Go Deeper Into the Skywalker Saga with These Essential Star Wars Books

May the 4th Be with You! While Star Wars began as a film franchise with a  novelization, one spin off novel, and a cheesy comic book series, today there are hundreds of Star Wars novels. This can make it a little intimidating for new fans to jump in and start enjoying these books, so I’ve put together this list of 15 of the most essential Star Wars stories that will deepen your understanding of the 9-film Skywalker Saga! They’re arranged in rough chronological order, but you don’t need to read them that way. You can dip in and out of these with no more background than having watched the films. Remember: Read, and the Force is with you!

My Star Wars bookshelf.

The Prequel Era

Master and Apprentice by Claudia Gray

Why it’s essential: In the same way Dooku: Jedi Lost gives us the background of one of the Prequel Trilogy’s main villains, Claudia Gray’s Master and Apprentice draws back the curtain on the pre-Phantom Menace relationship between Qui-Gon Jinn and his padawan learner, Obi-Wan Kenobi. Although we see them as a unified, harmonious pair in the Phantom Menace, their relationship wasn’t always so solid, and Master and Apprentice dives into that. Read this book, and then watch Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan’s duel with Darth Maul and try not to cry.


Dooku: Jedi Lost by Cavan Scott

Why it’s essential: Count Dooku, the leader of the Separatists, was Qui-Gon Jinn’s first Jedi Master before he fell to the dark side and became Darth Tyrannus. Set around the time of Attack of the Clones as Dooku searches for an apprentice, it flashes back into the past to show his gradual fall to the dark. Dooku: Jedi Lost provides rich background for Christopher Lee’s haughty Sith Lord and makes his duels with Obi-Wan and Anakin in the films even more impactful.

Note: This book was produced as a full-cast audio drama, though it is also available in script form (linked here).


Queen’s Shadow by E. K. Johnston

Why it’s essential: Queen’s Shadow takes place between The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones, and details Padme’s transition from queen of Naboo to senator. For those of us who were fascinated with Padme’s handmaidens in Phantom Menace, Queen’s Shadow gives us our first opportunity to really get to know them. This book helps smooth the transition between the two films as far as Padme is concerned, and adds significant depth to her character.


The Original Trilogy Era

The Rise of the Empire

Why it’s essential: This book actually contains two novels: A New Dawn by John Jackson Miller and Tarkin by James Luceno. It also features three previously unavailable short stories not published anywhere else. Both novels take place between Revenge of the Sith and A New Hope, and both deal with, as the title suggests, the Empire’s rise to power. A New Dawn takes the perspective of the rising Rebellion, while Tarkin covers the period from the bad guy’s perspective. 


Thrawn by Timothy Zahn

Why it’s essential: If you’re not a fan of the Star Wars Legends novels from the ‘90s or the animated show Rebels, you may not know who Grand Admiral Thrawn is. But while he may not have appeared in any of the Skywalker films, he is a fan favorite character and one of the most interesting in the Expanded Universe. This book is the first in a trilogy that shows Thrawn’s quick ascent through the Empire’s military ranks. The reason I’ve included it on this list is because it shows us the inner workings of the Imperial Academy and the political underpinnings and tensions of the military


Leia, Princess of Alderaan by Claudia Gray

Why it’s essential: This book’s inclusion on the list should be self explanatory, but let me explain how much I love it anyway! Leia, Princess of Alderaan takes place before A New Hope and gives a glimpse into Leia’s life before the mission where she rescues the Death Star plans that results in Alderaan’s destruction. We also get to meet a younger Amilyn Holdo. This book really shows us what Leia is made of, and is a beautiful addition to her story arc.


Ahsoka by E. K. Johnston

Why it’s essential: You may be familiar with Ahsoka Tano from the second season of The Mandalorian or The Clone Wars animated series. This book delves into the time between the end of the Rebels animated series and A New Hope. Similarly to A New Dawn, Ahsoka deals with the beginnings of the Rebellion and the Inquisitors (Dark Side users who hunt down Jedi and other Force users). It also gives us insight into how the few Jedi who weren’t killed after Order 66 survived—or didn’t.


From A Certain Point of View

Why it’s essential: This collection of forty short stories by various authors covers the events of Star Wars: A New Hope from the perspectives of the characters we only see briefly, or who are only implied (like the citizens of Alderaan). From the dianoga in the trash compactor to one of the Jawas on the Sandcrawler to the denizens of the Mos Eisley Cantina to Imperial officers aboard the Death Star, this book gives us a much bigger glimpse into the world around our heroes. One caveat though: If stories ever make you emotional, get ready to cry a couple times at least. Some of these tales are real heartbreakers!


From A Certain Point of View: The Empire Strikes Back

Why it’s essential: From A Certain Point of View: The Empire Strikes Back gives us the same 40-story treatment as the first From a Certain Point of View collection, only this time we dive into The Empire Strikes Back! And also like its predecessor, have tissues on hand, because of few these would make even a Sith Lord cry. 


Aftermath by Chuck Wendig

Why it’s essential: Perhaps the most controversial Star Wars book to have ever been released, I’m including Aftermath because it shines a light on the period immediately following the death of the Emperor on the second Death Star. The book sparked protest when it was released for its inclusion of LGBTQ characters, but many fans have also found Chuck Wendig’s writing style difficult to get into. The people who were opposed to the inclusion of gay people can find another fandom, but the concerns over the writing style are valid. I enjoyed this book, and think listening to the audio version mitigates some of the choppiness of the prose. 


The Sequel Era

Last Shot by Daniel Jose Older

Why it’s essential: Han. Lando. Chewbacca. Really, what more do I need to say? Last Shot is a fun action adventure novel featuring our three favorite scoundrels. The main storyline of the book takes place after Return of the Jedi, but it includes flashbacks to earlier. This is also one of the few novels where we get to see Han be a father, although that’s not the focus of the novel. If you’re looking for a fun read, look no further than Last Shot!


