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 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

The Mystery of Hollow Places: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

The Mystery of Hollow Places by Rebecca PodosThe only details seventeen-year-old Imogene Scott has about her mother are ones gleaned from the bedtime story her father told every night.

Before he became a best-selling novelist, Joshua Zhi Scott was a forensic pathologist who met Imogene’s mother when she came to identify a body. He would then tell Imogene that her mother was always lonely. He’d even say that she was troubled waters. They would never talk about why her mother left, especially not since her father remarried and Lindy is now part of their family.

When Imogene’s father disappears in the middle of the night, Imogene thinks he might want her to follow the clues he left behind; he might want Imogene to find him and maybe find her mother as well.

With unlikely help from her best friend and all of the skills learned from reading her father’s mysteries, Imogene hopes to find her father and unravel the secrets surrounding her own past. But, as Imogene knows too well, things aren’t always perfect at the end of a mystery in The Mystery of Hollow Places (2016) by Rebecca Podos.

The Mystery of Hollow Places is Podos’ first novel.

Podos delivers an eerie mystery in this surprising tale. The Mystery of Hollow Places is also a solid homage to mysteries and Gothic novels alike as interpreted by a heroine whose favorite novel is Rebecca.

Imogene’s first-person narration is pragmatic and often insightful as she makes sense of her mother’s absence and her father’s struggle with bipolar disorder. Unlike many teen detective stories, this book also remains decidedly in the realm of possibility as Imogene works with what she has and within the limitations inherent to a teenager trying to investigate some very adult problems.

Although the plot focuses on the mystery of finding her father, Imogene’s story is just as much about acceptance and the strength found in friendships and choosing who to call family. Elements of magic realism and a stark Massachusetts backdrop add atmosphere to this sometimes choppy mystery with a diverse cast of characters.

The Mystery of Hollow Places is a strong debut and an unexpected mystery. Recommended for fans of traditional mysteries, suspenseful stories filled with twists, as well as readers looking for an atmospheric novel to keep them company on a cold winter night (or to evoke one anyway!).

Possible Pairings: Don’t Ever Change by M. Beth Bloom, Finding Mr. Brightside by Jay Clark, Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, The Truth Commission by Susan Juby, Blue Plate Special by Michelle D. Kwasney, When We Collided by Emery Lord, The Devil and Winnie Flynn by Micol and David Ostow, Tonight the Streets Are Ours by Leila Sales, I Woke Up Dead at the Mall by Judy Sheehan

*A more condensed version of this review appeared in an issue of School Library Journal from which it can be seen on various sites online*

Salt and Storm: A Review

Salt and Storm by Kendall KulperAvery Roe knows her birthright is to serve Prince Island as its witch. Roe women have been on Prince Island off the coast of Massachusetts for generations working charms and other magic to keep whaling ships safe and profitable. The magic sings in Avery’s blood; the call of the island reverberates through her bones.

Avery’s efforts to unlock her magic and succeed her grandmother as the next witch have been thwarted these past four years by Avery’s mother who turned her back on magic as surely as she has kept Avery trapped in a fancy house living a lie.

When Avery becomes a whale in her dreams, she knows what it means. She knows the murdered whale signifies her own murder. And soon.

Her only hope is to become the Roe Witch before fate catches up with her. You can beat a Roe Witch within an inch of her life, you can sicken her with strange magic and scar her, but you cannot kill a Roe Witch. If Avery can unlock her magic in time with the help of a mysterious harpoon boy named Tane, she might be safe. But magic seldom works the way a person wants and changing fate is an even rarer thing in Salt & Storm (2014) by Kendall Kulper.

Salt & Storm is Kulper’s first novel.

Kulper expertly combines historical details with tantalizing bits of fantasy to create a sweeping story that spans three generations. Although this story ostensibly focuses on Avery, and although there is a bit of a romance, Salt & Storm is a story about family at its core.

Avery is a prickly character for the most part. She is driven and sometimes selfish to the point of self-absorption. Although Kulper aptly demonstrates Avery’s growth as a character her default response to almost everything in the story remains anger or rashly impulsive decision making.

As Avery struggles to unlock and understand her magic, she also begins to learn more about the grandmother she was taken from at a young age and the mother she never allowed herself to understand. Compared to the larger themes of family and obligation, it is a disservice to focus too heavily on the romantic relationship in this story which honestly felt more like a plot device than anything resembling actual chemistry.

As you can tell there are several things that are done very well here. Kulper’s writing, in fact, is lovely and the historical details about whaling are integrated very well into the story. While Avery is far from likable or clever for most of the story, her selfishness makes sense and she is at least unapologetic. Avery knows who she is and who she wants to be if nothing else.

