Midyear Catchup Reviews

Riss Design

Grad school has certainly cut into my reading, but I knew going into my degree program that something would need to give. I am still doing a ton of reading, but it’s mostly scholarly articles and research. I did manage to read a few things I haven’t had a chance to review on my blog, though.

My husband and I listened to Esi Edugyan’s Washington Black, read by Dion Graham, who was an excellent narrator. The novel is the story of Washington Black, who is enslaved on a sugar plantation in Barbados when he meets Christopher “Titch” Wilde, a scientist and inventor who changes Washington’s life. The two men embark on an adventure in a balloon that takes them all the way to the North Pole.

I really liked this one. It’s part historical fiction and part fantasy and part road trip. Some reviewers I’ve read mention the book drags a bit in the second half, and I would agree with that assessment, but nothing put me off wanting to finish it. If you haven’t read it, definitely pick it up, and I can’t recommend Dion Graham’s narration highly enough. Rating: ★★★★★

Heart and Soul: The Story of America and African Americans is a children’s book that came across my radar at an English teacher conference I usually attend each year. This book is an incredibly illustrated series of vignettes in African-American history as told by a grandmotherly narrator. Kadir Nelson both writes an illustrates the story. I plan to use it as a mentor text in my Social Justice class next school year. This is one of those books I wish I had as a kid. I loved reading about science and history, and I believe this one would have fascinated me. What I loved most about it is that anyone of any age can enjoy it. It’s perfect to share with children, but it’s one of those books I think the adults would enjoy as much as the kids, and it would be perfect for storytime. An instant classic! Rating: ★★★★★

Kwame Alexander collaborated with Kadir Nelson on The UndefeatedThis is another book I bought as a mentor text for my students. The Undefeated is a poem by Kwame Alexandar that celebrates the strength and resilience of African Americans. Once again, this is a children’s book that will appeal to all ages. Adults will enjoy the references to historical figures, and children will enjoy the wordplay and images—actually, adults will enjoy those, too. Kadir Nelson’s artwork is brilliant, yet again, and reading these two books made me want to search out everything he writes and/or illustrates. You can check out a video trailer for the book below. Rating: ★★★★★

 

 

Review: A Wrinkle in Time, Madeleine L’Engle

Review: A Wrinkle in Time, Madeleine L’EngleA Wrinkle in Time (Time Quintet, #1) by Madeleine L'Engle, Anna Quindlen
Published by Square Fish ISBN: 0312367546
Genres: Classic, Fantasy/Science Fiction, Young Adult
Pages: 247
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four-stars

Meg Murry and her friends become involved with unearthly strangers and a search for Meg's father, who has disappeared while engaged in secret work for the government.

I first read this novel in elementary school, probably fourth or fifth grade. I decided I wanted to see the movie, but since it had been so long since I had read the book, I thought I should read it again.

Wrinkle in Time Old Cover
The cover of the copy of A Wrinkle in Time I had when I was a kid.

Things I remembered:

  • Meg Murry is pretty badass.
  • Charles Wallace is an awesome character.
  • Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Which are a lot of fun.
  • There is this thing called a tesseract, and Meg has to save her father.

Things I had no memory of whatsoever:

  • The religious overtones.
  • Wow, Meg and Calvin got really close fast, didn’t they?
  • Just how long Meg’s father had been gone.

New observations:

  • Meg and Charles Wallace might be on the autism spectrum. My children are, and Meg and Charles Wallace remind me of them.
  • The storyline really moves fast. I mean, much faster than I remembered. Almost too fast (see below).

I haven’t read a middle grades novel in a long time, and I kept thinking, hold up! You’re going too fast! You need to develop that a bit more! I thought maybe, well, this is the speed you need to go with middle grades fiction, but after finishing the book, I’m not so sure. I think some parts were just unevenly developed. As a result, I didn’t buy Meg and Calvin’s friendship. Too fast, even for a kids’ book. I forgot how creepy Camazotz was. In the end, IT was not as scary to me as the spreading darkness. Plus, hold up: what parent leaves a child behind on Camazotz like Mr. Murry does? Unthinkable. I will probably read the other books in the series because I never did read the whole series. I think I read A Wind in the Door. That’s probably it.

