Practical Magic: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Practical Magic by Alice HoffmanThe Owens women have been blamed for everything that has gone wrong in their Massachusetts town for more than two hundred years. After all, who wouldn’t blame every wrong thing on the town witches?

It’s no surprise that sisters Gillian and Sally grow up here as outsiders–taunted and whispered about without ever being understood or even truly seen. It seems to be the only option when their aunts Jet and Fran seem to do everything they can to encourage every rumor with their strange house and the concoctions they offer at night from their kitchen door.

Gillian escapes by running away; Sally by getting married. But no matter how far they go from their family, from each other, some things–some bonds–can’t be broken in Practical Magic (1995) by Alice Hoffman.

Find it on Bookshop.

Like a lot of people of a certain age, my first encounter with Practical Magic was the 1998 movie adaptation starring Sandra Bullock and Nicole Kidman. I love that movie. It’s iconic, one of a handful of films I know by heart and watch every chance I get. I was nervous that the novel would never stand up to the adaptation. I’m happy to report I was wrong.

The story covered in the film version is roughly the final quarter of the book with a few changes to better translate the story to a new medium. Instead of the small vignette viewers get in the movie, Practical Magic offers a wider slice of life as Gillian and Sally grow up and do everything they can to deny their family, their history, and their magical roots. Sally’s daughters, Antonia and Kylie also play bigger roles in the book.

Practical Magic is everything I loved from the movie but more. This book has more history, more magic, more evocative scenes, plus Hoffman’s beautiful prose to tie it all together.

Possible Pairings: Garden Spells by Sarah Addison Allen, The Nature of Witches by Rachel Griffin, The Once and Future Witches by Alix E. Harrow, The Careful Undressing of Love by Corey Ann Haydu, The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane by Katherine Howe, Vanessa Yu’s Magical Paris Tea Shop by Roselle Lim, Don’t Date Rosa Santos by Nina Moreno, Among Others by Jo Walton

Sabriel: A Review

sabrielLatest in a long line of Abhorsens, Sabriel knows more than most about death. The Abhorsens are necromancers who use Charter magic to put the dead to rest. Or, if that fails, bind them where they cannot return to Life. As one of the oldest family lines in the Old Kingdom, the Abhorsens are tasked with keeping the kingdom safe from the dead as well as dangerous Free Magic creatures.

When her father, the current Abhorsen, becomes trapped in Death–a dangerous river few can find and fewer can walk–Sabriel has to leave the relative shelter of her boarding school across the Wall in Ancelstierre to assume her rightful duties as the next Abhorsen to save her father, and perhaps many others, from the dead that would keep him and claim the world of the living for themselves in Sabriel (1995) by Garth Nix.

Find it on Bookshop.

Sabriel is the first book in Nix’s Old Kingdom series. It is followed by Lirael, Abhorsen, the novella Nicholas Sayre and the Creature in the Case and the prequel Clariel. Although this novel sets up all of the events that follow later in the series, Sabriel works as a standalone with a contained story arc.

Sabriel is a beautifully well-realized fantasy. Evocative descriptions bring both the Old Kingdom and Ancelstierre to life as Nix weaves a complex world of magic and adventure. Sabriel easily negotiates the world of the Old Kingdom with its allies who may not be allies and all manner of magical wonders and dangers. She easily fits into the more modern world of Ancelstierre with its modern technology reminiscent of our own world in the 1910s.

Accompanied by distinct characters including a possibly dangerous cat and a statue come to life, Sabriel is a clever and capable heroine in a story that is as compelling as it is exciting. With action, romance and humor this novel has something for everyone. Sabriel is an exemplary start to a classic fantasy series. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: The Wrath and the Dawn by Renee Ahdieh, Plain Kate by Erin Bow, Brightly Woven by Alexandra Bracken, The Demon’s Lexicon by Sarah Rees Brennan, Fire by Kristin Cashore, The Bone Witch by Rin Chupeco, Vessel by Sarah Beth Durst, The Lost Sun by Tessa Gratton, Seraphina by Rachel Hartman, Magisterium by Jeff Hirsch, The Paper Magician by Charlie N. Holmberg, A Thousand Nights by E. K. Johnston, Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones, Dreamhunter by Elizabeth Knox, Grave Mercy by Robin LaFevers, Throne of Glass by Sarah J. Maas, Finnikin of the Rock by Melina Marchetta, Sorcery of Thorns by Margaret Rogerson, The Winner’s Curse by Marie Rutkoski, The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner, Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld, Illusions of Fate by Kiersten White

Clockwork: A Review

Clockwork (1995) by Philip Pullman

Clockwork by Phillip PullmanI have a semi-intense love-hate relationship with Philip Pullman (and perhaps also with hyphens, but that’s another matter). I used to like Pullman unconditionally, reading anything he had written. Then I read The Shadow in the North (the second installment in the Sally Lockheart trilogy) and was burned by the ending. It literally hurt. Philip Pullman made me cry. But I was willing to let it slide because I was also in the midst of His Dark Materials and felt compelled to finish–my mistake. The Amber Spyglass also left me severely burned, and crying again.

