This was one of the most unusual books I’ve ever read, with a mix of history, mystery, philosophy, magic and erotica that was most unexpected. Lily Albrecht is a writer turned book dealer who lives in a farmhouse in upstate New York. Several years ago she met husband Abel, the love of her life. Abe was a brilliant man, a writer and professor who inspired others and drew friends and colleagues to their home as guests. Then he started to forget things and after spending a fortune on neurologists, tests and treatments she’d come to accept that Abe was not getting better. It was like a form of dementia. He was now using a wheelchair and was completely mute, and Lily was left grieving for him while he was still alive. With full time nursing care from Awe, Lily is able to travel into NYC to run a stand at a book fair. It’s there she runs into Lucas, a librarian and book dealer friend, and it’s through him that Lily first hears of the book.
They are approached by a third party who knows someone willing to pay upwards of half a million dollars for the book. Some of the most wealthy book collectors in the world tend to covet books about magic or sex. Dissatisfied with the paltry millions they have, they want to look at ancient ways to manipulate and accumulate power. This book has both, something Lily jokingly refers to as ‘sex magic’, but as she listens to how the book works she does feel a stirring. Sex is something she and Abe had to lay aside a long time ago. She’s used to early nights, flannel pyjamas and a bed to herself. She wouldn’t consider herself sexy, but as she sits with Lucas and they talk about the steps to the magic of the book. It contains a symbol, something that’s not quite a circle and not quite a triangle. The first step requires the sweat from a woman’s neck and from there each step requires a bodily fluid elicited during sex. The final step is to anoint the book with the most precious substance – a substance that a woman produces at her most aroused. Once all the steps are complete, the pair will receive the thing they most wish for which is usually money and power beyond their wildest dreams.
Finding this book takes them on an erotic odyssey from New York to LA, the humidity of New Orleans, then on to Munich and Paris. Lily and Lucas will find the book, convince the collector to sell it to their buyer and hopefully make a lot of money. They will also embark on a sexual relationship with no boundaries and no restrictions and neither tells the other what they’re hoping for from the book. Of course the money will be incredible, it would help Abe enormously, but Lily wants something more. She wants Abe back. More than that, she wants Abe to return to himself with all the vitality, intelligence and allure he’s always had. She wants them to spend evenings talking about books and watch him hosting friends at their home. She wants Able to have his life back. In the meantime she’s going to enjoy her first vacation for a long time, staying in five star hotels and experimenting with Lucas while they try to find the elusive book.
This is an incredible, escapist, fantasy and travelogue, that could have been quite shallow and empty without the skill of the author. She has put so much genuine emotion and compassion into the story, along with the gritty realism of living with a loved one who is leaving you piece by piece. Lily’s memories of Abe and their relationship are heartbreaking when you realise he is now a motionless, mute, man unable to do anything but watch TV. Lily emphasises the loss of this man’s intelligence. He looms large in her memory and there’s a little bit of hero worship with the love she has for him. She describes the loss of his voice, their friends slowly disappearing, the loneliness of separating their sleeping arrangements and the torture of Abe being there, but not. It’s heartbreaking and I’ve been through exactly this experience as I slowly lost my husband fifteen years ago. Perhaps this is why I empathised with Lily so strongly and I understood why she was taken in by this adventure and by being desired for the first time in a long time. It’s like watching a flower bloom as she slowly awakens again, but even though I could understand her need I worried that somehow the book was exploiting her vulnerability. I didn’t get to know Lucas as well as Lily, so his motivations were slightly unclear. He mentioned being used to a five star lifestyle, but his money running low. This felt greedy or shallow when compared to Lily’s motivation. I worried that most people wanting to acquire the book were greedy and materialistic and there would be some sort of come-uppance, but I didn’t know if Lily deserved that. Each time they performed a step, the magic felt dark and it seemed to have an addictive quality. A new avenue would open up as if the book was drawing them closer and making their path easier. It wanted to be found, but why?
