8 more witchy reads for autumn

Image by Melk Hagelslag – RoonzNL – Pixabay

‘Tis the season for snuggly sweaters, crunchy leaves underfoot, decorative gourds, apple cider doughnuts, and pumpkin spice everything. I just bought a pumpkin spice bath bomb from A Touch of Magic at the Harvest Days Festival in Dwight, Illinois, and I can’t wait to drop it in a tub of hot water and soak until my toes turn to prunes.

Hot baths are another rite of autumn in my life. Nothing beats sinking into warm water with a scented bath bomb or bath tea and unwinding with a good book. Bonus points when the book fits the fall vibe.

Last September, I recommended three witchy titles to kick off the spooky season. With the calendar soon turning to October, I’ve been turning the pages of more witch-centric novels lately. If you’re on the hunt for some seasonal fiction, here are eight more to add to your TBR pile.

Wild and Wicked Things

by Francesca May, 2022, Redhook, 432 pages

Good pick for readers who like: Gothic Fiction, Historical Fiction, 1920s Aesthetic, Sapphic Romance

Summary: “On Crow Island, people whisper that real magic lurks just below the surface. Magic doesn’t interest Annie Mason. Not after it stole her future. She’s on the island only to settle her late father’s estate and, hopefully, reconnect with her long-absent best friend, Beatrice, who fled their dreary lives for a more glamorous one. Yet Crow Island is brimming with temptation, and the most mesmerizing may be her enigmatic new neighbor. Mysterious and alluring, Emmeline Delacroix is a figure shadowed by rumors of witchcraft. And when Annie witnesses a confrontation between Bea and Emmeline at one of Crow Island’s extravagant parties, she is drawn into a glittering, haunted world.”

Looking for a dark tale rife with magic? Here it is.

Wild and Wicked Things is what happens when The Great Gatsby mashes with Practical Magic. Set in post-World War I England, this is a story of lavish parties, gorgeous landscapes, dark magic, mistakes, consequences, and love. The witches in this book don’t wear pointy hats or cloaks, but they are definitely witchy and wild.

Small Town, Big Magic

by Hazel Beck, 2022, Graydon House, 416 pages

Good pick for readers who like: Magical Realism, Found Family

Summary: “Emerson Wilde has built the life of her dreams. Youngest Chamber of Commerce president in St. Cyprian history, successful indie bookstore owner, and lucky enough to have her best friends as found family? Done. But when Emerson is attacked by creatures that shouldn’t be real, and kills them with what can only be called magic, Emerson finds that the past decade of her life has been…a lie. St. Cyprian isn’t your average Midwestern river town—it’s a haven for witches. When Emerson failed a power test years ago, she was stripped of her magical memories. Turns out, Emerson’s friends are all witches. And so is she.”

I’m 35 years old at the time of reading this book. Emerson Wilde is in her late 20s in the book and newly discovering she’s a witch. That storyline tends to be reserved for YA fiction, so it’s refreshing to have an adult making the journey into the magical underworld. This is a woman who has a career and thought she was established in her life, and now she has to come to terms with an entirely new aspect of her identity and life.

The Witch Doesn’t Burn in This One

by Amanda Lovelace, 2018, Andrews McMeel Publishing, 208 pages

Good pick for readers who like: Poetry, Feminism

Summary: “The witch: supernaturally powerful, inscrutably independent, and now—indestructible. These moving, relatable poems encourage resilience and embolden women to take control of their own stories. Enemies try to judge, oppress, and marginalize her, but the witch doesn’t burn in this one.”

I love this collection of poetry.

I picked it up for the title. I return to it periodically for the power and passion of its words.

The poems are divided into four chapters: The Trial, The Burning, The Firestorm, and The Ashes. Despite the doom those headers seem to imply, the title is correct. The witch (in this case, women) doesn’t burn or succumb. She overcomes.

