(AUTHOR’S NOTE: In the interests of disclosure, I’ll tell you now that I am friends with Katie Cord, founder and CEO of Evil Girlfriend Media, and am acquainted with several of the authors featured in WSB. At least, I was when I started writing this review. Given my penchant for brutal honesty in reviews, we’ll see how many are left after it’s posted.)
Witches, Stitches, & Bitches (hereafter WSB) is an anthology of short stories, with each story featuring, in some interpretation, a witch, stitches, and *sigh* a bitch. (I really don’t like that word.) WSB is also the first book published by Evil Girlfriend Media, a new publisher founded by Katie Cord. WSB came out on September 13, 2013, so why am I doing a review two months later? Because I’ve been really busy and am horribly behind on my reading, that’s why.
I’ll start with the cover (which is a great cover, by the way). It feels good, it looks good. It doesn’t feel or look cheap, flimsy, slapdash, or anything other than professional and well-put-together. It’s a little thing, I know, but how a book looks and feels are important qualities to me.
On to the anthology itself!
On my second reading (and yes, I liked I enough to read it twice without another book between), I took notes on each story to base my reviews upon. Here we go, into the world of WSB!
1. “Blood Magic” by Gabrielle Harbowy – I loved “Blood Magic.” It’s an artful, graceful take on a horrible situation. It intrigued me that the standard victim trope is turned on its head, in that the method of the abuse ending is – well, you’ll just have to read it. I’m trying not to give spoilers here. The way in which Harbowy describes Aya’s feelings as she suffers and struggles through the day are a master class in gently describing a terrible circumstance without losing any of the emotional impact. I also liked the lack of padding and unnecessary details – it is a short story that tells the tale, engrosses you in the heroine’s plight, gets its message across and gets out before you have time to get tired of it. Short, elegant, beautiful, and sad, “Blood Magic” is a really strong start for this anthology.
2. “Urgent Care” by Christine Morgan – The opening line really sets the tone for this story: “Once upon a time, there was a little girl whose dumbass big brother got caught up in an occult gang war.” This story is going to be very real, very gritty, and lets you know that from the jump, which I appreciated. It’s unapologetic urban fantasy in a style very reminiscent of Kim Harrison and Jim Butcher, but with its own distinct voice. It is also to Morgan’s credit that she employed one of my least-favourite literary devices, past flashbacks that continue throughout the story, and I hardly noticed it until the second read. The flashbacks are smooth with the flow of the story and don’t disrupt it at all, which is lovely to read. The romantic aspects of the story are a little obvious, but not enough to detract from the grim tone and feel of the setting. The dialogue is well-done, and I ended up really liking Larrah, despite her. . .we’ll be polite and call it “brusque”. . .demeanor. It’s obviously part of a larger story, one I know I’ll be eagerly waiting to read.
3. “The Knitted Man” by Bo Balder – This is a very charming, enjoyable short story with a, I think, a larger meaning about love that I couldn’t entirely grasp, but I think that’s more my fault than Balder’s. Even with that, though, it’s still an interesting story, and the Aunties were amusing.
4. “Spare Parts” by Stephanie Bissette-Roark – From my notes: “Mary Shelley meets Jim Butcher at the Punisher’s house.” Violent, gory, funny, and sad, Stephanie (I do know her) runs an emotional gamut in this story. It’s a bit long, and I learned things about crime scene cleanup that I never needed to know, but it kept me enthralled throughout. The last scenes were a bit more convoluted than the straightforwardness of the rest of the story, with a main character making some odd choices, but that could easily be explained if the story is continued (hint, hint). A quality read that slips just a little bit at the end.
5. “The Secret Life of Dreams” by Tom Howard – In my notes, I wrote that this story is “a brief burst of wonderful strangeness that leaves you confused, curious, and smiling in its wake; tells you exactly everything you need to know to follow the story and exactly nothing more.” I don’t really have another way to describe it – you have to check this story out for yourself. It is absolutely worth it.
