The Scapegracers: A (WIRoB) Review

This piece originally appeared in the Washington Independent Review of Books:

The Scapegracers by Hannah Abigail ClarkeThe “township of Sycamore Gorge doesn’t fuck around where Halloween is concerned” which is why October is the one time of year where Eloise “Sideways” Pike earns a modicum of respect and attention from classmates who would otherwise ignore her as the resident lesbian witch whose dads run the local antique shop.

After years of “skulking near the bottom, lurking behind the bleachers, doing magic tricks for bottles of Coke,” Sideways is suddenly and irrevocably catapulted to the top of the West High social pyramid when Jing Gao, Lila Yates, and Daisy Brink pay Sideways forty dollars to add some real magic to the start of “scare-party season.”

Sideways is almost as surprised as Jing and Yates and Daisy when the magic works. As she puts it: “Even following my spell book by the letter, the most I could do was burn paper, unbreak dishes, make scrapes and cuts scab faster. What the four of us could do was something else. I felt seasick and disgustingly in love with it, with them.”

Party magic soon leads to dead deer in a drained pool, an unknown party guest nearly assaulting Yates, devils, and trouble as the girls start to learn more about the magic they all share and what it means for their fledgling friendship in The Scapegracers (2020) by Hannah Abigail Clarke.

Find it on Bookshop.

Sideways’s first person narration is descriptively lyrical observing the pale “bruise-lavender blue” air even as she remains extremely grounded when it comes to her own loneliness and lack of social skills. Sideways sees herself better suited to “skulking under bridges” than befriending the most popular clique in school, let alone flirting with Madeline–the stranger recruited as a fifth for their coven. Despite meddling efforts from her new friends, the course of love, much like magic, does not run smooth for Sideways.

Clarke cleverly dismantles classic popular girl tropes as Sideways and readers learn more about the triumvirate who quickly adopt Sideways into their ranks with surprising loyalty and affection. Sideways, Daisy, and Madeline are described as white, Yates is Black, and Jing is Asian—presumably Chinese. The characters are also diverse in terms of sexuality with lesbian Sideways and bisexual Jing among others.

Clarke’s debut is the start of a trilogy filled with magic, lilting prose, snappy dialog, and witches embracing their own power. Feminist themes and strong character bonds make this book an ideal companion to Kim Liggett’s The Grace Year, Hannah Capin’s Foul is Fair, and Leslye Walton’s Price Guide to the Occult. The Scapegracers is an excellent addition to the recent crop of novels highlighting sisterhood (especially unlikely ones) fueled by both feminist rage and solidarity.

Possible Pairings: Foul is Fair by Hannah Capin, Spellbook of the Lost and Found by Moïra Fowley-Doyle, Burn for Burn by Jenny Han and Siobhan Vivian, The Female of the Species by Mindy McGinnis, Wilder Girls by Rory Power, The Mockingbirds by Daisy Whitney, Girls With Sharp Sticks by Suzanne Young

The Once and Future Witches: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“We may be either beloved or burned, but never trusted with any degree of power.”

The Once and Future Witches by Alix E. HarrowThere’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; in the stories of the Maiden, the Mother, and the Crone–the Last Three–as they struggled to preserve the final vestiges of their power. You can see them, the ones who came before and burned before, in the second name ever mother gives every daughter, and in the special words shared only in whispered songs and stories.

Once upon a time in this world, on the spring equinox of 1893, there are three sisters. James Juniper Eastwood is the youngest. She is wild, she is canny, she is feral. She is running away or running toward. She is lost.

Agnes Amaranth is the middle sister–the one the witch-tales say isn’t destined for adventure. She is the strongest of the three, the steadiest. She is the one who is supposed to take care of her sisters until she has to choose between them and surviving–until she becomes weak.

Beatrice Belladonna is the eldest; the wisest. She is the quiet one, the listening one who loves books almost as much as her sisters. Until seven years away break her down. Until she recognizes herself as a fool.

