Book review – The Witch’s Kiss trilogy by Katharine and Elizabeth Corr

Knowing my love of all things witchy, my sister gave me a copy of The Witch’s Kiss for my 19th birthday. I fell in love with Merry straight away. Who doesn’t love a great teenage witch? Katharine and Elizabeth are such a great writing team and wonderful people that I was able to meet via Twitter. Their banter, wit and love for each other shine through the characters they created in The Witch’s Kiss.

‘Witches do not kneel.’

I have read a lot of novels about witches and I think (nearly) all of them have a strongly feminist element. History has handed down tales of persecution of witches as our patriarchal society has attempted to control and subdue women. Witches represent the ultimate rebellion against patriarchy. They are strong, independent women that made the men of history afraid because they couldn’t be controlled. So they killed them in great numbers, even those that weren’t witches (and yes, many men as well!). The Witch’s Kiss touches on these themes with a cleverly executed blend of fairy tale and modern witch story. Katharine and Elizabeth create a world that is completely believable, while retaining classic fairy tale triangle of witches, princes and an evil wizard. Equally believable is the main character of the novel, Merry, a teenage girl in modern England that just happens to be a witch and descendant of the medieval witch, Meredith.

Merry was dreaming about blood.’

Merry dreams, she swears, thinks her brother is a pain in the neck, struggles to finish her homework, is messy, restless, spends hours texting and playing games on her phone, has trouble controlling her magic. I love novels that make you identify with the characters, and Merry’s red hair and quirky ways had me identifying with her straight away.

Gwydion ran his finger under the collar of his tunic, and wished he could stop sweating.’

Gwydion is the evil wizard and a totally despicable villain. But we see he has a vulnerable side as well. The novel reveals the sequence of events that turns Gwydion evil, not that this excuses his subsequent behaviour in any way but helps our understanding. In many ways, the evil character in a fairy tale is a metaphor for bad relationships and the way many men turn to physical or verbal violence when things don’t go their way. Gwydion was the son of a former slave, mocked by the castle’s servants, angry and powerless, scheming for revenge. This is a revenge that plays out over a very long time, eventually centuries. Gwydion is so bent on revenge it twists everything he does until he is so consumed by it the original hurt hardly seems justification any longer.

Jack? Jack!Where are you, lad?’

Jack is the King of Hearts. Forced to become Gwydion’s evil servant he is actually the son of the King and the Queen. Cursed by Gwydion as a baby, Jack is hidden away and raised as a commoner. Of course, he is the love interest for Merry but I don’t feel we really get to know Jack. We are led to believe he has a good heart but all his actions are controlled by Gwydion. Is this just an excuse? Another metaphor for male behaviour in relationships? I think so. Merry, though, falls in love with Jack and sees the good in him. Maybe her love can so him. Poor, naïve girl!

‘Leo was home by early afternoon.’

Leo is a foil for Merry. Her brother is very close to her even though they fight all the time. He isn’t magical but he supports Merry’s journey, having her back all the way even though he is dealing with his own issues. One of those is Leo’s search for love that doesn’t involve a fairy tale prince, but really he is searching for his own prince. He doesn’t find love in the fairy tale world and his issues are firmly planted in the real world. This is kind of interesting because traditional fairy tales didn’t treat being gay as a problem to be overcome but the real world does. When he does find love it just feels so right and natural (sorry, jumping ahead two novels!).

The Witch’s Kiss

The Witch’s Kiss is an amazing young adult novel that creates great characters and a truly believable world. The plot is intriguing enough to make you want to keep turning pages and there are enough twists to keep any teenage girl happy.

The Witch’s Tears

The Witch’s Tears was a wonderful follow-up to the first novel. We get to learn more about the characters and how they dealt with the emotional turns from the events of The Witch’s Kiss. If I had one complaint (and it’s a small one) it’s that The Witch’s Tears reminded me of The Empire Strikes Back. This is often a problem with middle books in a trilogy where the events are setting up the action and climax to come in the third story. I don’t think you could read The Witch’s Tears without having read the first and third novels. Then again, maybe that is what makes a great trilogy.