6. “Frogsong” by Kate Brandt – The straightforward storytelling of “Frogsong” makes it a great follow-up to the previous story. It’s a nice modern take on a morality tale, and has a closing line I wish I’d written: “The powers of our hearts call to us, and generally we follow the song.” I so wish I’d written that! Alas, Kate Brandt beat me to it, and I begrudge her nothing for it. As for how I liked the story, well, I loved Daphne, didn’t feel sorry at all for Frank, and did feel sorry for Nellie, so I think Brandt hit exactly the emotional evocations she was going for. That is indeed a mark of high-quality writing.
7. “No Substitute” by Caren Gussoff – Whereas the weak point of “Spare Parts” was its convoluted ending, “No Substitute” is weakest in its beginning. On the first page, 8 character names (I’m counting “Delanor sheriff” as a name) are thrown at you with no context and not much about their relationships (Kate is a friend of Poppy’s, Jonquil is Poppy’s mother, Wisteria is Poppy’s aunt). It’s like the story hits the ground running too fast and stumbles. The relationships between those people are explained early on, so the story does get up to its own speed after that stumble. There is a bit of a “whodunit” element to the story, though the suspect list is pretty short, and one character makes a really odd decision that drives the story forward but just doesn’t make much logical sense (read it and you’ll see what I mean). It’s a solid story, but not without its flaws. Also, the name “Ber Breyan” kept reminding me of longtime University of Alabama football coach Bear Bryant, and I couldn’t quite get the mental image of him out of my head when I read the name. I think that says more about me than it does about the story, though.
8. “Forgetting Tomorrow” by Bob Brown – I will say this now: I think fables are overdone in current pop culture. Between TV shows Once Upon A Time and Grimm, movies like Snow White and The Huntsman, Tangled, Hansel and Gretel, and of course the Disney Princesses, and comic books Fables and Grimm Fairy Tales, and numerous other novels out there, fables are just being done to death right now. All that said, “Forgetting Tomorrow” manages to stand out in that crowded field by following a character that I haven’t seen in any of those other fable interpretations (no, I’m not going to say who). Kudos to Bob Brown for writing a fast-moving, engaging story that stands apart in a saturated market!
9. “The Bitchy Witch Queen And The Undone Stitches” by Garth Upshaw – I guess it’s only fair that the longest story in the book should have the longest title, right? Also, I guess it would make an interesting band name. Anyway, don’t let the light tone of the lengthy title fool you – this is a pretty heavy story. It’s a fully-realized world, with details given aplenty in drips and drabs as opposed to flow-breaking info-dumps, which I liked. It’s also, I think, a fair approximation of what our world would be like if magic really existed – there would still be social inequality and class warfare, just along different lines. That’s the world this story occupies, and Upshaw really makes the world live and breathe. In terms of world-building, I would say this story is the best in the book; the characters are also pretty well-developed, but given the length, they’d damn well better have been. The somewhat preachy ending, along with Lianne’s choice to make it so, detracted a little from my enjoyment of the story, but not much. Upshaw built a good world here – I hope he’ll return to it to tell more stories.
10. “Not Even If I Wanted To” by Kodiak Julian – It’s an interesting modernized take on Hansel & Gretel, from a very different perspective than other tales and, thank God, not starring Jeremy Renner. It’s by no means a bad story, but it really didn’t grab me and pull me in as much as the other stories did. That may be down to Julian’s stark, this-is-what-happened style. The first-person narration here seems to be a little detached, and that carried over to me in reading it – I felt detached from the story, not engrossed in it. Again, by no means a bad story, but not as vibrant and alive and the others in this book.
11. “Yes, I’m A Witch” by Julie McGalliard – The second page of this story contains a line I absolutely fell in love with: “It tasted of chemicals and disappointment.” Brilliant. McGalliard has an attention to small details that speak volumes, such as the mismatched door on the otherwise undescribed car of Sharyn’s sister’s car; it’s such a little thing but it told me so much about Sharyn’s family and home situation. I love writing like that, that gives me meaningful small details instead of walls of miniscule, unimportant ones. Also, the primary setting of this story makes perfect sense: 1981, at the beginning of the Satanic Panic. That societal fear of basically things that were not mainstream, so encouraged by and ensconced in the rise of the religious right, is perfectly reflected in Tabby’s mother. No other time would have had that movement in society, so this is that rare gem of a story in which the setting really matters to the story. Not many stories are that way nowadays, and I loved it here. Granted, it also brought back painful, awkward 80s memories, but I’ll not hold that against McGalliard. It also reads a little like a cautionary tale, but isn’t heavy or preachy in its message. “Yes, I’m A Witch” is one of my favourites of the anthology, no question.