Maybe these three sisters are the start of the story. Maybe they’re the start of something bigger. In the beginning, there’s still no such thing as witches. But there will be in The Once and Future Witches by Alix E. Harrow.

Find it on Bookshop.

A prologue and epilogue from Juniper frame what is otherwise an omniscient third person narration shifting between the three sisters as, against all odds, they cross paths for the first time in seven years at a women’s suffrage rally in St. George Square in New Salem.

The Once and Future Witches is thick with betrayals and misunderstandings as Juniper still harbors anger and resentment at being left behind while both Agnes and Bella struggle with their own reasons for leaving the others behind. Themes of both sisterhood and feminism weave this story together as the Eastwood girls try to tap into magic long thought lost and reclaim everything that has been stolen from them and so many other women.

At more than five hundred pages, this is an unwieldy book. All of the sisters have their own secret stories and hurts which Harrow explores alongside the grander narrative of discovering how witching was eradicated and how it might be reclaimed. The characters are careful to acknowledge white privilege as the mainstream suffrage movement excludes women of color and the world also hints at indigenous witches in Mississippi and out west. However, given the scope of the story, Harrow’s efforts at inclusion often feel like faint hints in this alternate history rather than concrete changes.

The Once and Future Witches is a complex alternate history wrapped in folklore, fairy tales, and a plaintive rallying cry for equality centering three sisters as they find their way back to the sisterhood and the magic they had thought long lost to them.

Possible Pairings: Spellbook For the Lost and Found by Moïra Fowley-Doyle, The Careful Undressing of Love by Corey Ann Haydu, Practical Magic by Alice Hoffman, The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane by Katherine Howe, The Witch Doesn’t Burn in This One by Amanda Lovelace, The Midnight Lie by Marie Rutkoski

The Midwinter Witch: A Chick Lit Wednesday (Graphic Novel) Review

Aster looks forward to the Midwinter Festival every year. The festival is a yearly gathering of the entire Vanissen family and filled with competitions in the annual Jolrun tournament for both shapeshifting and witchery.

After earning his hard-won right to study witchery with the Vanissen girls, Aster is eager to compete and prove his skill as a witch.

But challenging generations of tradition isn’t easy. Especially when Aster’s new friend and fellow witch Ariel is still trying to prove to herself and the Vanissen family that she belongs. As competition between them grows and outside forces threaten the festival, Aster and Ariel will have to put aside their differences and remember the things that brought them together to stop dark magic from tearing them apart in The Midwinter Witch (2019) by Molly Knox Ostertag.

The Midwinter Witch is the conclusion of Ostertag’s Witch Boy trilogy which begins with The Witch Boy and The Hidden Witch.

The Midwinter Witch is the most character driven installment in this series as readers see more of Aster and Ariel working to come into their powers while Sedge joins Charlie at her human school.

High action competitions contrast well with in-depth conversations as both Aster and Ariel try to figure out how best to make space for themselves as witches in a family that often feels foreign to them. Ostertag’s full color illustrations are vibrant and bring this magical world to life.

The Midwinter Witch is a satisfying conclusion to a thoughtful and exciting graphic novel series. A must read for fans of previous installments.

Possible Pairings: The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman, The Nameless City by Faith Erin Hicks, Frogkisser! by Garth Nix, The Tea Dragon Festival by Katie O’Neill, The Okay Witch by Emma Steinkellner, Nevermoor: The Trials of Morrigan Crow by Jessica Townsend, Mooncakes by Suzanne Walker and Wendy Xu, The Prince and the Dressmaker by Jen Wang

The Okay Witch: A Graphic Novel Review

Moth Hush has never felt like she fits in among the other kids in Founder’s Bluff. On her thirteenth birthday she finds out that might not be entirely her fault.

It turns out Moth comes from a long line of witches.

Moth thinks that having magic powers will make things easier, or at least make her cooler. But even with support from her new friend Charlie and her old friend Mr. Lazlo (now a cat and sort of Moth’s familiar), making sense of her new powers isn’t easy.

