Queen Witch

Blessed be, my witchy friends. How goes the spell-work? Messed with any thanes lately? Yeah, me neither. There just aren’t as many power-hungry Scottish nobles willing to commit a little regicide these days, are there? Anyway. ENOUGH CHIT-CHAT. I have news. Ready?

Guys. GUYS. I saw The Witch on Sunday and I. Am. Freaking. Out. FREAKING OUT. Watch the trailer while I compose myself.

uuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuugh so perfect ❤ PERFECT I SAY. As a diehard lover of horror movies, as someone obsessed with witches and witchcraft since childhood, and as a librarian, I walked out of the theatre speechless, grinning like a madwoman, and already planning my second viewing. This movie SLAYED. I feel like I’ve been waiting my whole life to see something like this. And my god, the amount of research that went into this movie makes my mouth water. Please, Robert Eggers, I beg you, share your bibliography! I WANT TO READ ALL OF IT.

I’ve never not been into witches. I mean, I was a witch for Halloween every year from the ages of 5 to 10. Now I’m a witch everyday *wink*. And frankly, my captive internet audience, it’s a disgrace that I haven’t forced my witchiness down your throats before now, A DISGRACE, I TELL YOU. So today I’m reviewing Hunt the Witch Down! by Margaret Ronan, written a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far, away (1976).

This cover gave me nightmares so terrifying that it has spent more time wedged between my mattress and box spring than it has on my bookshelf. Who am I kidding, it still terrifies me.

The Deal: Sometimes ill-favored and bad-tempered, usually sharp-tongued – they were people who scared the living daylights out of ordinary folk because of their weird ways, or aroused their envy because of their strange powers. Powers that seemed to come from the devil. People called them witches!

And what did they have in common, these witches? They were women. Women who used all their wit and wile to survive in an oftime hostile world. Desperately unhappy housewives, young women and girls, a little crazy maybe, poor usually, but hunted down and tortured by the law, even put to death. Their greatest crime: being born female.

Twelve true and exciting stories of twelve women whose neighbours were sure they were witches.

Robyn says: This book holds astronomical sentimental value to me. I found it in my grandmother’s dusty, cluttered basement when I was 9 years old, and, um, “secretly borrowed” it – let’s just say my reluctance to lend books might be an inherited trait. Enamoured with anything to do with the occult, I was willing to risk Grandma Ruby’s wrath for the sake of literature. And witchery.

I read it and re-read it, over and over and over, memorized the stories, scared my friends and scared myself, used them as a starting point when I got older and wanted to do more in-depth research. More than the individual stories themselves, though, is the spirit of this book, which, as I reflect on it now, has really has a surprisingly profound impact on the types of stories I want to read and want to write, too. It’s creepy, feminist, dubiously historical horror that is a little ridiculous and a lot of fun.

That sounds pretentious, I know. Sorry. I’m getting emotional. *Girds loins, gets back to business*

As I said above, this is a collection of twelve histories of women accused of witchcraft: from Margaret Barclay in 1618 to Marcia Goodin in 1974. It is definitely not the kind of history book you’d use for your thesis, though, if you know what I mean – no footnotes, no bibliography, a history prof’s night terror. It’s written in a narrative style, with recreated dialogue, so it’s really more like a collection of short stories. The tone is definitely informal, the prose is deliciously purple (“The Scottish rain fell like thin grey spears”) and it’s a little dated (the author frequently breaks out of the narrative to address the reader), but it is so fun to read. The stories are short, scary, and oozing second-wave feminism. What more could you ask for?

I guess my only complaint is that very little actual witchcraft happens. These are all stories about women who were accused of witchcraft, and the author just assumes that they weren’t actually witches. As though real witches aren’t a thing. Ha. Ha ha. Ha.

the craft movies angry witch

Verdict: Read it. Read it when you’re tucked into bed, covers pulled up to your chin, flashlight shining on the yellowed pages. Read it until you hear a sound, a sound that makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up, until you think you see a shadow move in the corner of your eye. Then shove it under your bed so you don’t have to look at that cover (I mean, COME ON, that is horrifying) and pull the blankets over your head and try to sleep. Just try.

light models hocus pocus long hair spell

Best lines: One chapter is called “The Queen of Hell” (Martha Carrier, 1692) and I always adored that – it’s the page the book automatically falls open to. The first lines are very evocative and pretty representative of the book as a whole… “She looked more like the queen of beggars, with her tangled hair hanging down her back, her brown dress torn and dirty. She stood in the court, head down, chains on her wrists. Those who did not know her might have thought her meek.” (p. 65)

Rating: Five out of five pointy black hats, because nostalgia.

ROBYN’S FINAL THOUGHT: Ruby, I miss you. You weren’t always a good grandmother, but you were  a damn good witch in your own way, and I miss you. Sorry-not-sorry for stealing your book. I bet you’d appreciate that.

And now a word from my loyal familiar:

I think my cat might be a witch…

Book Cat says: Dabo ultionem meam contumelia, bibliothecario. Pone verba mea.

That sounds ominous, guys. I might have to reconsider my position on dressing up one’s cat in elaborate costumes to match the theme of book reviews.

Or not.

witch anjelica huston the witches fabulous

 

Oh, those Russians…

 

HELLO THERE. Long time no see. Did you guys know it was 2016? Yeah, me neither. Anyway, I hope this capricious new year is treating you right a month and a fortnight in. Me? Oh, the flimsy foundations of my life are crumbling to dust around me as I type this, faithful internet friends, but I soldier on, because BOOKS.