Amanda Lovelace has a powerful, call-to-action voice in this collection. She helps women proudly reclaim the title of witch from those who would use it as a condemnation and wear it as a badge of honor.


by Rachel Harrison, 2021, Berkley, 304 pages

Good pick for readers who like: Women Supporting Women, Female Empowerment

Summary: “All her life, Annie has played it nice and safe. After being unceremoniously dumped by her longtime boyfriend, Annie seeks a fresh start. She accepts a teaching position that moves her from Manhattan to a small village upstate. She’s stunned by how perfect and picturesque the town is. Her new apartment is dreamy too, minus the oddly persistent spider infestation. Then Annie meets Sophie. Beautiful, charming, magnetic Sophie, who takes a special interest in Annie, who wants to be her friend. More importantly, she wants Annie to stop apologizing and start living for herself. Annie can’t help but gravitate toward the self-possessed Sophie, despite the fact that the rest of the townsfolk seem…a little afraid of her. Sophie’s appearance is uncanny and ageless, her mansion in the middle of the woods feels a little unearthly, and she does seem to wield a certain power…but she couldn’t be…could she?”

When Annie’s life is turned inside out by a difficult breakup (been there, done that!), she has to rediscover herself and find a new normal. Her new normal turns out to be a tad abnormal when she develops a friendship with Sophie, the neighborhood witch.

I read a review that once described this book as “chick lit paranormal,” and that’s an apt description. While there are dark overtones, the novel never dives into thriller or horror. At its core, this is a story about overcoming heartbreak, women supporting women, and learning to define oneself as an individual and not as part of a couple. There are some morally gray moments (and Sophie generated a few “hell no’s” from me with some of her actions), but overall it’s an entertaining read.


by Naomi Novik, 2016, Del Rey, 464 pages

Good pick for readers who like: Fantasy, Academic Magic, Rivals to Lovers, Romance

Summary: “Agnieszka loves her valley home, her quiet village, the forests and the bright shining river. But the corrupted Wood stands on the border, full of malevolent power, and its shadow lies over her life. Her people rely on the cold, driven wizard known only as the Dragon to keep its powers at bay. But he demands a terrible price for his help: one young woman handed over to serve him for ten years, a fate almost as terrible as falling to the Wood. The next choosing is fast approaching, and Agnieszka is afraid. She knows—everyone knows—that the Dragon will take Kasia: beautiful, graceful, brave Kasia, all the things Agnieszka isn’t, and her dearest friend in the world. And there is no way to save her. But Agnieszka fears the wrong things. For when the Dragon comes, it is not Kasia he will choose.”

For readers who want a witch tale in a fantasy setting, Uprooted is a must-read. When Agnieszka is unexpectedly selected by the Dragon – a curmudgeon if there ever was one – to serve him in his tower, she embarks on a magical education and an adventure to save her world from the corrupted Wood. Magic is at the heart of this story and woven into every page, from the evil Wood to the grumpy wizard to Agnieszka discovering she’s a witch and learning to wield her power.

My favorite part of the story, however, is the Beauty and the Beast-style relationship between Agnieszka and Sarkan (the Dragon’s actual name). I’m a sucker for a story with a curmudgeon slowly coming out of his shell and begrudgingly letting himself be loved.

Hour of the Witch

by Chris Bohjalian, 2021, Vintage Books, 496 pages

Good pick for readers who like: Historical Fiction, Witch Hunt Accounts

Summary: “Boston, 1662. Mary Deerfield is twenty-four years old. In England she might have had many suitors. But here in the New World, amid this community of saints, Mary is the second wife of Thomas Deerfield, a man as cruel as he is powerful. When Thomas, prone to drunken rage, drives a three-tined fork into the back of Mary’s hand, she resolves that she must divorce him to save her life. But in a world where every neighbor is watching for signs of the devil, a woman like Mary—a woman who harbors secret desires and finds it difficult to tolerate the brazen hypocrisy of so many men in the colony—soon becomes herself the object of suspicion and rumor. When tainted objects are discovered buried in Mary’s garden, when a boy she has treated with herbs and simples dies, and when their servant girl runs screaming in fright from her home, Mary must fight to not only escape her marriage, but also the gallows.”

