All the New (and Old) Indie Bookstores I Visited in 2023

Throughout 2023, I visited eight new-to-me indie bookstores, one new-to-me chain, and several old favorites. While I always try to visit new bookstores when I’m out and about, last year I happened to travel more than I normally would—which translated to getting to visit more indie bookstores than usual!

I traveled to London, Seattle, Florida (twice), Cape Cod, and to visit family in three different towns in Pennsylvania. On most of these trips, I was able to visit at least one bookstore, usually an indie. One even had a bookstore cat (keep reading for photos). I spent plenty of time in local indies, too, but I think they deserve their own post. Stay tuned for that closer to Independent Bookstore day in April.

This post contains affiliate links to Bookshop.org, an online bookstore that financially supports independent bookstores. If you buy from my links, I will receive a small commission at no extra cost to you. If you have a local indie bookstore, consider supporting them instead!

Indie Bookstores in Seattle, Washington

In March, I traveled to Seattle for the annual Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference. The AWP book fair is quite the sight to behold—a book lover’s paradise for sure. Since this was a work trip, I didn’t have too much time to explore the city, but I made a point to visit a few bookstores and a comic shop.

Elliott Bay Book Company

Elliott Bay is one of the largest indie bookstores I’ve visited. Maybe not quite as big as a typical Barnes and Noble, but close! They have a substantive science fiction and fantasy section, and an LGBTQ section in a prominent location. I was there too late to enjoy the cafe, but the space was beautiful.

Left Bank Books

Left Bank Books is a small anarchist bookstore in Pike Place Market. But don’t let the size fool you—there are a lot of books packed into that space! It’s a really charming little bookstore, and they even have a cozy reading nook on the second floor.

Golden Age Collectibles

Another small but mighty shop! Beyond comics, Golden Age has a great selection of collectibles and board games in Pike Place Market. They don’t have a huge selection of back issues, but I was able to find a few variant covers on my wishlist, and the staff was amazingly friendly and helpful.

London, England

This year the seminal Star Wars fan event, Star Wars Celebration, was held in London. Yes, I flew to the UK to attend a con celebrating fictional space wizards. Outside the convention, our sightseeing schedule was pretty packed. We did manage to make a brief visit to the British Library (awe-inspiring) and the prevalent UK chain Waterstones. I would have loved to visit Forbidden Planet beyond their convention, but it just wasn’t in the cards—next time!

Waterstones

Despite being a chain (whose parent company also now owns Barnes and Noble), Waterstones is still a pretty charming bookstore. It reminded me a lot of Borders with how cozy it felt and the breadth of selection.

Indie Bookstores in Cape Code, Massachusetts

My mother had been wanting a family vacation for awhile, so she organized this trip to Cape Cod. The Cape is gorgeous, and there are so many bookstores there, I could have spent the entire week bookstore hopping. I would have, if I’d had a car while there!

Provincetown Bookshop

Although small, I was impressed with Provincetown Bookshop‘s selection of speculative fiction. The store felt highly curated in the best way, making excellent use of the limited space. I imagine it must be difficult in a tourist town to cultivate a selection the appeals to both locals and travelers, but there’s something for everyone here.

Bunch of Grapes Bookstore

My mother dragged me to Martha’s Vineyard, but I ran away to this delightful bookstore and hung out all day with the bookstore cat, Bookmark. It was amazing. Bunch of Grapes is a bright and cheerful shop with two floors of books and bookish gifts. And a cat, in case I didn’t mention that. Bookmark is quite the charmer, and I watched him wander from patron to patron, getting all the scritches he could possible want, and then a nap under a display table. 

Indie Bookstores in Eastern Pennsylvania

Although I make my home in Pittsburgh now, I’m originally from Coatesville, a little steel town outside of Philly. My spouse is from an even smaller coal town near Hazelton, so we find ourselves out that way quite a bit to visit our families. And a few of our favorite local bookstores!

Pocket Books (Lancaster)

Located in an old house with an expansive porch, Pocket Books is a welcoming, homey store with a great selection. Once you’re done browsing and have purchased your new paper treasures, you can find a spot on the porch and read as long as you’d like. This store also gets bonus points from me for stocking Always Coming Home by Ursula K. Le Guin, my favorite book of all time. (Yes, I bought another copy, because it’s a new edition!)

Pressed Coffee and Books (Pottsville)

More coffee shop than bookstore, Pressed Coffee and Books is nevertheless a charming space with beautiful decor and a back room full of used books. We visited in November, so it was the perfect weather for a hot chai latte. I’m very picky about my masala chai (make it spicy please), and this one lived up to all my expectations. The shop’s focus on community really comes through in the atmosphere and the staff’s friendliness.

Wellington Square Bookshop (Eagle)

Wellington Square is quickly becoming one of my favorite indies. I wrote about my first visit two years ago in more detail, but I had just as much fun browsing this time. I picked up the 7 Stories Press box set of Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents, and could have easily spent another hundred dollars (oh how I wanted to).

