The Once and Future Witches – Alix E. Harrow

Spoilers Ahead! (in the content warnings)

Once there were three sisters.

The Ten Thousand Doors of January was my favourite read of 2019 and The Once and Future Witches is my favourite read of 2020. I know there are still plenty of pages to fall in love with this year but trust me, friends, this is the one!

The wise one, the strong one and the wild one. There’s a bit of each of us in at least one of the Eastwood sisters; hopefully all three. This is a story of sisters and suffragists. Of fairytales and the power of words. Of survival and sacrifice. Of transforming the story you were given into a better one. Of “witchcraft most wicked”.

The wayward sisters, hand in hand,

Burned and bound, our stolen crown,

But what is lost, that can’t be found?

Sometimes you read a book that feels like it was written with you in mind. Sometimes characters will draw you into their world and you feel like they’re kin or, at the very least, kindred spirits. Sometimes a story speaks to your soul in such a way that when you lift your head after the final page you are certain you grew wings while you were reading. That’s just some of what this book was for me.

I want to ramble about characters, surprises and heartbreaks, love found and battles waged but, consistent with other books that have so deeply worked their magic on me, this review is more personal. Sorry if this isn’t the review you were looking for.

Don’t forget what you are.

As I read I felt my spine straightening. My will strengthened. My courage blazed. My heart opened, warming and knitting itself together, even as it broke. My tears threatened many times before the inevitable ugly cry (it was so ugly!). This was the perfect book for me at the perfect time.

I made a deal with myself weeks before I started reading. I had a really difficult task ahead of me and I wanted this book to be my reward for completing it. Not allowing myself to dive in before I won my battle was its own special brand of torture but knowing the witches were waiting for me spurred me on. Being able to finally immerse myself in the lives of Agnes, Bella and Juniper was worth the wait. And then some.

I now have a task equal, if not greater, to face than the one that preceded it but this book has fortified me and given me the courage I need to shine a light on the next shadow on my path.

Together they dared to dream of a better world, where women weren’t broken and sisters weren’t sundered and rage wasn’t swallowed, over and over again.

I can’t wait until someone I know has read this book so I can get all gushy about the specifics. Until that time, a warning: if you see me out in the wild, prepare yourself. Our interaction is likely to consist of me emphatically telling you to “Read this book!” as I shove it in your face. Protect your nose accordingly.

“Maleficae quondam, maleficaeque futurae.”

Content warnings include “Child abuse, both physical and psychological; parental death; arrest and imprisonment; mind control; pregnancy and childbirth, including forced hospitalization; racism; sexism; homophobia, both external and internalized; threat of sexual assault, averted; torture (mostly off-the-page, but alluded to); execution (attempted); child abandonment; major character death.” The author lists these on Goodreads. I’m adding to these the mention of abortion, on page death of an animal, physical abuse of an animal and sexual harassment.

Thank you so much to NetGalley and Orbit, an imprint of Little, Brown Book Group, for the opportunity to fall in love with this book early.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

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.

Every Sparrow Falling – Shirley-Anne McMillan

Family doesn’t exist, I told myself. Not for people like me, anyway.

Cari has spent her life being bounced from one foster home to the next, never staying in one place long enough for any to feel like family. Now sixteen, her latest placement is with Dawn and Jacky, an elderly couple from Ballybaile, Northern Ireland who are “seasoned God-botherers”.

Three months into this placement Robin Merrow, a boy from Cari’s school, goes missing. The local rumour mill is having a field day, particularly Jessica and “the God squad”.

Cari has been spending time with Jessica and her Youth Fellowship friends at the urging of her foster parents but she’d much rather be hanging out with Stevie B., Brains and Muff, who relieve some of Cari’s boredom with actual fun. Jessica’s friends were mostly interchangeable to me but I really liked Brains.

The people in the town seemed to forget all about Robin’s disappearance after a while and while I did eventually learn a summary of his story, none of its content was really dealt with. While several social themes are touched on in this book, most don’t get a great deal of page time, such as when a character suddenly blurted out something huge about their past.

