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What I Read: May 2023

May is not quite done, but I’m off to France tomorrow, with lots of reading time ahead of me. In true meta fashion, I will be reading books set in France, about France, or by French authors. When I return in mid-June, the rest of the month will be devoted to that month’s theme. But for now, here’s what I read this May. Theme: witches.

The Sadness of Witches by Janice Elliot
Martha Price is the witch in this Cornwall-set novel. This is a location I often find myself in, thanks to Daphne du Maurier, who set many of her novels there. A strong evocation of place is key in bringing Cornwall to life and Elliot does so beautifully. Her characters are finely drawn too, melancholic but without feeling grim and never melodramatic. There are sweet, simple moments woven throughout as well, my favourite being the women gathering on Martha’s porch to enjoy one another’s company, dispelling some of the loss and loneliness they feel. The witchy element, which includes Martha, her sisters, and a few other village girls, is explicitly named yet subtlety handled, revolving primarily on Martha debating whether or not she wants to be one anymore.

“Well, they tell us daily the oceans are poisoned (the earth too) so that if we do not destroy ourselves, nature will turn against us.”

The Once and Future Witches by Alix E. Harrow
Inspired by the Salem witch trials, this story takes place in what is known as New Salem, a puritanical town that has stamped out witchcraft…until Juniper Eastwood sweeps into town and reunites with her sisters to eventually start a suffragist movement-cum-coven that will grant women power and restore witchcraft. A combination of practical and fantastical magic, it’s an action-packed story filled with an excellent cast of characters. Early on, there’s a bit of a “men are trash” vibe which I did not like, but it slowly dissipates to focus on its heroines instead. Published in 2020, it’s also a palpable allegory of the Trump administration, with the mayoral candidate Gideon Hill a clear stand-in for the pumpkin-haired former president. But it’s deftly handled and even attempts to understand his villainy. I’m not sure if this is meant to be young adult (YA) fiction, but I think it would be a great book for younger audiences if it wasn’t for some of the violence, which I found unnecessarily extreme. I liked the idea of spells and charms hidden in fairy tales and rhymes but did not appreciate the gender-flipping of real-life writers and historians, such as making the Brothers Grimm the Sisters Grimm. It was a missed opportunity by the author of seeking out actual female authors and historians and shining a light on their work and achievements instead.

Discover female fairy tale authors here.

Circe by Madeleine Miller
My audiobook listen for the month, I’ve been wanting to read this for a while and this month’s theme gave me the chance. It was also a no-brainer I would pick this, when I saw it was narrated by Perdita Weeks, an actress I’m very fond of. This is a great book, more so for focusing on a lesser-known goddess, who is also a witch. Heavily influenced by Greek mythology, it tells the tale of Circe’s isolation in her father’s (the sun god Helios) house and her eventual banishment to the island of Aiaia where she hones her witchcraft, which focuses on working with herbs. It’s also inspired by The Odyssey, but focuses on the tale from Circe’s perspective. Weeks is an excellent narrator. Her voice is smooth and lyrical, but packed with enough punch to keep you riveted to the tale.

Wildfire at Midnight by Mary Stewart
This was the Shedunnit book club pick for May. There is a pagan tie to the murder that takes place, which kind of made it fit my theme. I’d read Stewart before, having read The Little Broomstick, but this was of course completely different. And very timely in a way, because while King Charles III’s coronation was taking place, I was reading this book set in 1953, the year his mother’s coronation took place. The main character, in fact, escapes the manic hubbub of coronation-ready London for a holiday in Scotland. And Stewart’s description of the Scottish highlands is breathtaking. It could easily be described as too flowery (known as purple prose), but I loved it. And the setting plays such an important role in the murder and its conclusion, that it was necessary to go into the kind of detail she does. The main character, Gianetta Brooke, is a fabulous heroine, and best of all, I had absolutely no idea whom to suspect of the murder.

“It seems to me a denial of the intellectual progress of centuries, for a nation to consider violence as a tool of policy.”

The Nature of Witches by Rachel Griffin
This book is definitely YA fiction and I chose it primarily for its premise: witches combatting climate change. It’s set in a high school…but there are no Harry Potter vibes here. Instead it feels more like Divergent, with the students split into four factions. These factions are based on seasons, from which the witches draw their magic and power. The main character, however, is an Ever witch, which means she has the ability to practice all four kinds of magic. This makes it quite derivative, which would have been fine had the plot not been so thin. What’s more, the stakes, although seemingly high, are never felt.

“The only thing harder than gaining control is giving it up.”

The Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac
There is mention of “mysticism” and “pagan groves” on the back of the book and just before the title page, but The Dharma Bums actually focuses on Zen Buddhism. While it ultimately did not fit my theme, I loved this book and its Zen philosophy, as well as its focus on hiking, the latter of which Wildfire at Midnight has too. I started hiking this year and I don’t know whether I’m noticing it more in books as a result or if, by chance, I happen to be picking up books wherein hiking is a theme – but it’s great fun being able to relate even more to certain stories because of it.

“I wished the whole world was dead serious about food instead of silly rockets and machines and explosives using everybody’s food money to blow their heads off anyway.”

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