I’m counting this book as my children’s classic for the Back to the Classics Challenge.

four-stars

Review: Haroun and the Sea of Stories, Salman Rushdie

Salman Rushdie’s novel Haroun and the Sea of Stories is the story of Haroun Khalifa, the son of storyteller Rashid. Rashid has lost his “gift of gab” after his wife, Haroun’s mother, leaves him for the boring, clerkish Mr. Sengupta, their neighbor. The Khalifas live in the country of Alifbay in a sad city that has forgotten its name. When Rashid attempts and fails to tell a story at a political rally (he makes something of a career telling stories at such rallies), he is quite literally run out of town and must go to the Valley of K and redeem himself at a rally for Mr. Snooty Buttoo. Or else. Mr. Snooty Buttoo takes Rashid and Haroun out on the Dull Lake in a ship, and Haroun wakes in the night to find a Water Genie disconnecting his father’s invisible tap, from which all his stories spring. Haroun is whisked away by the genie to speak to the Walrus, leader of the Eggheads who control the Processes to Complicated to Explain on the moon of Kahani, or Story, where the societies of Gup and Chup are about to go to war over the pollution of the Sea of Stories and the kidnapping of Guppee princess Batcheat.

Haroun and the Sea of Stories is ostensibly a children’s or young adult book, but the philosophical underpinnings and questions it raises are definitely meant for people of all ages to ponder. It was the first book Rushdie wrote after the fatwa dictated by the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini put Rushdie’s life in danger in an attempt to silence Rushdie’s own stories. It’s a fantastic novel that explores the complexities of where stories come from and what happens when they are “polluted” by those who would attempt to use them for their own ends or to silence them altogether. Motifs such as freedom of speech, the truth or reality of stories, creating meaning from stories in a modern world, and the purpose of stories and storytelling are at the center of what looks, at first blush, like a fantasy children’s tale. It’s a thoughtful meditation on the importance of stories. Rushdie apparently began telling the story orally to his son at bathtime, and it later evolved into this book.

I will start teaching it tomorrow to students in my ninth grade World Literature course. I should have finished the novel a long time ago, but it’s not been an easy year for me in a lot of ways, and perhaps it’s for the best that I waited to read it so that it is quite fresh for me. It means I wasn’t able to help as much as I wanted to with the initial planning of the novel, but I am blessed to have wonderful colleagues who stepped in when I wasn’t ready, and I feel I can contribute now. I’m so glad we picked this book, not just because it has a hero’s journey motif, which is one focus for the year, and not just because we were able to introduce an Indian author where previously we had a white British author, but also because it’s an excellent book that speaks to our schoolwide essential question: How do we honor and harness the power of our stories?

Rating: ★★★★★

Review: My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece, Annabel Pitcher, narrated by David Tennant

I’m not going to lie. I downloaded this audio book because David Tennant is the narrator. I had been looking for a quick audio book, and started searching some of my favorite actors and actresses to see which ones they might have read, and that is how I found this book. Once I read a few reviews, I decided to give it a shot. So very glad I did.

My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece is the story of Jamie Matthews. Jamie lives in London with his shattered family because, as the title says, his sister Rose’s ashes are in an urn on the mantelpiece. Well, most of them. After her death in a terrorist attack similar to the 7/7 bombings, Rose’s parents couldn’t agree about what to do with her remains. Five years later when Jamie is ten, Jamie’s mother leaves his father for a man in her grief support group. Jamie’s father moves Jamie and Rose’s twin sister Jas up to the Lake Country for a fresh start. As he starts drinking heavily and neglecting the children, Jamie begins to make friends with Sunya, a girl at school. The only problem is that she’s Muslim, and as Jamie’s father always says, Muslims killed his sister.

This book is absolutely charming, even though Jamie has such a hard time of it, mainly because of the humor with which Annabel Pitcher imbues Jamie. As maddening as almost all of the adults are, and as sad as Jamie’s experiences are, in Pitcher’s hands, the story is never maudlin or pathetic because Jamie isn’t. He copes with his absentee parents and struggles with his feelings about his father’s prejudice against Muslims with a sense of humor that sparkles. For example:

“I stared up at the sky and raised my middle finger, just in case God was watching. I don’t like being spied on.”