The blurb is accurate to a point, although the book ended up veering off into an entirely unexpected direction. Had I had any indication that a major plot point would focus on the intersection between homosexuality and Christian faith I may have steered clear.

To be fair, some characters in this book are not judgemental and others are well intentioned but naive. However there are also those who wander into conversion therapy territory. Sadly these conversations are quite realistic; I have heard eerily similar accounts from friends whose churches attempted to ‘heal’ them of homosexuality. With a reasonable amount of this story taking place around church activities I enjoyed Cari’s perspective as an outsider.

I identified with Cari’s feelings about foster care and would have liked to have seen this explored further. Her foster mother, Dawn, is firm but caring and Jacky, her foster father, is essentially a teddy bear. I adored Jacky. Cari fairly consistently doesn’t come home when she’s supposed to and they know she’s not truly sorry when she apologises, yet they still decide they need to trust her more by converting the garage into an apartment for her. This didn’t ring true for me. Having had my own experience with a Christian foster family that were of the ‘do as I say, not as I do’ persuasion, I appreciated Dawn and Jacky’s genuineness, but they did seem too good to be true.

Content warnings include depression, homophobia and mention of sexual assault and bullying.

Thank you so much to NetGalley and Atom, an imprint of Little, Brown Book Group, for the opportunity to read this book.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

‘Be nice to the majority of people and they won’t bother you much. Don’t get too involved. Have a laugh but keep your distance.’

These are the words 16-year-old Cariad lives by. She’s just been placed in yet another foster home, this time with an elderly Christian couple in a small town off the coast of Northern Ireland.

Cariad knows how to play this game. She’ll toe the line just enough that her new foster parents don’t ask what she gets up to when the sun goes down, just enough that they leave her alone. It’s easier that way.

But when a boy at school disappears – presumed dead – and no one seems to care, it really bothers her. Then one night out walking on the clifftops, she sees him and he asks her to keep his secret.

‘Don’t get too involved. Have a laugh but keep your distance.’

These are the words Cariad has lived by … until now.

The Ten Thousand Doors of January – Alix E. Harrow

Perhaps one cannot walk through a door and back out again without changing the world.

This was a book within a book, worlds within a world, dream come true. I was enchanted and mesmerised from the very beginning. My heart is full of hope and possibilities, and my imagination is so happy and fulfilled, yet because you can never have enough magical portals in your life, I’m left yearning for more.

I want to tell you everything about this book but don’t want to ruin it for you so I’ll only tell you this:

January Scaller finds a Door when she’s seven but, because she’s so eager to please, she focuses her attention on becoming the “good girl” she’s expected to be.

I spent the years after the blue Door doing what most willful, temerarious girls must do: becoming less so.

Years later, the memory of that Door resurfaces when she finds a life changing book.

It smelled like adventure itself had been harvested in the wild, distilled to a fine wine, and splashed across each page.

I believed in the worlds behind these Doors without hesitation. Perhaps some of my belief can be explained away by the fact that I’ve casually sought my own door since first reading The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and more fervently since Every Heart a Doorway but it’s really because this book was just that good!

Whenever I read a book that mentions another book I always investigate further. Does that book exist in my world? Do I need to add it to my ever expanding to be read list? If it doesn’t exist in my world, will the author ever write it? I was thrilled that the primary book January reads in this book actually exists and its chapters are included within this book! This is one of my dreams come true! Of course, the book within the book had references to other books, which don’t exist (yet – I checked), but I was so excited to be reading an actual book within a book and it was perfect!

The Ten Thousand Doors of January explores the power of words, the nature of power and the price of freedom. January experiences abandonment and loss, and I ached for her as she longed for acceptance and belonging. I empathised with the feeling of being pressured to conform to others’ expectations of you even when they diminish you and the courage it takes to live beyond your labels, learning to follow your own truth.

