Books + Comics

Tales of Enchantment

Books about witches, mermaids, disco queens, and other fantastic characters.

fabulous sylvesterThe Fabulous Sylvester: The Legend, the Music, the Seventies in San Francisco
Joshua Gamson
2005, Picador

In the ’70s and ’80s, Sylvester, a soul singer from San Francisco with a profound and beautiful voice, was known as the Queen of Disco. He inspired generations by being exactly who he wanted to be, society be damned. This biography chronicles how Sylvester grew into his role as a fearless openly gay icon in an era when gay rights were in their infancy. But it’s also about Sylvester’s music, performances, and total DIVATUDE: He was gorgeous and sang some of the most important songs in disco. I cannot recommend this biography enough, and not just because it’s about Sylvester and he was fabulous: Joshua Gamson brings that time of gay activism and drag queens and all-night dance parties to life with his AMAZING writing. You feel like you’re right there in the Castro, hobbling around on six-inch platforms, trying to make it into the midnight Sylvester show. —Julianne

tender morselsTender Morsels
Margo Lanagan
2007, Knopf Books for Young Readers

Margo Lanagan must be a witch, because her books are too magical, dark, and troubling to have been written by a mere human. Tender Morsels is a retelling of the Snow White fairy tale. This Snow White is not to be confused with the Disney gal with dwarf friends; she’s Rose Red’s sister, from the Brothers Grimm fairy tale. Do you know the story? Snow White and Rose Red are best friends as well as sisters. One cold winter night, a bear comes to their door and begs to be let in. It turns out that he’s a prince, and Snow White marries him. In Lanagan’s utterly devastating version of the story, we learn that the girls are the products of rape; teir mother, Liga, has escaped into a magical, private world of her own imagining, where she can keep her little family safe from the horrors of the outside world. But this means her daughters are not prepared for cruelty. When others begin to enter their peaceful haven, including men from a nearby village and a treasure-seeking dwarf, the girls are deeply fascinated, and Liga realizes she’s kept them from living full lives of their own. This is not an easy read, but it’s a powerful exploration of human love and sacrifice. —Estelle

witches of eastwickThe Witches of Eastwick
John Updike
1984, Knopf

The 1987 film adaptation of this novel was a staple of my childhood. In it, Cher, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Susan Sarandon play the titular witches, whose powers are brought forth when the devil, played by Jack Nicholson, comes to town. I picked up the novel last year, and I don’t know what took me so long—like the movie, it is sexy and entertaining. Updike said he wrote the book to “make things right with my, what shall we call them, feminist detractors,” and it reads sort of like someone’s grandpa trying to sound like a feminist and occasionally failing spectacularly. But Updike is a master of the sentence, and the book is most successful on that level. —Emma S.

witchesWitches
Erica Jong
1981, Harry N. Abrams

I found this gorgeously illustrated book about witchcraft at a thrift store. I vaguely recognized the author’s name, but I didn’t yet know about Erica Jong’s association with second-wave feminism or her best-known, controversial book Fear of Flying. In Witches, she uses poetry and prose to collect some of witchcraft’s mythology, spells, and rituals, and finds in its history a source of women’s power. It’s not the most thorough Wiccan resource (take a look at books by Starhawk or Scott Cunningham if that’s what you’re looking for). Even still, it’s one of the most beautiful and beloved books on my shelf. —Stephanie

marilyn2Marilyn
Gloria Steinem
1988, Henry Holt & Co.

The consummate blonde bombshell Marilyn Monroe is still the gold standard of American sexuality and va-va-voom, so much so that stars (Madonna, Lady Gaga, Lindsay Lohan, et cetera) still try to emulate her more than 50 years after her death. This is one of the most important books in pop culture, I think, because in it Steinem deflates the pervading idea that Marilyn Monroe was basically a sexbot by examining how Marilyn Monroe, the person and the cultural idea, came to be: Born Norma Jeane Mortenson (her last name was later changed to Baker) to a mom with serious mental health issues, Monroe was shuffled around as a kid to “aunts” and foster mothers, and her need for parental love, which she arguably sought through her many husbands, defined her until the very end. This is a crucial read for feminists, pop culture fans, movie buffs…everyone. It might even teach you a bit more about yourself. —Julianne