Three Reading Goal Alternatives to the Goodreads Challenge

A red neon sign that says READ.
A neon sign in the window at Elliott Bay Books in Seattle, WA. I should have asked them where they got it when I was there, because I want one.

The traditional number-of-books-read-based reading goal is meaningless as a measure of how much you actually read in a year. There. I said it.

On the surface, this kind of reading goal seems like a useful way to encourage more reading. And for some people, it does. For others, it’s nothing but a source of stress. The Goodreads Challenge isn’t supposed to be a competition. But far too many people turn it into one and make others feel bad about how many books they did or did not read.

And what counts as a book, anyway? A novel like War and Peace, certainly. What about a picture book? Does that count? What about an issue of a literary magazine? A graphic novel? A poetry chapbook? What about an omnibus that collects several novels together in one volume? Is that one book, or multiple?

Most people would agree that picture books, poetry collections, and graphic novels are books, but these books are likely to be significantly shorter than many novels. Something like a literary magazine is technically not a “book” because it’s a periodical, but many issues of lit mags are just as long as many novels. 

Is it “cheating” to read ten Dr. Seuss books on December 31 because you’re ten books short of your goal? If you read and track single issues of comics, is counting those toward “books read” a cop out? Should you just log the collected edition instead? 

It was these questions, along with my growing concerns over the way Amazon uses Goodreads data and the way the site has “enabled the weaponization of displeasure,”* that led me to stop using Goodreads partway into 2021.

Goodbye, Goodreads

Tracking my reading had become a chore that I didn’t look forward to. More than that, the reading challenge made reading itself feel like a chore—something I had to do instead of something I enjoyed doing. 

I’m far from the first person who’s felt like this. In an article for Book Riot from 2019, Stacey Megally describes how the Goodreads Reading Challenge stressed her out and sucked the joy out of reading. She asked, “When did I start prioritizing hitting a number over blissfully wandering inside a story—new or old—that I love?”

When I made the decision to abandon my reading challenge in 2021, I felt relieved. I felt free. Suddenly it didn’t matter how I tracked my comic reading or whether I read Narwhal and Jelly for the fifth time.

Only, it had never mattered. I only thought it did because of an arbitrary, ill-defined goal I set for myself out of some misguided notion that I should because I am a Book Person, and that’s what Book People do. 

A painting of a stack of books on the sidewalk.
A sidewalk painting is in front of a Barnes & Noble in Pittsburgh, PA.

Goals can be motivating as long as they are achievable and realistic. Most people I know who set reading goals do so because they want to read more, or maintain their current level of reading. Others set goals to expand their horizons or learn more about a certain topic. Basing your reading goals on the number of books you read doesn’t necessarily translate into reading more or expanding your reading horizons. 

That doesn’t mean we have to abandon reading goals altogether. Here are some alternatives that may help you get the results you want.

This sounds so simple, but if you aren’t satisfied with how often you read, the only way to read more is to, well, make the time to read more. So ff you want to read more, set a time-based goal or a habit goal.

Two options for this are to read for a certain amount of time each day or week (one of those timer bookmarks they make for kids might be useful here) or to create a habit goal where you aim to read on a certain number of days every week (or month, or year).

I have both a habit goal and a time based goal. I strive to read for at least twenty minutes every day. Most days, I exceed that. Some days, I barely hit it. Other days, the only reading I do is listening to an audiobook while I fall asleep. 

I don’t use a timer, because for me the point is not to be perfect or exact. The point is to encourage myself to carve out a little time each day for my favorite leisure activity. I do use the Finch self care app to track my reading days.

This hybrid habit/time-based goal helps me reduce mindless scrolling and keep reading as a focus in my life.

If you want to read outside your comfort zone, try joining a prompt-based reading challenge.

Prompt-based reading challenges ask you to read books that meet certain criteria. “Read a book by a trans author” is one example of a prompt. Book Riot’s Read Harder challenge is the most popular prompt-based challenge, but there are many, many more.

General challenges like Book Riot’s and Popsugar’s will ask you to read books from many different genres, different formats, and with a wide range of criteria. Seasonal challenges and book bingo challenges also abound.

These smaller, more focused options may be a better fit if you have more time during some seasons than others or want to focus on a specific genre. Instagram is a great place to find these. I also detailed a few challenges that work well for speculative fiction in this post.

If you can’t find a challenge that meets your needs, you can always create one yourself from scratch or cobble together a list of prompts from multiple challenges. Don’t forget to check in with your local library; many public libraries also host their own reading challenges beyond the traditional summer reading!

If you want to focus on reading books you already own or have wanted to read forever but never get around to, set a TBR-based goal.

On the surface, this kind of goal may seem similar to the type of number-based challenges I wrote this post to push back against. But it doesn’t have to be!

A photo of three shelves full of books. A typewriter sits on the middle in the top shelf, with books on either side. One reading goal alternate can be to read books from your TBR pile
The bottom two shelves in this photo are my TBR shelves. The top shelf holds my writing books, some of which I have also not yet read. I won’t get through all of these this year, but I’ll get through some of them!