Bloodline by Claudia Gray

Why it’s essential: Bloodline features Leia as the main character and lets us get to know the New Republic while it hints at the rise of the First Order. This is one of my favorite Star Wars novels, not only because it’s just so well-written and engaging, but because it gives us a rare opportunity to see Leia’s flaws. But rather than making me like her any less, the way she reacts to her mistakes and learns from them makes me love her even more. Especially for those who don’t understand how the New Republic could have failed so spectacularly, this book provides ample insight.


Phasma by Delilah Dawson

Why it’s essential: If, like me, you love mysterious villains, you’ll love Phasma! I also love a novel with a frame narrative, and this one is excellent. Resistance spy Vi Moradi was captured by the First Order after a long mission researching Captain Phasma, and uses her captor’s rivalry with Phasma against him. As a prisoner, she tells Phasma’s origin story. This book also sets up Black Spire, which is essential reading if you ever plan to visit Galaxy’s Edge.


Resistance Reborn by Rebecca Roanhorse 

Why it’s essential: Resistance Reborn bridges the gap between The Last Jedi and The Rise of Skywalker. We see the Resistance rebuilding itself and gathering supplies and allies. I read this book before seeing The Rise of Skywalker in theaters, and it definitely made the experience richer. Fans of Wedge Antilles (me me me!) will also appreciate how much screen time he gets. And our boy Poe Dameron, who messes up big time in TLJ, has time to do a lot of soul-searching and growing in this novel.


As a final note, I’ll say it was really difficult to choose only 15 books. I tried to make the list shorter, but I just couldn’t do it! I had to leave off some of my favorites, but I do believe there’s a Star Wars novel perfect for every fan, and I hope this list helps you find yours!

If you’re more into the Dark Side, be sure to check out my Revenge of the 5th: Star Wars Novels about the Dark Side list on Bookshop.org! This list includes both canon and Legends novels.

What are your favorite Star Wars novels? Let me know in the comments or on Instagram or Twitter @bookwitchblog!

Review: Beowulf: A New Translation by Maria Dhavana Headley

This week’s review covers Maria Dhavana Headley’s new translation of the Old English epic poem Beowulf. My reviews do contain affiliate links to Bookshop.org, an online bookstore that financially supports local independent bookstores.

I hesitated to review this book, as it’s been covered by folks much more knowledgeable about Beowulf than I in all sorts of prestigious publications (the New Yorker, NPR, Vox, just to name a few), but April is National Poetry Month, and I decided to forge ahead.

A photo of Beowulf: A New Translation with an old books-scented candle and some red flowers.
In addition to being a great translation, the cover is gorgeous. I’m obsessed.

Reading Beowulf for the First Time

I first read Beowulf when I was in ninth grade, but not because it was an assigned reading. As a bookish, nerdy fourteen year old, I had taken it upon myself to read all the classics in science fiction and fantasy.

I can’t remember how or why I decided to start with Beowulf—perhaps because it was the oldest, perhaps because my father had mentioned that it had a dragon—but I picked up a copy from my local library and commenced reading.

It was 2001, and although I didn’t know anything about translations, I happened to select Seamus Heaney’s then-still-new version because it featured the Old English alongside the translation. The cover struck me even then: The silver chainmail against a stark black background.

I do remember that I finished reading Beowulf for the first time on the bus ride to school. It was early in the year still, summer hot and weeks away from September 11. It was my first year in public school after spending most of elementary and all of middle school in two separate Christian schools, and I didn’t yet have any friends, except of course, books.

I was confused, when I finished reading, because I had thought reading Beowulf was supposed to be awful. Boring. A slog. Impenetrable. But I loved it. Not just the story of triumph over Grendel and his mother, not just the fighting and the blood and guts and glory, but the language, the cadence of the sentences, the rhythm.

I carried the book around until I had to return it to the library, pouring over the Old English, comparing it to the new, reading the footnotes, reliving the action. When my English teachers failed to assign it in any of my classes throughout high school, I was actually disappointed.


Reading Beowulf: A New Translation

Twenty years out from my first reading of Beowulf, Maria Dhavana Headley graced the world with her version of the epic poem. Being a woman in the world of literature and acutely aware of the gender bias that persists even still, I was excited to have a woman translating one of my favorite classics. 

An image of the first page of Beowulf: A New Translation showing the first line of the poem, "Bro! Tell me we still know how to speak of kings!"
Bro! Tell me we still know how to speak of epic poems!

And my word, she does not disappoint. This book is worth buying for her introduction alone, where she challenges the long-standing assumption that Grendel’s mother must be a literal monster because of her sword fighting prowess, ponders the various dilemmas that crop up for any translator, and ultimately reveals the sheer weight of her love and enthusiasm for this story.

Headley’s translation brings the language of Beowulf into the twenty-first century while maintaining the old world feel of the story. I’ve seen some commenters dismiss her translation because it makes ample use of slang such as “bro,” but this, I think, misses the point.

This translation of Beowulf will endure for the same reason ‘90s film adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays, like Clueless and Ten Things I Hate About You, have endured: They touch on the universal by using the specifics of the moment, and use the specifics of the moment to add nuance and more layers of meaning to the original stories. 

But to me, the real value of Headley’s translation is the way she uses it to challenge assumptions and reframe elements of the narrative. If Grendel was half-man, half-monster, why assume his mother was the monster and not his absent father? This is a question Headley explored at length in her novel about Grendel’s mother, The Mere Wife, but seeing the battle between Beowulf and Grendel’s human mother was a balm I didn’t know my soul needed.

Headley gives Grendel’s mother the space to be her complex self: a grieving mother, a capable swordswoman, and a villain in her own right. 

A photo of the back of Beowulf: A New Translation.
I don’t usually bother showcasing the back of books, but the excellent cover design on this one extends to the back and I couldn’t resist. It’s just so pretty!

Even setting this fresh interpretation of the only significant female character in the epic poem aside, Headley’s use of language, rhythm, and tone is nothing short of transcendent. Reading her verse is a joy; reading it aloud even more so. It’s fun, and it feels good on the tongue and lips.

Fans of Beowulf will enjoy this new translation, and even better, it will provide a new access point for readers who may never have discovered it or been interested in otherwise. 


