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Posts Tagged ‘Alice Hoffman’

Halloween is coming, and I’m in the mood for something mysterious and magical and kind of marvelous, something by Alice Hoffman, like Blackbird House or Seventh Heaven or Practical Magic. Fortunately (now there’s a suitable word), Hoffman returns this month with The Rules of Magic (Simon and Schuster, digital galley), a prequel to Practical Magic and featuring the potion-brewing, spell-casting Owens sisters. Not the younger ones, Gillian and Sally, from the first book, but their aunts Franny and Jet, depicted here as teens and young women growing up in 1960s and ’70s New York City with a magnetic and musical younger brother, Vincent. Although their mother Susanna forbids black clothes, red shoes, Ouija boards and the cats and candles that might speak to their Owens’ heritage, the siblings know they are different. How else to explain Franny’s way with birds, or Jet’s reading others’ thoughts, or Vincent levitating small objects?

When Franny turns 17, the three go to spend the summer with Aunt Isabelle in Massachusetts, absorbing the rules of magic as handed down from their Salem witch ancestor Maria Owens. But it’s not all black soap and moonlight potions and secret books; there’s also a curse that spells doom for those they dare to love. There has to be a way around that, the siblings think, but a tragedy soon after they return home has them reconsidering the future. Still, as the Vietnam War incites their generation to make love not war, Franny, Jet and Vincent all tempt fate in their own ways and learn to live with the consequences.

Hoffman’s writing is as luminous and lyrical as ever; the story, bittersweet. Ah, The Rules of  Magic. “What is meant to be is bound to happen, whether or not you approve.” I approve.

Other treats and/or tricks suited to the season include Jonathan Stroud’s The Empty Grave (Disney Press, library hardcover), the rousing fifth book in the Lockwood & Co. series, in which our favorite London ghostbusters uncover a conspiracy that takes them to the shivery Other Side, where spirits linger.  Narrator Lucy has a sinking feeling. Although written for the middle-grade set, Stroud’s witty adventures are for anyone who likes good ghost stories. Creepy good fun.

 

Maggie Stiefvater spins YA magical realism in All the Crooked Saints (Scholastic, advance reading copy), set in 1962 Colorado and centering on the miracle-working Soria cousins. But the pilgrims who venture under the desert stars for a cure find the young saints can only do so much when it comes to inner darkness. When elder cousin Daniel interferes with a miracle, he also falls prey to the dark by way of a family curse, and it’s up to Beatriz, Joaquin and their friend Pete to rescue him, perhaps via pirate radio. Readers of Stiefvater’s fabulous Raven Boys cycle will recognize similar themes and signature style.

 

Naomi Alderman’s dystopian The Power (Little Brown, digital galley) looks back to the early days of a female-centric society when teenage girls first awoke to a tingling in their arms. At first, it’s a thrill for the girls to shock boys’ bad behavior, but then they discover their taser-like power can also kill. Furthermore, they can ignite the power in older women. Girls rule! Still, the role reversal is more than a one-trick pony plot as Alderman cleverly explores the ways in which women wield power, not always to the benefit of humankind. It’s speculative fiction that provokes and entertains.

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darkestOnce upon a time — actually, the last few months  — I’ve been leading a double life. By day, I’m reading literary fiction and crime novels, but by night I escape to the paranormal via YA novels. Oh, the adventures I have among ghosts and witches, heroes and villains, changelings and dreamwalkers.

High school student Hazel is also leading a double life in Holly Black’s The Darkest Part of the Forest (Little, Brown, library hardcover). Hazel wonders why she’s so tired in the mornings, unaware that her nighttime dreams  of being a warrior in the service of a fairy king are true. It’s part of a bargain she made to help her musically gifted brother Ben. Both Hazel and Ben are fascinated by the glass coffin in the forest near the town. Inside resides a sleeping fairy prince, a tourist attraction in a land where humans and fae warily co-exist. But then the coffin is destroyed, the prince disappears, and this already odd world falls out of kilter. As in her vampire novel, The Coldest Girl in Coldtown, Black excels at mixing the ordinary  (school, parents, teenage crushes) with the extraordinary (changelings, unicorns, curses). She transforms fairy tale tropes with modern, snarky charm.