The Witch’s Blood

Last night I finished reading The Witch’s Blood and OMG!! There is more at stake, it’s possibly more exciting and the end left me crying! Merry knows what she can do now, but should she? Her community is against her and can her actions be justified because she is saving the people she loves? How is that different to Ronan’s actions? There is a blurry moral ground here. I also liked the environmental theme running through The Witch’s Blood. Merry’s magic – like modern consumption – comes at a cost to the land and eventually she has to make a choice.

I don’t usually do this in a review but I want to thank Katharine and Elizabeth Corr for being such wonderful people and taking the time to talk to an ordinary Australian girl. The Witch’s Kiss, The Witch’s Tears and The Witch’s Blood are definitely among my favourite books of all time and I will always treasure them.

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Book review – Practical Magic by Alice Hoffman

I hardly know where to start in reviewing Practical Magic by Alice Hoffman. I fell in love with it straight away and it is now firmly in my top twenty favourite novels of all time! I have to confess that I love books with magic realism and Practical Magic has it in spades. I was blown away by the depth of understanding Alice Hoffman shows, in human nature, folk magic and all things love. The whole novel is almost a ‘how to’ manual for growing up and falling in love.

For more than two hundred years, the Owens women have been blamed for everything that has gone wrong in town.’

The opening sentence immediately suggests this is a story about witches. Of course, the wise women and healers had always been blamed when things went wrong for hundreds of years. It was part of folk superstition. It was the basis of the witch hunts and patriarchal domination of women. So it seems from the outset the women of this story have some ‘magical’ ability – enough to be the subject of the town’s suspicions.

Once a year, on midsummer’s eve, a sparrow would find its way into the Owens house.’

Midsummer’s eve is the time around the summer solstice. Evil spirits were said to wander during the summer solstice. It also marked the beginning of the end as days become progressively shorter. The sparrow itself is a bringer of luck, good and bad. In Greek mythology the sparrow was a symbol of love – fitting for this novel – while in English folk lore a sparrow flying into the home meant a foretelling of death. There is plenty of love and death in this novel so I’m guessing that Alice Hoffman used the sparrow to convey both meanings.

‘Crossed knives set out on the dinner table means there’s bound to be a quarrel, but so do two sisters living under the same roof, particularly when one of them is Antonia Owens.’

Alice Hoffman is brilliant in her understanding of teenage girls. Their capriciousness, self-doubt, half girl, half woman – she captures it all. One moment I found myself falling in love with these characters, the next I could see too much of myself reflected back. Sisters have a special bond, but growing up so closely with someone that is probably going through much the same emotional experiences, possibly just not at the same time, is a recipe for conflict in any house. But it is almost a universal truth that sisters love each other in a way that no two other people can. This is not the fairy tale of never ending love we are fed on as children. This is a love forged in shared experiences. This is a key theme throughout this novel. Although the story is about romantic love everything that happens revolves around the three pairs of Owens sisters, each at different stages of life.

‘On the morning of Kylie Owens’s thirteenth birthday, the sky is endlessly sweet and blue, but long before the sun rises, before alarm clocks go off, Kylie is already awake.’

The innocence of turning thirteen – reflected in the sweet and blue sky – is contrasted with the awakening of womanhood inside. Kylie knows something is different now that she is a teenager. She doesn’t know what it is yet. Is it her? Is it the way the world now sees her? Or is it some combination of the two? There is a magic about being thirteen. A time when you don’t even know who you are yet but there are so many demands placed on a young girl. Parents’ expectations, school teachers… boys!

‘All of the teenage boys down at the Hamburger Shack say, ‘No onions,’ when Gillian takes their orders.’

All of the teenage boys (and later the men) in this novel are obsessed with the Owens sisters. The sort of obsession that makes teenage boys forget what they were about to do. They forget where they were going or what they were about to say. They forget everything because one glimpse of one of the Owens sisters is enough to turn any teenage boy weak at the knees. In this way Alice Hoffman reduces teenage boys and men to gibbering idiots. There are very few men that are worthy of the Owens sisters (and by implication, very few men that are worthwhile, period!). I think in a way she is making fun of popular notions of romantic love and concepts like love at first sight. I see it as a warning to women not to be suckered in by flowers and gifts and words of love because there is something much deeper out there waiting for you. She does this by setting the novel in a world of magic realism that makes us question common conventions of what love is.

