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Title: Toil & Trouble: 15 Tales of Women & Witchcraft
Editors/Authors: Jessica Spotswood, Tess Sharpe
Narrator: Amy McFadden
Authors: Tehlor Kay Mejia, Andrea Cremer, Lindsay Smith, Brandy Colbert, Shveta Thakrar, Robin Talley, Nova Ren Suma, Zoraida Córdova, Brenna Yovanoff, Kate Hart, Anna-Marie McLemore, Emery Lord, Elizabeth May
Genre: Paranormal, Social Issues
Audience: Young Adult
In this young adult anthology, editors Jessica Spotswood and Tess Sharpe celebrate the witchy wisdom and power of women. The collected stories cover a broad range of history and fantastical locations and include lighthearted tales as well as deadly serious ones.
Any short story collection is going to be a bit uneven but I truly enjoyed the vast majority of these. I would like to read novels based on some of these characters and I will be seeking out longer works by some of these authors. I appreciated that the writers are a culturally-diverse group and their characters reflect that. I also liked that some characters are LGBTQIA+. Representation matters.
After listening to this collection, I can’t say that narrator Amy McFadden is my favorite reader but she did read the stories capably. A lot of the stories blended together because her tone was so similar throughout. She did read with appropriate accents, which sounded fine to my untrained ear, but a lot of stories felt like they were being told by a snarky teen, which wasn’t necessarily accurate. The end of one story and the beginning of the next blurred together as well, which seems like a flaw (as I see it) of the production, not her. Just a few more seconds of silence would have clued me in that I had reached the ending.
Speaking of endings… I am okay with ambiguous endings. I won’t claim to be a huge fan but if I see a purpose, I’ll roll with it. Some of the stories seemed to stop for no apparent reason. That drives me crazy.
I recommend this for readers who enjoy short stories, women’s issues, and representation. When I look back on my Halloween reads, male authors always dominate the list. I enjoyed including a group of talented women this year, especially since they focused on important issues as well.
This is a good place to stop reading this review, but I always feel compelled to review each story as well. Here goes:
“Starsong” by Tehlor Kay Mejia–3 stars–I might have enjoyed this more in print. This was one of the stories that came across as snarky largely because of the narrator. Luna is sixteen and she almost died recently from a bad mixture of pills and alcohol. She’s finding her way forward with the help of her powers and the stars. She’s lonely though–until she meets @futureNASAqueen on Instagram and they begin discussing their mutual love of, but wildly different approaches to, the stars.
“Afterbirth” by Andrea Cremer–3 Stars–Cremer is one of two authors from this collection whom I’ve read previously (Nightshade). This wasn’t my favorite story although it largely felt all too real. Deliverance is an apprentice midwife. Her mentor, Miriam Ley, is on trial for witchcraft after a mother dies in childbirth and a
snooping busybody, concerned neighbor reports that the child she gave birth to was really a devil.
“The Heart in Her Hands” by Tess Sharpe–4 Stars–I would like to read more about this world. Bettina Clarke is from a family of witches who are each gifted with a mark on their skin when they meet their soul mates. Bettina isn’t content to let someone else decide her fate so she fights every way she can. I really liked her and Auggie, her best friend.
“Death In The Sawtooths” by Lindsay Smith–4 Stars–Possibly my favorite story of the collection. I’d like a novel and maybe even a series about Mattie, a witch who prepares the dead for burial and helps them settle their unfinished business. She’s never really fit in with the other, more glamorous witches, and they bullied her mercilessly in school. She finds out that witches who have followed in her footsteps haven’t been treated any better but they aren’t as accepting of the pecking order.
“The Truth about Queenie” by Brandy Colbert–3 Stars–This one had a bit too much…troubled teen love?… for my taste. Others will like it more than I did. Queenie is a witch but she has only explored her powers one time previously with disastrous consequences. When her famous best friend (who she’s secretly in love with) asks her to use her powers for a good cause, she’s afraid that she won’t be able to help.
“The Moonapple Menagerie” by Shveta Thakrar–3 Stars–This is a pretty little fantasy about a group of shape-shifting witches putting on a play. Shalini is supposed to be writing the play but she has a terrible case of writer’s block and self-doubt. There’s a message here about asking for help when you need it but mostly it just felt like a sweet little romp through a pretty fantasy world.
“The Legend of Stone Mary” by Robin Talley–4 Stars–Wendy’s family of women has a reputation as witches, stemming from an incident that occurred at the end of the Civil War. Wendy’s great-great something supposedly cursed the town. The curse has died down but now that Wendy is visiting the statue the town erected in an attempt to appease “Stone Mary’s” spirit, it feels like the curse may be coming back stronger than ever. I liked the small town mythos here and Wendy’s complicated friendship with Karen.
“The One Who Stayed” by Nova Ren Suns–This one is hard to rate. I personally didn’t care for it but it’s a powerful piece that’s going to linger with me. It will be a trigger for some readers. A group of women (Witches?Ghosts? I was never clear) watch as a young teen is preyed upon and relive the memory of another girl in a similar situation the year before.
“Divine Are The Stars” by Zoraida Córdova–3 Stars–I was interested enough in the world that this family of witches inhabit but I’ve already largely forgotten it. The elderly matriarch has summoned everyone to her home for their inheritance but the family does not find what they expected.
“Daughters of Baba Yaga” by Brenna Yovanoff–4 Stars–Ms. Yovanoff is the second author whose work I’m familiar with in this group (The Replacement). Stony, a teen from an immigrant family, knows life in America is hard for anyone who is even slightly different. Harmony, a girl who thinks they’re both witches, befriends her. Harmony believes in using her powers for good. Stony, on the other hand, believes in justice.
“The Well Witch” by Kate Hart–4 Stars–This is another strong contender for my favorite story of the collection. Elsa is a water witch living in an oasis of her mother’s creation in the dry Texas plains. Trouble comes to her door in the form of three drifters, apparent deserters from the armies of the Civil War. I admired her for her resilience and reliance only on herself.
“Beware of Girls with Crooked Mouths” by Jessica Spotswood–4 Stars–This felt like a smaller piece of a family saga and I would like to read that saga. There can only be one matriarch in each generation of women in the Campbell family. Jo has a vision that she thinks will allow her and her sisters to avoid the fatal fate of their forebears.
“Love Spell” by Anna-Marie McLemore–4 Stars–I liked this story for its belief in love against the odds. A young woman is learning the art of healing broken hearts from her tía. Even though they’re women of faith, the local priest refuses them Communion, calling them brujas. But un acólito notices the young woman and begins serving them Communion in their home on Sunday afternoons.
“The Gherin Girls” by Emery Lord–4 Stars–I enjoyed this story but, given its superficial similarity to both Practical Magic and Garden Spells, that’s to be expected. I love that the sisters are so wholeheartedly on each other’s side, no questions asked. Middle sister Rosie has been out of a slyly abusive relationship for about a year when she runs into her ex and feels her world collapsing around her. I would like to read more about The Gherin Girls.
“Why They Watch Us Burn” by Elizabeth May–This is another difficult one to rate. I personally didn’t love it but it’s a truly powerful allegory about women who’ve been preyed upon by men and then crucified in the court of public opinion.
If you liked Toil & Trouble, you might also like my reviews of
- Hex Hall by Rachel Hawkins
- Truly, Madly by Heather Webber
- Beautiful Creatures by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl
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