The Book Witch’s One Sentence Review

Maria Dhavana Headley’s Beowulf: A New Translation is fresh, fun, and challenges the reader to reassess long standing assumptions about the story and characters while remaining true to the epic spirit of the narrative.



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

An Ode to My Favorite Bookstore for Indie Bookstore Day

This Saturday, April 24, is Independent Bookstore Day.

Indie Bookstores across the United States will be celebrating with special events, giveaways, unique merchandise only available on Saturday, and the same great customer service and care you always find from your local bookstore.

The Independent Bookstore Day logo, featuring a small stack of books floating thanks to 3 balloons.

As a bookish kid, I loved bookstores. Any kind of bookstore. Mall bookstores, Christian bookstores, the big Barnes & Noble an hour away I only got to visit on special occasions. But most of all, I loved our local independent bookstore, which unfortunately closed in 2016.

When I wasn’t reading, I was likely begging my parents to take me to the Chester County Book and Music Company, a huge (28,000 square feet!) independent book and music store in West Chester, Pennsylvania, about a half hour’s drive from my home in nearby Coatesville.

While CCBMC wasn’t as large as, say, The Strand in New York City or Powell’s in Portland, it was bigger than your average Barnes & Noble. To give you a sense of just how large it was, there’s an LA Fitness in the shopping plaza where the bookstore used to be—and the bookstore took up that entire space.

The only other nearby bookstore was a Walden Books in the mall about twenty minutes away, but its small, corporate layout paled in comparison to the massive rooms stacked with books, magazines, and CDs at the CCBMC.

It even had a restaurant, called the Magnolia Grill, so that shoppers could take a break from the work of browsing the huge store and get a bite to eat or a cup of coffee or hot chocolate. 

The outside of the Chester County Book & Music Company. Photo copyright Shelf Awareness.

I don’t remember how often my parents consented to drive me into West Chester to lose me in the stacks for hours and hours, only to have to track me down and drag me out kicking and screaming, but it was never often enough for my insatiable desire for more books.

If my mom drove me, I knew I’d have an hour or two max, and I’d be lucky to come out with one or two new books. But if my dad took me, well, that was a good day, because it meant I had up to three hours and could probably convince him to buy me three or four new books.

I had a system for browsing the Chester County Bookstore. First stop: the adult science fiction section, where I’d check for any new Star Wars novels and read the back of non-Star Wars books to see if anything caught my eye (I was looking for military sci-fi with female main characters). Then I’d head to the back room, which housed the massive children’s and young adult sections to see if there was a new book in the Young Jedi Knights series out yet. 

Then I’d spend some time wandering through the rest of the store, looking at whatever caught my interest. I’d pick books up, smell them, page through them, check the price, check my wallet, sigh, and put them back on the shelf. 

I’m not sure what my mom did while I browsed, but my dad spent most of his time in the music section of the store. While the rise of Wal-Mart, Target, and the internet eventually forced the Chester County Bookstore to drastically downsize its music section, in its heyday it had a larger selection than Sam Goody and FYE combined. I’d always take a pass through the music section, but $15 or $20 for a CD could buy me two or three mass market paperbacks.

I dreamed of working in that bookstore when I grew up, but it wasn’t to be. A Barnes & Noble opened in nearby Exton when I was in high school, and the rise of Amazon shortly thereafter eventually forced the CCBMC into a much smaller space, and then eventually out of business.

Me with sci-fi author David Weber at a signing for Mission of Honor at the Chester County Book and Music Company in 2010.

Thankfully, communities and readers have recognized the value of small (and large) indie bookstores, and they are popping up again all over the country. They offer what Amazon can’t: events and book signings with your favorite authors, personalized customer service, a sense of community and connection, local jobs, and a comfortable place to hang out surrounded by books and people who love them.

My favorite bookstore may no longer be in operation, but the spirit of the Chester County Book and Music Company lives on in the hundreds of indie bookstores across the country. Join me in celebrating these vital elements of our communities this Saturday.

Here’s how you can participate:

  • Shout out your favorite indie bookstores on social media by tagging them and using the hashtags #BookstoreShoutOut and #IndieBookstoreDay.
  • Sign up for a virtual Indie Bookstore Day event over at IndieBound.org! With seven different events across topics and genres, you’re sure to find something that interests you.
  • Visit your favorite indie bookstore on Saturday, April 24! Indulge in a shiny new book (or two or three), pick up some exclusive Indie Bookstore Day merch, and have fun! Check out this website to find an indie bookstore near you.

If you love audiobooks and are looking for more ways to support indie bookstores, check out Libro.fm, which is offering free audiobooks for those who make a purchase of at least $15 at their local bookstore between April 24 and 26. Libro.fm financially supports indie bookstores and costs the same as Audible; what’s not to love?

What’s your favorite indie bookstore? (I’m asking for a friend. Who is me. So I can visit.) Let me know in the comments, or on Twitter @bookwitchblog!

Comic Review: Inkblot by Emma Kubert and Rusty Gladd

This week’s review covers the first collected volume of the comic Inkblot, by Emma Kubert and Rusty Gladd, published by Image Comics. This post contains affiliate links to Bookshop.org, an online bookstore that financially supports local independent bookstores.

Inkblot Volume 1 collects the first six issues of this ongoing series about a librarian sorceress and the magical cat she accidentally conjures. 

The six issues of Inkblot that are collected into Inkblot vol. 1.

The Book Witch’s One Sentence Review

A funny, whimsical fantasy that takes readers on a journey through space and time with a curious, magical black cat at the helm.


Inkblot by Emma Kubert and Rusty Gladd

It all begins as the librarian sorceress, known only as The Seeker or Bookworm, is recording the exploits of her extremely powerful sorcerer siblings. She falls asleep while she’s working and knocks over a number of bottles of ink and other things. After the dust settles, as it were, a little black cat with big round green eyes appears.

A panel from Inkblot showing The Seeker conjuring the Cat.

The Seeker quickly learns that this cat can open inter-dimensional portals when she chases the cat into the Mountain Lands and they almost get eaten by giants. While the kitty in question has no official name or gender, I’m going to refer to them as Inkblot since it’s also the name of the comic.