The pace towards the end really picks up and I was racing through the action with my jaw dropped open. However, it was the chapter after Paris that really hit me emotionally. It emphasised how much we look at the people we’ve lost with rose tinted spectacles. No matter how much we feel nostalgic for a certain place and time in our lives, it can’t be replicated. It reminded me of the saying ‘you can’t wade into the same river twice; because you have changed and so has the river’. I’ve read erotica where it’s all sexual acts with barely any story in between. This was an incredible story that I could have read happily without the sex, but to make the sexual acts an integral part of the story and the search was clever. The author has achieved an intelligent and fantastical book, that succeeds in being both erotic and a fascinating mystery.
Published 30th August 2022 by Faber and Faber
Meet The Author
Sara Gran is the author of The Book of The Most Precious Substance. Previous work includes Saturn’s Return to New York, Come Closer, Dope, Marigold, and the Claire DeWitt series. She is the founder of small press Dreamland Books and writes for television and film.
Who doesn’t love a witchy novel at this time of year? In fact, the only thing better than a witch novel is a whole series of them. Here I’m recommending series and one-offs that really fit the bill on these cold autumn afternoons. They’re exactly what I want on a Sunday afternoon, snuggled on the chaise langue with the log burner lit and preferably a pack of M&S Belgian Chocolate Toffee Popcorn. Bliss. There are golden oldies and a few new books to bring a sprinkle of magic into your Halloween.
Joanne Harris’s Chocolat Series
Whenever I pick up Chocolat I immediately feel enclosed by this sumptuous and magical world that Joanne Harris has created. It is the book equivalent of sitting in a candlelit room, Christmas tree sparkling magically in the corner, a warm fire and some real hot chocolate. It’s as if Vianne Rocher is enchanting me from between the pages. From the moment the changing wind blows her into the village of Lansquenet she begins to work her magic on the villagers, much to the disgust of parish priest Father Reynaud. She establishes a chocolate shop directly opposite the church and so begins a struggle for power. Her magic is subtle, but she is an amazing chocolatier and she has the ability to discern which one of her chocolates will be someone’s favourite. With her chocolate pot always simmering and ready with a listening ear, her shop soon becomes the regular haunt of some of the villagers. However, the priest is preaching against Vianne Rocher. He doubts her morals, dislikes the sense of indulgence she’s creating, and is suspicious that she may be a witch. Maybe he’s seen Pantoufle, the imaginary friend of Vianne’s little girl Anouk. This push and pull between church and chocolate is left behind in her second novel The Lollipop Shoes where we follow Vianne to Paris where they live above her chocolate shop. Then Zozie De L’Alba sweeps into their lives, the woman with the lollipop shoes, but she isn’t all she seems. Seductive and charming on the surface, she can also be ruthless and devious. Again, Vianne finds herself with a powerful enemy. Should she do what she’s always done before and run?
Peaches for Monsieur Le Curé takes us back to Lansquenet and feels like a lighter novel, more suited as a sequel to Chocolat. It’s a letter from an old friend that brings her back to the village, but this is an unusual letter, because Vianne’s friend is dead. She finds the village changed since her last visit, with a new community blown in with the wind. Where once the river gypsies were the village has grown, there’s now a hint of spices, veiled faces and a minaret as North African migrants have settled. So Reynaud could have a new enemy. However, Vianne finds that he’s in trouble, could this possibly be the reason she’s been drawn back to the village? I loved the feel of this novel, with old characters popping up and old adversaries seeking change. It really felt like the story had come full circle so I was surprised when I heard there was another part to the series. The Strawberry Thief is every bit as atmospheric as Chocolat and all seems settled in Lansquenet. Vianne and her youngest daughter Rosette have settled in the chocolate shop. Even her relationship with Reynaud has settled into a friendship. It’s when the florist Narcisse dies that the wind changes. His will is cause for gossip and then someone opens a shop in the square, opposite Vianne, The strange pull it exerts seems familiar, but what could this mean for Vianne. This series is so warm and the settings are absolutely enchanting. The magic is sprinkled throughout, but Vianne is not just an enchantress. She’s a catalyst. A force for change. She inspires people to cast off rules and do what makes them happy. She gives women who are unhappy and even abused, the strength to leave. She frees people and that is an incredibly powerful gift to have.
A Witch in Time and The Ladies of the Secret Circus by Constance Sayers.
