Monday, July 25, 2016

Double Review: How to Hang a Witch - Adriana Mather

How to Hang a Witch
Adriana Mather
Series: How to Hang a Witch, #1
Genre: Young Adult, Contemporary, Paranormal
Publisher: Knopf Books for Young Readers
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Thanks to Knopf Books for Young Readers for the ARC I received at BEA!

You know those books where after only a few pages you just know you're going to love it? That's how I felt when I started reading How to Hang a Witch.

How to Hang a Witch follows Sam Mather as she moves from New York City to Salem. While Sam is less than thrilled to move to Salem, she did not anticipate how terrible moving there would actually be. Sam Mather happens to be a descendant of Cotton Mather, one of the people most responsible for the Salem Witch Trials. Unfortunately for Sam, descendants of the accused who live in town are really out to get her, especially when Bad Things keep happening. Now Sam, a girl who believes in neither magic nor ghosts, has to deal with both.

From the beginning, I really loved Sam's voice in the book - there's something really blunt and down to earth about it. All the narration felt so natural, and it was easy to settle into the flow of it. On top of that, Sam is an extraordinarily ordinary character - there's nothing particularly special about her; she's all-around average - which made her stand out to me as a protagonist. Sam is confident, insecure, distrusting, awkward, witty (in a way that actually reads natural rather than calculated), protective, angry, and so much more. Adriana Mather did such a brilliant job building such a real character, which I think is the main reason I loved this book so much.

Besides Sam, there are many other complex supporting characters, including Jaxon, Elijah, and Susannah. I'll cut it short talking about these characters because I've already gushed over the character development for Sam, but seriously, Adriana Mather's characters are so well developed. The supporting characters, just like Sam, feel so real and layered.

When it comes to the plot of How to Hang a Witch, it is most prominently a mystery (and a good one). I just wanted to keep reading it because I wanted to know what the big mystery was. The pacing of the mystery was done so well, building up the suspense slowly at first until BAM everything was happening and I couldn't tear my eyes away from the pages. I was so surprised by where the plot went - it was so exciting!

While the mystery is the biggest part of the story, How to Hang a Witch is also a story that explores bullying. I'm of the opinion that everyone has been bullied on some level, even if you don't recognize it as such. The great thing about How to Hang a Witch's bullying dialogue is how it is paralleled to the Witch Trials. Mob culture is so prominent, and Adriana Mather did a fantastic job exploring this without making it a book about bullying.

There are also some fun romantic elements, which were sweet, but I wouldn't say this book is really a romance. The guys were super swoony though.

How to Hang a Witch is definitely one of the best books I've read this year, and it has definitely claimed a spot in my favorites. I absolutely fell in love with Sam and her voice, and I'm curious to see where this series will go. I highly recommend this incredible debut!

- Kiersten

Noor's review of How to Hang a Witch
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Honestly, who didn't find the Salem Witch Trials intriguing in school? Mass hysteria, witchcraft, an air of mystery -- yes it was tragic but like a car wreck you can't help slow down to stare at. When I read the description of the book, I knew it was a concept I could get behind and Adriana Mather did not disappoint.

How to Hang a Witch focuses on Sam Mather, a descendant of Cotton Mather -- one of the biggest players in the Salem Witch Trials -- through her move to Salem from New York City. Sam is ostracized and scrutinized for her ancestry, particularly by a group of five students known as the Descendants, whose ancestors were hanged in the Trials. Her rocky start extends further than being a loner at school though and she ends up involved in a centuries-deep mystery, with the ghost living in her house helping her along the way.

The mystery in this book kept me captivated the whole way through. How to Hang a Witch is pretty fast-paced and there isn't much idling around, mulling over information. It's all either action or searching for -- and discovering -- new information that propels the plot forward. Honestly, when I realized that ghosts in this book weren't floaty see-through wisps of people and were able to be touched (by those who could see them) I questioned everyone and just threw out mental accusations that everyone was a ghost. Her one friend in school? Ghost. The one Descendant that talks to her? Ghost. Nevermind that other people were clearly interacting with them as well, I had to be on guard for any twist. When we found out about magic and spells and witches, I accused each character of that too. No one was safe from my scrutiny. With that in mind, I technically had been prepared for the ending because I overthought it so much, but if we're ignoring technicalities it was unexpected and didn't feel gimmicky at all and overall was very well done. It's often hard to work a good mystery element into a book and balance it with the paranormal element but Adriana Mather exceeded expectations.

The book was told in first person by Sam and while it took me a few pages to warm up to her and her style of narrating, I really liked both the writing of the book and the character herself. I enjoyed her sarcastic quips and, like Kiersten said, they didn't feel forced or unnatural. I felt so much sympathy for the way her life had gone -- her dad in a coma, no friends to speak of, trust issues. She was such a real character. I also really liked Elijah, the ghost, and how he went from annoyed and untrusting to forming a close bond with Sam. Another favorite was Susannah, a Descendant, who I kinda wanted to be a little. She was so elegant and poised that I could feel it seep through the pages, but she wasn't cruel like Lizzie or cold-hearted like Alice. She had a kindness in her that she slowly let through and I found her character super intriguing. We had a bit of a love angle with Sam and her neighbor (and classmate), Jaxon, but it wasn't an overwhelming part of the story. I think the main focus was always the mystery with a little bit of romance on the side. I'm thankful there was no Big Love Triangle with two guys fighting and her picking sides and friendships being ruined. Speaking of Jaxon, he's adorable and sweet, but his mom is even more so. She's the mom you always wanted, constantly baking, never upset, helping out in your witchcraft needs, a perfect lady really.

Because the book was fast-paced and moved on from scenes quickly there were a few places I felt I would have liked more detail, like an explanation of some of the magic -- such as immortality magic or face-changing magic. Other than that, though, I found the book wonderful.

One of the coolest things about How to Hang a Witch was how even though it wasn't historical fiction, it brought the history to the modern day without making it a classroom history lesson. Yes, the witch trials happened three hundred years ago, but could mass hysteria lead to someone getting hanged without trial again, in a different form? Like bullying? Adriana Mather fantastically weaved this narrative into her story and it's an amazing takeaway from the book.

Adriana Mather explains in an Author's Note that she herself is a descendant of Cotton Mather and that history is important in her family, that this book came about after exploring Salem. That was really cool for me too, that not only was her own family history so rich, but that she could take it and turn it into something so intriguing.

On a lighthearted end note, Sam makes a comment that the pizza in Salem isn't as good as her native NYC and I couldn't agree more. I moved to NC a year ago and I have yet to find pizza up to par with the pizza back in NJ/NY. One day.

- Noor

Have you read any books about the Salem Witch Trials?
Let us know in the comments!

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