There are a number of ways to approach a TBR-based goal that don’t involve setting yourself an arbitrary number of books to read in a given time period. For example, you could set aside three months where you commit to only reading books on your TBR shelf (whether that is a physical or digital shelf is irrelevant).

Or, you could commit to reading three books (or two, or one) from your list for every book you pick up that wasn’t on your list. You could write down the names of all the books on your TBR shelf on pieces of paper and put them in a jar, then pull one to determine your next read. 

Bribery Works, Too

A goal (or rule, I suppose) I’ve used in the past is that if I want to buy a new book, I have to read two books I already own but haven’t read yet. I do set some exceptions for this rule, mostly for new books in series I want to snag first printings of. It’s been a few years since I’ve done this, but it’s worked well to motivate me to finally read books that have been sitting unread for years.

It’s also a nice way to curb excessive book spending and a great time to assess whether or not I’m ever actually going to read the Umberto Eco book I’ve been lugging around since high school and still haven’t read (maybe this is the year?).

This year, my TBR-based goal is to read at least one book from my physical TBR pile each month. Small or large doesn’t matter, and reading two books from the TBR pile in January doesn’t excuse me from having to read one in February! If I manage to stick to this, I should be able to knock off at least twelve books from my TBR while still allowing myself freedom to read other things that interest me.

Reading you do for pleasure and leisure should never be a chore. It should enrich your life, give you an escape from actual chores, and teach you more about yourself and the world. Your reading goal should help you with that, not make you feel bad about yourself.

Perhaps setting a number-based reading goal works for you. If you find yourself dreading opening Goodreads so you don’t see how far behind you are in your reading challenge, maybe it’s time to try something different.

I’ve only listed three alternative options here, but there are so many more—number of pages, spine widths all measured together, colors that appear on the cover. I’m sure you can find something that inspires you to read more and read further without stressing you out.

* From “Let’s Rescue Book Lovers From This Online Hellscape” by Maris Kreizman in the New York Times

Two Indie Bookstores that Focus on Speculative Fiction

Happy Independent Bookstore Day! I’m celebrating by supporting two stores that focus on speculative fiction: Sistah SciFi and Mysterious Galaxy.

In recent years, my local stores have grown their SFF sections, but there’s nothing quite like the depth and breadth of a store that focuses only on spec fic. Unfortunately for me, both of these shops are located on the west coast (I’m on the east). But fortunately for all of us, both offer many virtual events and ways to be involved from both near and far.

Sistah SciFi

Sistah SciFi is an online bookstore that promotes speculative fiction by Black and Indigenous women authors. I found their fantastic Instagram account while bopping around one day, and was impressed by their selection. Both their Instagram account and website are great resources for discovering new and classic books by Black and Indigenous women. Watch out, because your TBR pile might topple over with all the added books you’re going to stack on top!

The store also hosts a number of events and virtual book clubs, including one for comics and graphic novels! And did I mention they also have a book vending machine?! Located in the Oaklandia Cafe x Bakery in Oakland, California, the book vending machine carries a rotating selection of titles for children and adults.

Support Sistah SciFi on Indie Bookstore Day by making a purchase, following them on social media, and/or telling your friends about them!

Mysterious Galaxy

While I’ve never had the pleasure of visiting Mysterious Galaxy in person at their San Diego shop, I have been to their booth in at least one convention (Star Wars Celebration Anaheim 2022, to be precise). I’ve also attended a few of their virtual events and purchased signed books from them.

Each month, they offer a book subscription box for SFF and cozy mystery books that includes titles, bookmarks, and other goodies curated by or made by their booksellers! I think including art from their booksellers in the form of bookmarks is a really nice touch.

But if you, like me, have an ever-growing pile of books to read and the thought of a new mystery book each month triggers your existential dread over the fact that you will never be able to read all the books—and what if you miss a really, really good one?—be sure to peruse the store’s robust staff picks page. It might still contain more books than you can read in a year, but at least you can more purposefully prioritize your next read that way.

Support Mysterious Galaxy on Indie Bookstore Day by making a purchase, following them on social media, and/or telling your friends about them!

Do you have a favorite independent bookstore that focuses on speculative fiction? I’d love to hear about it! Send me a tweet (and tag the bookstore!) or Instagram comment or DM so I can feature your fave in a future post.

Review: The Wolf and The Woodsman by Ava Reid

This week I have a review of Ava Reid’s The Wolf and the Woodsman, a fantasy novel out from Harper Voyager (who was kind enough to provide me with a review copy). This post contains affiliate links to Bookshop.org, an online bookstore that financially supports independent bookstores, and if you buy from my links, I will receive a small commission at no extra cost to you.

Photograph of me holding Ava Reid's The Wolf and the Woodsman in front of a snow covered Eastern Hemlock tree.
This lovely cover was illustrated by Russell Cobb at Debut Art.

The Book Witch’s One Sentence Review

The Wolf and The Woodsman by Ava Reid is a lovely debut with an Eastern European flavor, a rich world, vibrant characters, and a multi-faceted plot that explores religion, identity, friendship, family loyalty and disloyalty, tolerance, and bigotry.