I’m relatively new to the work of Constance Sayers, but I’ve certainly made up for the oversight since. A Witch in Time is high on my TBR for the end of this year, but it sounds just up my street. We go to four different time zones, into the lives of four different women, but between them there’s just one star-crossed love. In 1895, sixteen-year-old girl called Juliet begins a passionate, doomed romance with a married artist. Next we’re in 1932, with aspiring actress Nora as she escapes New York for the bright lights of Hollywood and a new chance at love. Then it’s 1970 and we meet Sandra who lives in California, it’s perfect for her music career but she’s threatening to tear her band apart with a secret love affair. Finally, we reach the 21st Century and a confused Helen who has strange memories of lives that she hasn’t lived. These are tragic lives, cursed with doomed love, because Helen was bound to her lover in 1895, and trapped by his side ever since. She’s lived multiple lifetimes, under different names, never escaping her tragic endings. Only this time, she might finally have the power to break the cycle.
I was determined to have an early copy of The Ladies of the Secret Circus as soon as I saw a trailer for it on Twitter.
The surest way to get a ticket to Le Cirque Secret is to wish for it . . .
As a huge fan of The Night Circus I knew this was for me and thankfully I managed to get a copy on NetGalley. This time Sayer’s takes us back to Paris in 1925 where to enter the Secret Circus is to enter a world of wonder. See women weave illusions, let carousels take you back in time, and see trapeze artists float across the sky. Bound to her family’s circus, it’s the only world Cecile Cabot knows until she meets a charismatic young painter and embarks on a passionate affair that could cost her everything. In the 21st Century, Lara Barnes is getting married and feels on top of the world, but when her fiancé disappears on their wedding day every plan she has for the future comes crashing down. Desperate, Lara’s search for answers unexpectedly lead to her great-grandmother’s journals and is swept into a story of a dark circus and ill-fated love. There are secrets about the women in Lara’s family history, which need to come to light. They reveal a curse that has been claiming payment from the women in her family for generations. A curse that might be tied to her fiancé’s mysterious fate. Both of these tales are full of spells, magic and ancient curses, but they’re also colourful, romantic and full of wonder.
The Practical Magic Series by Alice Hoffman.
I write about these four books every Halloween and I should perhaps look for some new material, but I can’t stop because I love this author and these four books are a brilliant witch series. Although Practical Magic was the first book in the series, followed a very successful film with Nicole Kidman and Sandra Bullock, it’s actually the third instalment of this story following the Owens family try to juggle life with their witchy heritage. Hoffman went on to write two prequels and a sequel to Practical Magic where we meet a different generation of the Owens family, both as teenagers and then as elderly ladies, hoping to change change the curse that’s been controlling their lives ever since the witch trials. We start in Magic Lessons when baby Maria is left abandoned in a snowy field near the home of Hannah Owens. Hannah is a healer who lives in isolation, but the women of the town manage to make their way to her door for the remedies they sorely need usually due to the pains and consequences of love. When men feel threatened they do terrible things and when Hannah is set upon by the men of the village, Maria escapes and makes her way down to the Caribbean as a servant. However, when the man she loves betrays her, Maria follows him back to Massachusetts and begins a war against the Puritan settlers. Will her quest for revenge blind her to real love and curse her family for a generation? Then we jump to the 20th Century and the Owens sisters Franny and Jet, with their brother Vincent. Their mother knew they were special because they each have their own talent: Franny with the blood red hair can talk to birds, Jet is so beautiful and incredibly shy but in the quiet she can read what people are thinking. As the teenagers start to interact more with the outside world, it seems that Vincent’s charisma may get him into trouble. Yet it’s Jet’s world that may be turned upside down by the curse of the Owen family.