January’s Doors take her to places, physically and internally, that compelled me to want to follow in her footsteps. This book took a lot longer than I had planned to read due to illness, but each time I picked it up I was immersed in January’s story again within a paragraph.

I learned of Alix E. Harrow’s brilliance when I read A Witch’s Guide to Escape: A Practical Compendium of Portal Fantasies during my (ongoing) 2019 Hugo Awards readathon. I reviewed it here. My love of this short story resulted in my unceremoniously moving The Ten Thousand Doors of January to the top of my reading queue.

I highlighted so many passages as I read this book; there were so many beautiful sentences I know I’ll need to revisit. January is a bookworm, so a kindred spirit of mine, and often spoke of books and reading in ways that felt like she was reaching into my own soul:

There’s only one way to run away from your own story, and that’s to sneak into someone else’s.

Some of the sentences I highlighted tell you nothing of the story but said plenty to me about the talent of its author. This is someone who can transform the ordinary into something memorable.

His hair clung to his skull in a white scimitar, as if the heat of his working mind had burned it away from the top of his head.

She shrugged again; I began to see them as practical gestures, designed to shed the weight of resentment threatening to settle on her shoulders.

While I greedily want a sequel I mostly hope there isn’t one. This book ends so perfectly that I want the exquisite agony of needing more to linger. I knew there was something special about this author when I read and reread A Witch’s Guide to Escape but after going through the Doors with January I’m certain of it. I don’t care what Alix writes about next; I’ll be reading it no matter what.

Content warnings include racism, xenophobia, assault on beloved dog and actions that could be described as self harm, except the intention is different than what I would consider true self harm behaviour.

Thank you so much to NetGalley and Orbit, an imprint of Little, Brown Book Group (UK), for the opportunity to fall in love with this book early. I want everyone to read it!

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

In the early 1900’s, a young woman embarks on a fantastical journey of self-discovery after finding a mysterious book in this captivating and lyrical debut.

In a sprawling mansion filled with peculiar treasures, January Scaller is a curiosity herself. As the ward of the wealthy Mr. Locke, she feels little different from the artifacts that decorate the halls: carefully maintained, largely ignored, and utterly out of place.

Then she finds a strange book. A book that carries the scent of other worlds, and tells a tale of secret doors, of love, adventure and danger. Each page turn reveals impossible truths about the world and January discovers a story increasingly entwined with her own.

The Undoing of Arlo Knott – Heather Child

When I read the blurb for this book it reminded me of an episode of one of my favourite TV shows growing up, Round the Twist. Paul Jennings was one of my favourite authors and I loved encountering the unexpected in his stories. He wrote the episode, Spaghetti Pig Out, where a main character finds a remote control that can pause, fast forward or rewind anything or anyone it’s aimed at. This coincides with a spaghetti eating competition and the school bully just so happens to find out about the remote before the competition begins. Naturally he decides to use the remote control to attempt to win the competition, with amusing and quite disgusting results. I loved that episode! Anyway, I digress.

I was intrigued by this book’s blurb. Arlo can reverse whatever he just did. Imagine the possibilities. The mistakes you could fix. The pain you could undo. Who hasn’t imagined what they’d do if they had their life to live all over again. If only …

This book begins at Part 6! I loved that! Given Arlo’s ability to reverse actions it was the perfect touch for me; simple but so smart. I also appreciated the simplicity of the chapter headings, guiding me through Arlo’s life by telling me the age he was during the events of each chapter.

I’m currently surrounded by a constellation of ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ reviews so am keenly aware that I’m an outlier where this book’s concerned. I absolutely adored the concept, which reminded me not only of the TV series you’ve probably never heard of but also The Butterfly Effect and Groundhog Day. I even thought I could detect small traces of Final Destination.