Although the cat is magical, their only utterance is “mow,” issued with varying inflections and degrees of emphasis. As the story progresses, The Seeker chases Inkblot in several unsuccessful attempts to catch and study them.

The first few issues remain fairly lighthearted as the cat causes mischief by climbing dragons and riding the Loch Ness monster, and we meet a few of The Seeker’s siblings and the Realms they rule.

Toward the end, things take a turn for the serious as we learn more about The Seeker’s past and her youngest brother, Inos. I don’t want to spoil anything, but I am very much looking forward to seeing how the story progresses in future volumes.


The Art of Inkblot

Emma Kubert and Rusty Gladd’s process for creating Inkblot is not the typical writer/artist dynamic. Rather, Kubert draws everything out, Gladd inks it, Kubert colors it, and then Gladd adds dialogue and captions. I like how their creative process echoes the back and forth between The Seeker and Inkblot the cat.

The Seeker attempts to catch Inkblot.

The art is whimsical, but also features bold lines. The color palette is somewhat restrained but not boring—it works well for the mystical fantasy setting. Kubert and Gladd excel at creating exaggerated facial expressions that work well for the comical tone without crossing over into the land of hyperbole or satire.

Inkblot’s only discernible facial features are their big green eyes, but they also use their ears to communicate how they’re feeling to great effect. 

The black cat was what drew me to this comic in the first place: I adopted a black cat in November 2019. And just like Inkblot, if she’s not in the exact right lighting, the only facial feature you can make out is her big yellow eyes.


Not Your Typical Black Cat

The black-cat-as-witch’s-familiar trope has been explored and then explored some more, and I love the concept of the black-cat-as-witch’s-foil that turns many of the original trope’s conventions on their head.

The inside front cover of Inkblot features a silhouette of the cat behind the credits. The back cover of each issue features an inkblot with eyes.

Rather than working together for a common goal, Inkblot and The Seeker are always at odds. Inkblot is a quintessential cat: They go where they want, when they want, and they do what they want regardless of what’s going on around them. Inkblot’s antics had me laughing out loud in delight more than once.

The Seeker tries to catch Inkblot, but Inkblot always eludes her grasp. This game of cat-and-sorceress also provides an excellent overview of the world of the comic, as Inkblot travels to different realms and time periods in history.

Inkblot Volume 1 serves as an excellent introduction to the series. It has humor, heart, solid world-building, interesting characters, and beautiful, eye-catching art. The story takes a few issues/chapters to take shape, but with a cat leading the way, who can complain? The meandering pace works well for the characters and story, and invites the reader to sit and stay for a while.


For more great comics featuring felines, check out my “Comics and Graphic Novels Featuring Cats” booklist over at Bookshop.org! Have you read Inkblot? What did you think? Let me know in the comments, or on Twitter @bookwitchblog!

Six novels about plagues and viral outbreaks

A year into the COVID-19 pandemic may seem like the worst time to write a booklist featuring novels and comics about plagues and viral outbreaks.

For most of us, it’s been over a year since the world shut down and our lives changed dramatically. We’ve been facing constant upheaval, uncertainty, fear, and a barrage of information and misinformation.

Many of us are dealing with pandemic fatigue: We’re tired of isolation, restrictions, and ongoing disruptions and uncertainty. Our energy reserves are long depleted.

Which is why, now, more than ever, I find myself turning to stories about pandemics and plagues.

In March 2020, I wondered if COVID would wipe out global infrastructure the way it did in Station Eleven. I wondered if the pandemic would cause civil unrest on the scale it did in Y: The Last Man. I even let myself wonder if humanity would die out like it does in Oryx and Crake.

Of course, while this global outbreak has caused major disruptions in basic infrastructure, civil unrest, and millions of deaths, we’ve seen nothing so terminal as what’s depicted in those stories. In a way, that’s comforting to me. These characters have survived, and so have I.

Most of the books I recommend here have hopeful—if not happy—endings, which can also help when things feel chaotic and difficult, especially now at the one-year mark as we’re starting to see some hope with vaccine rollouts.

If you feel like reading about fictional pandemics hits too close to home, I also created a booklist of fun speculative novels to read on the beach—or anywhere!

Six novels about plagues and viral outbreaks

Y: The Last Man by Brian K. Vaughan and Pia Guerra

A mysterious virus kills every mammal with a Y chromosome. Human, animal, they’re all dead. Except for Yorick Brown and his pet monkey, Ampersand. As the last man alive in a world left devastated by the loss of half its population, Yorick is pursued by scientists who want to study him and bands of “Amazons” who think the world is better off without men.

Like many post-apocalyptic stories, Y: The Last Man explores a “what if” future while commenting on the present in significant ways. Far from being a story about how women can’t survive without men, Y is a story of how women can and do thrive without men. It’s also a story about one man—now a metaphor for all men—being forced to confront his fragile masculinity and, pardon my french, grow the fuck up, all while chaos swirls around him.

The Dreamers by Katherine Thompson Walker

In a sleepy California college town, students go to class and maybe fall in love, a single dad does his best to take care of his daughters, and a couple struggling with new parenthood attempt to navigate their fraught relationship when a mysterious illness descends. The infected fall asleep, and nothing can wake them. They become dehydrated and malnourished without hospital care.

The disease—and panic—spreads, and much like we’re seeing with this current pandemic, characters react in different ways. The Dreamers isn’t a pandemic novel, as the virus is contained to this one small town. But Katharine Thompson Walker is a master at eliminating the  distance between character and reader. It feels just as if we’re experiencing the illness along with the town.

Woven throughout the viral outbreak is Walker’s exploration of the mysteries of sleep and dreams, which adds another few layers to this book. (I also loved her debut novel, The Age of Miracles, which is a post-apocalyptic climate disaster novel told from the perspective of an eleven-year-old girl.)