Practical Magic is actually the third in the series and we’re one generation on, in the same house in Massachusetts. Gillian and Sally live with their aunts Franny and Jet, they keep themselves to themselves mostly, but the girls know that if the porch light is left on at night, women who wouldn’t give them a glance by day seem to find their way at night. Gillian is the wilder one of the sisters, roaming from state to state and attracting all the wrong men. When she returns to Massachusetts, homebody Sally knows that she’s brought trouble home with her. Even their magic might not cover her tracks as a handsome investigator arrives in town asking questions. Since her husband died Sally has lived quietly, avoiding her magical skills and men. Now her sister’s return might jeopardise the stability she’s created for her girls. They may need help from the aunties for this. Hoffman’s fourth in the series, published last year, is The Book of Magic. The three generations of Owens women who all live in the same small town in Massachusetts, have found a way to accommodate their family curse and their magic skills. Until Sally’s youngest daughter Kylie falls in love with her best friend. As the curse does it’s worst the family must find a book of magic, the only one with the knowledge that might break the family curse and allow the younger generation to love without limits or fear of tragedy, Sally will have to embrace the skills she’s avoided for so long and as the family fight to save their youngest member, one of the oldest gets wind of a change coming. A fitting end to a brilliant series,
The Waverley Sisters Series by Sarah Addison Allen.
This is a lovely and light two part series set in Bascom, North Carolina. They’re warm books that focus on family first and spells second, plus it’s full of food and charm so it wins me over straight away. It seems everyone in Bascom has a story to tell about the Waverley women. They live in a house that’s been in the family for generations, have a walled garden that mysteriously blooms year round, and then those rumours of dangerous love and tragic passion that surround them. Every Waverley woman is somehow touched by magic, but Claire has always clung to the Waverleys’ roots. She stays grounded by tending the enchanted soil in the family garden and makes her sought-after delicacies – famed and feared in town for their curious effects. She has everything she thinks she needs – until one day she wakes to find a stranger has moved in next door and a vine of ivy has crept into her garden . . . Is Claire’s carefully tended life is about to run gloriously out of control.
In the second book we see more of Claire’s sister Sydney and her daughter Bay. It’s October in Bascom, North Carolina, and autumn will not go quietly. As temperatures drop and leaves begin to turn, the Waverley women are also made restless by the whims of their mischievous apple tree…and the magic that swirls around it. But this year, first frost has much more in store. Claire Waverley has started a successful new venture, Waverley’s Candies. She makes handcrafted confections with specific intentions, like rose to recall lost love, lavender to promote happiness and lemon verbena to soothe throats and minds. Her remedies are effective, but the business of selling them is costing her the everyday joys of her family, and maybe even her belief in her own precious gifts.
Sydney Waverley, too, seems to be losing her balance. With each passing day she longs more for a baby — a namesake for her wonderful Henry. Yet the longer she tries, the more her desire becomes an unquenchable thirst, stealing the pleasure out of the life she already has. Sydney’s daughter, Bay, has lost her heart to the boy she knows it belongs to…if only he could see it, too. But how can he, when he is so far outside her grasp that he appears to her as little more than a puff of smoke?
When a mysterious stranger shows up and challenges the very heart of their family, each of them must make choices they have never confronted before. And through it all, the Waverley sisters must search for a way to hold their family together through their troublesome season of change, waiting for that extraordinary event that is First Frost. This is a real happy ever after story, filled with magic and warmth.
I must admit there are witchy books that are still on my TBR. I’m so surprised, but I’ve never read A Discovery of Witches and would love to read them after seeing a couple of episodes of the TV series. I love the mix of historical fiction and the gothic, and the addition of other magical beings such as demons and vampires. It also has incredible settings from Cambridge UK, to Venice and Elizabethan England. I must make time for them. Also on my pile is Witches Steeped in Gold by Ciannon Smart, a YA fantasy that’s based in a Jamaican tradition. I love reading about witches and magic from such different parts of the world and this is nearly at the top of my stack. I love that this is marketed as a more thrilling, fiery and powerful tale. Iraya Adair and Jazmyne Cariot are sworn enemies, but come together to carry out their revenge on a woman who threatens them both. This is an uneasy alliance and nothing is certain, except the lengths these women will go to for vengeance.
The Ex-Hex is a brand new rom-com that has apparently been a huge hit on TikTok. Vivienne was broken-hearted when she and Rhys broke up nine years ago. She tried bubble baths, then vodka and in the end she cursed him. Now Rhys is back to adjust the town’s ley lines, but everything he touches goes wrong and the village of Graves Glen seems out of balance. What if Vivienne’s hex wasn’t as harmless as she’d thought? Finally there’s The Secret Society of Irregular Witches by Mangu Sandanna, a book recommended to me buy one of my fellow bloggers in the Squad Pod. As one of the few witches in Britain, Mika Moon has lived her life by three rules: hide your magic, keep your head down, and stay away from other witches. An orphan raised by strangers from a young age, Mika is good at being alone, and she doesn’t mind it . . . mostly. But then an unexpected message arrives, begging her to travel to the remote and mysterious Nowhere House to teach three young witches, and Mika jumps at the chance for a different life. However, as this new life might be threatened, Mika must decide whether to risk everything to protect her found family. You’ll be the first to hear how I get on.
