The Lighthouse Witches by C.J. Cooke

The Lighthouse Witches by C.J. Cooke

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Thanks to NetGalley for the advanced copy in exchange for a review.

I didn’t like this one. Too many ideas thrown in the story blender, not enough of any one of them to create something great. Too much changeling panic. Too much purple prose and telling, not showing. Not enough atmosphere. Definitely not enough witches. Too many clueless women running around reacting to bad things happening to them instead of having agency and making real decisions, and this largely seemed to be so that they could each slowly find out a piece of the puzzle so the reader didn’t get information too quickly. Most of the critical information came from a man’s diary instead of the women actually being smart and figuring things out. The jacket copy sounded so promising. What a disappointment.

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The Changeover by Margaret Mahy

The Changeover by Margaret Mahy

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book haunts me and sticks with me. I first read it when I was about 12 years old – it had a horrible teen supernatural romance cover that I remembered for years afterwards, like I remembered just enough bits of the story to keep turning it over in my mind: the stamp, the horribleness of Carmody Braque, the strangeness of Sorry Carlyle, and Laura’s transformation.

Laura’s transformation looms so large in my mind, I’m always surprised by how little of the book is actually given to it. The bookends of that scene in the bathroom of the Carlyle home stood out to me on the latest re-read, so rich and grounded with place and character details of the home and this family ushering Laura over the thresholds. I’m also struck by the frankness of Mahy’s writing about sex and emerging sexuality, and how it is treated by mothers and daughters as something that is acceptable and necessary to discuss like adults, not a shameful thing to be hidden and avoided. This also struck me on a recent first-time read of Catalogue of the Universe>.

I return to this book every ten years or so for another read through. Just long enough to forget just enough so the story feels fresh but also like an old friend. There are so many things I love in stories that exist in this book – witches, transformations, inexplicable recognition and inexplicable bonds between unlikely partners, sibling relationships, and turning the tables on the villain.

I can’t decide if I’ll start re-reading this more frequently, or if I need to acquire more of Mahy’s novels so I can re-read those as well.

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The Witches of New York – Ami McKay

The Witches of New YorkThe Witches of New York by Ami McKay

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I recently took a 3-day business trip that afforded me the rare opportunity to read for uninterrupted hours while on airplanes, and I tore through this book. Ami McKay’s style is light and leading, and she builds solid and interesting characters. The focus on friendships, while somewhat overtaken by romance, is a lovely closing note in the final scenes. The book was an enjoyable light read, but left me wanting something with a little more teeth.

Big and small tensions drive the story forward. Eleanor, Adelaide, and Beatrice have private concerns and arcs that connect to the two big plot arcs of the story: the threat from the reverend and the tenuous lease of the tea shop. Their private and public struggles (fraught romantic relationships, family, ghosts) epitomize commonly-explored themes and issues in stories about women: the patriarchy, the oppression of female power and autonomy, friendship, knowledge, and empowerment. However, some of the many side plots get the short shrift as we move inexorably toward the completion of the main plot, leaving a sense of dissatisfaction and rushed storytelling, even as the pages of worldbuilding lend a lavishness to the tale.

I think McKay missed a lot of opportunities to craft a different kind of villain and show us a different side of Victoria-era New York City. Our main villain is a reverend whose interest in the Salem Witch Trials becomes an obsession that unlocks the serial killer within. Maybe I’m just over serial killer stories, but I thought maybe the forces aligning against our witchy protagonists could be of a political or social nature rather than a religious one, and could have been just as threatening without a religious psychopath and a murder basement. The story takes place at the height of both the Spiritualism movement and the Gilded Age, but both seem a muted backdrop or an emerging force rather than the very prevalent agents of change and social upheaval that they were. Alex Brown’s review of the book on rightly points out McKay’s missed opportunities for exploring a less white and privileged side of New York City at this moment in time. The intersection (and schism) of white and African-American suffrage efforts, the varied Victorian attitudes toward lesbian relationships, and the occult practices and traditions of the many different ethnic and immigrant communities living side by side in New York City are all absent.

Is the book enjoyable and full of strong characters and interesting details of a bygone era? Absolutely, yes. Could McKay have dug deeper and tread lesser-explored ground to lend her story subtler teeth instead of blunt edges? Also, yes. Pick this one up if you want a good book, but not if you want a great one.

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