This pick is for readers who are looking for historical realism revolving around witch hunts. Set in Puritan New England, Hour of the Witch follows the drama of a young woman targeted in an American witch hunt. The hysteria that developed in this period of history has always fascinated me, and I will always devour a title that humanizes the women who were targeted and gives them a voice.

The novel also explores a woman liberating herself from an abusive marriage. Mary’s father is a merchant who imported a set of three-tined forks and gifted them to her, but her husband and fellow villagers consider them to be demonic “devil’s tines.” Suspicion continues to build about Mary as the community sees what it wants to see and convinces itself that Mary’s actions indicate witchcraft. After all, no moral, God-fearing woman would seek to divorce her husband and spread supposedly blatant lies about him. Mary fights a two-front war against her husband and village, refusing to be misused or accused.

The Near Witch

by Victoria Schwab, 2011, Hyperion Books, 284 pages

Good pick for readers who like: YA Fiction, Fairy Tales, Haunting Bedtime Stories

Summary: “The Near Witch is only an old story told to frighten children. If the wind calls at night, you must not listen. The wind is lonely, and always looking for company. There are no strangers in the town of Near. These are the truths that Lexi has heard all her life. But when an actual stranger, a boy who seems to fade like smoke, appears outside her home on the moor at night, she knows that at least one of these sayings is no longer true. The next night, the children of Near start disappearing from their beds, and the mysterious boy falls under suspicion. As the hunt for the children intensifies, so does Lexi’s need to know about the witch that just might be more than a bedtime story, about the wind that seems to speak through the walls at night, and about the history of this nameless boy.”

This book strikes the perfect tone for October. There’s the mystery of the fading boy, the chilling bedtime tale of the Near Witch snatching children from their beds, and the pervading evil that lurks on the moon-drenched moors. This is a dark fairy tale that has a palpable atmosphere – I was drawn into the story’s lyrical prose and still shiver at the sensation of wandering after dark in the moors’ biting wind.

We Ride Upon Sticks

by Quan Barry, 2020, Pantheon Books, 367 pages

Good pick for readers who like: Sports, Girl Gangs, The 1980s

Summary: “In the town of Danvers, Massachusetts, home of the original 1692 witch trials, the 1989 Danvers Falcons will do anything to make it to the state finals—even if it means tapping into some devilishly dark powers. Helmed by good-girl captain Abby Putnam (a descendant of the infamous Salem accuser Ann Putnam) and her co-captain Jen Fiorenza (whose bleached blond “Claw” sees and knows all), the Falcons prove to be wily, original, and bold, flaunting society’s stale notions of femininity. Through the crucible of team sport and, more importantly, friendship, this comic tour de female force chronicles Barry’s glorious cast of characters as they charge past every obstacle on the path to finding their glorious true selves.”

This isn’t the usual kind of witch story I pick up – I gravitate toward fairy tale, gothic, magical realism, and historical fiction set during American and European witch hunts. However, this title came with the enthusiastic endorsement of my cousin, who described the reading experience like watching a John Hughes movie.

I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed We Ride Upon Sticks – anyone who lived through the 1980s will appreciate the many pop culture references. The members of the Falcons field hockey team are willing to try anything to turn around their losing record and make it to the state finals, so they sign their names in an Emilio Estevez notebook as a commitment to the Dark. They pledge to make mischief in exchange for wins on the field. As the stakes escalate in the book, so do the humor and the reader’s bond with this gang of high school girls.

The magic is low-key in this novel, but the story is a fun dive into the universal teenage girl attraction to witchcraft.


The vital importance of stories in the human experience

Every so often, I stand in a room full of people where my work ranks least important.

Every artist, writer, and performer encounters it at some point. The conversation turns to careers, and everyone lists their respective professions. Among engineers, health care professionals, educators, construction and maintenance tradesmen, business owners, and others, I take a deep breath and say, “I design magazines and write fantasy novels.”