The characters, especially the children (but sadly, also the horrible adults) leap off the page with a delightful realism that might remind some of J. K. Rowling. I think the novel is a middle grade novel, as Jamie is ten, but truthfully, anyone of any age might enjoy it. Touching on grief, family strife, bullying, friendship, and racism, in less skilled hands it would be too much, or at the very least, it wouldn’t work. But Pitcher handles it beautifully. Moreover, the message about racism and prejudice is particularly important in the current political climate. I wish I knew more kids I could recommend the book to, but recommending it to you will have to do. Annabel Pitcher will make Jamie Matthews your new hero.

It probably goes without saying that David Tennant was an excellent narrator. I can always tell I am enjoying an audio book when I actually volunteer to do the dishes more than my fair share because I want to listen. His reading only underscores the book’s charm and humor.

It’s one of the best ones of the year for me.

Rating: ★★★★★
Audio Rating: ★★★★★

Jamie and his family move from London to Ambleside in Cumbria in the Lake District, so I’ll count it as a book set in Cumbria.

Review: The Last Battle, C. S. Lewis, narrated by Patrick Stewart

The Last Battle is the final book in C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia series. It begins with an evil ape named Shift, who bosses around a donkey named Puzzle under the pretense of being the donkey’s friend. The two find a lion skin, and Shift gets the bright idea of having Puzzle wear it so they can fool everyone into thinking Puzzle is Aslan. A bunch of people believe it. There is a bit with some dwarfs. There is a centaur and a unicorn. The Pevensies, minus Susan, and Eustace, Jill, Digory, and Polly, are all pulled back to Narnia after a mysterious bit with a train. A bunch of people worship the evil god Tash and want him to come but aren’t very happy when he shows up.

I don’t know what heck I read.

Listen, I have no problem with Christian allegory. Despite what J. R. R. Tolkien thinks, a good case can be made for The Lord of the Rings as Christian allegory, especially if you put it with The Silmarillion. I also happen to be a Christian. However, in this novel, Lewis sacrificed the plot in favor of ham-handed allegory. And it’s not even good.

I was already prepared for the “problem of Susan,” as I had run into commentary on the subject prior to reading the book, but it bears mentioning that leaving Susan completely bereft of family because she’s a normal teenager is truly heinous. What, girls should not grow up and become women? That’s not pure enough?

But what really bothers me is that it’s supposed to be Christian allegory, and everyone’s killing people right and left. What the heck? I mean, I gather it’s more Revelations than Book of John, but still…

My advice to anyone who, like me, didn’t read these as a child and decides to read them as an adult is to read The Magician’s Nephew, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Prince Caspian, and The Voyage of the Dawn Treader and leave it at that. Maybe The Horse and His Boy if you want to learn more about those characters, who only get a few mentions in the last couple of books and otherwise don’t figure much into the grand narrative. Stay far, far away from the final two books.

Racist, sexist, sloppily written, muddled, pile of crap. I don’t understand why a writer would desecrate his own writing like that. Patrick Stewart couldn’t save it, though his narration was brilliant. WORST. ENDING. EVER.

I so hate C. S. Lewis.

Book Rating: ½☆☆☆☆
Audio Rating: ★★★★★

Review: The Silver Chair, C. S. Lewis, narrated by Jeremy Northam

The Silver Chair (The Chronicles of Narnia)The penultimate book in C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia is The Silver Chair. This book features the Pevensie siblings’ cousin Eustace Scrubb, who first appeared in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, and Jill Pole, a classmate of Eustace’s at a boarding school called Experiment House. Eustace and Jill are being chased by bullies when they are magically whisked to Narnia and become embroiled in a quest to find the missing Prince Rilian, the son of King Caspian X, who is now an old man.