nightbirdAlice Hoffman’s many adult novels are suffused with a lyrical magical realism, which also informs her new novel for younger readers, Nightbird (Random House, digital galley). In the small Massachusetts town of Sidwell, residents hold an annual pageant about the town’s long-ago witch. But 12-year-old Twig and her mother, a talented baker, never attend, continuing to lead an isolated life in an old house, where Twig’s older brother James hides inside. Only Twig knows that James comes out at night, unfurling the black wings he’s had since birth, the result of the Sidwell witch having cursed the male side of the family. Twig is afraid someone is going to discover James on one of his nighttime flights; already there are whispers of a shadowy, flying monster. When a new family moves in down the road, Twig makes a good friend and James falls in love, but all is complicated by strange graffiti in town, a mysterious boy, and a woods full of small, endangered owls. Hoffman’s light touch casts a memorable spell. In Sidwell, even the library and the apple trees appear enchanted.

shadowcabMaureen Johnson left fans hanging on the edge of a cliff two years ago with The Madness Underneath, the second book in her enthralling Shades of London series, when she apparently killed off a major character. But never fear; she’s not Veronica Roth, thank goodness (yes, I am still bitter about Allegiant). In The Shadow Cabinet (Penguin Young Readers, purchased e-book), American student Rory Devereaux and her secret London ghost-busting colleagues have the mad skills to save one of their own. Maybe. While team leader Stephen hovers between life and death, Rory and squad members Boo and Callum try to find Charlotte, a student apparently kidnapped by her crazed therapist Jane, who hopes to resurrect the two leaders of a 1970s cult. But that’s just part of a hair-raising plot that also includes the disappearance of 10 other girls, a mass murder and a conspiracy threatening London at large. Readers who like Ben Aaronovitch’s adult Rivers of London series will appreciate the similarities in tone as Johnson leavens the scary with the humorous. Super supernatural.

mimeSamantha Shannon kicked off a projected seven-book series in 2013 with The Bone Season, a wonder of intricate world-building and spirited adventure. I wouldn’t attempt reading the series’ second book, The Mime Order (Bloomsbury USA, digital galley), without reading the first, so detailed is this futuristic London ruled by the corporation Scion, peopled by a thriving underworld of outlawed clairvoyants, and threatened by the otherworldly race known as the Rephaim. Having escaped from the Oxford prison colony controlled by the Rephaim, dreamwalker Paige Mahoney is the most-wanted fugitive in London. She’s rebels against the quasi-protection of the manipulative mime-lord Jaxon, a Fagin-like figure, but really runs into trouble when she encounters the Warden, the enigmatic Rephaite who was both her captor and mentor in Oxford. Scion seeks both of them, and unless Paige can carry out a complex scheme to become a mime-queen, they’re doomed. Five more books? Really?

wallsaroundNova Ren Suma’s The Walls Around Us (Algonquin Young Readers, digital galley) stuns with its intertwining narratives of mean girls, ghost girls and aspiring  ballerinas. Amber is an inmate at a secure juvenile detention center, imprisoned for having killed her stepfather. Violet is a talented ballet dancer headed for Juilliard. Their stories unfold in alternating chapters, three years apart, but are linked by Ori, who becomes Amber’s cellmate after Violet testifies against her in the murder of two dancers on a hot summer night. Secrets abound, and the revelations are all the more disturbing for the lyricism of the writing. What really happened the night the prison doors opened as if by magic? Shiver.

 

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museumMagic by Alice. Over the course of more than two dozen books, Alice Hoffman has created her own brand of magical realism, often tethering the fantastic to the everyday in lyrical, luminous prose. In her new novel The Museum of Extraordinary Things (Scribner, digital gallery), she takes a slightly different tack, telling of the outwardly weird who wish their lives more ordinary, the freakish fascinated by the more mundane. Coralie Sardie is the Human Mermaid in her father’s small Coney Island museum in early 20th-century New York. Born with webbing between her fingers, she hones her swimming skills in the Hudson River by night, then slips into a glass tank by day. Water is her element. For Russian immigrant photographer Eddie Cohen, it’s fire, from the flames that burned his boyhood home to the horrific blaze that consumes the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. Eddie and Coralie, each yearning for a different life, meet over his search for a missing woman and her father’s obsession to create a river monster for his failing museum, overshadowed by the amusement park splendor of Dreamland.