The first problem was that I really didn’t like Arlo from the beginning. At all. He was arrogant, self centred, immature and lacked empathy. I don’t generally mind not liking characters and I’m usually fairly enthusiastic about loving to hate certain characters, but when the main character is so obnoxious I find it harder to care what happens to them. Sure, Arlo does grow as a character, some of the things I hated about him aren’t as prominent as his story progresses and some positive attributes emerge, but he never became someone I’d want to have a conversation with.

When he begins using his ability, power, gift, curse, genetic abnormality or whatever else you may want to call it, I found myself fairly consistently pleading with him not to be a cliché and then rolling my eyes as he gambled, womanised or otherwise disappointed me. Thankfully he does eventually find more interesting and varied ways to manipulate people and circumstances but the majority of these manipulations are ego driven.

While I learned the facts of a number of characters’ lives I didn’t connect emotionally with anyone. I was definitely interested in finding out more about several but my interest never extended far enough for me to worry about their future or consider reaching for a tissue if their lives encountered anything resembling tragedy. Given my propensity to ugly cry while reading, I was surprised by my lack of emotion.

I found Arlo’s story too drawn out for my liking and found myself getting bored early on. By the end of Part 6 (remember, this was the first part in this novel) I would have abandoned it if I hadn’t committed to reviewing it and temporarily set it aside to read another book before picking it back up again. Had I not continued I would have missed out on the final part, which I found intriguing but predictable. As I was reading I kept thinking that there was only one possible way for this book to end. Nevertheless, I anticipated and hoped for a blindside, but it didn’t happen.

If you enjoy novels that are more character driven, where you experience the excitement and the mundane throughout the years with a flawed main character, you’ll probably really enjoy this book. I expect it will be a popular book club choice, given the questions of morality, philosophy and psychology that it raises. I’d encourage you to check out some ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ reviews as well before deciding if this book is for you or not.

Content warnings include death by suicide.

Thank you to NetGalley and Orbit, an imprint of Little, Brown Book Group (UK), for the opportunity to read this book.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

What if your life had an ‘undo’ button?

Arlo Knott discovers he can rewind time – just by a minute or two – enough to undo any mistake, say the right thing or impress his friends with his uncanny predictions …

But second chances aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. As wonderful as his new life is, a mistake in Arlo’s traumatic childhood still haunts him and the temptation to undo, undo and keep undoing could be too much to resist. 

The Devil Aspect – Craig Russell

Spoilers Ahead!

‘Maybe it would be best,’ she said at last, ‘if you left the Devil alone in his hiding place.’

This book had so much to love – a serial killer on the loose, a medieval castle with a dark history that’s now an asylum and a psychiatrist delving into the minds of the most notorious murderers in Europe, all steeped in folklore and mythology and set in the lead up to WWII.

I adored the settings, from the creepy castle to the shadowy forests and the bone church. The writing flowed well and it felt like the author had done a lot of research, particularly around Central European myths and legends, which I need to learn more about now that I’ve had a taste. I really enjoyed the blend of psychology and mythology.

Here am I and I here stay, for this is where Evil resides. Here am I and I here stay, for this is where the Devil hides.

The idea of having a front row seat (nestled behind the safety of the pages) when infamous criminally insane people told their stories was a big draw card for me. While I was interested in the backgrounds of each of the Devil’s Six, none of them gave me the chills I experienced when I first met Hannibal Lector so many years ago.

I found myself just getting into one of the Six’s stories and then it would be over; I’d want more but the story moved on. Each of the six could have had an entire book devoted to their story so sitting in on one session with their psychiatrist was never going to be enough for me. I was disappointed when I found some of their stories fairly predictable, especially the Vegetarian’s.

Has obsessing over more than 300 episodes of Criminal Minds finally ruined me? I am notoriously terrible at figuring out who did it and why, yet there’s been a disturbing recent development; I’ve been working out who did it early on and then spending the rest of the book hoping for a blindside that never arrives. It happened again here and I don’t know if it’s because I’ve magically levelled up in my ability to sniff out the clues from the red herrings or if it really was that obvious.

