place in it.

Lobizona is the action-packed start to a sophisticated, high concept series for genre and literary fans alike. Come for the timely look at current events, stay for the inventive folklore inspired fantasy.

Possible Pairings: Labryinth Lost by Zoraida Cordova, Don’t Ask Me Where I’m From by Jennifer De Leon, Somewhere Between Bitter and Sweet by Laeken Zea Kemp, Sanctuary by Paola Mendoza, Shadowshaper by Daniel Jose Older, The Witch Boy by Molly Knox Ostertag, Infinity Son by Adam Silvera, Sia Martinez and the Moonlit Beginning of Everything by Rachel Gilliland Vasquez

Be sure to check out my interview with Romina Garber on the blog.

ParaNorthern: And the Chaos Bunny A-hop-calpse: A Graphic Novel Review

ParaNorthern: and the Chaos Bunny A-hop-calypse by Stephanie Cooke and Mari CostaFall break for Abby means helping out at her mom’s coffee shop and babysitting her little sister, Ella. Hopefully in between all that Abby will get to hang out with her friends Hannah (a ghost who immigrated from a spectral dimension), Gita (a wolf-girl), and Silas (a pumpkinhead doing his best to spread awareness and encourage a gourd-free autumn for all). If she’s really lucky Abby will also get to practice some of her spellwork and potions–if she gets goods enough maybe her mom will add some of Abby’s potions to the menu.

When Ella is bullied by speed demons, Abby obviously has to help. But something goes wrong with her magic. Instead of diverting the bullies Abbby opens a portal to another realm. A realm filled with chaos bunnies.

The bunnies are super cute when they’re on their side of the portal. When they start hopping through North Haven they’re decidedly less cute and markedly more chaotic.

With the bunnies leaving a trail of, well, chaos in their wake Abby will have to get help from her friends to fix her magic and stop this a-hop-ocalypse in its tracks in ParaNorthern: And the Chaos Bunny A-hop-calpse (2021) by Stephanie Cooke, illustrated by Mari Costa.

Find it on Bookshop.

ParaNorthern: And the Chaos Bunny A-hop-calpse is a fun middle grade graphic novel that introduces readers to Abby, her friends, and the magical town of North Haven. Abby and her family are Black. Hannah is brown skinned and wears a hijab. Cooke and Costa have worked together to create a town that is presented as both inclusive and magical with background characters as well. This creates a lot of front-loading in terms of world building but it also makes North Haven a town readers will want to return to again and again.

Cooke drops readers into the middle of the story without a lot of explanation about North Haven’s clearly magical underpinnings or Abby’s abilities as a witch. As it turns out, that’s something Abby is still figuring out herself which becomes a big part of the book’s plot. Costa uses an orange-hued palette for scenes in North Haven while more magical panels on other planes are more purple. Snappy dialog between Abby’s friend group demonstrates support and gives space to a developing romance between Abby and Gita. Costa’s illustrations make bloodthirsty chaos bunnies cuter than they have any right to be while also admirably portraying motion and action including an expertly drawn double page spread of the rabbits runnning rampant through the coffee shop.

The fast clip of the story can feel rushed but remains enjoyable. Themes of support and love from both friends and family add heart to this magical adventure.

Possible Pairings: Moonstruck by Grace Ellis, Shae Beagle, Kate Leth; Fake Blood by Whitney Gardner; Snapdragon by Kat Leyh; Garlic and the Vampire by Bree Paulsen; Pumpkinheads by Rainbow Rowell and Faith Erin Hicks; Camp Midnight by Steven T. Seagle; The Okay Witch by Emma Steinkellner; Mooncakes by Suzanne Walker and Wendy Xu

*An advance copy of this title was provided by the publisher for review consideration*

The Nature of Witches: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

The Nature of Witches by Rachel GriffinWitches maintain the weather and climate in every season. But as the weather becomes more erratic, the climate more damaged by shaders (those without magic) who take the witchs’ help for granted, it’s becoming harder for the witches to keep nature in balance. More witches are dying of depletion than ever before as they push their seasonal powers beyond their limits to try and help.

Clara could change that. As the first Everwitch born in a hundred years, she is stronger than any other witch alive. With her magic tied to every season, she should be positioned to help with out-of-season storms and other unpredictable weather phenomenon.

The problem no one is willing to acknowledge is that Clara’s magic is as dangerous as it is strong.

In Autumn, Clara is ready to do anything to deny her power. Her magic has already cost Clara her parents and her best friend. She isn’t prepared to lose anyone else.

In Winter, it’s harder to ignore how dangerous things are becoming for witches and shaders alike. Even Clara has to accept that she needs to help–no matter the risks.