The story’s rich in atmosphere and glittering details — the “living wonders” of the museum like an armless girl painted to resemble a monarch butterfly, the red-throat hummingbirds let out of their cages on leashes of string, an ancient tortoise who rocks himself to sleep. It’s also a dark valentine to an early New York, where the rich ride in carriages and the poor strive in factories. It ends with the actual conflagration of Dreamland, imagined with a terrible beauty. Magic by Alice.

lostlakeSarah Addison Allen writes a more gentle kind of magical realism than Hoffman. Lost Lake (St. Martin’s Press, paperback ARC) is a sweet tale of second chances among characters who are mildly quirky instead of wildly eccentric. Kate Pheris, a widow of one year, impulsively takes her 8-year-old daughter Devin to visit her great-aunt Eby’s south Georgia resort camp, Lost Lake, where she spent her 12th summer. But the cabins are mostly unoccupied now, and Eby is ready to sell the rundown resort to a local developer. Devin is enchanted by the lake and the mysterious Alligator Man only she can see, and Kate begins to reclaim her life from her manipulative mother-in-law. That her first love is still around and available adds to Lost Lake’s charms. Several old-timers are also reluctant to leave Lost Lake, including a retired teacher, her va-voom husband-hunting friend, and a socially awkward podiatrist with a yen for Eby’s French cook, mute and haunted. But my favorite character is bespectacled Devin in her pink tutu and neon green T-shirt, who still believes in magic.

poisonedLloyd Shepherd’s eerie The Poisoned Island (Washington Square Press, digital galley) is an historical mystery with a hint of horror. In 1812, the ship Solander arrives at London’s dock bearing botanical treasures from Otaheite, aka Tahiti. Soon after, sailors from the Solander begin turning up dead with blissful smiles on their murdered corpses. Charles Horton of the Thames River Police suspects the deaths are somehow connected to the Solander’s exotic cargo, which is destined for Kew Gardens under the supervision of Sir Joseph Banks of the Royal Society. Meanwhile, Sir Joseph’s librarian, Robert Hunter, is impressed by a breadfruit tree from the ship that is showing exponential growth and tries to get answers from his employer, who sowed wild oats as a young man visiting Otaheite 40 years ago. It all makes for a good yarn with a bounty of fascinating facts about botany, Tahiti and detection.

mist“Rain, rain all day, all evening, all night, pouring autumn rain.” So begins Susan Hill’s Victorian ghost story The Mist in the Mirror (Vintage, digital galley), appropriately moody and melancholy. Sir James Monmouth returns to the barely remembered England of his childhood after years of living in Africa and traveling in the Far East in the footsteps of the explorer Conrad Vane. Monmouth sets out to research Vane’s life and his own family history with plans to write a book, but is discouraged by odd events and persons. Seems Vane is not the hero he supposed. Indeed, he may be the very embodiment of evil. Is he behind Monmouth’s panic attacks and deteriorating health? And what of the strange apparition of the sad boy in rags? Is he warning Monmouth to keep away, or is he beckoning him onward?

starterhouseSchoolteacher Lacey and her lawyer husband Drew think they’ve found their dream home in Sonja Condit’s creepy Starter House (HarperCollins, digital galley), but dontcha know the charming Southern cottage is haunted? Locals call it the murder house because of its dark past, but Lacey, pregnant with her first child, isn’t bothered, even after encountering a neighbor boy called Drew, who becomes increasingly possessive of her time. At first she tries to amuse him with games and placate him with cookies, but Drew’s odd behavior escalates to the threatening. Coincidentally, Brad is representing a client in a custody case who has ties to the house. Things go bump in the night — and during the day. Shiver!

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I picked up Katie Crouch’s YA novel The Magnolia League thinking it sounded something like last year’s Saving Cee Cee Honeycutt by Beth Hoffman. Forget that.

