Halloween Bingo, 2021: Reading YA

The Once and Future WitchesThe Once and Future Witches by Alix Harrow
Publication Date: October 13, 2020
Pages: 517
Genre: fantasy, YA
Project: halloween bingo

In 1893, there's no such thing as witches. There used to be, in the wild, dark days before the burnings began, but now witching is nothing but tidy charms and nursery rhymes. If the modern woman wants any measure of power, she must find it at the ballot box.

But when the Eastwood sisters--James Juniper, Agnes Amaranth, and Beatrice Belladonna--join the suffragists of New Salem, they begin to pursue the forgotten words and ways that might turn the women's movement into the witch's movement. Stalked by shadows and sickness, hunted by forces who will not suffer a witch to vote-and perhaps not even to live-the sisters will need to delve into the oldest magics, draw new alliances, and heal the bond between them if they want to survive.

There's no such thing as witches. But there will be.

This is the second Alix Harrow book that I’ve read – the first was The Ten Thousand Doors of January. I loved both of them, and couldn’t really pick a favorite. Ten Thousand Doors was a really interesting portal fantasy with a wonderful main character. The Once and Future Witches was also excellent. I love the fact that she seeming writes only standalones, which is somewhat unusual for someone publishing YA.

Sometimes it seems like an author writes books that are written to speak to certain readers. Harrow has nailed two separate books that felt like she could have written them just for me. The Once and Future Witness is a piece of historical fiction, set in 1893, with strong fairy tale analogues, both of which play to specific tropes that I love. It’s also overtly feminist, taking on a culture of misogyny and female oppression.

The Box in the WoodsThe Box in the Woods by Maureen Johnson
Series: Truly Devious #4
Publication Date: June 15, 2021
Pages: 400
Genre: mystery, YA
Project: halloween bingo

The Truly Devious series continues as Stevie Bell investigates her first mystery outside of Ellingham Academy in this spine-chilling and hilarious stand-alone mystery.

Amateur sleuth Stevie Bell needs a good murder. After catching a killer at her high school, she’s back at home for a normal (that means boring) summer.

But then she gets a message from the owner of Sunny Pines, formerly known as Camp Wonder Falls—the site of the notorious unsolved case, the Box in the Woods Murders. Back in 1978, four camp counselors were killed in the woods outside of the town of Barlow Corners, their bodies left in a gruesome display. The new owner offers Stevie an invitation: Come to the camp and help him work on a true crime podcast about the case.

Stevie agrees, as long as she can bring along her friends from Ellingham Academy. Nothing sounds better than a summer spent together, investigating old murders.

But something evil still lurks in Barlow Corners. When Stevie opens the lid on this long-dormant case, she gets much more than she bargained for. The Box in the Woods will make room for more victims. This time, Stevie may not make it out alive.

This is the fourth in Maureen Johnson’s Truly Devious series which features Stevie Bell, teenage sleuth. Stevie spent the first three books of the series solving the mystery of Ellingham Academy, the unsolved kidnapping of the school founder’s wife and daughter from decades earlier. In this one, she has left Ellingham Academy and is spending the summer at home. And, hoo boy, is she bored. When the owner of the Sunny Pines camp contacts her to come to the camp and try to solve the unsolved quadruple murder from the 1970’s, when the camp was named Camp Wonder Falls, she jumps at the chance.

Maureen Johnson is obviously a huge Agatha Christie fan, which shows in the structure of the book.

Detective is summoned by a mysterious wealthy individual to investigate an old unsolved murder? Check. Mysterious individual has suspect motives? Check. There is a quaint village with simmering undercurrents? Check. There is a quirky friend (or two) to act as the investigative foil, a la Hastings? Check. New murders begin happening because the detective is stirring up old trouble? Check. The village is gathered for a reveal of the culprit? Check.

The real question here is: is our quirky heroine, with her anxiety issues and sartorial deficiencies a Marple or a Poirot? The Ellingham Academy mystery felt like Poirot but this one – this one feels like Marple.

The author is obviously having a lot of fun with these books and I am here for it. Well done.

Wildwood WhispersWildwood Whispers by Willa Reece
Publication Date: August 17, 2021
Pages: 390
Genre: fantasy, magical realism, YA
Project: halloween bingo

A heartwarming novel of hope, fate, and folk magic unfolds when a young woman travels to a sleepy southern town in the Appalachian Mountains to bury her best friend.

At the age of eleven, Mel Smith’s life found its purpose when she met Sarah Ross. Ten years later, Sarah’s sudden death threatens to break her. To fulfill a final promise to her best friend, Mel travels to an idyllic small town nestled in the shadows of the Appalachian Mountains. Yet Morgan’s Gap is more than a land of morning mists and deep forest shadows.

There are secrets that call to Mel, in the gaze of the gnarled and knowing woman everyone calls Granny, in a salvaged remedy book filled with the magic of simple mountain traditions, and in the connection, she feels to the Ross homestead and the wilderness around it.

With every taste of sweet honey and tart blackberries, the wildwood twines further into Mel’s broken heart. But a threat lingers in the woods—one that may have something to do with Sarah's untimely death and that has now set its sight on Mel.

The wildwood is whispering. It has secrets to reveal—if you’re willing to listen…

This one didn’t quite live up to what I was hoping for when I read it. It reminded me of Where the Crawdads Sing in a lot of ways – another book that ultimately disappointed me (a lot).

I enjoy magical realism, so I was hoping for something like Alice Hoffman or Sarah Addison Allen. There were some similarities to those two authors, and some really beautiful writing about Morgan’s Gap and the wildwood and the wisewomen who live and do a bit of magic there. The main character’s mouse friend, Charm, I found completely, um, charming. I loved all of the animal magic in the book.

However, I struggled a lot with the heavy-handed villainy of the Sect and the Mayor of Morgan’s Gap. I felt like the author really didn’t know what she was doing in terms of handling the mystery subplot, and, as well, it was utterly preposterous that Reverend Moon would have the kind of power that was implied (view spoiler). It wasn’t his level of evil that was difficult for me to swallow, because history is replete with cult leaders who rape and abuse women, it was the completely in-your-face way of going about it.

The climactic scene of the book which takes place as a final confrontation between “good” wildwood and “bad” cult felt utterly preposterous. The magic really didn’t work for me. I don’t quite know why that was, if it was just that the author threw a bunch of hedge-witchery together without enough undergirding, or what.

It sort of felt like two books (this is why I am comparing it to the Crawdad book). One, a magical realism tale about a community in Appalachia where connection to the natural world brings a sort of a witchery to the women practicing it, I really liked; the second, a poorly done murder mystery, didn’t work for me. I wonder, a bit, if the author felt she had to put the mystery into the book in order to make it commercially viable – if that’s the case, I would encourage her to trust her own voice because the places that I feel like I was hearing from her were great – it was the stuff that felt like tacked on suspense that didn’t really work for me.

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