Moth will have to confront old secrets and her hometown’s legacy before she can truly embrace her powers or her family’s past in The Okay Witch (2019) by Emma Steinkellner.

Find it on Bookshop.

The Okay Witch is Steinkellner’s graphic novel debut.

Steinkellner blends witchcraft and magic with a classic story of friendship, family and all of the complications therein. Full color illustrations with expressive characters and detailed backdrops bring Moth’s world and Founder’s Bluff to life. A careful use of color also accentuates the different light in scenes as the story shifts between day and night and, later, between Moth’s present and flashbacks about her family.

The Okay Witch is a funny, sweet graphic novel perfect for the autumn season. Highly recommended for anyone who’s ever felt like a misfit and witchy types everywhere. Guaranteed to be a new favorite.

Possible Pairings: Little Witches by Leigh Dragoon; Rapunzel’s Revenge by Shannon Hale, Nathan Hale, Dean Hale; The Nameless City by Faith Erin Hicks, All’s Faire in Middle School by Victoria Jamieson; The Power of Poppy Pendle by Natasha Lowe; The Witch Boy by Molly Knox Ostertag; Audrey’s Magic Nine  by Michelle Wright, illustrated by Courtney Huddleston and Tracy Bailey; Kiki’s Delivery Service

Be sure to also check out my interview with Emma!

*An advance copy of this title was provided by the publisher for review consideration at BookExpo 2019*

Mooncakes: A Graphic Novel Review

Working at her grandmothers’ bookshop, Nova Huang is used to helping them investigate strange occurrences in their small New England town–it comes with the territory when you’re a witch-in-training.

Following reports of a strange white wolf in the woods leads Nova to an entirely unexpected reunion when she finds Tam Lang–her childhood friend and longtime crush. As a werewolf Tam has been wandering from town to town trying to find a place to land and, more importantly, trying to hunt down a strange horse demon with connections to their own troubled past.

Together Nova and Tam are determined to get to the bottom of the dark forces plaguing town as they try to find their way back to each other in Mooncakes (2019) by Suzanne Walker, illustrated by Wendy Xu.

Mooncakes is a full color, standalone graphic novel.

Xu’s artwork is brightly colored and filled with evocative depictions of Nova’s cozy bookshop, ethereal magic, and minute details reminiscent of the care and attention found in Miyazaki films.

Like Xu, Walker imbues this story with obvious affection for these characters and their world as well as deliberate attention to create a world that is as inclusive as it is authentic from Nova’s use of hearing aids to Tam’s request that Nova’s grandmothers refer to them with they/them pronouns.

With a sprawling plot that spans Nova and Tam’s backstory and hints at what their futures might hold Mooncakes is a delectable fantasy graphic novel that is equal parts spooky and sweet. Sure to be a satisfying read at any time of the year but especially when you’re ready to curl up under a blanket and enjoy the leaves turning.

Possible Pairings: Etiquette and Espionage by Gail Carriger; Labyrinth Lost by Zoraida Cordova; Moonstruck by Grace Ellis, Shae Beagle, Kate Leth, Kim Reaper by Sarah Graley; Friends With Boys by Faith Erin Hicks; The Witch Boy by Molly Knox Ostertag; Space Battle Lunchtime by Natalie Riess; Pumpkinheads by Rainbow Rowell and Faith Erin Hicks; The Prince and the Dressmaker by Jen Wang; Princess Decomposia and Count Spatula by Andi Watson

*An advance copy of this title was provided for review consideration by the publisher at BookExpo 2019*

Witchlanders: A Review

cover art for Witchlanders by Lena CoakleyMagic is a powerful thing in the Witchlands. The magic and the lands themselves are protected by witches who are mysterious and dangerous, creatures with little time for villages like Ryder’s.

That is if the witches are even real, which Ryder still doubts. After all, he has seen no evidence of them save the relics from her mother’s time as a witch and her addiction to the flowers that she insists will call the witches to her.