Introduction

The plot of The Wolf and The Woodsman is fairly simple: A young woman is forced to leave home against her will, and finds herself making what amounts to a deal with the devil to save not just herself, but her people.

Describing Reid’s debut in this way does it no justice, however. This book has layers of complexity that reveal themselves slowly as the two main characters—Évike and Gáspár—march northward through the snow-covered country in search of a mystical creature that has the power to save what they each hold dear—or so they think.

Drawing heavily on Hungarian and Jewish folklore, The Wolf and The Woodsman has a distinct Eastern European flavor with a universal message. Although it can be read as an allegory for the spread of Christianity throughout Europe, to the detriment of pagans, Jews, and Muslims, it’s much more than that.

The novel tackles issues of religion, identity, friendship, family loyalty and disloyalty, tolerance, and bigotry. It forces Évike to determine how far she’ll go to save her village and the people in it, who often treated her poorly and were willing to essentially throw her away to save someone else. It also forces Gáspár to question his own faith, family, loyalty, the nature of love, and even his humanity, in fundamental ways.

The setting felt both incredibly grounded and delightfully unfamiliar. One of my favorite details was the fearful trees the villagers had to tie down so they didn’t run away when the Woodsman came.

But before all of that, the beginning.


A photograph of the first page of the first chapter of The Wolf and The Woodsman. The page features vines as decorations.
The typesetting in this book is as beautiful as the cover. I love the decorations and the chapter heading font!

When the Woodsman Met the Wolf

Évike lives in an isolated forest town inhabited by pagans. Unlike her fellow female villagers who wield various types of magic, Évike’s “only” skill is hunting. Because she is a woman who lacks magic, she is treated poorly by the other young women and girls in her village.

The village is part of a kingdom that has become increasingly intolerant to the pagans living on its outskirts who don’t follow the Patrifath (a loose equivalent to Christianity). In exchange for leaving the village to its own devices most of the time, every now and then the King sends his Woodsmen out to collect a magic-wielding “Wolf Girl.” 

No one in the village knows what happens to the Wolf Girls who are taken, but they are never seen again. The novel opens on a tense day: The Woodsmen are on their way to collect a seer, which is a particularly rare gift among the pagan magic users. The village elder forces Évike to take the place of Katarina, the true seer.

After the Woodsmen take Évike, clothed in Katarina’s wolf cloak, a series of unfortunate (for the Woodsman) events leads to the revelation that the head Woodsman, Gáspár,  is actually the king’s son, and that he desperately wants to prevent his zealously religious younger half-brother from ascending to the throne. This event, which would be bad for Gáspár because of his late mother’s status as an outsider, would also spell doom for the pagans and other minority groups living in the kingdom.

So, Gáspár and Évike forge an uneasy alliance and agree to search for a mythical creature that would give Gáspár the power to gain favor with his father and ascend the throne. They start off hating each other, but come to have grudging respect for each other as their journey goes on.

Although the novel is told from Évike’s perspective, we spend a lot of time with both characters. There’s lots of romantic and sexual tension between Évike and Gáspár, but the novel never turns him into Évike’s savior like many YA fantasy novels tend to do. She saves his life as much as he saves her (his inability to use a bow and arrow with any accuracy is also something Évike, an expert marksman, uses to her advantage). 

I’ll stop my summary there to avoid any spoilers, but I will say this: At one point, there is a pet bear. He’s pretty cool.


A photograph of the map included inside The Wolf and The Woodsman.
I’m a sucker for fantasy books with maps!

Final Thoughts

With the long history of fantasy novels based on wildly inaccurate assumptions about medieval England, it’s always refreshing to see fantasy settings based on other areas and cultures. Books like this have become more plentiful in recent years, but it’s going to take quite awhile for me to get sick of them (I read a lot of medieval-England-fantasy in high school). There also seems to be a recent surge in speculative fiction inspired in part by Jewish history and folklore, written by Jewish authors, and I can only hope we see this trend continue as well. 

The Wolf and The Woodsman does read like a debut novel at times—certain sections meander a bit, or we get overly lost in Évike’s thoughts, and the overall structure could have been streamlined a bit more. But these are all quibbles, and didn’t take away from my enjoyment of the story. 

At the end of the day, Reid’s prose is as sharp as one of Évike’s arrows, and she knows how to hit a bullseye.


If you’d like to pick up a copy of The Wolf and The Woodsman, please consider buying from your local indie bookstore, or online from Bookshop.org, which supports indies! While you’re at it, you can preorder Ava Reid’s new book, Juniper and Thorn, out May 22!


Have you read The Wolf and The Woodsman? Want to add it to your TBR? I’d love to hear what you think in the comments or on Instagram or Twitter @bookwitchblog!

Best 2022 Reading Challenges for Sci-Fi and Fantasy Readers

Happy New Year, Readers!

With 2021 behind us and the whole of 2022 ahead, it’s time to take stock of our TBR shelves and lists, think about new goals, discard what no longer serves us or brings us joy, and most importantly, READ!

A photo of a planner, an open book, and a board that says "Happy New Year 2022" next to a mug of tea, all one a gray knitted fabric background.