Despite a similarity in plot — motherless girls whisked away to genteel Savannah — Hoffman’s coming-of-age tale is sweetly conventional. Not so with Crouch’s spicy story, in which 16-year-old Alexandra Lee lands among the mean Magnolias and discovers “nothing in Savannah is what it seems.”

Wicked fun ensues as dreadlocked Alex, raised on an organic farm commune in California, is taken in hand by her formidable grandmother after her bohemian mother Louise is killed in a car accident. Grandmother Lee heads the elite Magnolia League and immediately deputizes two of its younger members, the impossibly privileged and pretty Hayes and Madison, to transform Alex into a designer-clad debutante so she can assume her rightful place in society.

Alex is an uneasy Cinderella, comfortable in her vintage T-shirts, aghast at her new friends’ consumerism, longing for the boyfriend she left behind who seems to have forgotten her. She finds a pal in Dexter, another high school outsider who doesn’t care about the Magnolias, but she’s still impressed by Hayes’ handsome prepster brother. She’s curious, too, as to why her grandmother keeps her mom’s girlhood room locked and warns her to stay away from Dr. Sam Buzzard and his family, who appear to have a strange hold on the Magnolias. Can you say hoo-doo?

Alex is both fascinated and repelled as she learns more of the old African rituals and potions. Suspense builds as the annual debutante ball approaches. Will Alex accept her “destiny”? It’s no mistake that “That Old Black Magic” (Savannah’s Johnny Mercer wrote the lyrics) is playing in the background as Crouch adroitly sets the stage for a sequel. Can’t wait.

In such previous books as Garden Spells and The Girl Who Chased the Moon, Sarah Addison Allen has captivated with her own brand of dreamy Southern magical realism.  She’s a kinder, gentler Alice Hoffman, so her tales are not as dark nor deep.

The Peach Keeper, set in a North Carolina mountain town, offers family rivalries, secrets, superstitions and an actual skeleton that appears when old peach tree is uprooted during the renovation of the old Jackson family mansion, The Blue Ridge Madame, into a ritzy inn.

 Willa Jackson, who has returned to her hometown after a disappointing decade, runs a small sporting goods/coffee shop catering to out-of-town hikers. Paxton Osgood, whose family ascended into society after scandal befell the Jacksons, is overseeing the opening of the Madam with the same poise and efficiency with which she runs the local women’s club founded by hers and Willia’s grandmothers.

 Both old ladies reside in the same senior home, but Willa’s grandmother Georgie has slipped into senility. Paxton’s grandmother remains sharp as a tack but keeps secrets as well, especially as regards Tucker Devlin, the traveling salesman who long ago charmed her, Georgie and every other young woman in town.

Paxton and Willa have their own romantic troubles. Paxton believes her love for her handsome best  friend is unrequited, while Willa won’t admit her attraction to Paxton’s twin brother, in town for the gala opening. Oh, what fools these mortals be! Can’t they feel the magic stirring in the shadows, smell the scent of smoke and peaches?

Allen displays her usual light touch. The story’s not much in the way of suprises, but the resolution should please readers. My favorite scene remains one midway through when Willa rescues an unusually drunk Paxton from some local thugs, and the two begin to sift through years of misunderstanding on both sides.

Open Book: I read a digital advance of The Magnolia League (Little, Brown) through NetGalley. I’m probably going to buy a copy to go with my other Katie Crouch books, Girls in Trucks and Men and Dogs, both set in the South Carolina lowcountry. Crouch has family on Edisto Island, as do I, and really knows the local color. I bought my copy of Sarah Addison Allen’s The Peach Keeper (Bantam).

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The new normal is the paranormal in much of today’s fiction, both literary and commercial. Here a ghost, there a zombie, everywhere a vampire or a werewolf. But several recent novels enchant with the magic of storytelling even as they trip the light fantastic.

Alice Hoffman, of course, is one of the leading practitioners of American magical realism, known as much for her luminous writing as her tales tinged with whimsy. My favorites include Seventh Heaven, Practical Magic,  The River King and Blackbird House. The latter is comprised of  stories linked by a Cape Cod house built during Colonial times by a fisherman who drowned at sea. A blackbird with wings of white reappears to succeeding generations as they experience fable-like encounters and transformations.