In Spring, Clara falls for Sang, the spring witch helping her learn to control her powers. As Clara becomes more comfortable with her magic, falling for Sang feels inevitable even if it means making him a target for her magic. Clara already severed ties with her ex-girlfriend to protect her. She isn’t sure she can do that to Sang.

In Summer, Clare will have to decide once and for all if she can balance her happiness and her magic–and how much she’s willing to give up for either in The Nature of Witches (2021) by Rachel Griffin.

Find it on Bookshop.

The Nature of Witches is Griffin’s debut novel. Clara is white, Sang is Korean American, and there is diversity among the supporting cast.

This novel is strongly tied to the seasons which are on full display at the Eastern School of Solar Magic in Pennsylvania where most of the story takes place. The novel is set over the course of one year with parts broken up by the seasons which trace both the changing weather and subtle changes in Clara’s personality and moods as different seasons gain dominance.

Clara’s efforts to find control and ground her magic read as an extended (and for many readers, much needed) metaphor for mindfulness and acceptance. While some narrative threads–including Clara’s reluctant status as a rare Everwitch–will feel familiar to genre readers, Clara’s path to internal acceptance will be affirming and welcome for readers living in a world that often feels as out of control as Clara’s own. The weighty beginning as Clara moves through grief for her parents and other casualties from her magic also lightens throughout the narrative as Clara fully processes her losses. The slow burn between Clara and Sang as well as Clara’s complicated history with her ex-girlfriend add another dimension to this story and cue Clara as canonically bisexual.

Griffin’s lush writing is evocative and well-informed. Griffin became a certified weather spotter for the National Weather Service while writing this novel. A magic system that is cleverly integrated into our modern world underscores the current climate crisis and need for change while offering readers a decidedly escapist story. The Nature of Witches is the perfect choice for readers looking for a magic-infused story with high stakes, characters with chemistry, and lush writing. Recommended.

Possible Pairings: The Wicked Deep by Shea Earnshaw, Strange Grace by Tessa Gratton, Practical Magic by Alice Hoffman, The Bone Houses by Emily Lloyd-Jones, There Will Come a Darkness by Katy Rose Pool, Sweet and Bitter Magic by Adrienne Tooley, The New Policeman by Kate Thompson, Twister

A Dark and Starless Forest: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

A Dark and Starless Forest by Sarah HollowellDerry has been living in a secluded house in the woods with her siblings and their protector, Frank, for years. They don’t have luxuries like cosmetics or snack foods or even new books and DVDs. They’re not spoiled at all. But they’re taken care of. They’re safe.

Which Frank has told them is much more important in a world that fears their magic. It’s the same reason he calls them alchemists instead of that more dangerous word: witches.

White, fat, sixteen-year-old Derry and her siblings dislike Frank and fear him even as Frank reminds them that he took them in when no one–not even their parents–wanted them. Derry and her siblings–eldest Jane (who is Black); Winnie (who is fat and white); Brooke (fat, Deaf, Mexican-American); white twins Elle and Irene (Irene is trans); nonbinary, Mexican-American Violet; and the youngest identical Black twins Olivia and London–have fierce bonds between them. Which makes it so much worse when first Jane and then Winnie disappear.

Frank says the girls must have died in the dense forest surrounding their home. But as Derry explores the forest she wonders if the disappearances might be tied to Frank himself.

As she learns more about Frank and her own magical affinity for growing both real and imagined plants Derry will have to decide how far she is willing to go to keep her loved ones safe in A Dark and Starless Forest (2021) by Sarah Hollowell.

Find it on Bookshop.

Despite each sibling having distinct magical abilities, this element of the story is largely set dressing for the novel’s plot which is a blend of horror and suspense sprinkled with hints about a dark moment in Derry’s past that makes her reluctant to re-enter the forest in her search for Jane (and later Winnie). The novel is also notable for its focus on the bond between Derry and her siblings with a total absence of romance subplots.

Derry’s first-person narration amplifies the siblings’ isolation with a palpable fear of Frank and his punishments, including the dreaded time out room whose horrors are honed to each sibling’s worst nightmares (blaring lights and erratic, staticky noise for Derry). The restricted narrative works to amp up the tension but leaves many questions about how the siblings’ magic works and, more importantly, the implications of said magic in the outside world.

Hollowell is at pains to create an inclusive cast with some elements (Violet being nonbinary, Irene’s trans identity, everyone’s use of ASL–designated by single quotes around signed dialog–to communicate with Brooke) integrated into the narrative better than others. Derry’s quest to find her missing siblings and save all of them from Frank drives the story but leaves little room for character development of the other siblings who are often absent from the action and remain little more than names and attributes.