One of the most enduring series of books in my collection and one I never tire of re-reading is Joanne Harris’s Chocolat series of novels. So far there are four novels in the series and every one has that perfect combination for me – strong women, good food, a beautiful continental setting, and a little sprinkle of magic. Each one features the enigmatic and charming Vianne Rocher, mother, chocolatier and witch. Vianne takes us from Provence to Paris, then back and everywhere she goes people seem drawn to her warm nature. Since I always find myself rereading Chocolat in the run up to Easter, I thought it was an ideal time to review this extraordinary series for anyone who hasn’t read it yet (although there’s probably not many) and those who haven’t read the sequels, perhaps only visiting the series due to the successful film adaptation starring Juliette Binoche as Vianne and Johnny Depp as Roux. Here’s why I love this magical and strangely comforting world Harris has created.
“There is a kind of alchemy in the transformation of base chocolate into this wise fool’s-gold, a layman’s magic that even my mother might have relished. As I work, I clear my mind, breathing deeply. The windows are open, and the through-draft would be cold if it were not for the heat of the stoves, the copper pans, the rising vapor from the melting couverture. The mingled scents of chocolate, vanilla, heated copper, and cinnamon are intoxicating, powerfully suggestive; the raw and earthy tang of the Americas, the hot and resinous perfume of the rain forest. This is how I travel now, as the Aztecs did in their sacred rituals: Mexico, Venezuela, Columbia. The court of Montezuma. Cortez and Columbus. The Food of the Gods, bubbling and frothing in ceremonial goblets. The bitter elixir of life.” Chocolat
I read this first book in the series long before the film adaptation and I’m glad I did since there were aspects changed, and I think the book is perfect as it is. Vianne Rocher, a single mum with a young daughter, blows into the small village of Lansquenet-sous-Tannes on Shrove Tuesday. The villagers are still clearing away the last dregs of the carnival which heralds the beginning of Lent. Vianne and daughter Anouk, move into the disused bakery facing the church. Francis Reynaud, the young and opinionated curé of the parish, watches her arrival with disapproval and suspicion. When the priest realizes that Vianne intends to open a chocolate shop in place of the old bakery, thereby tempting the churchgoers to over-indulgence, Reynaud’s disapproval increases.
As the villagers of Lansquenet start falling under the spell of Vianne’s easy and charming ways, Reynaud feels that she undermines his own authority and he starts to see her as a danger. Yet Vianne’s influence is having a positive effect – an old woman embraces a new way of living, a battered wife finds the courage to leave her husband, children are rebelling against authority. Worse she’s even welcoming outcasts and strays such as the river gypsies. Reynaud feels like his tight and carefully ordered community is in danger of breaking apart. Easter approaches and both parties throw themselves whole-heartedly into the preparations; Vianne is creating delicacies for the chocolate festival she plans to hold on Easter Sunday. I think this is one of my favourite parts of the whole book, when Vianne is creating and you can tell that the author’s really luxuriating in the flavours and textures. There’s always that little touch of magic too. There’s her daughter Anouk with her little ‘shadow’ friend Pantoufle the rabbit who I adore. Vianne is naturally talented, but there’s a little touch of something that makes the fairy lights extra sparkly, or the delectable smell of hot chocolate drift that bit further up the road and into people’s homes.
It’s this something extra that Reynaud can sense, and it sends him looking for a way to win back his straying flock. Both factions have a great deal at stake and the village starts to feel divided, Some blame the river gypsies for the change in the air, but there is a power in the tension between Vianne and Reynaud that turns their emotions into a brisk wind stirring up the leaves in the church yard, or slamming doors as it goes. Vianne knows the danger of being different and she warns Anouk not to let Pantoufle become too visible. As Easter day comes closer their struggle becomes much more than a conflict between church and chocolate – it becomes an exorcism of the past, a declaration of independence, a showdown between pleasure and self-denial with an ending no one expects.