The MaddAddam Trilogy by Margaret Atwood

The three books in the MaddAdam trilogy, Oryx and Crake, Year of the Flood, and MaddAddam, chronicle the rise of genetic engineering and the downfall of humanity because of a mysterious plague. Spoiler alert: It all goes back to the hubris of one man and his cult leader status.

I first read Oryx and Crake over a decade ago. I’m still shocked at how often I see an article about “groundbreaking science” that echoes Atwood’s predictions. Take lab-grown meat for example. Written with ruthless precision and prescient imagination, the MaddAddam trilogy will have you rethinking the wisdom of genetic engineering and whether or not humanity even deserves to continue on as a species.

Wanderers by Chuck Wendig

Unlike the other novels on this list, Wanderers tackles an epidemic from two sides: those affected and those working to stem the tide and contain the disease. The novel is told through multiple perspectives, including a disgraced CDC epidemiologist and the sister of this new plague’s first victim.

Of course, it’s not as simple as one unknown disease; there are two new diseases causing havoc across the United States. Wanderers weaves disparate threads together. It reveals how interconnected systems—including political systems—can fail at any point and lead to an uncontrolled outbreak. That makes it incredibly relevant during the COVID-19 pandemic.

If you read Amazon or Goodreads reviews for this book, you may see a lot of one- and two-star reviews that label the book overly “political.” But as we are seeing, politics are inseparable from how we react to and deal with epidemics and pandemics. Once again, Chuck Wendig exposes the flaws in the system and reveals how politics ignores science, putting citizens in peril.

The Illness Lesson by Clare Beams

Released on February 4, Clare Beams’s debut novel hit shelves just in time for the COVID-19 pandemic. The Illness Lesson is more akin to The Dreamers in tone and scope: it deals with a localized, mysterious illness in a progressive 19th century school for girls. When a mysterious flock of red birds descends on the school, the students begin exhibiting strange symptoms.

Beams explores the oft-overlooked topic of women’s illnesses and how the medical establishment and society ignore women’s symptoms and pain. Beams’s writing is vivid and haunting, and comparisons to Kelly Link and Karen Russell are apt.

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

Emily St. John Mandel’s brilliant debut novel can be read as a terrifyingly possible blueprint for the future after COVID-19. In Station Eleven, a flu pandemic wipes out huge swathes of humanity and causes societal collapse. No more power, no more running vehicles, no more industry, no more government, no more medicine.

Those who survive are forced into a pre-industrial way of life where resources are scarce. But I’m not recommending this novel because I think things are hopeless for us. On the contrary, Station Eleven shows us how people can thrive even in dire circumstances and find ways to rebuild. This book ends on a hopeful note, and also shows how important art is, especially in times of crisis.

I’ve collected these six novels, along with a few others, into a handy list over at Bookshop.org.

This post contains affiliate links. Purchasing books through Bookshop.org directly supports independent bookstores, and using my affiliate links supports my writing and this website.

Introducing a New Line of Bookish Enamel Pins and Buttons!

The Book Witch is pleased to announce a new line of bookish enamel pins and pinback buttons!

A proof image of a hard enamel pin featuring an open book sprouting a rainbow.
My first pin design: Read the Rainbow!

My first ever enamel pin design is inspired by Reading Rainbow and the idea that books are magic. It features seven colors of glitter enamel and is cast in polished silver metal. This two-inch pin is already in production and can now be pre-ordered in my Etsy shop for a discount!

Stay tuned for future enamel pins, as I have a whole world of ideas buzzing around. Think galaxies, wardrobes, and… emojis? 😉

I’m also pleased to share a range of pinback buttons made from recycled books and comics! 

Three pinback buttons made from recycled book pages with highlighted words: book, literature, and the library. The pins are photographed against a background of stacked books.

These buttons are designed to show off your love of books, individual genres, warm beverages, and more! Pinback buttons will come in three sizes and be available for sale soon! Be sure to follow me on Instagram and Twitter to be the first to know when new buttons drop.

Want to help out but not quite ready to buy yet? Be sure to favorite my shop to be alerted when new products are added, items go on sale, and more! Plus, making my shop a favorite will help me in search rankings on Etsy, too.

Making Buttons from Recycled Books

As a bookseller & reviewer, I get a lot of advance reader copies from publishers, in both physical and digital formats. It’s awesome! I get to read books before they come out and publishers get early feedback on their new releases.

There’s just one problem: ARCs can’t be sold, and most of the usual suspects (libraries, Goodwill, etc.) don’t accept them as donations, either. So what to do with all those ARCs?

For books I absolutely loved, I always pass the ARC on to a friend or leave it in a Little Free Library for a stranger to discover. 

A stack of books, pages face out, with a witch hat on top of the stack. Pins and buttons are held between the pages.
A few of my own button designs mixed in with some of my favorite bookish enamel pins from Ideal Bookshelf, the American Bookseller Association, Out of Print, and indie pin maker Fandom Planet Designs!

But what to do with the rest, especially when there are piles upon piles of them all over my house? Tossing them in the recycling bin seemed so heartless and mechanical. 

I tried donating them to schools or women’s shelters, but COVID has made that process even more difficult, and the truth is that the cheap binding on ARCs mean they won’t stand up to more than a few readings anyway.

So, I thought, why not UP-cycle them and turn them into wearable art? I always wanted a button maker, and this was the perfect excuse to buy one!

If you have ideas for designs you’d like to see, words you’d like me to feature, or want to request a custom button, let me know on Instagram, Twitter, or through email at kelly@bookwitch.blog

Review: The Sandman Audio Adaptation

This week’s review tackles the audio adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman! This post contains affiliate links to Bookshop.org, an online bookstore that financially supports local independent bookstores.

The Absolute Sandman volume 1 on a starry background, with an eReader playing the Sandman audio book on top of it.

The Book Witch’s One Sentence Review

Audible’s audio adaption of The Sandman by Neil Gaiman is a brilliantly acted immersive take on the classic comic series that will please longtime fans and help bring this amazing story to a whole new audience.


The Sandman Audio Adaptation Review

How do you create an audio drama from a graphic novel?

Dirk Maggs makes it look pitifully easy in his full-cast audio adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman that more than does justice to the original comic.