To that end, I’m rounding up the best 2022 reading challenges for readers of science fiction, fantasy, and other speculative fiction sub-genres!

Reading challenges can be a fun way to expand your reading horizons, explore genres or topics you might not have discovered on your own, and even to meet fellow readers. They can also be an added source of stress or guilt, so they aren’t for everyone. I like to use them as a guide or inspiration rather than something I must complete each year. 

Over the past several years, the number of reading challenges has exploded. There are dozens and dozens and dozens of challenges listed at the Reading Challenges Addict site’s page for 2022 challenges, and more beyond that.

Despite the proliferation of challenges, I couldn’t help but notice how few challenges there are specifically for speculative fiction. If spec fic is your main genre, it may not make sense to do a challenge within that genre… Or it could be the perfect opportunity to discover new authors and sub-genres (and there are so many sub-genres and sub-sub genres in spec fic).

So without further pontificating, here are the six reading challenges (in no particular order) best suited for readers who want to focus on speculative fiction in 2022!


Challenges With Prompts

The more traditional reading challenges include specific prompts, like “read a book set in a bookstore”. You can choose any book that satisfies the prompt, and usually a single book can satisfy multiple prompts and be used in multiple challenges.

Diverse Sci-Fi and Fantasy Books Challenge

This challenge isn’t limited to 2022, but I wanted to include it because it’s one of the few challenges focused specifically on speculative fiction. This challenge, which you can find at Storygraph, features sixteen prompts focused on finding books by own voices authors from a variety of backgrounds. Each prompt also includes a short list of suggested books, so this is also a great place to diversify your TBR in general!


Beyond the Bookends’ 2022 Reading Challenge

The Beyond the Bookends 2022 Reading Challenge logo.

Book blog Beyond the Bookends has a simple but great 2022 reading challenge that features a single prompt for each month of the year. With twelve prompts, this is a great option for people who’ve never done a challenge before, or who want a less-intense challenge that will still push their reading boundaries.

Additionally, all these prompts can easily be used to find a spec fic book (yes, even November’s “Read a book set in WWI”). You can also browse their previous challenges for more ideas and inspiration.


Unabridged Podcast 2022 Reading Challenge

The Unabridged Podcast 2022 Reading Challenge logo.

Most reading challenges focus heavily on adult fiction and nonfiction, which is why I like this challenge written by the three teachers that makeup the Unabridged Podcast! It has both a YA and middle-grade themed prompt, along with a few multimedia prompts (like reading a book and watching its tv or movie adaptation).

This challenge has ten prompts and a number of ways to get involved, including a Facebook group, a hashtag for Instagram, and an Instagram story template so you can share your progress!

Learn more about the challenge and give the podcast a listen over at the Unabridged Podcast website!


Book Riot’s 2022 Read Harder Challenge

The Book Riot Read Harder Challenge 2022 logo.

Book Riot’s Read Harder Challenge is one of the most well-known challenges, and has one of the most lively and engaged communities. This year’s challenge features twenty-four prompts, which breaks down to two books per month. It’s much more doable than some of the other big challenges like PopSugar’s (fifty books)!

This is one of my favorite challenges, and the first one I ever participated in. While certain prompts (such as number six, “Read a nonfiction YA comic” and “Read a history about a period you know little about”) might be hard to twist to speculative fiction, a majority of the prompts lend themselves well to choosing a spec fic book. The active Goodreads community also makes it a great option if you’re looking for community as well as good books.


Challenges Without Prompts

Not all reading challenges are prompt-based! Some are based around numbers of books read, either within a theme or in general. For those who prefer not to be limited by prompts, here’s a couple challenges that are number-based.

SpaceTime Reading Challenge 2022

The 2022 SpaceTime Reading Challenge logo.

Writer and book reviewer Jemima Pett runs the annual SpaceTime Reading Challenge on her blog, jemimapett.com. This is a flexible challenge, and you can choose to aim for as few as five books or as many as forty! 

This challenge focuses on science fiction and time travel books only, and the host requests that all participants post reviews somewhere online (Goodreads is fine). Any book within the prescribed genres that’s at least 100 pages or more can count.


Mount TBR Reading Challenge 2022

Bev of the My Reader’s Block blog hosts the annual Mount TBR Reading Challenge, which challenges participants to read books in their to-be-read piles. The fun twist here is that each “level” of the challenge is pegged to a famous mountain. 

To conquer Pike’s Peak, you have to read twelve books from your TBR pile. To climb Mt. Kilimanjaro, you’ll need to knock off sixty books. And for Mt. Everest, you’ll need to read a whopping one hundred books from your TBR!

Library lovers, take note: Library books don’t count for this one; only books you owned prior to January 1, 2022.


Do you have any reading goals for 2022? Are you planning on doing any reading challenges? Let me know in the comments, on Twitter @bookwitchblog, or Instagram @bookwitchblog!

November 2021 Update

Hello! I’ve been absent from this space for quite some time, primarily due to my health.

As many of you may know, back in June I had a laparoscopic excision surgery for endometriosis, and well… The recovery period was more difficult than I was expecting.