The reaction varies. Sometimes it’s sincere interest. Sometimes it’s an embrace as a fellow professional. But sometimes it’s that too-familiar smirk and a comment about how nice it must be to have a hobby as a job.

On the one hand … yes, it’s nice to have a creative job that I enjoy.

On the other hand … no. My work is more than a hobby, and it is just as vital to society as buildings, infrastructure, health care, education, and the myriad businesses that comprise a community.

When I say as much to skeptics, there’s a moment of incredulity. But I don’t really believe the books I write (fiction books, no less!) carry the same societal impact as other careers, do I?

Ahem … yes, actually. I very much believe stories are vital to the human experience.

I don’t have to reach far for an example. Just ask Helen Fagin if stories are important.

Fagin died in March of this year at the age of 104, but she left behind a powerful testimony about the power of story. The Holocaust survivor shared how reading Margaret Mitchell’s classic Gone With the Wind became a life-or-death endeavor after Nazis forced her and her family into the Warsaw Ghetto.

In a letter published in A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader, Fagin shares her experience living in Nazi-occupied Poland.

“At twenty-one, I was forced into Poland’s WWII ghetto, where being caught reading anything forbidden by the Nazis meant, at best, hard labor; at worst, death.

“There, I conducted a clandestine school offering Jewish children a chance at the essential education denied them by their captors. But I soon came to feel that teaching these sensitive young souls Latin and mathematics was cheating them of something far more essential — what they needed wasn’t dry information but hope, the kind that comes from being transported into a dream-world of possibility.”

An underground exchange of smuggled books circulated the Warsaw Ghetto, and Fagin grasped a copy of Gone With the Wind. Under the cover of night, she would read the novel, and then she would orally retell the story to others.

“As I ‘told’ them the book, they shared the loves and trials of Rhett Butler and Scarlett O’Hara, of Ashley and Melanie Wilkes. For that magical hour, we had escaped into a world not of murder but of manners and hospitality. All the children’s faces had grown animated with new vitality.”

If Fagin got caught with the text, she risked severe punishment or death. A story was worth dying for.

A story also was worth living for among those imprisoned by Nazis. It gave people relief and escape from unimaginably inhumane conditions.

That’s a lot of worth.

Hear Helen Fagin read the full text of the letter, in her own voice, below:

A Velocity of Being: 100-year-old Holocaust survivor Helen Fagin reads her letter about how books save lives from Maria Popova on Vimeo.

The role stories play in our lives isn’t limited to anecdotal importance. Researchers have linked stories to improving both physical and psychological wellbeing. One study found that hospitalized children who listened to storytellers showed increased oxytocin and decreased cortisol and pain.

“One storytelling session with hospitalized children [led] to an increase in oxytocin, a reduction in cortisol and pain, and positive emotional shifts during a free-association task,” researchers reported. “These multi-modal findings support evolutionary theories of storytelling and demonstrate its physiological and psychological effects under naturalistic stress conditions.”

Fictional stories also help cement a sense of empathy among members of society. When readers/viewers/listeners are introduced to fictional characters, they can build interest and investment in those characters and their circumstances. Fictional people and situations allow the onlooker to vicariously experience the character’s life through their perspective.

When those characters and perspectives are from different cultures, social classes, or backgrounds, those fictional experiences can build empathy and understanding.

“Engaging with fictional stories and the characters within them might help us better understand our real-world peers,” writes Raymond Mar in the abstract to his 2018 research paper Stories and the Promotion of Social Cognition. “Because stories are about characters and their interactions, understanding stories might help us to exercise our social cognitive abilities.”

People build emotional bonds with fictional characters. That, in turn, helps us build bonds with people around us.

Art may imitate life, but it also influences life. Look at the social phenomenon caused by season four of Netflix’s Stranger Things. An emotionally charged scene with Max featured Kate Bush’s 1985 song “Running Up That Hill (A Deal With God).” During its original release almost 40 years ago, it broke into the U.S. Top 30; after being featured in Stranger Things, it hit the U.S. Top 5. In June, it hit No. 1 on the Billboard Global 200.