As a long-time fan of Gaiman’s groundbreaking series, I was a tad apprehensive about how good an audiobook adaptation would be. Not because I’m a format purist or don’t like audio, but because I’ve been burned too many times by bad, cash-grabby comic book adaptations. 

Sandman is important to me, and I was afraid the audiobook would be bad.

I needn’t have worried. While the audiobook version of Sandman is, of course, different in a number of ways from the comic, it stays true to the story while adding something new at the same time. The brilliant voice acting adds tone and depth to each character, and the added narration (performed by Neil Gaiman himself), fills in most of the gaps caused by the lack of visual material. 

A page from the Doll's House on a starry background with paper stars.

It’s the same story, same impact, just in a different format. I, for one, am thrilled that one of my all-time favorite books is now available to more folks.

Those who’ve read and enjoyed the comic will appreciate the nuance this new telling adds to the story, while those who’ve never read the comic are in for an auditory and narrative treat.


This Adaptation Has Beautiful Voice Acting and Excellent Production

James McAvoy’s Morpheus is brooding and dark against Kat Denning’s chipper Death, while Justin Vivian Bond’s Desire is perfectly petulant and petty. I didn’t love Andy Serkis as Matthew the raven at first, but he grew on me and I’m curious to see how he’ll handle certain pivotal scenes in later books.

In short, the voice cast is spot on, and everyone nails their characters. It was insanely easy to close my eyes and feel like I was in the Dreaming.

This first volume of the audio drama (parts 2 and 3 have already been greenlit by Audible) covers the first three trade collections of the comic: Preludes & Nocturnes, The Doll’s House, and Dream Country. It maintains the original “chapter” breaks of the individual issues, and these are announced verbally, echoing the print reading experience.

An interior shot of the last page of Sandman issue 8, on a starry background with paper origami stars.

I was particularly curious how they would handle A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a storyline at the end of Dream Country in which Morpheus brings the fae to England to watch a play he commissioned from a young William Shakespeare. It’s one of the most visually complex issues of the comic, and relies heavily on paneling and framing to tell a story-within-the-story. It also has a rather large cast of characters: Shakespeare, his son, his players, Titania, Oberon, Puck, and a whole menagerie of fae who serve as the peanut gallery throughout the issue.

For the audio, they use sound layering and background/foreground speaking to give the same impression and experience, and it worked really well. Again, Gaiman’s narration also helps here, but I thought Maggs did an excellent job recreating the complex visual effects in this format. 


Itty Bitty Nitpicks

The only places I thought the audio drama failed to live up to the comic were a few scenes with The Corinthian. I loved Riz Ahmed’s portrayal of this eye-eating nightmare, but the narration on a few of his scenes left me with less than a full picture of what was happening with his victims. I also don’t think the horror of seeing mouths for eyes the first time Corninthian takes off his glasses translates quite as well to audio, but again, this is a minor complaint.

Unfortunately, The Sandman audio drama is an Audible exclusive, but you can purchase an MP3 CD through Bookshop. Generally speaking, I don’t like purchasing books through Amazon, and the same goes for audio. 

Amazon isn’t going away anytime soon, though, so I’ve had to make a sort of peace with it, especially in cases like this where there’s no other option. Still, I encourage audiobook readers to check out Libro.fm, an alternative that directly supports independent bookstores!

And if you’d like to purchase any of The Sandman graphic novels, you can always do so through your favorite indie bookstore or Bookshop.org! I’ve compiled a handy list of the series and its main offshoots over at my Bookshop storefront.



Three Historical SFF Novels Perfect for Women’s History Month

An image of three books in a row. The first is THE GHOST BRIDE by Yangsze Choo on a green background. The second is KINDRED by Octavia Butler on a pink background. The third is MEXICAN GOTHIC by Silvia Moreno-Garcia on a green background.

March is Women’s History Month, and while speculative fiction often addresses the future, it’s equally good at plumbing the past to help us understand the present. These three novels all have historical settings and female characters who have to confront the limits their time period puts on women—and then find ways to overcome them. 

Kindred by Octavia Butler

Kindred tells the story of a modern Black woman, Dana, who is pulled back in time to the South by one of her ancestors. There, Dana has to confront the reality of slavery. Dana serves as a sort of translator-avatar for the reader—neither she nor any of us have ever experienced slavery first hand. She quickly realizes that if she behaves as a Black woman from the 1970s normally behaves, she’ll get herself killed. Her only real safety net in this strange world is her ancestor, Rufus, the son of a slaveholder and the reason she keeps traveling through time.

Dana goes into the past thinking she could never be a slave, only to learn that she will do what it takes to survive, even if that means swallowing her pride and sacrificing some of her dignity. As she gets to know the slaves, she sees how strong they are. She realizes that they, too, are a product of their time, though their time doesn’t define who they are as individuals. Through Dana’s eyes, the reader is able to see the complex social dynamics and entrenched patriarchal and racist values and structure involved in slavery. As Dana experiences what it’s like to be a slave, so too does the reader—and therein is Kindred’s real power.

The Ghost Bride by Yangsze Choo

Yangsze Choo’s coming-of-age adventure set in 1890s Malaya explores the effects of colonialism, sexism, and class on its characters. Li Lan is a young woman with few marriage prospects because of her father’s failing business. She’s smart and capable, but to her potential suitors, money is what matters, and her family doesn’t have any.

The Lim family offers to make her a ghost bride to their recently deceased son, which would mean Li Lan would have a home and live in comfort for the rest of her life. But it would also mean she’d be alone, and have to abandon her ailing father. As she wrestled with the decision to become a ghost bride, Li Lan is slowly pulled into the afterlife, where she becomes embroiled in solving the mystery of her would-be groom’s death. 

Throughout the novel, Li Lan must reckon with the ways her own desires conflict with her familial and societal duty, and make difficult choices between them. Choo renders colonial Malaya vividly and beautifully, and her afterlife is lush and feels like a complete world unto itself. 

Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Set in the early 1940s, Mexican Gothic follows the story of two cousins: Noemi and Catalina. Noemi is a young debutant who dreams of becoming an anthropologist. The only problem is, her father wants her to find a husband at college, not get a degree. 