Derry’s moral ambiguity is unresolved by the end of the novel as she embraces darker choices to save her siblings heedless of the consequences. Questions about world building and what will come next for all of the siblings are also up in the air. A Dark and Starless Forest is a dark, inclusive blend of horror and extremely light fantasy. Ideal for readers looking for a slightly supernatural tale of suspense.

Possible Pairings: Unspoken by Sarah Rees Brennan, The Bone Witch by Rin Chupeco, The Scapegracers by Hannah Abigail Clarke, Half Bad by Sally Green, The Devouring Gray by Christine Lynn Herman, Strange Grace by Tessa Gratton, Sawkill Girls by Claire Legrand, All Our Hidden Gifts by Caroline O’Donoghue, Wilder Girls by Rory Power, The Price Guide to the Occult by Leslye Walton, Ghost Wood Song by Erica Waters

*A more condensed version of this review appeared as a review in an issue of School Library Journal*

Ever Cursed: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Ever Cursed by Corey Ann HayduEveryone loves a lost girl, no one more so than the kingdom of Ever. The kingdom still mourns the Princess Who Was Lost decades ago, still demands justice for her.

Ever is slower to save the princess who still have a chance of being rescued.

Five years ago, a young witch named Reagan cursed all of Ever’s princesses with the Spell of Without. Jane has not been able to eat anything since that day. Her sister’s curses all began on their thirteenth birthdays. Nora can’t love, Alice cannot sleep, Grace can’t remember and soon, on her birthday, Eden will be without hope.

Ever is as it always was with the royals on their side of the mote and their subjects at a safe distance, their queen trapped in a glass box, and their princesses suffering. When Reagan forces the girls out of the castle for their one chance to break the Spell of Without, Jane begins to wonder if the way things are is really the way things have to be–for either the princesses or their subjects.

A princess without a curse on her is an ordinary girl. And no one cares about an ordinary girl. A witch without her spells is just a girl alone in the woods. And no one wants to be a girl alone in the woods. But as Jane and Reagan come closer to unraveling the spell before it becomes True, both girls will realize there is much more to Ever, its secrets, and themselves than either of them realized in Ever Cursed (2020) by Corey Ann Haydu.

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Ever Cursed is a standalone fantasy. Despite the relatively short length, there’s a lot to unpack with this one particularly in the context of the political climate (post 2016 US election) that may have helped to inspire it. Alternating chapters focus on Jane and Reagan’s first person narrations. It’s not a spoiler to say that something is rotten in Ever and Haydu, throughout the story, confronts the deep-seated misogyny and rape culture in the kingdom including discussions of sexual assault and a scene of attempted assault.

Jane’s narration is, appropriately, very focused on her mortality. The Spell of Without has carved her down to nothing and, should the spell become True, will have fatal consequences for herself and for Alice who is physically incapable of sleep. Readers with a history of disordered eating should pick this one up with caution and read the content warning Haydu includes at the beginning of the book before proceeding.

Ever Cursed is an interesting examination of what it means to be an ally and to be complicit. Both Jane and Reagan have to unpack the privilege they’ve had in being able to look away from the day-to-day problems in Ever while focusing on their own (more personally pressing) problems of being royals and witches. Jane in particular unpacks what it means to benefit from years of her family being in power and abusing that power even when she herself is not complicit.

These conversations about privilege are important ones to have while dismantling white supremacy and male privilege however combining them with a fantasy setting where the consequences are very real instead of allegorical doesn’t always lead to ideal handling of the material. Because of how the Spell of Without works, the idea of complicit privilege distills to children being punished in a very literal way for their father’s transgressions. That another young girl (Reagan) is the one meting out this punishment in order to see the king suffer in retaliation for her own mother’s pain adds even more complexity to this conversation and exposes the deeply internalized misogyny at Ever’s center.

As a feminist allegory disguised as a fairy tale, Ever Cursed is very successful. As a feminist fairy tale it is less so. The world building is thinly sketched and sometimes haphazard with fantastic imagery (witches wearing cumbersome skirts for ever spell they cast so that they always carry the consequences) that doesn’t hold up to any internal logic.

Ever Cursed has the bones of a truly sensational story that ultimately would have benefited from a bit more length to give proper space to both the world building and its characters; a fascinating if sometimes underdeveloped picture. Recommended for readers with an equal interest in feminism (or feminist theory) and fairy tales.

Possible Pairings: Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi, Damsel by Elana K. Arnold, Girl, Serpent, Thorn by Melissa Bashardoust, Pet by Akwaeke Emezi, Raybearer by Jordan Ifueko, The Midnight Lie by Marie Rutkoski