Stranger Things also influenced dedicated viewers to seek guitars similar to the Warlock that Eddie uses to play Metallica’s “Master of Puppets” in the season four finale.

It’s not an unusual phenomenon. People tend to mirror interests when they want to bond with others. If a friend is a fan of a book or a band or a TV show, it’s normal for a person to read or listen or watch. At our core, humans are pack animals. We emulate others to form bonds – even with fictional characters.

Stories help us feel connected. They can make us feel understood and not alone. Stories help us make sense of our place in societies, cultures, and the world at large. They help us relate to one other. They build bonds and break barriers. They entertain.

Through stories, we are able to explore and expand and define our sense of self and our humanity.

Perhaps Helen Fagin said it best in her letter: “There are times when dreams sustain us more than facts. To read a book and surrender to a story is to keep our very humanity alive.”

Give me your tired, your worn, your ugly books

The tweet appeared in my feed this morning, shared by a fellow book lover:

My first instinct was to agree. After all, beautifully designed and gorgeously bound books are a delight.

But I froze mid-nod. Am I, too, haunted by those pretty editions?

I appreciate beauty – I pull off the road to watch sunsets and stood in awe at art museums. But when it comes to surrounding myself with an aesthetic, I don’t want the adorned and well-kept.

Give me the ugly books. I’ll take the tattered, the dog-eared, the water-warped, the bent-covered, and the spine-broken.

Every year, I follow the used book sale circuit in my city and surrounding communities. I hunt for the books with ragged spines – the ones that have been read repeatedly and well-loved. I don’t mind the cheesy covers of outdated paperback editions, or the wrinkled pages of once a water-logged text, or the disintegrating binding of an aged hardcover.

As long as the ink is still readable, I’ll adopt the ragged editions.

A tattered edition of Journeys Through Bookland I adopted from a used book sale.

Not that I don’t have a reverence for brand new books. There’s a special kind of joy that comes from holding a freshly printed edition and cracking the spine for the first time, waiting for that satisfying pop of the binding’s glue, followed by that vicarious “ahhhh” as if you had cracked your own back.

But new editions don’t need nice covers for me to buy them and love them. (To be honest, the only editions I dodge are the movie tie-in covers. But if I really want the book and it’s the only edition at hand, I’ll even buy those ugly beasts and love them.)

Friends could always point to my bookshelves and say, “Look at all of the ornate 19th and early 20th century editions on the shelf. You love the pretty editions!”

It’s true. I have hardcovers with gilt edges and foil stamps and leather bindings. Not a single one is in pristine condition. They’ve all been read and slightly battered. Each is past its prime. But still wonderfully relevant, and carrying the character that only age and use can bestow.

They’re the silver foxes of the literary world. Growing more handsome as they age and show a few flaws.

Used books hold an especially dear place in my heart. Not only do they tell stories, but they also have stories.

I once bought a copy of The Little Prince, and tucked in the back was a sympathy card with a touching note for a family who lost a child. There ere no addresses or surnames on the card for me to return it, so after reading the book I tucked the card back inside. It’s part of the book’s personal story now.

I found a box of books in my attic several years after we bought the house, and a copy of Classics for Vocal Expression is stuffed full of loose papers – mostly shopping lists and what appears to be practice correspondence. I left all of those loose pages in place, keeping them tucked between the pages where I found them.

Collectors might cringe at the overstuffed, distorted spine of Classics for Vocal Expressions. The deformity makes it one of my favorites from that discovered box.

Then there was the tattered edition of Journeys Through Bookland I found at a used book sale, with its detached cover and deteriorated spine and loose leafs. When I reached the front of the line to pay for my stack of treasures, one of the volunteers working at the table lamented that the book shouldn’t have been put out for sale. Another volunteer offered to let me take it for free. But I paid the 50 cents expected for hardcovers, and it has a home now on my living room shelf.

I haven’t read that edition of Journeys Through Bookland, but it’s my favorite. (I have another edition that’s intact; it came from a box of books passed down through my dad’s side of the family.) Sometimes I pull the battered edition off the shelf to caress the cover or carefully turn its frayed pages.

