Robyn Reviews: We Ride Upon Sticks

‘We Ride Upon Sticks’ chronicles the Danvers School Hockey Team in 1989 as, fed up of losing almost every game, they resort to witchcraft to try and make it to state finals. It’s written in first person plural – ‘we’ – an unusual choice, but one that invites the reader to feel like a part of the team themselves. The chapters are broken down into games – each following a specific game of the season – but also into characters, with each starring in at least one chapter. This is a very unique book, and one that requires thought, but those that like books with a bit of experimentation will likely love it.

The book starts at pre-season summer camp, a place all the school sports teams go to train and play ‘friendly’ matches that indicate how good a season they’re likely to have. As usual, Danvers hockey team – consisting of ten girls and one token boy – are being thrashed. Their goalie, Mel Boucher, has had enough. Deciding to turn to the ancestors of Danvers – of Salem Witch Trials fame – she performs a ritual, signing her name in an Emilio Estevez notebook. The next match, Mel breaks the record for the most saves made in a game – and thus begins the Danvers hockey team’s descent into witchcraft, complete with a symbolic piece of blue sock tied around their arms and regular sacrifices to appease their new benefactor, Emilio.

“A sea of adolescence streamed by, each of us in our own way trying to both fit in and stand out.”

The entire book is part satirical homage to the 1980s, and absolutely packed with 80s references. As a child of the 90s, I missed essentially all of these references – I suspect the book is much funnier with them, but it’s still enjoyable without. Similarly, each character is a slightly subverted stereotype of the typical senior class of a 1980s American High School. There’s Mel, the slightly butch character everyone is convinced is a lesbian; Girl Cory, the rich entitled white girl with the stepfather who spoils her rotten; Jen Fiorenza, the wannabe It Girl who can’t quite make herself as cool as Girl Cory; Julie Minh Kaling, the devout Catholic; Heather Houston, the Nerd. Then there’s Boy Cory, Jen’s sidekick whose parents just wish would be a bit more of A Man; AJ Johnson, the Black girl in a majority White town who won’t be your token; Little Smitty, the Good Girl who’s starting to figure out it’s fun to rebel; Sue Yoon, who dyes her hair exotic colours and dreams of being an actress; Becca Bjelica, whose big breasts must make her a slut, and finally Abby Putnam, the uncontested Leader and the only one with any real sporting talent. Seem a lot to take in? It is – this is a book full of character names, to the extent that it can get overwhelming, but by the end the reader knows each character intimately.

Writing a book about a hockey team who become a coven of witches from the perspective of the team as a whole – rather than focusing on one or two characters in it – is a huge ask, and where this falls down slightly is the execution. It takes a while to sort out who each character is, and how they fit in. The use of the first-person plural perspective also makes the reader slightly detached from each character – you become part of the team, but you’re an outsider peeking into every other team members’ life.

The ending flashes forward thirty years to a reunion in 2020. It’s interesting seeing where each character ends up, but it also replaces the climax the entire book is building up to which something that feels far less satisfying. (However, there’s a certain scene involving their return to the hockey pitch which is absolutely hilarious and I’m glad exists. No spoilers, but if you’ve read it, it involves a certain rabbit).

Overall, this is an ambitious book that straddles the line between fantasy and literary fiction. The execution isn’t perfect, but it’s certainly a brave idea and a highly entertaining read. Recommended for fans of 1980s nostalgia, coming-of-age stories, witchcraft, and experimental literature.

Published by Pantheon Books
Hardback: March 2020, Paperback: February 2021

This book is not currently published in the UK, but is available in the UK through Blackwells and some other bookstores.

Robyn Reviews: Kingdom of the Wicked

‘Kingdom of the Wicked’ treads well-trodden ground but puts a fresh enough spin on it to become an intriguing and enjoyable story. It definitely reads like part one of a series rather than fully standing up on its own, but as long as the sequels provide some much-needed answers this can stand up as a solid addition to the YA fantasy genre.