Even after I recovered from the surgery itself, I experienced quite an uptick in migraines. (Because having one chronic illness isn’t enough, I have several!) All of this made it difficult to do my day job, let alone keep up with a blog.

I’m happy to report I’m mostly feeling better, and I hope to return to regular blogging in 2022, if not sooner. The frequency will probably be less (two posts a month seems likely), but in the meantime I do have a new pin design that will drop on my Etsy store soon!

Keep an eye on Instagram and this space for updates on that, and other bookish goodies I have in the works. 🙂

Be well and keep reading!

-Kelly the Book Witch

Three Speculative Novels by Queer Authors for Pride Month—Or Anytime!

While Pride Month is a great time to dip your toes into the waters of queer speculative fiction, there are too many great options to limit yourself to just thirty-one days! (Plus, queer folks are queer 24/7, not just in June, so why not celebrate natural human diversity all year long?)

For this mini-list, I’ve selected three of my favorite novels by LGBTQIA+ authors. This post does contain affiliate links to Bookshop.org. If you make a purchase using one of these links, you’re helping support both this blog and indie bookstores at no extra cost to you!

Be gay. 🏳️‍🌈 Read books! 📚

8 books next to a light box that reads "Happy Pride" with a bouquet of flowers in the background.

Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir

Gideon the Ninth was pitched to me as “lesbian necromancers.” Although the main characters are indeed queer, and one of them is indeed a necromancer, “lesbian necromancers” doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of how utterly brilliant, funny, gripping, and goddamn heartbreaking this book is. In fact, it was so utterly brilliant, funny, gripping, and goddamn heartbreaking that as soon as I’d finished listening to the excellently narrated and produced audiobook, I hit play again and read it a second time.

But in case that’s not enough of an endorsement for you, let me tell you a little bit about the plot, too. The eponymous Gideon dreams of leaving her prison in the Ninth House to become a soldier, but Harrowhark Nonagesimus, the de facto leader of the Ninth House and a powerful necromancer, has other ideas. She recruits Gideon to be her cavalier—basically her personal swordswoman—as she goes on a quest to become a lictor for the undying emperor. Together, they have to compete against necromancers and cavaliers from other houses to solve magical puzzles and unlock the secrets to immortality. Only, of course, things do not go as planned.

Also be sure to check out the sequel, Harrow the Ninth!

Behind the Throne by K. B. Wagers

My bookish love affair with K. B. Wagers began in the library, as all great love affairs do. It was 2016, and I was clerking at the main desk of my library when we got a new book for the science fiction section: Behind the Throne. The title didn’t catch my eye at first, but the tagline did: “…with a heroine as rebellious as Han Solo, as savvy as Leia, and as skilled as Rey.”

While books or movies that compare themselves to Star Wars rarely live up to the hype in my fangirly estimation, I liked the cover art and the concept, so I checked the book out and took it home. I started it that evening, and, well, let’s just say the book—and its heroine—definitely lived up to, and then shot right past, my expectations.

Hail Bristol is a gun runner and a smuggler who’s been doing her utmost to leave her past behind her. But, of course, it catches up to her. Now, she has to face the fact that she’s the last surviving member of the royal family of the Indranan Empire, reconcile with her demons, and save her people. This is a fast-paced, high-stakes, tense but enjoyable read with relatable characters you can’t help but fall in love with.

Also be sure to check out the other two books in the trilogy, After the Crown and Beyond the Empire!


Sorcerer of the Wildeeps by Kai Ashante Wilson

A few months ago, I was working on a list of queer speculative fiction when I realized I had zero gay men on my list. I wracked my brain trying to come up with a few, scoured my Goodreads lists, and still came up empty handed. I went looking, and found Kai Ashante Wilson’s hauntingly beautiful and devastating novella, Sorcerer of the Wildeeps.

Wilson combines nonlinear storytelling with lush prose to create a story that echoes the way many of us experience memory and grief: in pieces and fragments; wisps of conversations, moments from larger events, and the ebb and flow of emotion through it all. If you’re not a fan of nonlinear stories, you may find Sorcerer of the Wildeeps a challenging read, but either way, you’ll find it a rewarding experience.

The story follows two earth-bound demigods who must use their powers to keep a caravan of merchants and soldiers safe from the dangers of the road, and especially from a man-eating supernatural beast. Although the plot is straightforward, the beats of the story echo like drums long after you turn the last page.

There’s also a sequel, called A Taste of Honey.


There are so many more amazing and wonderful speculative books by queer authors. I’ve compiled some of them in this Bookshop list called “Read the Rainbow: Speculative Fiction by LGBTQIA+ Authors,” but my list is far from authoritative. I’d love to hear who some of your favorite queer spec fic authors are in the comments!

Who’s your favorite queer speculative author? Let me know in the comments, on Twitter @bookwitchblog, or Instagram @bookwitchblog!

Indie Bookstore Highlight: Wellington Square Bookshop in Exton, PA

One of my favorite things about traveling to new places is visiting new-to-me independent bookstores! Two weekends ago I stopped at Wellington Square Bookshop in Exton, PA while visiting my family in Coatesville.