‘If a woman is in trouble she should always wear blue for protection.’

Blue is a symbol of many things in folk mythology, including protection. So why does Alice Hoffman think women need protection? Is it from men? Other women? Themselves? Maybe she means it as a symbol of protection against all of those things that drive a woman to be something other than who she is meant to be. This is another example of the magical realism that persists throughout this novel. The notion that we are surrounded by magic if we only know to look for it. The book is loaded with these superstitious beliefs, interwoven throughout the story so they seem like truths.

‘Two hundred years ago, people believed that a hot and steamy July meant a cold and miserable winter.’

Sally is practical and sensible. She spends most of her life trying not to believe the folk myths surrounding her aunts. She denies that anything happening in nature is a portent of something about to happen in her life. But all the while, Sally (and the reader) is drawn inexorably toward her own destiny. When we finally reach this point it seems as though it were always inevitable. I think Alice Hoffman is suggesting that we all have our passions and no matter how much we deny them we cannot avoid our own true natures.

‘Always keep mint on your windowsill in August, to ensure that buzzing flies will stay outside, where they belong.’

The use of mint has a long history dating back to early human civilisations. Historians have suggested mint was brought to England by the Romans. Regardless of its historical origins, it is little wonder mint has a place in folk magic because its strong smell would have suggested mystical powers. The use of mint in the context of Practical Magic suggests that we ignore such folk myths at our own peril. Do you dare not put mint on your windowsill? I know I will.

‘On the eighth day of the eighth month, the aunts arrive on a Greyhound bus.’

In a novel about independence, among other things, Alice Hoffman only gives a sketch of the aunts in the early chapters before turning her attention to the sisters, Sally and Gillian. We get to know them intimately, inside and out. We learn their innermost fears. We learn their secret desires. But overarching all of this is the example set by the aunts while the two girls were young. It is no coincidence that the aunts come back toward the end of the book when they are needed the most. It suggests that we can never run away from our past or our heritage. And ultimately it is this heritage that Sally and Gillian reclaim as they come to terms with themselves and ultimately discover the love they always longed for.

‘On the outskirts of the city the fields have turned red and the trees are all twisted and black.’

Magic realist novels had their origins in Latin and South America before spreading to other parts of the world. In case you couldn’t tell already I absolutely love reading magic realist novels and Practical Magic is no exception. The only way to judge a book is how it makes you feel when you’re reading it. So much of this novel spoke directly to my heart and made me laugh and cry and cry and laugh throughout. Now I’m going to have to watch the movie starring Sandra Bullock and Nicole Kidman (which I’ve never done) and Alice Hoffman’s latest novel The Rules of Magic is high on my wish list!

The first witch

The morning air was crisp and cool
When the first witch was burnt,
The day turned black as more and more
Were sent to the stake

Wise women of the earth,
Bending and shaping energy,
For the ancient ways
Brought healing to the land.

Every spell begins with a blank page

Every spell begins with a blank page,
connecting me to things I haven’t said;

putting thoughts into my incantation
for they cannot remain in the past,
ghosts of lips on glasses;

I’m not a bad person, I tell myself
I’m just lost with insecurities,
willing to sacrifice
to make my love spell come true.

I wake up with sounds inside me

I wake up with sounds inside me,
rhyming like a childhood spell;

to be a witch I hone my craft,
personal magic to navigate the world;

power – magic – destiny,
I call on that spiritual force;

trust myself to walk the path,
to let myself drift among secrets;

connecting me with nature
for she is who I am.

I believe in love spells

I believe in love spells
dark powers that twist the mind,
braided knot of hair to help me find the way
to creatures of the forest, dreamers,
moonstone and jade

shadows swallow the earth
where secrets die,
a few simple verses
that could turn an army
or win a man’s heart

hands held out – cold, like mine
but burning in the fog,
until there you are, soft of foot,
emerald eyes glittering,
innocent lips parted

I trace the lines upon your palm,
gypsy hair, blowing gently
to your beating heart
until there is just the two of us.