So. First actual book review of 2016. Pathetic, I know. I’ll make it up to you by giving you good one. It’s The Tsar of Love and Techno by Anthony Marra and it unmade me and remade me a dozen times in the span of 352 pages of glorious, astonishing, transcendent prose. WITH RUSSIANS! (+1 Russians)

*heart-eyes emoji*

So. It’s been a while. *Cracks knuckles, brushes dirt off shoulder, backflips.*

Let’s do this.

The Deal (stolen, as always, from the jacket copy): This stunning, exquisitely written collection introduces a cast of remarkable characters whose lives intersect in ways both life-affirming and heartbreaking. A 1930s Soviet censor painstakingly corrects offending photographs, deep underneath Leningrad, bewitched by the image of a disgraced prima ballerina. A chorus of women recount their stories and those of their grandmothers, former gulag prisoners who settled their Siberian mining town. Two pairs of brothers share a fierce, protective love. Young men across the former USSR face violence at home and in the military. And great sacrifices are made in the name of an oil landscape unremarkable except for the almost incomprehensibly peaceful past it depicts. In stunning prose, with rich character portraits and a sense of history reverberating into the present, The Tsar of Love and Techno is a captivating work from one of our greatest new talents.

Robyn says: I read the title and that was all it took. Because that is some title. A++. And that cover – love love LOVE. Seriously, before we get into the deeply insightful intellectual discourse you expect to find here at 96 Euston Road (ahem), let’s take a minute to soak in the epic cover-porn of this beauty. And it’s relevant to the book, so it’s pretty AND clever (like me hahahaHA shut up). Because this is a collection of short stories, which is really just a prose narrative mix-tape, right? (See, Mom? That English literature degree is worth something after all!)

Now, onto the book. By Rasputin’s undead head (too soon?), this book was AH-MAAAH-ZING. The writing is stunning – there were times that I had to put aside the book and repeat the last sentence I’d read aloud to myself, just savouring the masterful way Marra uses language. I started to write down my favourite sentences and passages but eventually gave up because there were simply too many. When I buy a copy of this book (eventually), I intend to re-read it slowly and annotate the hell out of it.

As for the stories themselves… I don’t think I’ve reviewed a short story collection on the blog before, have I? If this were any other collection, I’d probably have to rate each story individually, but I won’t do that now. There’s no need, because all of the stories are marvellous, and also I returned the book to the library already and didn’t think to write down all the individual story titles. I loved them all. There were a few I loved even more than the others, but I’d be hard-pressed to choose a favourite. Actually, no, that’s a lie, my favourite was the fourth story, “A Prisoner of the Caucasus.” Another Kolya to add to my list of book boyfriends (it’s weird how many of my book-boyfriends are named Kolya, right?).

What’s really great about The Tsar of Love and Techno, and why I think everyone should read it even if they think they loathe short story collections, is that all of the stories are connected. Ostensibly, it’s the appearance of or oblique reference to a fictional painting by a real-life Russian artist that connects the stories, but there are other things that link the stories, too. The most obvious is the setting – if you hadn’t guessed from the title, the stories all take place in Russia (okay, some take place in Chechnya, but we’ll get to that). The characters are also connected, though sometimes this isn’t immediately obvious. Guys, you would not believe the number of times I realized who the characters of one story were in relation to those of another and actually shrieked in delighted OMG surprise.

The Soviet era and the Chechen War (and, I’d argue, by extension, the damage wrought by two different forms of Russian government) loom over the collection as a whole. As you can imagine, there is a definite grimness to most, if not all, of the stories, but Marra is also very funny. It’s a dark kind of humour–very Russian, and very fitting–and an essential component to the success of the collection.

God, I really loved this book. I feel like I’m gushing, but it’s so hard to talk about something you completely adored without sounding a bit like a teenager swooning over a crush in her pink polka-dot diary.

my mad fat diary

What didn’t I like? Ooh, this is hard. Um… one story felt like it dragged, and I still can’t tell if I thought the last story of the collection was amazing or awful or both and therefore perfect… but I kind of like that, too. It wasn’t simple or easy, and I think that was exactly how the collection needed to end.

What I liked most of all was the connectivity of the collection. I’ve read reviews that said the links were a little too perfect at times, but I think that’s a bit of a churlish critique, and really indicative of how you view the world in general. As Mel Gibson wisely said in the movie Signs, “I saw the sign and it opened up my eyes I saw the sign.” Wait, that’s not right. Oh yeah, here it is:

(Listen, I never thought I’d be quoting Mel Gibson in an M. Night Shyamalan movie either, guys, but this is happening, THIS IS WHO I AM NOW.)

Verdict: DUH. Read this book. Or as they say in Russia according to google translate, читать эту книгу.

Best lines: “You remain the hero of your story even when you become the villain of someone else’s.” (p. 9)

Rating: Canadian rating: 5 out of 5 heroic Soviet cosmonauts circling this pale blue dot we call home. Soviet Russian rating: in Soviet Russia, BOOKS RATE YOU.

JERRY’S ROBYN’S FINAL THOUGHT: What does a girl have to do to get a square-jawed Russian lover named Kolya?

Now, please enjoy the most Russian thing I could find on the internet:

Over to Book Cat:

Book Cat: “Well, well, so you finally managed to write a review, you slothful Philistine. Tut tut. I suppose you can share this portrait of me and my beautiful Russian friends, since it is in keeping with your theme. These lovely ladies and I were just discussing whether it is possible to fully appreciate the genius and beauty of that titan of Russian literature, Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin, if one was not born speaking Russian as one’s mother tongue. Alas, I think not, for surely the clumsy alchemy of translation cannot capture every breath-taking nuance, every monumental innovation of a tour de force like Eugene Onegin. We speakers of English must settle for inferior shadows of the masterpiece, and try not to dwell on what unimaginable wonders were, as the saying goes, lost in translation.”

Er, yes. Yes to all of that.

… Anyways.

Das vedanya, comrades!