My goal is to be a Statue of Liberty for worn books – let me stand as the symbol of their new home, offering them a place of permanence and acceptance. To paraphrase (and amend) Emma Lazarus’ iconic sonnet: Give me the tired, the poor, the wretched books. Send these, the homeless, to me. I lift my lamp to read them.

3 witchy reads for autumn

Today is the first day of astronomical fall.

You know what that means. Mugs of hot beverages. Pots of soup. Pumpkins on the porch. Warm, fuzzy sweaters.

And curling up under blankets to read.

As daylight wanes and nature prepares itself for a dormant season, it’s the perfect time to spend more hours indoors with a good book. (As if there’s ever not a good time to spend with a book …) This is also the season when the witchy vibe resonates the strongest, and that’s often reflected in my choice of titles from September through November.

Listed below are three of my favorite witchy reads from the past few autumns.

The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane

by Katherine Howe, 2010, Hachette Books, 384 pages

Summary: Harvard graduate student Connie Goodwin needs to spend her summer doing research for her doctoral dissertation. But when her mother asks her to handle the sale of Connie’s grandmother’s abandoned home near Salem, she can’t refuse. As she is drawn deeper into the mysteries of the family house, Connie discovers an ancient key within a seventeenth-century Bible. The key contains a yellowing fragment of parchment with a name written upon it: Deliverance Dane. This discovery launches Connie on a quest – to find out who this woman was and to unearth a rare artifact: a physick book, its pages a secret repository for lost knowledge.

Katherine Howe knits together the past and the present in this work of historical fiction. Although the book is light on fantasy and the magic is mild, it offers a glimpse into the Salem Witch Trials and an academic pursuit to find the “receipt book” (or recipe book, essentially a grimoire) belonging to Connie’s ancestor.

Storylines that blend magic and academia rank high among my favorites, as well as those that weave magic into our everyday lives and world. Not to mention the Salem Witch Trials have been a historical obsession for me since high school. If any of your interests tick the same boxes, this would be a good book for you.

The All Souls Trilogy
(A Discovery of Witches, Shadow of Night, The Book of Life)

by Deborah Harkness, 2011-2015, Penguin Books, approx. 590 pages each

Summary: Historian Diana Bishop has denied her magical heritage, instead focusing on her academic research into alchemy. But when she stumbles upon a bewitched alchemical manuscript at Oxford University’s Bodleian Library, she draws the attention of witches, vampires, and daemons alike. There’s no ignoring her magical past, nor can she ignore geneticist and vampire Matthew Clairmont as he becomes her unlikely ally in discovering the mystery of the manuscript known as Ashmole 782.

Magic is front and center in this trilogy, which also happens to be a trifecta of fantasy, academia, and romance. Rooted in our modern world, this series introduces us to a world of magic that hovers at the edge of our peripheral vision.

Despite Matthew Clairmont’s possessiveness of Diana driving me crazy, I enjoyed the romance of the trilogy. Plus there’s time travel, globe-trotting, and escalation of magical power as the series progresses.

The Heretic’s Daughter

by Kathleen Kent, 2009, Back Bay Books, 332 pages

Summary: Sarah Carrier Chapman narrates how she survived the Salem Witch Trials that killed her mother. Sarah and her family arrive in a New England community gripped by superstition and fear more than a year before the trials begin. As the family witnesses neighbors and friends pitted against each other, the hysteria escalates, until more than two hundred people have been swept into prison. Among them is Sarah’s mother, Martha Carrier. In an attempt to protect her children, Martha asks Sarah to commit an act of heresy – a lie that will condemn Martha but save her daughter.

This isn’t a novel in which you’ll find cauldrons or incantations – instead, you’ll find monsters among men. This piece of historical fiction sticks close to reality as it explores how the hysteria and accusations could mount against neighbors during the Salem Witch Trials in the 1690s. Even though the trials occurred during a bitter Massachusetts winter, the chilling history of Salem makes this a worthy pick for fall reading.