The novel follows Emilia, one of a family of streghe – witches – living secretly amongst humans. Their family is one of twelve streghe families in Sicily, but following a powerful spell cast generations ago the families are discouraged from mixing. Emilia pays more attention to her family renowned restaurant than to magic – until she discovers her beloved twin, Vittoria, murdered, her heart ripped out, and a mysterious figure drinking her blood. Her quest for vengeance pulls her into the world of the Wicked – the princes of Sin her Nonna has always warned her about.

Emilia is a likeable enough protagonist. Previously a carefree girl whose only worries were new dishes at the restaurant and her flirtation with a completely unavailable man, she becomes a creature driven only by vengeance. She rushes headlong into situations without thought of the consequences and frequently has to be rescued. It’s slightly annoying that she spends most of the novel being pulled out of dangerous places by a man (and once her grandma, which is far more badass), but the idea of a teenage girl in over her head is certainly more accurate than most YA fantasy. Her motivations and struggles are always relatable, and hopefully as she starts to understand more about her abilities and situation in book two, she’ll become less of the damsel in distress and more the damsel of distress.

The other major character is Wrath, one of the seven Princes of Sin. Wrath is the typical mysterious male figure in YA fantasy – powerful, with many secrets and unknown motives, and also exceptionally attractive. However, I appreciate that, unlike in most books, Wrath and Emilia don’t immediately fall into a romance. Emilia’s priority throughout remains her sister, and she won’t allow herself unnecessary distractions. She also innately distrusts a Prince of Sin, a very wise decision not shared by most other heroines in her genre.

Kerri Maniscalco is known for her ‘Stalking Jack the Ripper’ series, a collection of YA mysteries. I’ve never actually read any of them, but her talent for writing mystery is absolutely on show in ‘Kingdom of the Wicked’. The plot twists and turns, with the culprit for the murders never entirely evident. There are dead ends, red herrings, and far too many potential murderers to count. When the killer is finally revealed, they come from a very unexpected direction. I appreciate that Maniscalo managed to weave a difficult-to-predict mystery without making it seem outlandish or implausible.

The highlight of this novel is the interspersing of Sicilian culture. There’s a strong focus on the food – Emilia spends a lot of time at the family restaurant, and she enjoys subjecting a Prince of Sin to mortal cuisine. Sicily is a more unusual setting for a fantasy novel, and it helped differentiate this from its peers and add depth to the characters and story.

Overall, this is a solid start to a series, albeit one that – as it doesn’t entirely stand on its own – will be greatly influenced by the strength of its sequel. Recommended to fans of A Court of Mist and Fury, The Cruel Prince, and similar story dynamics.

Thanks to NetGalley and Hodder & Stoughton for providing an eARC – this in no way affects the content of this review

Published by Hodder & Stoughton
Hardback: 27th October 2020

Robyn Reviews: The Devil and the Dark Water

‘The Devil and the Dark Water’ is part mystery, part horror story against the background of a trading ship in the 17th century. An eclectic group of people – the governor general of Batavia, the world’s greatest detective, a loyal bodyguard, the greatest navigator in the East India Trading Company, a healer, the last Witchfinder – have all ended up on the Saardam, a ship travelling from Batavia (now Indonesia) to Amsterdam. However, their voyage appears cursed – and as demonic symbols and strange events start to strike the ship, they must all band together to solve the mystery before it kills them all.

The key part of any mystery novel is the reveal at the end, and whilst this is very clever – it’s difficult to guess the key players right until the end, with red herrings left right and centre – the final chapter isn’t entirely convincing. Nonetheless, this is a great read filled with solid characters, and the narrative spins in different directions throughout. There are plenty of historical fiction tropes – forbidden romance, clever women stifled by men, the seductress wanted by every man she meets – but they’re written well, adding to the narrative rather than detracting from it.