The Witch in the Mirror – Part 43

Ailis ran until her feet were sore. She was deep into the forest now, further than she’d ever been before. Every now and then she had to stop, leaning against a tree and panting until she had gotten her breath back. The forest stretched on and on around the edge of the lake, further than she could ever have imagined.

Surely she had lost the soldiers by now. They had nearly caught her this time. She was merely floating, just like she did every day when she could sneak away from her chores. She stood on the rock at the edge of the lake and just let herself hover in the air. She never went too far or too high. She didn’t want anyone seeing her or discovering she had magic. It was peaceful in the air. She felt more like herself—where she could imagine she was secretly a princess rather than just a blacksmith’s daughter.

But this time she had gotten careless and had drifted lazily toward the treetops. That is when she first saw the men in black cloaks. She had heard all about these men that wore black cloaks. The villagers were all terrified of them. And the worst of the lot was that sergeant with the scar on his left cheek. Three jagged lines—almost like someone had scratched him viciously, or in desperation, Ailis thought. She had made the mistake of looking up as he rode through the village once. He had stared at her with those dead eyes as though he wanted to devour her.

When Ailis saw the horsemen through the trees she quickly returned to the ground and started to run. She knew she could have flown away from them but she couldn’t be seen in the air.

Ailis heard a noise and began to run again. Her plan was to circle back around to the village and return by the coastal path. As Ailis neared the village she stopped running. She ran her hands over her skirt and blouse to straighten it and adjusted the scarf around her hair. She stopped by a wild apple tree and filled her basket. It would be a ready excuse if anybody stopped her. She tried to calm the fear in her stomach.

The sun rose high in the sky when she caught the scent of wood smoke from the village. Ailis heaved a sigh of relief. Just over the next rise and she would be back in the village safe and sound.

Ailis left the forest and walked across the field of heath that ran down to the beach. In the distance she could see the village’s fishing boats bobbing on the open sea. They wouldn’t return until evening with their catch.

She could hear hammering from the blacksmith’s forge and she smiled. It wasn’t so bad being the blacksmith’s daughter. It could have been worse. Bryn was a highly respected artisan in the village and that afforded Ailis more freedom from menial chores than some of the other girls her age.

Ailis took an apple from her basket and was just about to take a bite when she saw the four horsemen blocking her path.

‘You there. Girl. Stop.’

Ailis shuddered when she saw it was the man with the scar. She was frozen to the spot.

‘What business do you have out here? We have been hunting a young girl seen in the forest. What do you have to say for yourself?’

‘I—I was just fetching apples. To make my Da a pie.’ She tried to control the nervousness in her voice.

‘A likely story. Who is your da?’

‘The—the blacksmith—Bryn—the blacksmith.’

The sergeant looked at her more closely, searching her face. His black gloved hand involuntarily stroked the scars on his cheek.

‘How old are you, girl?’

Ailis felt tears well into her eyes but forced them back down. The pendant between her breasts was turning hot.

‘Just take her here, Hom. Nobody need ever know.’ The second horsemen leered at her. Ailis fought back the urge to wet herself.

‘This little one is not worth your effort.’

A woman appeared behind the horsemen. Hom turned in his saddle to see who dared address the black cloaks. It was just another peasant woman. Hom drew his sword. The sun glinted wickedly on the blade. He smiled viciously to feel its familiar weight in his hand.

‘Why don’t you go about your business, old woman, before I slay you right here.’

‘You don’t want to kill anyone today.’ She moved her hand from under her cloak. ‘Return to your camp.’

Hom looked at her uncertainly for a moment before sheathing his sword.

‘Come, men. Let us return to camp. We will take the wench another day.’

He glared at the woman and turned his horse. The four men rode away in a cloud of dust.

Ailis collapsed to her knees with shock.

The woman cupped her hand around Ailis’ chin and raised the girl to her feet.