When the witches do finally show up to answer his mother’s call Ryder is forced to reconsider everything he thought he believed about the witches, the Witchlands, and his own role in the prophecies his mother has been seeing in Witchlanders (2011) by Lena Coakley.

Witchlanders is classic high fantasy with a unique magic system and detailed world building. It’s also an excellent standalone in a genre that is often over-saturated with trilogies or longer series.

The story follows two boys on opposite sides of a years-long war as they try to understand their growing magic and the bond that seems to be drawing them inexorably together. Chapters alternate between their points of view as they are drawn across the Witchlands to confronting shocking revelations about their pasts, their futures, and their own connections.

While Coakley’s world is fascinating, her characters often suffer in comparison with a lack of dimension. Witchlanders is decidedly free of romance but remains a solid testament to the power of friendship as its own kind of magic.

Possible Pairings: Sorrow’s Knot by Erin Bow, The Demon King by Cinda Williams Chima, The Last Namsara by Kristen Ciccarelli, Truthwitch by Susan Dennard, Black Wings Beating by Alex London, The Floating Islands by Rachel Neumeier

The Hidden Witch: A Graphic Novel Chick Lit Wednesday Review

cover art for The Hidden Witch by Molly Knox OstertagAster’s family is still adjusting to his affinity for witchery–something totally unexpected in a family where boys usually become shapeshifters. Not everyone is thrilled with Aster’s witchcraft but his grandmother is more than happy to teach Aster so long as he in turn helps her try to rehabilitate his great-uncle whose own attempts to avoid shifting led to corrupted magic and all manner of havoc.

Off the compound Charlie, Aster’s non-magical best friend, is starting school and eager to make new friends–especially the mysterious new girl who keeps to herself. That turns out to be extra complicated when a curse tries to attach itself to Charlie.

Aster is able to remove the curse. But he can’t stop it without finding the witch who created it. Aster and Charlie (and even Aster’s cousin Sedge) will have to work together to find the witch before their magic ends up just as corrupted as Charlie’s great uncle’s did years ago in The Hidden Witch (2018) by Molly Knox Ostertag.

The Hidden Witch is the second book in Ostertag’s middle grade graphic novel series which starts with The Witch Boy.

I love the smooth edges and bright colors of Ostertag’s artwork. The panels are once again dynamic and full of fun details. This story spans both day and night with fun design elements like white or black gutters between panels to differentiate.

Ostertag effectively smashes the strict magical binaries of Aster’s family as Aster continues to study witchcraft and one of his male cousins contemplates attending a normal school instead of studying (and shifting) on the family compound.

The primary focus of this story is Aster and Charlie’s friendships both with each other as well as with other. The Hidden Witch is another fun installment that expands the world and fleshes out the magic systems first introduced in The Witch Boy.

Possible Pairings: The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman, The Nameless City by Faith Erin Hicks, Frogkisser! by Garth Nix, The Tea Dragon Festival by Katie O’Neill, The Okay Witch by Emma Steinkellner, Nevermoor: The Trials of Morrigan Crow by Jessica Townsend, Mooncakes by Suzanne Walker and Wendy Xu, The Prince and the Dressmaker by Jen Wang

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

The Witch Boy: A Graphic Novel Review

cover art for The Witch Boy by Molly Knox OstertagThirteen-year-old Aster leads a secluded life on the compound he and his extended family call home. The family has everything they need and is far away from prying eyes which is important since Aster’s family is magic. For generations this magic has been simple: girls become witches while boys become shapeshifters.

Aster desperately wants to be a witch despite his family telling him again and again (and again) that it’s impossible for a boy to learn witchery. Aster doesn’t care and keeps studying and practicing in secret.

When Aster meets Charlie–a new girl in town who refuses to let anyone else define her–Aster knows he has to keep following his dreams in The Witch Boy (2017) by Molly Knox Ostertag.

The Witch Boy is the start of Ostertag’s middle grade graphic novel series which continues in The Hidden Witch.