12. “The Far Horizon” by J. H. Fleming – As I think I mentioned before, I’m not a fan of stories that switch back and forth between past and present for their entire length. Fleming employs that technique here, and does okay with it. This is also another example of a story with just the right amount of detail – not too much, not too little, and that’s a technique I am a HUGE fan of. This story zips right along at a great pace, starts off greyish in tone and gets darker as it goes, and wraps up in an open but very satisfying conclusion. It’s a very good story overall.
13. “The Three Gateways” by Eva Langston – This is another story with a “cautionary tale” feel to it, but one that wraps up really well and in an unexpected way. Langston does an excellent job of characterization here as well’ there’s no pure saints and no pure sinners. I like that. In all of it, Langston writes really well and sucks me into the story. I even liked Luci the Teenage Goth Witch, mercenary though she was, and the spells described feel pretty real to me. It’s a great grey story, well worth the read.
14. “For Want of a Unicorn” by Camille Griep – This story is hilarious. I cracked up several times reading about the worst Fairy Godmother ever and things working out for the heroine in spite of the FG more than because of her. I love this story so much! It’s a take on a fable-ish world rather than directly on a fable, which is good, and it’s very smartly written. I love a good humour story, one that doesn’t insult the readers’ intelligence for the sake of a joke, and Griep pulls that off very, very well here. Definitely one of my favourites, if not my outright fave. LOVE IT! More from Camille Griep, please, now, thank you!
15. “Blood of the Mother” by Alaina Ewing – I began this story with a bit of apprehension, becomes it starts closer to the middle of the story than the beginning, and I am automatically wary of stories that start off that way and then flash back to the earlier bits of backstory. THANK GOD this story doesn’t do that. The necessary backstory is filled in through dialogue and the narrator’s thoughts, a much more less obtrusive method that didn’t pull me out of the story. (Hear that, writers? If you can’t start me at the beginning, then catch me up along the way; don’t put the story on pause to go back to what happened before.) It’s a well-written, solid witchy adventure story that moves along at a quick, smooth pace. My only complaint is that, at times, Terra feels like the sidekick in her own story.
16. “Dress of Fur and Fangs” by Rebecca Fung – Last but not least, we have this story, which starts off light in tone but gets very dark around the middle, when the “bitch” shows up. This story had, in my interpretation, a running theme on body images, filtered through a Potter-esque world, with a message on the dangers of envy as well. I can’t say much more than that without spoiling it, and I have no desire to do that, but I can say that, for me, it made me really think about the messages society tells women about their bodies. It’s an intriguing and thought-provoking story that loingers in your head after reading it, and concisely written to get its point across without being heavy-handed about it. (I should probably learn from that.) A very good read, and a great way to bring this anthology to a close.
So, now you have my review of these 16 stories. Now I’ll answer the most pressing question: is WSB worth buying?
The answer is a heartfelt, enthusiastic OH HELL YES WHAT ARE YOU WAITING FOR. If you like witches, stitches, bitches, and/or well-written, intelligent, engrossing stories, this is the anthology for you! It’s available on Amazon in both ebook and paperback formats (I haven’t jumped onto the ebook bandwagon yet, because I am old and set in my paper-reading ways) so whatever your preference, it’s easy to get your hands on a copy.
Which you should do.
Don’t make Katie have to put a curse on you.
UPDATE: Because I don’t think clearly at 3 AM, I made a mistake. I did not mention the terrific editing job on WSB done by Shannon Page. Having been an editor myself, I am very vigilant for editorial errors when I read; in the past few years, most books have driven me to conniption fits over how many errors make it to print. I am pleased to report that, thanks to the diligence of Shannon, there aren’t any. Seriously, none. No typos, no continuity slips, no nothing. Clearly Ms. Page is a superhuman editor, perhaps editor of the Xavier School’s monthly newsletter, and deserves to be recognized as such. I apologize for the oversight.