*Sigh*. Where to start with this hot mess. I didn’t like it from the start because it’s quite clear that Lewis is attempting to skewer progressive education in his characterization of Experiment House, but rather than create a good satire, he winds up sounding like an old fart who doesn’t know what he’s talking about (“Back in my day, we took switches to kids and prayed in school!”). Eustace and Jill are not nearly as likable as the Pevensies. Puddleglum is fun, but then I think I liked him mainly because of Jeremy Northam’s voice characterization—he had the best West Country accent. The male superiority is maddening. Jill actually says, “Where I come from, they don’t think much of men who are bossed about by their wives.” Um… What? I can’t imagine Lucy Pevensie saying such a thing. Yes, I know all about Susan being interested in lipstick and stockings in the next book. Which I will read to say I’ve read the whole series.

It’s clear Lewis was thinking of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight by having the Lady of the Green Kirtle kidnap and enchant Prince Rilian, but the stories diverge quite a bit aside from a passing similarity, which is a bit of a pity, because the rest of the plot is unremarkable. For a children’s book, the pace bogs down rather unforgivably once the characters go underground, and the plot is predictable from the start to the finish. Jeremy Northam’s narration, however, is superb. I just wish he had better material to work with. One thing I figured out after reading this book—I would love to visit Hogwarts and Middle Earth, but I have zero desire to go to Narnia.

Book Rating: ★★☆☆☆
Audio Rating: ★★★★★

Review: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, C. S. Lewis, narrated by Derek Jacobi

C. S. Lewis’s fifth novel in The Chronicles of Narnia is The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Lucy and Edmund Pevensie are visiting their terrible cousin Eustace Scrubb (who “almost” deserves the name) and are drawn back into Narnia through a picture of a ship hanging in a guest bedroom at their aunt and uncle’s house. They find themselves on King Caspian X’s ship the Dawn Treader, which is headed on a course to the Lone Islands to find the seven lords Caspian’s usurping uncle Miraz banished. Accompanying the king on his voyage are the ship’s captain, Lord Drinian, and the irrepressible mouse knight Reepicheep.

One of the things I liked about this book is that each of the characters, excepting Edmund, is tempted and tested. There aren’t any real enemies at the focus, as in first four books of the series. Of course, they encounter bad people, such as the slave traders, who must be vanquished before they can move on, but there is not one great enemy they must defeat, aside from themselves. Reepicheep is probably one of Lewis’s best characters. He’s fearless and adorable at the same time. He deserves his own series. I suppose he might be why we have Brian Jacques’s [amazon_link id=”0142302376″ target=”_blank” ]Redwall[/amazon_link] and Kate DiCamillo’s [amazon_link id=”0763625299″ target=”_blank” ]The Tale of Despereaux[/amazon_link].

I was reminded several times of the Camelot knights’ quest for the Holy Grail as I read. For instance, the scene in which the children encounter the three hairy sleeping men at the banquet table and the resulting quest to go to the uttermost East and leave one of their company behind there reminds me of [amazon_link id=”0140445218″ target=”_blank” ]Sir Percival’s story in the Grail quest[/amazon_link]. If you haven’t read it, Percival goes to the Grail castle and encounters the Fisher King, but ultimately fails in his quest to retrieve the Grail, while Galahad succeeds. Galahad is taken up into heaven. Reepicheep, then, is Sir Galahad. I also thought of The Odyssey many times, especially when the ship encountered the Dark Island, where dreams come true—the description of the unseen terror that lay in wait put me to mind of Scylla and Charybdis. Actually, a bit later on, the book itself referenced the part of The Odyssey when Odysseus covers his ears with beeswax and has himself lashed to the mast so he can listen to the sirens.

I’ve already said my peace about Aslan, so I won’t rehash it here, but suffice it to say I don’t feel any differently after this book. The device of the painting drawing the children into Narnia doesn’t make as much sense to me as the wardrobe or Susan’s horn.

Derek Jacobi, as you might expect, is an outstanding narrator. His characterization of Reepicheep is particularly praiseworthy, but really, I could listen to him all day on potentially any subject (except the Earl of Oxford, but I digress). He has done a substantial number of audio books besides this one. I would highly recommend listening to his narration of this book.