Wellington Square Bookshop opened in 2005 as a primarily used and rare bookstore, but expanded in 2009 to new books and gift items. They occupy a beautiful, expansive space in Eagleview Town Center, a somewhat hidden development surrounded by apartments and condos.

The store’s simple facade makes it look much smaller than it actually is, and belies the fact that this hidden gem is bursting with personality (although the stone lions guarding the door are your first clue). The first thing you see upon entering the store is a large fountain with goldfish spouting water from their mouths. I’ve certainly never seen any other book shops with fountains!

To the left is a nook with baby books and items like stuffed animals and specialty blocks, and beyond that is a nook full of unique cards and more gift items. I am an adult woman in my thirties, but I very nearly purchased a set of constellation blocks. As I’m writing this, I’m regretting that I didn’t.

New fiction and nonfiction are spread out on tables to the right of the entrance, and a glass case displays rare and valuable books. The small cafe is front and center, with a nice selection of pastries and candies in addition to drinks.

One thing I loved about this store was how each section felt like a room, and each room felt like a new discovery. There are plentiful nooks and crannies with cozy vintage chairs, couches, and tables. The furniture is well-worn, clearly used, but not shabby; it’s all perfect for curling up with a good book.

The mix of new and carefully curated used books lends the store an air of mystery, and the models of hot air balloons hanging from the ceiling lend an air of whimsy. I am a sucker for tin ceilings, and this store has a beautiful one.

Since this is a blog about speculative fiction, I’d be remiss not to mention the science fiction and fantasy section. While small, there was a surprisingly good variety and I found several authors I’d never heard of before. If discovering new authors isn’t the best thing about visiting an indie bookstore, I don’t know what is.

Wellington Square also has a small but mighty children’s section and a fairly robust young adult section, along with an impressive array of signed first editions for sale.

Although the best part of any indie bookstore is its unique selection of books, I also love seeing what gift items indie stores carry. If I didn’t have a large dog (and therefore a very dusty house), I would have absolutely brought home the book-shaped light I found. In short, I could have spent a lot more money than I did.

As it stands, I’m quite thrilled with my purchase of a new book and a handsome little etched glass globe, and I’m excited to stop in the next time I visit my family!

Wellington Square Bookshop also has an online store, so if you’re interested in checking them out virtually, you can do so here! Also be sure to follow them on Twitter and Instagram!

Review: Worlds of Light and Darkness Anthology

This week’s review covers Worlds of Light and Darkness: The Best of DreamForge and Space & Time, edited by Angela Yuriko Smith and Scot Noel. As usual, this post contains affiliate links to Bookshop.org, an online bookstore that financially supports independent bookstores.

Worlds of Light and Darkness comes out on May 25, but you can preorder it now

An image of an eReader displaying the Worlds of Light and Darkness anthology cover.

The Book Witch’s One Sentence Review

Worlds of Light and Darkness is a wide-ranging collection of insightful speculative fiction from two respected magazines that will introduce readers to a number of lesser-known, but worth knowing, writers across many sub-genres.


Overview

I learned of this collection because I used to read submissions for DreamForge, a speculative fiction magazine with a bent toward the hopeful based in Pittsburgh. An advance review copy was available through NetGalley, so I jumped at the chance to be an early reader.

I was also pleased to see that one of the stories I helped select, “A Sip of Pombé” by Gustavo Bondoni, made it into this collection. I might be biased, but it was easily one of my favorite stories in the collection.

While I was familiar with DreamForge, this was my first introduction to fiction from Space & Time. The collection is arranged with ten stories from DreamForge (worlds of light) at the beginning, and ten stories from Space & Time (worlds of darkness) at the end. 

Although the selections from DreamForge were noticeably more upbeat overall than those from Space & Time, it would be false to say the Space & Time stories were universally dark or depressing. On the contrary, stories across the collection showed a range of themes, tackled the full depth of human emotions, dealt with difficult topics, and ended on mostly positive notes. 

“Mostly” being the key word, as there were a few stories that ended on darker notes, including “Humani” by John Palisano, “Joy of Life” by Alessandro Manzetti, and the collection’s final story, “A Glass Darkly” by Ian Rogers.

Overall, I think the editors did a good job of balancing the uplifting with grim possibilities, and I appreciate that stories ranged from Mars exploration (“A Sip of Pombé”) to high-tech heist (“Artifact” by Jonathan Maberry) to modern speculative western (“The Spiral Ranch” by Sarena Ulibarri).

Stand Out Stories

My favorite two stories in the collection were “The Feline, the Witch, and the Universe” by Jennifer Shelby and the aforementioned “A Sip of Pombé” by Gustavo Bondoni.

Another shot of the eReader with the cover of Worlds of Light and Darkness anthology.

“The Feline, the Witch, and the Universe” follows a witch as she rides her bike through space in search of her missing familiar—a cat who is mad at her because they didn’t take a vacation. Although this story appeared in Space & Time, it was actually quite lighthearted. I enjoyed the world building and the implied tension between magic and science. Plus, the image of a witch riding her magical bike through the cosmos just tickled me.