There are two real problems with this story.The first problem is that Avery has no agency. Throughout the story she talks about having power and being in charge–but she never is. Now you could say that is because she doesn’t have her magic yet. Except Avery’s mother is at the mercy of her husband and Avery’s grandmother has the entire town as a threat to her own freedom. The idea of the Roe witch is couched in the idea of independence but that is ultimately just lip service at best. I won’t spoil the story but even the way in witch Roe women unlock their magic is one that lacks any degree of agency or power as things are visited upon these women rather than the women choosing to  do anything in their own right.

The second problem-one I wasn’t even sure I wanted to talk about at first because it is such a big problem–is Tane (and this part to follow will have some spoilers so you have been warned). This mysterious tattooed boy may eventually have Avery’s heart but he has no history of his own. His entire culture has been wiped out. And, even if we were to let that stand, Tane’s origins come from an amalgam of sources. Instead of being an authentic representation of any one source Tane is reduced to a pastiche that is meant to appear exotic without any real purpose.

Worse is the fact that Tane dies in the end. We can talk about plot points and whether this was necessary but the key thing to remember here is that Tane dies. Not Avery or her relatives. Not any of the sailors we meet. Tane, the only minority character, dies. Tane was already problematic before all this but to kill off the only person of color in the entire novel means something.

I’m sure none of this was intentional on the part of the author, but even unintentionally killing off literally the only PoC character in a novel is deeply problematic particularly when that death becomes a plot point to move along the main (white) character’s story.

There is a lot of potential here and, as I said, Kulper’s writing is lovely and she is absolutely an author to watch. While this story features magical elements, Salt & Storm remains firmly grounded in its historical context creating a story that will appeal to historical fiction and fantasy lovers alike so long as they can turn a blind eye to the problems already mentioned.

You can also head over to Kirkus to see what Ana from The Book Smugglers has to say about this book (which is an often more eloquent analysis than what I’ve put together here).

Possible Pairings: Practical Magic by Alice Hoffman, Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones, Dreamhunter by Elizabeth Knox, A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. LeGuin, Wildwood Dancing by Juliet Marillier, Moby Dick by Herman Melville, Clariel by Garth Nix, For Darkness Shows the Stars by Diana Peterfreund, The Winner’s Curse by Marie Rutkoski, The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare, Born Wicked by Jessica Spotswood, The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater, The Price Guide to the Occult by Leslye Walton

Conversion: A (Rapid Fire) Review

Conversion by Katherine Howe (2014) find it on Bookshop

Conversion by Katherine HoweThis book had a lot going for it. The cast of characters is diverse. The story is set in both present-day Danvers and the Salem village when the witch panic starts. The narrator is reading The Crucible. (Which the book mentions isn’t really about Salem but the 1950s.) On top of that, I really enjoyed Howe’s debut The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane and was incredibly excited to hear she was writing a YA novel.

Sadly, this one wasn’t for me. While it had all the right pieces, none of them came together quite right. Colleen and her friends never quite sounded like authentic teens. The plot never felt quite as urgent and compelling as it should. The writing did not come across as strong as it did in The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane. Furthermore, this book felt stilted as if you knew the author was new to writing teen voices.

The story is still exciting and interesting but it was, sadly, not a good fit for me. Readers with an interest in the area will enjoy the evocative settings and readers with a fondness for Salem-themed stories will still find a lot to enjoy here.

Possible Pairings: The Fever by Megan Abbott, A Breath of Frost by Alyxandra Harvey, Once a Witch by Carolyn MacCullough, The Glass Casket by McCormick Templeman, The Crucible by Arthur Miller (or the play or the movie), The Caged Graves by Dianne K. Salerni, The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare

 

And We Stay: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

And We Stay by Jenny HubbardNo one expected senior Paul Wagoner would walk into his high school with a gun. No one thinks he planned to kill himself and never walk out. Not even his girlfriend, Emily Beam, expected to be threatened by Paul as he confronted her in their high school library.

But all of those things did happen.

Paul is gone and with him pieces of Emily are gone too. Even before his suicide, Emily knew she would never be the same. She just didn’t know it would hurt this much.

Vacillating between guilt and anger, Emily Beam is sent to an all girls boarding school in Amherst, Massachusetts. Surrounded by history from Emily Dickinson’s life, Emily delves into poetry and her new life hoping to escape.

She has help along the way from her habitual liar roommate K. T. and a girl who likes to steal almost as much as she likes to paint. But it is only Emily herself who can forgive and leave her past behind in And We Stay (2014) by Jenny Hubbard.

And We Stay is Hubbard’s second novel. It was also a Printz honor title in 2015. The story is set in 1995 for reasons that are never entirely clear. Despite the obvious setting (all of Emily’s poems are dated) the novel is largely timeless.

And We Stay is a very short, very fast read. In spite of that, Hubbard’s prose is imbued with substance as this slim novel tackles weighty topics ranging from feminism to processing loss and grief.

Written in the third person, present tense this story is often very distancing. Emily Beam is at a remove from readers, however it’s easy to think she prefers it that way. Flashbacks to Emily’s relationship with Paul, the shooting, and other key moments are interspersed throughout the main narrative of Emily’s first two months at the boarding school.