When they receive a disturbing letter from Catalina, recently married to an Englishman named Virgil, who lives in a run-down mansion called High Place, Noemi’s father makes a deal with her. If she goes to check on Catalina and help her recover, he’ll allow her to get a master’s degree. Noemi agrees, and sets off for High Place with high hopes.

As with any gothic novel, the house has secrets. Catalina’s mysterious illness unerves Noemi, and she clashes with her cousin’s husband and his eugenicist father, Howard. Her only friend at High Place is Francis, Virgil’s quiet cousin who seems to be keeping a secret or two of his own, but clearly likes Noemi. 

Mexican Gothic addresses colonialism, racism, and sexism in a more direct way than The Ghost Bride, but has plenty of surprises up its sleeve, too. The horror of colonization is made visceral in the house’s secret, as Virgil and Howard try to force Noemi and Catalina to bend to their wills. 

More Speculative Novels for Women’s History Month

Of course, there are so many more great speculative novels by women, about women. Novels that retell myths formerly dominated by men (Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad), novels that examine a matriarchal future (Ursula Le Guin’s Always Coming Home), and novels that examine what the world might be like if the power balance favored the most powerless (Naomi Alderman’s The Power). 

I’ve gathered all these—and more!—in this handy list of Speculative Novels for Women’s History Month in my Bookshop.org shop. Any purchases you make using these affiliate links helps support my work and the work of independent bookstores all over the world!

Review: Ready Player Two by Ernest Cline

This week’s book review covers Ready Player Two by Ernest Cline, the follow up to his 2011 bestseller Ready Player One. This post contains affiliate links to Bookshop.org, an online bookstore that financially supports local independent bookstores.

The Book Witch’s One-Sentence Review

Ready Player Two is a fast-paced and fun—though imperfect—nostalgia-fueled romp that explores deeper themes of toxic masculinity and the repercussions of virtual reality and artificial intelligence.


A Brief Recap of Ready Player One

In case you haven’t read the book or seen the movie (or it’s just been awhile), there are a couple things you need to know. James Halliday, who grew up in the ‘80s, created the virtual reality world the OASIS. After his death, his OASIS avatar Anorak—now a program that runs autonomously—revealed that whoever could solve the puzzle he designed would inherit Halliday’s real world wealth and an owning stake in his company. Because the stakes are so high, pretty much everyone is trying to solve the puzzle, including Wade Watts, aka Parzival, our main character, and his merry gang of friends, Art3mis, Aech, Daito, and Shoto.

People seem to either hate or love Ready Player One, Ernest Cline’s nerdy love letter to the ‘80s and early video games. 

The book’s detractors say it’s just nostalgia porn with no real purpose, while those who connect with it see a bit more nuance in the storytelling and a deeper message than just “the ‘80s were cool.”

I loved Ready Player One—it has some flaws, but it’s a hoot to read—and particularly liked how Ernest Cline addresses toxic masculinity and gatekeeping in nerd culture. 

At the beginning of the book, Wade/Parzival is an awkward nerd boy with a chip on his shoulder who spends all his time playing video games and trying to solve Halliday’s quest. By the book’s end, Wade has had to confront his own toxic tendencies, and the imperfect legacy of his idol, James Halliday. He’s also had to learn how to be a better friend.

This character growth elevates the book above nostalgia-fueled-romp to something with more meat and consequence, at least in my opinion. Wade wins Halliday’s contest with more than a little help from his friends, but splits his winnings with them evenly. He also, of course, wins Art3mis/Samantha over and they begin a relationship in the real world at the end of the book.


Press Start to Read This Review of Ready Player Two

At the beginning of Ready Player Two, we find Wade once again bitter and broken. Samantha has broken up with him, and he’s grown distant from Aech and Shoto. He is, to put it mildly, a hot mess who’s once again become addicted to the OASIS—only now, with the OASIS Neural Interface (ONI) headset, he can plug his brain directly into the machine, making the addiction even stronger.

A number of reviewers, particularly on Goodreads, decried this as an “erasure” of Wade’s character development from the first book. I disagree. By the end of the first book, Wade had only just learned how to be a better person. Suddenly, he’s been given the keys to the kingdom, more money than he knows what to do with, and a level of fame that proves to be uncomfortable for him.

He does what many celebrities in this position have done before him: He backslides. He falls into old habits. His wealth and fame allow him to get away with behaviors he couldn’t before. He knows it’s wrong, and he knows these behaviors are why Samantha broke up with him. But he can’t seem to help himself, so we find him wallowing in shame, pity, and loneliness.

In gaining wealth, fame, and power, Wade has lost everything that was actually important to him, and Ready Player Two is the story of him fighting to get those things back. 

Far from “erasing” his character development, Cline reminds us  that growth isn’t a linear process. Change is hard. It’s work. And it’s easy to fall back on old habits when things get difficult—or too easy.  


Is RP2 a Rehash of RP1?

Another common complaint I’ve seen about this sequel is that it’s just a repeat of the first book, but worse. I’ll get to that momentarily.

The book’s main plot kicks off when Anorak, James Halliday’s avatar, returns suddenly and informs Wade, Samantha, Aech, and Shoto that he’s made it impossible for anyone using an ONI headset to log off of the OASIS, which will cause irreparable brain damage after twelve hours of constant use. Anorak will only release his hostages if the gang is able to solve Halliday’s second puzzle: a quest for the seven shards of the Siren’s Soul.

(The siren refers to Kira Morrow, the woman James Halliday was in love with, but who instead loved and married Halliday’s partner, Ogden Morrow.)

Samantha has refused to use the ONI headsets, but Wade, Aech, and Shoto have embraced the technology. Being unable to log off and facing probable death makes them particularly motivated to find the seven shards. Despite the strain Wade’s behavior has put on their relationships, they all set out together to complete this new quest.

And this is where, yes, Ready Player Two echoes Ready Player One. But Two also takes the questions raised about the consequences of virtual reality in One and takes them to their next logical step: the question of AI. Anorak is a rogue AI, and while it seems like just another “robots bad” plot, it actually becomes much, much more complex.