“A Sip of Pombé” takes place in a near-ish future where various countries have begun setting up settlements on Mars. Unbeknownst to the rest of the world, Uganda develops its own space program and launches its own Mars mission in secret. The story addresses nationalism and, more importantly, various factions’ ability to rise above nationalism in the name of scientific progress and humanity at large. 

Another stand out story for me was Austin Gragg’s “Collecting Violet:” a cautionary tale about ecological destruction disguised as a touching account of the tenderness of Death. It was beautifully written, and featured a talking corvid, something I can’t resist. 

I also really enjoyed the concept of a vertical, indoor ranch in Sarena Ulibarri’s “The Spiral Ranch,” and the whimsical magical bookshop in the opening story, “Answered Prayers” by Scott Edelman.


An Unfortunate Turn of Phrase

Of course, the wide range of sub-genres and stories included in this collection meant a few didn’t connect with me—and that’s okay. I can’t say I disliked any of the stories, although the way Alessandro Manzetti describes a woman in “Joy of Life” did have me cringing. 

The line in question was “The thing that is moving is a human female, alive. The reptile senses her ovaries rotating in the estrogen broth.” 

A screen shot of an eReader with text that reads "No, it's not yet time to change. The heartbeat hunter is not mistaken. The thing that is moving is a human female, alive. The reptile senses her ovaries rotating inside the estrogen broth. Warm blood, tides."

I know this is written from the perspective of a sentient lizard that may or may not fully understand human anatomy, if your ovary is rotated, it’s a medical emergency. The author could have opted for any number of verbs, like “hummed” or “vibrated”, but he went with the anatomically inaccurate and impossible “rotating.” 

Despite that unfortunate line, Worlds of Light and Darkness is a strong collection that highlights the diversity of genres and ideas percolating in the galaxy of speculative fiction, and is worth picking up.



Who are some of your favorite speculative short story authors? Let me know in the comments or on Instagram or Twitter @bookwitchblog!

Review: Shirtless Bear Fighter is the most delightfully ridiculous comic ever

A few years ago, in the pre-pandemic times, I was watching hockey at a friend’s house when one of the books in his comic stack caught my eye: Shirtless Bear-Fighter! by Jody Lehup, Sebastian Girner, Nill Vendrell, and Mike Spicer.

The cover depicts a shirtless man in raggedy pants with exaggerated masculine features (seriously, his feet are huge, and so is his beard). I paged through and saw that this was, yes indeed, a comic about a man who fights bears while decidedly not wearing any clothes (his junk is pixelated, though, so no need to worry about your puny senses being overwhelmed by his manliness). What an odd delight!

I’ve been feeling kinda down lately and wanted a pick-me-up, so: Enter, once again, Shirtless Bear-Fighter!. This book is a little difficult to review because it’s, well… You’ll see what I mean. My reviews do contain affiliate links to Bookshop.org, an online bookstore that financially supports local independent bookstores.


The Book Witch’s One Sentence Review

Shirtless Bear-Fighter is an absolutely hilarious, utterly delightful comic that skewers masculine tropes by rocketing them past the point of no return and stripping them of all power through the healing nature of comedy.


The Story of Shirtless

Shirtless Bear-Fighter tells the story of a man named Shirtless, who was raised by bears in a lush mountain forest. The bears betrayed him when they killed his lover, and after that he vowed to fight every bear.

Now, enraged bears are attacking major cities across the US, and the FBI calls in Shirtless to handle the problem. In the process he discovers that past events weren’t what they seemed and uncovers a plot by a greedy toilet-paper-company logger to turn the whole forest into TP.

Along the way Shirtless has to deal with multiple betrayals, bears high on magic bacon, and the fact that he probably definitely has a thing for Silva, the female FBI agent.

The creative team (Jody Leheup, Sebastian GirnerNil Vendrell, and Mike Spicer) do not take anything seriously. Shirtless is a hyperbole of our culture’s idea of what men should be, and that’s exactly what gets him into trouble.

The issue of Shirtless’s dead lover reveals the cavalier way men treat women and highlights exactly why that is terrible and we should maybe stop doing that right now. Silva is not hyper-sexualized and proves herself to be smart and resourceful. Without her, Shirtless would fail his mission to save the forest.

So, here’s a comic that takes the most exaggerated masculine tropes and handles them in a subtle, brilliant, hilarious way. And even better, it will make you laugh out loud over and over again.


Key Shirtless Bear-Fighter Takeaways

  1. WHAT IS THIS COMIC I DON’T EVEN KNOW
  2. BUT IT’S REALLY FUCKING FUNNY
  3. “Bear” is not limited to the large omnivorous mammal
  4. There are a lot of toilet paper and poop jokes (WHICH ARE HILARIOUS)
  5. The whole thing can be read as a fable about environmentalism and toxic masculinity
  6. ALSO IT’S REALLY FUCKING FUNNY
  7. Magic bacon.


What books or comics do you turn to when you need a pick me up? Let me know in the comments or on Instagram or Twitter @bookwitchblog!