kiki strikeThe Kiki Strike series
Kirsten Miller
2009–, Bloomsbury Publishing

I’m so excited to write about this series, because it’s SO EXCITING! It revolves around the life of Ananka Fishbein, a normal teenager whose life is thrown for a loop when a giant sinkhole appears outside her New York City apartment. Out of the whole climbs Kiki Strike, a badass who dresses in all black, has platinum hair, and is allergic to all foods but coffee. Plus, she knows multiple languages, how to use various weaponry, and martial arts. She and Ananka recruit four other girls (each gifted in a different art: chemistry, engineering, disguise, and hacking) to help them defend the city from criminals, and, on their downtime, roam the ancient, abandoned tunnels beneath its streets. I became so obsessed with this book at one point that I wore black for days, drank only coffee, and planned elaborate missions to spy on people at my school. The best part about this book is that, while the characters may be invented, the settings are not; there are actually abandoned subway, railroad, and flood tunnels hidden beneath the city, some accessible to the public, others just waiting to be explored. —Lucy

little mermaidThe Little Mermaid
Hans Christian Andersen
1837, C. A. Reitzel

Han’s Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid and the Disney adaptation that most of us are familiar with have the same basic set-up: A mermaid princess, fascinated by the human world, rescues and falls in love with a human prince, then gives a sea witch her beautiful voice in exchange for a pair of legs (required for jumpin’, dancin’, etc.). The original, Andersen version, though, is much darker (the mermaid feels a knife-like pain whenever she walks), and the story unfolds in bittersweet, decidedly un-Disney fashion. I think if I’d read this story as a small child, it would have been a harrowing and confusing experience (particularly the part where the sea witch is described as having a “great spongy bosom”). Fortunately, I read The Little Mermaid for the first time a couple of months ago, so I was able to appreciate how thematically rich it is. It’s a fairy tale about assimilation, unrequited love, the suppression of the female voice, social stratification, and self-sacrifice. Its complexity is truly bewitching. —Amber

tarot plain and simpleTarot Plain and Simple
Anthony Louis
2002, Llewellyn Publications

This book has a special place in my heart, because I used it to learn tarot when I was just a 16-year-old teen witch. There are numerous books that teach tarot for beginners, but this is the best one I’ve found, and I still find myself reaching for when I need to brush up on the cards’ many meanings. Louis takes the reader through each of the 78 cards in the tarot and offers key phrases and other tricks that make memorizing them as uncomplicated as learning multiplication tables. Ultimately, divination with tarot is about combining the cards’ traditional meanings with your own personal thoughts and experiences, but having a proper foundation is essential! If you choose to embark on the wonderful journey of divination, you’ll have no better trusted companion than this classic. —Meagan

book of tarotSeventy-Eight Degrees of Wisdom: A Book of Tarot
Rachel Pollack
1998 (revised edition), Thorsons

This book is half tarot guide, half personal narrative, and reading the latter part feels like listening to stories spun by a wise witch. Rachel Pollack also sheds some light on the history behind each tarot card. For example: Did you know that the 12 stars in the Empress’s crown symbolize the signs of the Zodiac? There are worlds of magic in tarot, and this book helped me gain new appreciation for their artistry and mystery. I could read it over and over and still learn something new each time. Whether you’re new to tarot or are an experienced cartomancer, this is a must-read. —Meagan

jpegThe Magicians Trilogy
Lev Grossman
2014 (boxed edition), Viking

I love a good trilogy, don’t you? Why settle for just one book when you can greedily devour three that follow the same storyline? Lev Grossman’s novels The Magicians, The Magician King, and The Magician’s Land are about Quentin Coldwater, who goes on an epic journey from boy to man, from student to teacher, and from loser to king and back again. They take place in a magical land called Fillory, and in a school for magic called Brakebills Preparatory College of Magic. I read an interview with Grossman recently where he complained that readers often compare Brakebills to Hogwarts, when really it’s based on Oxford, but hey, being likened to Hogwarts seems like a compliment to me! Read all three books back to back for maximum enjoyment. —Emma S.

faeriesFaeries
Brian Froud and Alan Lee
1979, Abrams

I squealed with joy when I first came across Faeries, because I recognized Brian Froud’s name from The Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal. Froud is the conceptual and costume designer, behind those movies’ visually stunning fantasy worlds and characters, and his sketches—plus detailed descriptions—of mythology’s many different kinds of fairies are just as amazing. Lush illustrations (including watercolors contributed by Alan Lee) are paired with handwritten text about fairy behavior (the Daoine Sidhe, for example, are skilled chess players and love “hurling”), fairy flora (primroses can open the way to fairyland), and how to protect yourself from fairies, if you so choose (try iron, St. John’s wort, or a sock under the bed). If you’re as enchanted by Froud’s fairy tales as I am, I’d recommend his other books as well: Good Faeries/Bad Faeries, Goblins!, and Trolls. —Stephanie