That complexity, and the nuance with which Cline explores the problem, process, and repercussions of digitizing human consciousness, means I disagree with the assessment that Two is just a rehash of One. One asks “What if,” and Two follows it up with, “Okay, and then what if?”


The Glitch in the Code

None of this is to say Ready Player Two is a perfect book. The way each of the seven quests lined up perfectly with one of the party members’ expertise felt a little too perfect. And while I enjoyed the shard quest that took place on an OASIS world dedicated to Prince, it should have been at least twenty-five percent shorter.

Cline also introduces a transgender character in Ready Player Two, but the way in which he reveals L0hengrin is trans felt forced and awkward. Instead of simply letting us infer Lo was trans, and by extension just letting her be trans, he has Wade use his admin powers to look up her real-world identity and history. Wade doesn’t do this with any other character, and it felt a little bit too much like Cline wanted to make extra sure we knew that Lo is trans, instead of trusting the reader to figure it out.

Despite these issues, Ready Player Two delivers in the most important way: It’s a fun, nostalgia fueled romp that continues the first book’s exploration of toxic masculinity, jealousy, friendship, and what it means to be human.



If you’ve read Ready Player Two, what did you think? Let me know in the comments or on Twitter @bookwitchblog

The Seven Books I’m Most Excited for in 2021

Welcome to the Book Witch, a blog about speculative fiction and comics!

If you’re here, I can only assume you love books: reading them, collecting them, smelling them… Whatever your particular book kink, I hope you’ll find this to be a welcoming, inclusive space.

I’ll be bringing you reviews of new books, topical booklists, and speculative fiction-adjacent content every Tuesday, so make space on your TBR shelf!

A starburst graphic with a teal blue bar in the center that reads "The Book Witch's Most Anticipated Titles of 2021." There's a small purple witch hat on the "b" in "Book Witch."

To kick things off, I wanted to highlight some of the books and comics I’m most excited about in the first half of 2021. 

This post contains affiliate links to Bookshop.org, so any purchases you make using these links will help support the Book Witch and independent bookstores all over the world! Of course, I always encourage you to buy directly from your local indie bookstore whenever possible.

Burning Girls and Other Stories by Veronica Schanoes

March 2, Tor/Forge

Brief description: In Burning Girls and Other Stories, Veronica Schanoes crosses borders and genres with stories of fierce women at the margins of society burning their way toward the center.

Why I’m psyched: I love a good short story collection, and this one’s gotten quite a bit of buzz! It’s difficult to get attention for short fiction in the best of times, as readers seem to avoid them, so it’s always a good sign when one makes the round like Burning Girls is.

Stillwater Vol. 1 by Chip Zdarsky and Ramón K. Pérez

March 17, Image

Brief description: Nobody dies. In the town of Stillwater, that’s not just a promise. It’s a threat. 

Why I’m psyched: Death and dying are topics I can never get enough of, and I also can never get enough Chip Zdarsky. (If you haven’t read Sex Criminals, you are really missing out). I’m most familiar with his comic art rather than writing, so I’m looking forward to diving into this book. 

Zoey Rosenthal is Not Lawful Good by Nancy Werlin

April 6, Penguin Random House

Brief description: A buttoned-up overachiever works overtime to keep her inner nerd at bay—failing spectacularly—in Nancy Werlin’s hilarious and heartfelt return to contemporary realistic fiction.

Why I’m psyched: When I read the description for this book, I immediately saw myself. I am definitely an overachiever, and no one can deny what a nerd I am. This one might be stretching the bounds of this blog’s speculative focus, but I’ll always make an exception for books about nerdy characters, especially nerdy ladies!

The Infinity Courts by Akemi Dawn Bowman

April 6, Simon & Schuster

Brief description: Westworld meets Warcross in this high-stakes, incisive, dizzyingly smart sci-fi about a teen girl navigating an afterlife in which she must defeat an AI entity intent on destroying humanity, from award-winning author Akemi Dawn Bowman.

Why I’m psyched: Dead people stuff? Check! Smart teenager? Check! Creepy/scary AI? Check! I’m excited for this one because it mixes some classic sci-fi tropes in new ways, and looks like it’s going to be a blast to read!

Inkblot Vol.1 by Emma Kubert and Rusty Gladd

April 7, Image

Brief description: A powerful sorceress must attempt to correct her greatest mistake—the creation of a magical cat which can travel through time,space, and the seven realms of reality.

Why I’m psyched: As someone who has a mischievous black cat and loves fantasy, I simply couldn’t resist Inkblot’s premise. I’ve been buying this monthly (it’s on my pull list at my local comic shop) and am loving it so far. Both writer and artist obviously know what it’s like to love a void cat while also being completely exasperated by their antics.

Aetherbound by E.K. Johnston

May 25, Penguin Random House

Brief description: Set on a family-run interstellar freighter called the Harland and a mysterious remote space station, E. K. Johnston’s latest is a story of survival and self-determination. 

Why I’m psyched: I’ve loved E. K. Johnston’s Star Wars novels, so I would have been excited to give this book a chance regardless of the story. But I have a weak spot for scrappy teenage protagonists and characters who rail against the roles society wants them to play, so I’m sold!

The Wolf and the Woodsman by Ava Reid

June 8, Harper Voyager

Brief Description: This unforgettable debut—inspired by Hungarian history and Jewish mythology—follows a young pagan woman with hidden powers and a one-eyed captain of the Woodsmen as they form an unlikely alliance to thwart a tyrant.

Why I’m psyched: Fantasy’s slant toward Western European mythology and topography is well known and well documented. A slew of recent books have been breaking out of that mold (N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy, Katherine Arden’s The Bear and the Nightingale, to name two), and Ava Reid’s debut continues that trend. As someone who’s always enjoyed myths and legends from all corners of the globe, I am living for this trend, and I’m looking forward to this take on Jewish myth.

You can find all these books—and more!—in a handy list over at Bookshop.org.

What books are you excited about this year?