Mars reviews Hocus Pocus and The All-New Sequel by A. W. Jantha

Hocus Pocus and the All-New Sequel cover

All her life, Poppy Dennison has known the story of the frightening and magical events that took place in Salem on Halloween night back in 1993. It’s otherwise known as the day her parents really met, or alternatively as the one time her cool Aunt Dani got kidnapped and almost eaten by witches. To be clear, the witches in this book are characters leftover from a coven that was decimated during the actual historical witch hunts of Salem, Massachusetts and not modern practitioners of a particular faith, and should not be taken as such.

The three witchy Sanderson sisters, their book of spells, and the special black flame candle that legend says will raise them from the dead are all still part of the popular Halloween lore that surrounds Salem. Her parents’ part of that story is virtually unknown, and Poppy is determined to keep it that way lest her mean girl nemesis Katie Taylor finds out and makes her last two years of high school its own kind of hell.

For readers who are not familiar with the lovely classic Halloween film Hocus Pocus, have no fear because the Part I of this book is a very close retelling of the movie and sets up Part II very well, detailing Poppy’s own involvement with the Sanderson sisters. Some witches just aren’t very good at staying dead.

This was a surprising and fun read that I just couldn’t put down. With more action, adventure, and character development than I expected, we follow Poppy, her best friend and wingman Travis, her mysterious dream girl Isabella, as well as other characters both new and familiar as they race to stop a new plot hatched by the Sanderson sisters to help them achieve immortality and rain hell on earth. With their witchy powers enhanced by the rare blood moon, the stakes have never been higher (no pun intended).

Much like the original Hocus Pocus (Part I), this story is as much about family, friendship, and loyalty as it is about evil witches enslaving humans and damning their souls for their own enjoyment. Poppy makes a really relatable protagonist. Who hasn’t dealt with trying to mitigate embarrassing family history while tripping over a monster crush?

Julie Thompson reviews Go Deep (All Out Vancouver #2) by Leigh Matthews

Go Deep

(This review contains some spoilers)

Buckle up for a rocky road  of doppelgängers, hospitals, concussin’, and a ménage à wedding.  It’s heating up (literally, I am melting into the asphalt) around the Pacific Northwest and what better way to enjoy your burgeoning beach bum status than with a fun, flirty, roller coaster of a  novel? Pack your staycation bags and prepare to head up North of the border, up Canada way!

The second book in Leigh Matthew’s All Out Vancouver series threads through the adventures and lives of the first novel’s crew: Kate, Cass, Em, Hanna, and Steve. If you don’t mind slight spoilers of the first book, read on. We meet new folks: Afra, genderqueer character with a big heart for social justice, who shares a run-down apartment with Scout; Scout, a charming young queer fresh from the prairie; and Alice, a nurse from Vancouver General Hospital.

Other characters share the spotlight, such as Drew, a lawyer trying to get pregnant via artificial insemination, who also coaches the group’s queer softball team. As Matthews introduces more characters into the East Vancouver scene, she deftly alternates between storylines, skillfully merging the disparate lives that are connected like a game of six-degrees of Kevin Bacon or Alice’s chart on The L Word. New challenges arise and old problems fester.

The action starts up in Amsterdam, a few months after Kate and Cass settle in. The edges of their nascent relationship are fraying with the stresses of moving to a new country, new jobs, and most of all, the unsettled bumps in their relationship. They fall back into the same patterns, desperate for change, but unsure of how to make that happen. A change of scenery isn’t enough to help the insular couple from trapping themselves in a cycle of fight-sex-fun. It takes an emergency trip back to Vancouver to break the cycle. Both women are forced to take a long hard look at who they are together and if it’s worth all the drama and heartache. I’m unsure about how deep they’re willing to go to transform their relationship into one that is healthy and mutually satisfying. Cass is a difficult character for me to enjoy, but she manages to grow up a little bit.

Kate sums up the relationship, such as it is when the story opens: “It’s like living with a toddler, an academic, and a sex addict, and I never know which one I’ll come home to.”

Go Deep also explores also explores possibilities for couplings and families. Drew and Scout hook up, leaving the politics of tops and bottoms to the flip of a coin. Outside of the bedroom, they enjoy a relationship that does not involve the possibility of a romantic partner/co-parent, but does open the doors for other options.

Scout is one of my favorite characters. New to town after life on the prairie, Scout joins the softball team and plunges into the East Vancouver queer scene.  Scout is tough, yet sensitive; flirty and fun, yet guarded. It’s the uncertainties, contradictions, and charm that shine through and make this character fun to follow. A case of mistaken identity results in further excitement and complications.

Stability radiates outward to the group from the triad of Em, Hanna, and Steve. Even with a life-threatening illness thrown in, they not only stay afloat, but manage to juggle the drama of their less-than-balanced friends. Theirs is the novel’s romance that gives me warm fuzzies.

Em is the kind of friend we all need on our side. Someone who won’t hesitate to call us out on our crap, but is not unkind about it. I cheered when she tells Kate that something needs to change because the only stories she hears Kate tell about life with Cass taste sour.  Em makes friends wherever she finds herself. In her hospital bed, not only does she plays therapist to Kate, but connects with other patients in an important way. She is the cat herding master!

As far as the supporting characters go, they pop up to provide nudges in the action, but we don’t see them as much, yet. A little teaser of storylines to come, maybe. Matthews drops breadcrumbs about where the next installment may head as the gang pools their talents and passions together for a labor of love.