Content warnings include mental health, suicide, references to the death of a child, description of an animal’s slaughter, anti-Semitism, sexual assault, child abuse, murder and torture.

Thank you to NetGalley and Constable, an imprint of Little, Brown Book Group UK, for the opportunity to read this book.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

In 1935, Viktor Kosárek, a psychiatrist newly trained by Carl Jung, arrives at the infamous Hrad Orlu Asylum for the Criminally Insane. The state-of-the-art facility is located in a medieval mountaintop castle outside of Prague, though the site is infamous for concealing dark secrets going back many generations. The asylum houses the country’s six most treacherous killers – known to the staff as The Woodcutter, The Clown, The Glass Collector, The Vegetarian, The Sciomancer, and The Demon – and Viktor hopes to use a new medical technique to prove that these patients share a common archetype of evil, a phenomenon known as The Devil Aspect. As he begins to learn the stunning secrets of these patients, five men and one woman, Viktor must face the disturbing possibility that these six may share another dark truth.

Meanwhile, in Prague, fear grips the city as a phantom serial killer emerges in the dark alleys. Police investigator Lukas Smolak, desperate to locate the culprit (dubbed Leather Apron in the newspapers), realizes that the killer is imitating the most notorious serial killer from a century earlier – London’s Jack the Ripper. Smolak turns to the doctors at Hrad Orlu for their expertise with the psychotic criminal mind, though he worries that Leather Apron might have some connection to the six inmates in the asylum.

Steeped in the folklore of Eastern Europe, and set in the shadow of Nazi darkness erupting just beyond the Czech border, this stylishly written, tightly coiled, richly imagined novel is propulsively entertaining, and impossible to put down.

The I’M NOT SCARED Book – Todd Parr

This is a colourful book aimed at young kidlets to help them acknowledge and face their fears. Throughout the book common childhood fears including the dark, dogs, what’s under your bed, storms, arguments and getting lost in a store are addressed, along with ways to overcome fear in those situations.

Encouraging children to tell someone about their fears, this book offers some easy solutions and different ways of thinking about fears to help overcome them. A nightlight can help if you’re scared of the dark. Building a fort during a storm is a great distraction tool.

I wasn’t aware that shopping for new underwear was scary as a kid (I know the price tags are scary for adults) but if it helps to wear your new undies on your head, more power to you!

I loved the bright, cheerful illustrations and that there’s no judgement about having a fear in the first place. By offering suggestions of ways to overcome fears it empowers children to face their fears and perhaps even come up with some ideas of their own. I just wish our caped crusader on the cover image featured inside as well.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

Sometimes I’m scared of dogs.
I’m not scared when they give me kisses.

Sometimes I’m scared I will make a mistake.
I’m not scared when I know I tried my best.

With his signature blend of playfulness and sensitivity, Todd Parr explores the subject of all things scary and assures readers that all of us are afraid sometimes.

It’s Okay to Be Different – Todd Parr

It’s Okay to be Different is such a bright and cheerful picture book. See those quirky DayGlo illustrations on the front cover? That is the kind of smiley fun you’re in for throughout the book. At once a self esteem booster and a celebration of individuality, kids young and young at heart will love this book. Each page tells you it’s okay to be, have or do something and is supported by cute illustrations that even I, wanna be artist that struggles to create a legible stick figure, could attempt to trace draw.

Whether it’s being okay to:

  • Be a different colour – a black and white zebra standing next to a red, green, blue and yellow one
  • Talk about your feelings – I’ll listen to you, Mr Lion
  • Eat macaroni and cheese in the bathtub – permission granted. Woohoo!
  • Have different Mums and Dads – these are some seriously awesome looking parents
    … this book includes lots of serious and seriously fun statements that will make you proud of being you.

And let’s face it, who you are is pretty darn wonderful anyway! I wouldn’t change a thing about you! 😃

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

It’s okay to be a different colour. It’s okay to dance by yourself. It’s okay to wear glasses. It’s okay to have a pet worm … It’s okay to be different!