Each chapter ends with one of Emily’s poems which also further develop the story. Emily Dickinson also features heavily as a character of sorts–her poems are used throughout the story and a somewhat improbable plot thread at the end of the novel revolves around Dickinson’s family home in Amherst.

It’s rare to find books that focus so heavily and so well on girls. And We Stay is one of those books. Emily Beam is a prickly, sad, and surprisingly real heroine. Her observations throughout the story are caustic and insightful in a way heroines rarely get to be in most novels. Hubbard’s portrayal of Emily’s relationships with her new friends and her French teacher are beautifully handled and shockingly real.

Although the pacing was slow and a little strange (with a jarring plot thread late in the story), somehow it all works. The plot develops organically and the included poetry feels seamless. And We Stay is a lovely, thoughtful blend of poetry, feminism and fiction about a girl finding her voice.

Possible Pairings: The Vanishing Season by Jodi Lynn Anderson, Hate List by Jennifer Brown, Undercover by Beth Kephart, The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by E. Lockhart, Falling Through Darkness by Carolyn MacCullough, Blood Water Paint by Joy McCullough, Even in Paradise by Chelsey Philpot, Gabi, A Girl in Pieces by Isabel Quintero, Mostly Good Girls by Leila Sales,  Death, Dickinson, and the Demented Life of Frenchie Garcia by Jenny Torres Sanchez, I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter by Erika L. Sánchez, The Beautiful Between by Alyssa B. Sheinmel, Give a Boy a Gun by Todd Strasser, Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein, Some Things That Stay by Sarah Willis

Reunited: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Reunited by Hilary Weisman GrahamAlice, Summer and Tiernan used to be best friends and the self-proclaimed biggest fans of the band Level 3. But that was a long time ago. Before high school. Before Level 3 broke up and the girls’ friendship imploded.

Alice is okay with that. She’s moved on. Really. Except her post-graduation plans fall apart and, seemingly like magic, Level 3 is getting together for a one-night-only reunion show in Texas. When Alice manages to score three coveted tickets, she knows it must be a sign. If Level 3 can have a reunion, why not the girls who used to be their biggest fans?

Summer parted ways with Tiernan and Alice four years ago and never looked back. That disastrous homecoming dance is nothing but a (slightly painful) memory when Alice invites Summer on the road trip. Summer would rather be anywhere else. Until she realizes joining this one trip might be her chance to finally make some choices of her own.

Tiernan has cooler friends now and parties way harder. So hard, in fact, that Alice’s road trip might be the one and only chance for Tiernan to get out of the house this summer.

One VW van, two-thousand miles and a whole lot of problems are the only things standing between these three ex-best friends and the concert of a lifetime in Reunited (2012) by Hilary Weisman Graham.

Reunited is Graham’s first novel.

Written in the third person, Graham alternates perspectives throughout the novel between Alice, Summer and Tiernan. Graham expertly differentiates between the girls’ voices, giving them distinct personalities complete with strengths and flaws. Graham’s narrative is urbane and bright with loads of humor and moments of contemplative realizations for all three ex-best friends.

Reunited is a quintessential road trip book from the quirky vehicle down to the travelers with their own emotional baggage. With three winning heroines and great writing, this story stands out as an original addition to the road trip sub-genre. Graham even starts each chapter with song lyrics from Level 3’s discography. (The only downside being that I am now very, very sad the band is fictional.)

While the number of things that can (and do) go wrong for these three travelers verges on hyperbolic, all of the mayhem and disaster makes for an excellent and very funny read. Graham also amps up the tension near the end as more obstacles are thrown in their way. I won’t spoil the ending, but after all of the false starts and near misses Reunited ends on what musicians and music lovers might call a satisfying major chord (which non-musicians will be happy to hear is the “happier” sounding chord).

Possible Pairings: Never, Always, Sometimes by Adi Alsaid, The Best Night of Your (Pathetic) Life by Tara Altebrando, Dash and Lily’s Book of Dares by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan, City Love by Susane Colasanti, A Little Wanting Song by Cath Crowley, An Abundance of Katherines by John Green, Shuffle, Repeat by Jen Klein, The View From Saturday  by E. L. Konigsburg, Open Road Summer by Emery Lord, The Piper’s Son by Melina Marchetta, Since You’ve Been Gone by Morgan Matson, After the Kiss by Terra Elan McVoy, The Miles Between by Mary E. Pearson, Tonight the Streets Are Ours by Leila Sales, Hello, Goodbye and Everything in Between by Jennifer E. Smith

You can read my exclusive interview with Hilary Graham!

Also don’t forget to enter my giveaway for the Reunited Road Trip mix CD!

You can also find more about Level 3 (and two free song downloads) here: http://www.level3theband.com/p/free-music-downloads.html