When I first tried to read this series many years ago, my memory was that I stalled out somewhere in the middle of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. I have no memory at all of the stories after The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe from that time, so it’s possible I started this book, but I’m rather wondering if I didn’t stall out in the middle of Prince Caspian now. Not sure, and I probably never will be, but this one was highly enjoyable. I have to say, the entire series has been exceptionally narrated, with the lamentable exception of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. I’m looking forward to Jeremy Northam’s reading [amazon_link id=”0062314610″ target=”_blank” ]The Silver Chair[/amazon_link] and Patrick Stewart’s reading [amazon_link id=”0062326988″ target=”_blank” ]The Last Battle[/amazon_link]. After I finish this series, I think I’ll return to Diana Gabaldon’s series on audio.

Book Rating: ★★★★½
Audio Rating: ★★★★★

Review: Prince Caspian, C. S. Lewis, narrated by Lynn Redgrave

Prince CaspianI finished listening to C. S. Lewis’s Prince Caspian over the weekend, and I haven’t had a chance to do my review yet.

Prince Caspian takes place one Earth year after the Pevensie siblings—Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy—have returned from Narnia through the wardrobe. They are at the train station preparing to go off to school, when they are suddenly whisked back to Narnia. It takes them some time to realize where they are because everything has changed. While they have been gone, hundreds of years have passed in Narnia, and they discover they have been summoned because Narnia once again has great need of their services. Prince Caspian, rightful king of Narnia, has had his power usurped by his evil Uncle Miraz, and he can’t defeat his uncle alone.

Each of the novels in this audio book series is narrated by a different great British actor. I found Kenneth Branagh’s reading of The Magician’s Nephew utterly charming, while Michael York’s reading of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe a bit spottier. Alex Jennings’s read of The Horse and His Boy was also good. Lynn Redgrave’s reading of Prince Caspian is excellent. She did a masterful job capturing the characters’ voices and using different types of accents. She managed to inject the patronizing tone of older siblings into Peter and Susan, and her characterization of the dwarfs Trumpkin and Nikabrik made me glad whenever they took the “stage.” I also particularly enjoyed her characterization of Doctor Cornelius, Reepicheep, and Trufflehunter. It looks like she has narrated a few other audio books, so I have to recommend her highly. What a shame she is no longer with us.

Of the four Chronicles of Narnia books I’ve read or re-read this year, I would say Prince Caspian comes in a strong second after The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. The Pevensies strike me as similar to King Arthur: they will come when Narnia has great need of them, and the device of Susan’s horn to call them was clever (and somewhat evocative of other myths). I really loved some of the minor characters in this one. Caspian is likeable, but Trumpkin, Reepicheep, Trufflehunter, and Doctor Cornelius are loveable. I like the idea that Narnian time passes at a different rate. I wonder if I can say this, though, without making someone angry: I just don’t like Aslan. He’s not bad, he’s just so heavy-handed a symbol. I realize it would wreck Lewis’s Jesus allegory if he removed Aslan from the stories, but I would find them more interesting if they had to figure out how to defeat the enemies without him as a deus ex machina. I also don’t find his personality particularly compelling. I understand his role in the stories, but he just doesn’t interest me as much as the children do. I suppose that if he is supposed to represent Jesus, then I’m not really sure I like this particular characterization of Jesus. Jesus struck me as less judgey and more gentle. I know he overturned the moneychangers’ tables at the Temple, but I mean on the whole. Aslan is forgiving, too; I’m doing a sloppy job putting my finger on their differences. Suffice it to say that I don’t find him as much fun as the other characters.

In all, this was a very enjoyable reading. I know I’m liking an audio book when I find excuses to wash the dishes so I can listen to a book while I do it. I mean, that’s just crazy, right?

Book Rating: ★★★★½
Audio Rating: ★★★★★

Review: The Horse and His Boy, C. S. Lewis, narrated by Alex Jennings

The Horse and His Boy CD (The Chronicles of Narnia)I know I read the third book in C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, The Horse and His Boy, about 20 years ago when I stalled out somewhere in the middle of [amazon_link id=”0064405028″ target=”_blank” ]The Voyage of the Dawn Treader[/amazon_link], but I had no memory of its plot at all. I think I know why. It’s utterly forgettable.