‘Run home, child. You need to take more care with your gift. It’s not your time yet, but soon.’

Ailis looked questioningly into the woman’s eyes. They were dark but flecked with blue, like snowflakes.

‘Go.’

Ailis found her feet moving quickly toward the village. She looked back over her shoulder.

The woman was gone.

The Witch in the Mirror – Part 42

Bea was in a good mood when she woke next morning. It was early but being a Saturday there was no need to dress and rush off to school. Outside she could hear the birds were waking. Bea yawned and rolled over to look at the ceiling. Everything in her room was familiar and comfortable. The dressing table and mirror, the clothes rack that held her dresses and her school bag was in the corner where she had tossed it last night.

She lay still with her eyes open and went through the events of the pat week. Her ankle still hurt a little but she had been able to walk on it. Josh had been so sweet coming over to see if she was okay. But what was up with Emily?

Bea sighed and slid to the edge of the bed. She walked over to the window. The sky was a pretty shade of pink this early in the morning. Over the garden Bea could see sunlight just hitting the spire of St Brigid’s Church peaking over the treetops. From a distance she could hear waves crashing on the beach. The tide must be in ― that’s when the waves sounded loudest. A ribbon of mist hung in the air above the beach. The morning’s stillness reminded her of something, but as usual it hung tantalisingly out of reach.

She picked up her dress and tiptoed across to the bathroom. She didn’t want to wake her grandmother so early. Bea dressed by the light coming softly through the window. She walked barefoot down the stairs to the front door. Bea paused for a moment to listen, but the cottage was silent. She closed the door softly behind her and filled her lungs with fresh morning air. It made her feel alive. The grass was damp and cold on her bare feet. She smiled and thought how her grandmother would scold if she knew. ‘You’ll catch your death of cold, child,’ Gramma would say. Bea walked across the garden to the gate that led down to the beach. She enjoyed being on her own. The day was starting to brighten. Bea paused at the top of the stairs and watched the waves. It was so peaceful.

She followed the path that led down from the back of the cottage. Small pebbles crunched under her feet as Bea reached the beach. The walk along the shoreline was her favourite and she headed toward the rocks at the northern end of the beach. Fishing boats were pulled up on the shore, turned upside down and strewn with drying fishing nets.

Bea knew she had been here before—some time ages ago. She just didn’t know when. The sound of the waves crashing against the pebbles reminded her of something she couldn’t quite remember. It was just another dim memory from somewhere in her past. As she made her way around the upturned fishing boats she turned and looked back toward the cottage at the top of the slope. A curl of smoke was rising from the chimney and Bea thought about her grandmother inside. She hoped she hadn’t disturbed her.

Bea moved further along the beach, reaching the tumble of rocks along the edge. She lifted her skirt and tenderly climbed amongst the rocks, carefully placing her feet away from the slippery moss.

It was then she heard the voices ― two male voices coming from a cave at the bottom of the cliff. One of the voices sounded cultured, aristocratic, while the other was a gruff seaman’s voice.

‘Don’t worry, m’lord. We can slip in under darkness and nobody will know anythin’ ‘bout it. You can trust us, m’lord.’

‘Very good, Wells. The French ship will anchor offshore next Sunday night. There will be a package to be collected from me at the manor. Do you think you can manage that?’

Bea crouched down behind a rock. She wasn’t used to coming across people on the beach. She thought of it as her beach. Her heart was racing. She was sure she recognised one of the voices, but she didn’t know anybody in Nangle, did she?

‘This package is very valuable but also delicate. You must take good care of it. The French captain will know what to do once you have her ― it, the package ― on board. Tell the captain I will follow next se’nnight and payment will be made in full once I know the package has been delivered. Do you have all that, Wells? You know what will happen if you fail me.’

‘Yes sir. Sunday night it is, to be sure. You can count on me, sir. I won’t fail you. That’s a promise.’

‘Go carefully with your promises, my friend. Just deliver the message and be ready for the package.’

The voices fell silent for a moment. Bea strained her ears to hear. Cautiously she peaked around the rocks to find the small cave was empty. There was no-one there.

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