Before all of that happened, Pullman wrote some shorter, happier works. I can’t recapture my early excitement about Pullman, especially after reading about his “Frederick must die” rule, but I can almost appreciate his works without remembering the grief he caused me.

Clockwork (1995) is a novella length story. At 107 pages, the narrative is too short to include any deaths of beloved characters or annoyingly impossible loves. Pettiness aside, I have to say that’s a relief.

The story is set in a German town once upon a time when time still ran according to clockwork timepieces–none of that electronic nonsense. Karl, the clockmaker’s apprentice, is sulking in the local pub while his friend Fritz prepares to tell the town his newest story.

Things begin to go wrong when a mysterious visitor arrives at the pub after Fritz has wound up his story but before he has a chance to wind it down again. That’s well and good for readers but not so good for the characters, especially Karl and Gretl, the daughter of the pub’s owner.

Clockwork is grim only in the way a children’s book can be. There is death and gore and talk of devils taking souls, but none of that is conceptualized in a way that actually touches readers. It’s sort of like they way I was able to watch The Nightmare Before Christmas as a girl without being creeped out even though I don’t understand how that is possible when I watch it now.

The narrative reads very much like a story. Not like a book, but like an actual story told in the oral tradition. This technique is not often used outside of the realm of fairy tales, but Pullman works the style aptly. It works especially well with the edition I read which includes black and white illustrations by Leonid Gore. The illustrations kind of suggest what Edward Gorey would have drawn if he didn’t work in such outline oriented ways for anyone who was wondering.

This novella (I can’t bring myself to call it a novel) also received tons of accolades in the 1990s when it came out. It was winner of the 1997 Silver Medal Smarties Prize, A School Library Journal Best Book of the Year for 1998, and a NYPL Best Book of the Year also for 1998. I mostly agree with this praise. The story is a little thin on character development, but given its length that’s to be expected. Considering it in terms of being a tiny book, the story is really tight and well-put-together.

For more about the “Frederick Must Die” Rule see also: http://www.newyorker.com/archive/2005/12/26/051226fa_fact?currentPage=all

Companions of the Night: A Halloween Chick Lit Wednesday review

Companions of the Night by Vivian Vande VeldeVivian Vande Velde is basically my hero. She is a master at taking traditional fairy-tale-like themes and making them fresh and totally unique. Companions of the Night (1995) does that for the vampire story.

Kerry’s little brother, Ian, had a simple request: drive to the laundromat to retrieve Ian’s stuffed bear. Kerry knew all the reasons she should tell Ian no (she had a big test to study for, it was the middle of the night, she only had a driver’s permit and shouldn’t be in a car without a licensed driver), but then Ian started to cry and Kerry knew she couldn’t say no–not if Ian was going to cry. It was late, there would be no traffic. Getting the bear would be simple.

And it was simple. Until Kerry got to the laundromat and stepped into what looked like a gang shootout. Or a kidnapping. Or a vampire hunt.

Unfortunately, the hunters think that Kerry is a vampire too. So she and the other supposed vampire, Ethan, have to escape. Adventure ensues.

Vande Velde, as is her way, also throws a romantic element into the plot. Happily, she does so without falling into the typical “Dracula seduction” style so common in vampire stories.

Every author has a different take on how vampires function in “real life.” I am quite fond of how Vande Velde explains their immortality. The explanation just makes so much sense, it’s great. In a way Vande Velde takes the mystique out of the whole vampire thing, trying to create realistic explanations for things like immortality and how a vampire can exist inconspicuously in the modern world. Overall Ethan is an exceedingly likable character even if he is, basically, dead.

Technically speaking the narrative is nicely written. This novel is very much like Vande Velde’s other works. In particular, parallels can be drawn between this novel and A Well-Timed Enchantment. Both have a similar plot formula and the narrations style is very modern in both.

Vande Velde also develops the characters of Ethan and Kerry nicely. The book is short, so readers are never bogged down with background information or “back stories” for the characters. Nonetheless, Vande Velde creates very dimensional and, dare I say, very real characters.

Companions of the Night is definitely an action story. The narrative is tightly wound, keeping readers ready for excitement and action.

Possible Pairings: The Coldest Girl in Coldtown by Holly Black, Plain Kate by Erin Bow, Chasing Power by Sarah Beth Durst, Magisterium by Jeff Hirsch, Fracture by Megan Miranda, Vicious by V. E. Schwab, Generation Dead by Daniel Waters, Peeps by Scott Westerfeld, The 5th Wave by Rick Yancey