If you are not familiar with the plot, it is the story of a foundling boy named Shasta, who is raised by a fisherman named Arsheesh in Calormen, which seems to be C. S. Lewis’s stand-in for the Arab world. Shasta runs away upon learning that he is to be sold, and he meets talking horse from Narnia named Bree; a feisty fellow runaway named Aravis, who is escaping a marriage she does not want; and Aravis’s horse, Hwin. In their escape, they go to the city of Tashbaan, where Shasta is mistaken for a prince of Archenland named Corin. You see where this is going, right? I figured out most of the rest of the plot at that moment. At any rate, Shasta does meet Queen Susan, Queen Lucy, and King Edmund in his travels, as well as Aslan, who guides him in the night when he is running to tell the king of Archenland of an impending invasion by forces from Calormen.

I thought the plot was predictable. My reaction on finishing the book is really just a resounding “meh.” The characters were fine. I liked them. I just felt the plot was fairly well trodden. I really wonder why the book needed to be included in the series. It feels like filler material. However, Alex Jennings does an excellent narration, and I think I would like to read other books read by him.

Book Rating: ★★½☆☆
Audio Rating: ★★★★½

Review: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, C. S. Lewis, narrated by Michael York

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe CD (The Chronicles of Narnia)I recently decided to finish reading The Chronicles of Narnia, as I never read them as a child, and the time I did start them, I never finished the series.

The second book in the series, chronologically speaking (the first book published), The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, is arguably the most famous. In fact, one of my students made a reference to going inside the wardrobe as a metaphor for exploring the unknown just today. I often wonder how many children spent several frustrating minutes inside closets and wardrobes over the years in a desperate attempt to get to Narnia.

For those who may be unfamiliar with the story (not sure how that can happen), The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is the story of the four Pevensie siblings: Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy. They are sent to live in the country house of Professor Digory Kirke during the London air raids, and while playing hide and seek, Lucy, the youngest, discovers a magical wardrobe that transports her to a snowy land inhabited by a faun, Mr. Tumnus. She befriends the faun, and he reveals that he is in league with the White Witch and has promised to give the Witch word should any “Sons of Adam” or “Daughters of Eve” show up in Narnia. He meant to turn Lucy in, but he couldn’t do it. She returns through the wardrobe back to Professor Kirke’s house to discover she’s been gone no time at all, and the others don’t believe her. Later, the others all discover she is telling the truth, but not before the White Witch manages to sink her claws into Edmund via some fiendishly addictive Turkish Delight and convince him to rat out his siblings. The Pevensies find themselves caught up in ancient Narnian prophecy and wind up having to rid Narnia of the White Witch.

So, we have to talk about Aslan. Is it me, or is he the least interesting character? I mean, I understand he is supposed to be a Christ figure, and I have nothing against Christ figures in literature, but Aslan’s depiction in that role is just so heavy-handed. Perhaps it isn’t so heavy-handed to the intended audience of children. I actually really liked Edmund this time around. He was a pain in the rear, but he redeemed himself, and he was a little more interesting than the other characters. Jadis makes for a nice villain. I had forgotten the ending was so violent. I also have a soft spot for Lucy, but I confess I found Peter and Susan to be too goody-goody and boring to be terribly interesting. However, the storyline is deeply engaging, and it’s not hard to see why it has endured as a children’s favorite.

Also, as a side note, the missing Oxford comma in the title really bothers me, given C. S. Lewis was an Oxford man. Anyone know why it was left out?

It had been quite a long time since I read this book, and I have to say the Disney movie did a superb job capturing all of the book’s elements (and in casting). I couldn’t help but think about the movie as I was reading and remembering how the various parts of the book were depicted. I have to say Michael York’s reading was uneven. He did an excellent job characterizing most of the Narnian characters and Edmund and Lucy as well, but I didn’t care much for his Aslan, and he had a sort of odd cadence that sounded slightly patronizing. I think it was an attempt to sound avuncular, but it didn’t always hit that mark. All things being equal, I liked The Magician’s Nephew better in terms of the narration.

Because this book features Jadis, as the White Witch, I will count it for the Witches & Witchcraft Reading Challenge.

Story Rating: ★★★★☆
Audio Rating: ★★★☆☆

2014 Witches & Witchcraft Reading Challenge