Ostertag’s full color illustrations are approachable and vivid. Panels are full of motion and varied design (complete with witchery runes!) that draw readers through the comic. Entertaining characters and strong friendships more than make up for an otherwise slight (and sometimes not subtle) plot.

The Witch Boy is a great graphic novel for readers of all ages with a message of inclusion that is much needed and very welcome.

Possible Pairings: The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman, The Nameless City by Faith Erin Hicks, Frogkisser! by Garth Nix, The Tea Dragon Festival by Katie O’Neill, The Okay Witch by Emma Steinkellner, Nevermoor: The Trials of Morrigan Crow by Jessica Townsend, Mooncakes by Suzanne Walker and Wendy Xu, The Prince and the Dressmaker by Jen Wang

The Wicked Deep: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

cover art for The Wicked Deep by Shea EarnshawTwo 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.

Every Swan Season is the same, ending only when each sister has claimed a new victim.

Penny can see what others can’t including long buried secrets about the sisters and the Swan Season. But she knows that secret can only go so far against a curse. She is used to watching the Swan Season unfold with wary detachment, certain that this one will be  like all the others ending with death, suspicion, and grief.

Except this year there is a new outsider in town—a boy named Bo who refuses to believe the Swan sisters can pose any real danger to anyone, especially him. A boy that Penny is determined to protect. As the Swan Season unfolds Penny and Bo will work together to unravel the truth of the curse and the sisters. But as the Swan Season nears its end Penny realizes that the only way to save Bo might be by sacrificing herself in The Wicked Deep (2018) by Shea Earnshaw.

The Wicked Deep is Earnshaw’s debut novel.

The Wicked Deep is a tense bit of fantasy woven through with suspense as the novel builds toward the disastrous conclusion of the Swan Season. Penny’s first person narration is frank and often cynical with lyrical prose as she slowly searches for a way to break the curse and save Bo.

This story is filled with twists and surprises about both Penny and Bo. Unfortunately the story also flags in the second act as Penny and Bo repeatedly discuss what ending the curse might entail and how far they are willing to go if it means freeing the island from the sisters’ menace forever.

The Wicked Deep is an atmospheric story filled with witches, secrets, and a scorching romance with far-reaching consequences. Recommended for readers looking for a spooky book to read curled up by a fire and fans of Practical Magic especially.

Possible Pairings: The Leaf Reader by Emily Arsenault, Spellbook of the Lost and Found by Moïra Fowley-Doyle, Strange Grace by Tessa Gratton, Practical Magic by Alice Hoffman, Salt and Storm by Kendall Kulper, Born Wicked by Jessica Spotswood, The Price Guide to the Occult by Leslye Walton

Witch Born: A Review

cover art for Witch Born by Nicolas BowlingEngland, 1577: Alyce can’t trust anyone after her mother is burned at the stake for practicing witchcraft. With only the barest instructions and a mommet doll to guide her, Alyce heads to London. She hopes it will be easy to follow her mother’s instructions to find the hangman.

Along the way Alyce has to dodge dangerous witch hunters and learn how to trust new friends and allies. But Alyce isn’t the only one in London with a mission. Queen Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots are both searching intently for Alyce. Both queens want to use her, but only one of them for good in Witch Born (2018) by Nicholas Bowling.

Witch Born is a thoroughly researched historical fantasy. Bowling brings the squalor and wonder of the sixteenth century to life along with the near-constant terror of witchcraft. Genuinely frightening witch hunters and evocative settings make this slim novel a page turner.

Because of Alyce’s young age, this novel is also ideal for readers of all ages. Alyce is a winsome heroine sure to endear herself to readers in this gripping debut. Recommended for readers of both fantasy and historical fiction.

Possible Pairings: We Rule the Night by Claire Eliza Bartlett, Tumble and Blue by Cassie Beasley, Serpent & Dove by Shelby Mahurin, Savvy by Ingrid Law, Born Wicked by Jessica Spotswood

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