House of Ivy & Sorrow

Book review by
Mary Eisenhart, Common Sense Media
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Frothy, gory teenage-witch tale of family secrets, romance.

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

There's far more entertainment than education to this tale, but the Jo's investigations may motivate some readers to find out more about the Salem Witch Trials, as well as the American South, San Francisco, and other destinations.

Positive Messages

Message about trying to figure out the right thing to do, and doing it. Also about friendship, family, and learning who can be trusted.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Many adults are loving and supportive, but real-life parents may question some of their decisions -- for example, one teen character's father is pretty much a dream dad, but also advises his underage daughter to use magic to create a fake ID so she can rent a car. Often conflicted and sometimes silly, Jo has a strong sense of duty and purpose, and is especially devoted to her grandmother. Her friends show loyalty and support far above and beyond the call of duty -- and perhaps common sense.

Violence

Aside from the mysterious Curse that's been used to kill so many of Jo's ancestors, and which won't rest till the whole family's exterminated, there's plenty of other violence, from the mental (controlling minds and souls with evil power) to the physical (jamming foreign objects in people's eyes, hand-to-hand combat). As part of creating assorted spells, Jo and her friends mutilate themselves and each other, pulling out teeth and fingernails, gouging out chunks of flesh, etc. Other body parts, often violently taken from animals, are also necessary to the magic.

Sex

There's a fair amount of sexual tension in Jo's relationship with suitors Winn and Levi. In one scene she and her love interest start out kissing and end up without their shirts, but the details are left to the imagination. Perhaps more troubling and/or discussion-worthy is the witches' centuries-old custom of keeping men out of their lives except as needed to produce daughters who carry on the craft.

Language

Multiple uses of "crap"; also rare occurrences of  "screw it," "ass," "s--t" and the like.

Consumerism

Occasional brand names of consumer products, such as Netflix and Coke, in the context of how happy the rural teens are to have them.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that like Transparent, author Natalie Whipple's first novel, House of Ivy & Sorrow blends everyday high-school issues (first love! fast food! misunderstandings among BFFs!) with tales of superhuman powers and cosmic battle between good and evil. Teenage witch Jo is more Buffy and Bella than Sabrina, with two hunky, darkly mysterious guys competing for her affections. There are strong messages of friendship, family, and doing the right thing even at terrible cost to yourself and others. There's also murky cosmology and considerable violence, both in the peril to Jo and her family from dark forces who want to kill them, and in their own version of witchcraft, which seems to involve constant battles, physical and otherwise, with dark forces, and require a gruesome array of body parts (human and animal) to create spells. On the more mundane side of their lives, the teen characters use occasional crude language ("crap" is a particular favorite; also occasional "ass," "s--t," "screw it," and the like). An intense make-out scene is mostly left to the imagination. A core element in the plot is the witches' family structure: traditionally, the craft is passed from mother to daughter, and daughters never know their fathers because their mothers abandon their lovers as soon as they're pregnant.

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What's the story?

In rural Iowa, 17-year-old Jo Hemlock can't believe popular, good-looking Winn is asking her out. But besides the teasing she's getting from her friends, there are other problems -- especially the fact that Jo and her grandmother are the last members of a once-noted family of witches, who spend much of their time and energy trying to keep the mysterious Curse that killed Jo's mother, along with many other ancestors, from killing them and their loved ones. Things get even more complicated when a mysterious stranger appears upon the scene, followed by a strange boy to whom Jo feels a peculiar connection. Soon Jo, her relatives, and her friends are involved in a frantic search for family secrets that might save them from the Curse.

Is it any good?

This is a strange brew of disparate elements, from high school romance and teen hijinks to toxic relationships, murder, and manipulation of dark powers, sometimes in very odd combinations. Jo, for example, often talks about past and upcoming mutilations (having fingernails and teeth ripped out, jamming foreign objects in people's eyes) in a jokey tone.

For the most part, characters are cartoonish and one-dimensional, though often appealing; the cosmology seems sloppy, and the story ultimately a bit phoned in. But however jarring some of the details, Jo's engaging narrative voice keeps readers turning the pages for another trip down the well-worn teenage-witch path.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about why stories about witchcraft are so popular. How does Jo compare with other supernatural heroines you've encountered?

  • How would your life be different in a culture where women lived by themselves and had no long-term relationships with men? How would it be the same?

  • Imagine having a whole secret dimension of your life that you couldn't even tell your best friends about. What would it be? How would it affect your relationships?

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