You’re Psyched Spooky Season is Here

I’ve got three books with witches, ghosts and more

Hi friends,

Hope your week is off to a good start. A few of you reached out and asked for “spooky season” book recommendations, so I decided to do a special Spooky Season Spectacular (mostly because I’m a sucker for alliteration.)

I’m not a huge horror person, so none of these books are super gory. And I think even if you’re not breaking out your decorative gourds or planning an elaborate Halloween costume, you’ll still find something to enjoy with these picks.

And now, what to read if…

You’re Feeling Witchy

We Ride Upon Sticks by Quan Barry

I love a weird book — and Quan Barry’s We Ride Upon Sticks is weird in the best possible way. Barry writes about the 1989 Danvers High School field hockey team on their quest to win the state championships. Located just a few miles from Salem, Massachusetts, the team decides to turn to witchcraft for some help winning. Each team member signs a dark pledge in a notebook adorned with Emilio Estevez’s smiling face (one of dozens of delightful ’80s details included in the book).

The team members vow to follow any dark urge “Emilio” sends their way. They begin to sneak smelly fish in the teachers’ lounge and swap water for bleach in the home ec classroom. Their once innocent pranks escalate on Halloween in downtown Salem, when they use their hockey sticks to destroy a car. Their team, once the worst in the state, starts an unbelievable winning streak.

We Ride Upon Sticks is narrated by an omniscient and collective “we,” demonstrating just how enmeshed the young women are in each other’s lives. Yet, each player is given time to shine and to have their character developed. There’s Abby Putnam, team golden girl and descendent of a notorious Salem accuser, Julie Mihn Kaling, a Vietnamese girl adopted by white religious zealots, and Jen Fiorenza, whose giant bangs even develop a personality of their own. (Like I said, it’s weird.)

At its core — in between the bizarreness and the ’80s references — We Ride Upon Sticks is a moving coming-of-age story and a raucous celebration of female friendship. It was a joy to read and often had me laughing out loud.

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You’re Looking for Something the Whole Family Can Enjoy

Sheets by Brenna Thummler

Did my post on When You Trap a Tiger inspire you to launch your own family book club? Or are you looking for a heartwarming graphic novel you can read in one sitting? Either way, Sheets by Brenna Thummler is the book for you.

Summer tells the story of Marjorie Glatt, a thirteen-year-old grieving the loss of her mother and struggling to keep the family laundromat open, and Wendell, a ghost of a boy who died far too young. Wendell, feeling like he doesn’t fit in, leaves ghostland and begins to accidentally wreak havoc on the Glatt’s laundromat. Over the course of the graphic novel, Marjorie grows stronger and more confident, while Wendell learns to accept his fate as a ghost.

Sheets is one of those books that breaks your heart and then puts it back together again. The art, also done by Thummler,  is warm and inviting, adding to the reading experience. It’s a moving depiction of grief, loss and friendship that readers of all ages will find something to appreciate in.

You’re Into Dark Academia TikTok

The Temple House Vanishing by Rachel Donohue

During the pandemic, a formerly niche corner of the internet devoted to “dark academia” has become common on social channels. It’s a vibe the New York Times describes as “traditional-academic-with-a-gothic-edge; think slubby brown cardigans, vintage tweed pants, a worn leather satchel full of a stack of books, dark photos, brooding poetry and skulls lined up next to candles.” If this sounds like the aesthetic you’re trying to cultivate — or you’re just in the mood for a solid thriller, check out Rachel Donohue’s The Temple House Vanishing.

Set in a drafty, cliffside Irish boarding school in the early ’90s, The Temple House Vanishing follows two teenage girls, new scholarship student Louisa and firebrand Victoria. They form a fierce friendship with one another — and with their charismatic art teacher Mr. Lavell. One day, towards the end of the fall semester, Louisa and Lavell disappear from the campus. Twenty-five years later, a journalist begins to reinvestigate the disappearance, attempting to uncover what happened and why. The book alternates between the two timelines.

The Temple House Vanishing, Donohue’s debut, is a creepy, atmospheric psychological thriller that I devoured. The dual timeline allows for some contemporary discussion about issues of consent and power that are missing in the earlier timeline. I read enough thrillers that I can often see where a book is going, but this one kept me guessing — in the best kind of way. I’m eager to see what Donohue does next.


I also want to quickly offer a “reminder rec” for Plain Bad Heroines. Back in February, I wrote,Plain Bad Heroines, Emily Danforth’s second book, almost defies categorization. It’s part queer gothic novel, part soapy Hollywood satire. … If you’re looking for something that’s completely unlike anything you’ve read before, this is the book for you.”

I’ll be back in your inboxes on Thursday with a Q&A featuring Rohini Chowdhury, a writer and translator.


What to Read If is a free weekly book recommendation newsletter. Need a rec? Want to gush about a book? Reply to this email, leave a comment or find me on Twitter @elizabethheld.

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