The highlights are undoubtedly Arent Hayes – the gruff bodyguard of renowned detective Samuel Pipps, who is heading to Amsterdam in chains to face judgement for an unknown crime – and Sara Wessel, the wife of the governor general who hates her husband with the ferocity of a wildfire. Arent is a genuinely good man, one who became a soldier out of a lack of options but is now so good at it he doesn’t believe he’s good for anything else. Sara is a smart woman who knows there’s no place in the world for smart women and will do everything in her power to keep her even smarter daughter out of harms way. This unlikely pair lead the search for answers – Arent with his fists and his sword, and Sara with her brains and sheer determination. It’s impossible not to root for them both, and to feel deeply for how they’ve been scarred.

The ship makes an excellent setting for what, at its heart, is a locked room mystery. It’s filled with stark divides – rich and poor, passengers and crew – and these dynamics deeply affect each part of the novel. The look into life at sea is fascinating, if regularly horrifying. Stuart Turton never flinches from the stark reality of sailors’ lives, and the imagery he creates is visceral.

Overall, this is a solid historical thriller with an intriguing and varied cast, brought to life by its setting and the vivid language. The ending could have been more satisfying, and some of the characters more original – but this is still a great story. Recommended for all fans of historical fiction and closed-room mysteries.

 

Thanks to NetGalley and Bloomsbury for providing an eARC – this in no ways affects the content of this review

 

Published by Bloomsbury
Hardback: 1st October 2020

Robyn Reviews: The Ghost Tree

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This is a very difficult book to review. It has great elements, but certain parts of it make me very uncomfortable. I’m hesitant to recommend it because certain problematic aspects are never called out.

The Ghost Tree centres on the town of Smiths Hollow, a small town on the outskirts of Chicago known for being peaceful and prosperous. While towns around it have suffered from job losses and escalating crime, Smiths Hollow has flourished. However, there’s a dark secret behind that prosperity – and a cascade of events have been set in motion which might lead to it all falling down.

I want to start by explaining my primary issue with this book. It features a developing relationship between a fourteen-year-old girl who has yet to start high school and an eighteen-year-old college student. This relationship is never challenged or spoken of in any negative way. I’m enormously uncomfortable with the idea of young teenagers reading this book and thinking that relationships with adults are acceptable or even cool. There’s a huge inherent power and maturity imbalance here, and whilst it’s natural for teenagers to fantasise about relationships with those older than them, relationships between children too young for high school and actual adults should never be portrayed as normal. This isn’t being marketed as a young adult book, but in many ways it reads as one. I don’t understand why the fourteen-year-old wasn’t aged up to at least sixteen – this wouldn’t have affected the plot in any way, and would have made this feel less uncomfortable.

It’s a shame, because the characters in this are excellent. For a short book it has many point-of-view characters, but this works, creating a real small-town feel. There’s nuanced discussion about the difficulties of being a single parent, the difficulty of raising teenagers, racial tension, and being a teenager changing and growing apart from your family and friends. Many of the characters think uncomfortable things – one is unapologetically racist, another has very problematic thoughts about sex and virginity – but this actually works well, because many people do believe those things, and as long as those beliefs and opinions are challenged by other characters it becomes clear that they’re not being condoned. It captures the feeling of being a teenage girl very well, and whilst I haven’t been a single parent, the way it describes how this feels is also very nuanced and thought-provoking. Through the lens of all the different characters, it manages to show a variety of opinions on each event in a very eye-opening way.

To be honest, I think this would work better as a contemporary rather than a horror story. The horror elements felt unnecessary and a tad contrived compared to the cleverness and insightfulness of the characters and social commentary. They also weren’t particularly scary – I don’t know if this was the intent, but it combined with the age of some of the primary characters to give this a more juvenile feel. Personally, I would have preferred two separate stories – one a contemporary with this cast of characters, and one a gothic horror story about witches and the monster in the woods.

Having said that, the plot wasn’t bad, and I did enjoy reading this. Certain elements were very gripping, and I was really rooting for certain characters – especially Alex Lopez. Those looking for a basic horror story with an intriguing and varied cast of characters will probably enjoy this – I just think every reader needs to be aware that it’s not without its issues.

Thanks to Titan Books and NetGalley for providing an eARC – this in no way affects the content of this review

Published by Titan Books
Paperback: 8th September 2020