Hoffman’s most recent book, The Red Garden (Crown), is similar in form and style as its stories tell the history of  the small Massachustts town of Blackwell. All stem from town founder Hallie Brady’s determination to keep herself and her fellow settlers from starvation by forging a kinship with the wilderness, especially its black bears. A river full of eels, a mysterious garden, tomatoes that grant wishes, a woman with hair so long she can step on it. Hoffman’s lyrical fables are full of fate and magic and metaphor. And how wonderful that  Johnny Appleseed himself visits Blackwell once upon a time.

“Wonderful” is a good word, too, to describe Jo Walton’s new novel, Among Others (Tor). It’s a coming-of-age, sense-of-wonder tale told through the journal entries of Welsh teen Mori, a stranger in the strange land of a British boarding school. She and her twin sister used to escape from their witch of a mother by playing in the magical outdoors and talking to the fairies. But now Mori, still limping from a terrible accident, keeps to herself, seeking refuge in science fiction and fantasy books. 

“There are some awful things in the world, it’s true, but there are also some great books. When I grow up I would like to write something that someone could read sitting on a bench on a day that isn’t all that warm and they could sit reading it and totally forget where they were or what time it was so that they were more inside the book than inside their own head. I’d like to write like Delany or Heinlein or Le Guin.”

Mori’s world expands, thanks to to inter-library loan, a SF reading group, and the rebellious drop-out Win, “rarer than a unicorn, a beautiful boy in a red-checked shirt who read and thought and talked about books.” But before she can begin the next chapter of her life, Mori must reckon with the spells of the past. 

Among Others reminded me of how many hours I spent as a teen lost in the other worlds of Delany, Heinlein and Le Guin. My to re-read list gets ever longer. I’ve also added Sheri Holman’s The Dress Lodger, although her new novel, Witches on the Road Tonight (Grove/Atlantic) is altogether different, mixing Appalachian mountain myth with the poignant story of a conflicted man’s life. It begins: “Of all the props I saved, only the coffin remains.”

Eddie Alley was once a TV weatherman who gained small-town fame as Captain Casket, host of a late-night horror show. His love of monster movies dates back to his Depression-era boyhood in rural Virginia, where a WPA writer named Tucker Hayes shows Eddie a flickering Frankenstein with a hand-held projector. Eddie is as captivated by this visitor as Tucker is taken with Eddie’s mother Cora, who gathers ginseng (“sang”) and has a reputation as a witch.

Holman shuttles between present-day New York, where aging Eddie leaves a phone message about sang to his TV anchor daughter Wallis; to Panther Gap, where Tucker, a reluctant World War II draftee, stays longer than planned; to the late 1970s, when Wallis is 12 and her father brings home the orphaned Jasper. Holman also artfully shifts perspectives as mystery and magic meet.  The overall arc is a bit uneven because the events at Panther Gap overshadow Wallis’ suburban childhood.

Deborah Harkness’ debut, A Discovery of Witches, is pop paranormal, crowded with witches, vampires and daemons living among us poor unaware humans. Impossibly smart and attractive, Diana Bishop comes from a long line of famous witches, but she prefers to do her historical research without magic. But then she opens a medieval manuscript in Oxford’s Bodleian Library and finds the palimpsest thrumming with magic. Suddenly, many of the undead are on the trail of the book and its secrets, including the impossibly handsome and brilliant vampire geneticist Matthew Clairmont. 

Once you buy into the premise, the tale proves to be a well-written escapist romp with just enough romance and real history to make its 500-plus pages mostly worth reading. (I admit to skimming through the yoga sessions). Be forewarned: The ending isn’t really the end. This is the first book in the All Souls trilogy.

Open Book: I bought hardcover copies of The Red Garden and A Discovery of Witches and e-book versions of Among Others and Witches on the Road tonight. This is the thing with e-book pricing; sometimes the dead-tree format costs less or pretty much the same with discounts. As many books as I buy, I’d still rather save money than space.

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