sacre bleuSacré Bleu: A Comedy d’Art
Christopher Moore
2012, HarperCollins

Sacré Bleu turns art history on its head. It starts with the death of Vincent van Gogh, which is seemingly attributed to a curious shade of blue. Throughout the novel, other famous real-life artists, like Claude Monet and Pierre-Auguste Renoir, find themselves under the same color’s spell. If it weren’t for its comedy and clearly fictitious scenarios, this could be a textbook on the history of Impressionism and post-Impressionism. The action takes place in Paris (an enchanting setting if ever there was one!) using real figures from history, but the story, with its raunchy sorcery, is a like a strange dream. —Chanel

ashAsh
Malinda Lo
2009, Little, Brown Books for Young Readers

Ash, an orphan, lives at the mercy of her wicked stepmother and cruel stepsisters. Not one to become a typical fairy tale martyr, though, she retreats to the forest, where she becomes entangled with a mysterious man named Sidhean and his fairy realm. Caught between the magnificent but dark fairy world and the human one, Ash has to make some difficult choices that Cinderella could never have imagined. Ash is based on familiar tales, but it tosses all the tired old tropes out the window. And even though it’s a romance, it doesn’t gloss over any of the gritty realities that come with friendship and love. —Rachael ♦

13 Comments

  • Jane-Eyre August 8th, 2014 5:23 AM

    ‘Faeries’ looks so beautiful!
    To this day I still believe in them.

    http://shineongolddustwoman.blogspot.com.au/

  • blueolivia August 8th, 2014 9:24 AM

    i love brian froud’s faerie designs! when i was six, my mom bought me a copy of good faeries/bad faeries, because labyrinth and the dark crystal were my favourite movies. i used to bring it to school, and i got in trouble because it had nude faeries in it. of course, i argued that they were FAERIES and it didn’t matter if they were naked. my montessori teachers were torn between appreciation for my feminism and frustration at my stubbornness, haha ☺ i’m definitely going to check out the tarot books, i just got a deck last night actually, so this is perfect!

  • emeraldruby August 8th, 2014 10:10 AM

    Tender Morsels is an incredible novel. I love it dearly. It is so vivid and wonderfully told and terrifying, heartbreaking and beautiful at the same time. I love it so so much.

  • Mollie August 8th, 2014 10:22 AM

    the mists of avalon!

    the arthurian legend from the female characters’ perspectives. lots of magic.

  • Erin. August 8th, 2014 11:37 AM

    Andersen’s The Little Mermaid is incredibly dark and sad. I can’t even think about it without getting a bit teary-eyed.

    And, just on the off-chance, does anyone know of a good non-Wiccan book on/of witchcraft? I know that modern witchcraft is quite connected to Wicca, but the religion doesn’t really jive with me, but I’d still love to learn more about the symbolism behind things (colours, herbs, etc) and how to use them in day to day life (like, in order to concentrate the mind, not to make love potions :P).

    http://shambled-ramblings.blogspot.ca/

  • sublimekids August 8th, 2014 12:08 PM

    the kiki strike series is the most wonderful and oddly empowering and simply flawless and ( every other compliment one could think of ) i have ever read.

    those books ( about the ultimate bad-ass 13 year old girl gang single-handedly and owning the streets of new york and taking down the city’s criminals ) became my favourite books of all time + OVERALL INSPIRATION FOR LIFE when i stumbled across them in a dusty lil bookshop when i was nine, as they are to my sixteen year old self today.

    it was actually through the author’s, kirsten miller, own blog that i first came across your wonderful tavi, way back in 2010. ( http://kirstenmillerbooks.blogspot.com.au/2010/08/thirteen-year-old-conquers-fashion.html ). she later wrote about her as well as rookie itself again in 2011, just shortly after rookie first started. ( http://kirstenmillerbooks.blogspot.com.au/2011/09/rookie.html ).

  • JenDev August 8th, 2014 1:27 PM

    Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus is very enchanting!

    • emlyb August 26th, 2014 8:37 AM

      seconded! it’s the definition of enchantment. it’s absolutely magical.

  • whiskeytangofoxtrot August 8th, 2014 3:50 PM

    Brian Froud and Alan Lee’s “Faeries” publication date should actually be 1979, not 2002.

    • Lena August 8th, 2014 7:58 PM

      You are correct! Thank you.

      • whiskeytangofoxtrot August 13th, 2014 1:09 PM

        You’re welcome! :)

  • supercutegeeks August 8th, 2014 7:30 PM

    Kiki Strike!! I’ve loved that series since fifth grade, but I don’t know many other fans. It’s an awesome adventure story and always inspires me to go be a girl genius/superhero. As all good stories should.

  • whateveryazmine August 8th, 2014 10:17 PM

    I really like the sound of The Witches of Eastwick, fingers crossed my local library has a copy!

    http://www.whateveryazmine.blogspot.com.au