There’s a new girl at school. One who hasn’t heard about Courtney Crumrin and who dares to sit with her at lunch.
Readers, however, are well-acquainted with Courtney by now; this is the fifth book in the series about the irrepressible girl who dares to go into dark places and keep dark company.
In The Witch Next Door, readers return to Hillsborough (and other familiar places) and learn more about Courtney’s Uncle Aloysius, who is – as Courtney observes – both terrifying and reassuring, at the same time.
Time passes differently for Uncle Aloysius – fifty years is nothing and he is a hundred years older than Courtney – so there is a lot of potential for backstory, but readers unfamiliar with the first four volumes would not be overwhelmed by the narrative in this volume. Though incidents and characters from earlier volumes make appearances, the story is relatively self-contained.
“Dark or light is all in how you use it,” one character observes. And that is true, too, of the artist’s style. At times the use of colour is bright and bold, and at times there is a Wizard-of-Oz draining and fading, so that the world is a kaleidoscope of greys.
The darkness never entirely overwhelms, either stylistically or thematically, however. Sometimes the ground splinters and fangs are bared, and the staircases in the underworld might seem to be endless and exhausting, but for every assassination there is a making-cocoa scene and for every gasp a giggle. There is humour alongside the horror in this tale.
Courtney Crumrin is just as sassy and irreverent as ever: fans will not be disappointed. “Anyone can learn to play a tune but some people have more talent than others.” And Courtney is more of the talented.
Still, she is not infallible. “Sometimes, bravery and nobility take a back seat to common sense.” Frequently these stories hinge on an error in judgement, a gap where common sense should reside, but the action in this volume is of a slightly different hue.
There is some ambiguity about choices made. “I can’t even do good without doing evil as well.” And the complexity of the world holds sway.
Ethical questions about power and responsibility are raised. Characters must consider whether they should challenge old patterns and dare to defy expectations in an effort so they can live with the decisions they must make. Issues surrounding belonging, loyalty and deceit play out, and the question of forgiveness and atonement lurks beneath.
But, perhaps most importantly, The Witch Next Door entertains and delights.
Readers know that, not only from the Alison Bechdel blurb on the cover: “Step aside, Joy of Cooking.”
Not only from the title (delightfully punny though it is) and subtitle (My Life in the Kitchen).
But from the cover illustration. It’s obvious, yes.
Still, readers of her first book, French Milk, might have guessed as much, even before seeing Relish, as her debut had a good bit to say about food (in Paris) too.
Nonetheless, what I most enjoy about both works is the focus on her relationship with her mother.
Okay, okay: there are a number of high-points. Like the chapter on cookies. And the recipe for pesto.
And the delightfully awkward coming-of-age story which unfolds in a chapter set in Mexico.
Did I mention that chapter on croissants? I think that might be my favourite.
“The layers were flaky and buttery, concealing the fresh jam in the depths of the thickest part of thecrescent, where the pastry was so soft that it nearly disintegrated in my mouth. Unspeakably good.”
But my absolutely favourite part of the book is the afterword, which recasts the rest of Relish in a thoroughly pleasing way: the photographs of Lucy and her mother that clearly bolster all that is told in the pages before.
Knisley’s works read rather like a teenager’s diaries; they feel saturated with her really-rather-privileged experience of and perspective on the world.
But there is something charming about her spirit and her playful tone is invigorating; I’m curious to sample her next volume of work.
Nothing Can Possibly Go Wrong takes a tired theme (cheerleaders versus robotics club) and adds a dash of student government and a splash of chaos at home (divorced parents).
The ensemble cast has two male friends at its core, uniting the two worlds-at-war as the novel opens, for one boy has been dating the head cheerleader and the other plays an integral role in the robotics club.
There isn’t a lot which challenges readers’ expectations of this age-old theme. The robotic boy wears plaid and the head cheerleader boasts a larger-than-life ponytail. The villains are pimply and greasy-haired. There is a single geek girl in the boys’ club.
The problems characters face are not extreme (frustrations of father-son-bonding camping trips and unfortunate creek encounters) but they play out with believable drama. That’s what I most enjoyed about the story.
In the lives of these characters, belonging and recognition are of vital importance, in the form of whether or not a group can participate in a competition or has new uniforms. It definitely rings true.
The drawings are contained in a varietry of blocked panels. Sometimes the shapes are unexpected, for instance to mimic the upward motion of the first throw in a basketball game or to catch the momentum of a sidelong pass across the court. The facial expressions are the perfect combination of overly angsty (which sometimes seem almost manga-like) and nonplussed.
One of my favourite scenes is the short backflash to the two boys’ first meeting, several years earlier, a playdate which neither particularly wanted to attend; the drawings were particularly comical, their reluctance and resistance almost tangible. I would have liked more of that kind of backstory, but I suspect the target audience is more interested in the through-story and the outcome of the conflict.
Last year I read Faith Erin Hicks’ Friends with Boys and I liked it quite a bit, but in combination with another solid read in Nothing Can Possibly Go Wrong, I’m now interested enough to more deliberately seek out her other works.
Have you read any of these? Or, do you have any other comics in your stacks?