“The real magic – the magic we’d lived with all our lives, my mother’s magic of charms and cantrips, of salt by the door and a red silk sachet to placate the little gods – had turned sour on us that summer, somehow, like a spider that turns from good luck to bad at the stroke of midnight, spinning its web to catch our dreams. And for every little spell of charm, for every card dealt and every rune cast and every sign scratched against a doorway to divert the path of malchance, the wind just blew a little harder, tugging at our clothes, sniffing at us like a hungry dog, moving us here and moving us there.” The Lollipop Shoes
I was so excited to know that Vianne and her daughters were going to be back in another adventure, this time set in Paris. Tucked away in the cobbled streets of Montmartre, Yanne and her two daughters live peacefully, if not happily, above their little chocolate shop. Nothing unusual marks them out; no red sachets hang by the door. The wind has stopped – at least for a while. Then into their lives blows Zozie de l’Alba, the lady with the lollipop shoes – ruthless, devious and seductive. Set a few years after the events of Chocolat, Vianne has left Lansquent-sous-Tannes, and is now living in Paris with Anouk and her second daughter Rosette. Rosette is an unusual red haired child who doesn’t seem able to speak, but has her own special abilities like Anouk. Although we don’t know why at first, Vianne has changed her name to Yanne. Even more unexpectedly, she has suppressed her magic powers and is now contemplating a more conventional lifestyle, including marriage to the older, more traditional, Thierry le Tresset. Thierry is also their landlord and Anouk is concerned. She doesn’t like Thierry and wonders what has happened to her mother.
So much has changed and all the fun they used to have before is gone. Then Zozie de l’Alba turns up at Vianne’s chocolaterie with an air of magic and a trademark, she’s always wearing her bright red shoes. Anouk is ready for a friend and for some excitement so is easily to be seduced by Zozie’s charisma. This young woman becomes a part of the family’s lives and in the shop, but they don’t really know who she is. Against Vianne’s wishes, Anouk wants to practice with the magical power she has always had and Zozie uses this to create a wedge between mother and daughter. She encourages Anouk to use her magic, but what is her motivation in coming between mother and daughter? It feels personal, but Vianne doesn’t seem to know her. Then, Vianne’s previous lover arrives in Paris. One of the river gypsies from the village, and incidentally the father of Rosette, Roux and Vianne haven’t seen each other for four years. What does his arrival have to do with Zozie and why does she seem to creep ever closer into their lives?
This is the instalment of the series that comes closest to magic realism, and it definitely feels more fantastical and less warm than Chocolat. Yet there’s still something very readable about it and its still full of those long descriptions that send beautiful images dancing across my brain. Three characters narrate this sequel, and one of whom is Anouk which shows us how grown up she has become and gives her an independent voice from her mother. I loved how it shows the changes in the mother/ daughter relationship as the daughter grows up and wants to make her own mark on the world. It showed how households like this can come into conflict, often by not really listening. It was interesting to experience the three different perspectives and to see Anouk having her own voice. I did miss those other background characters that made Chocolat so special though, despite that this was a magical read and left me fully immersed in Harris’s world once again.
“I have never belonged to a tribe. It gives me a different perspective. Perhaps if I did, I too would feel ill at ease in Les Marauds. But I have always been different. Perhaps that’s why I find it easier to cross the narrow boundaries between one tribe and the next. To belong so often means to exclude; to think in terms of us and them – to little words that, juxtaposed, so often lead to conflict.” Peaches for Monsieur le Curé
It was a number of years before I read this book, the third in the Chocolat series, after finding a copy in a charity shop. I was happy and strangely soothed to find the village of Lansquenet still as lovely as ever. In fact I blame Joanne Harris for my urge to grow red geraniums for every hanging basket chapter’s narrator – a crescent for Vianne, a cross for M. le Cure. In fact the crescent is symbolic to the plot of the book as a new type of outsider now takes up residence at the other side of the river. The two differing populations in the village are the Catholics from one side of the river, and the Muslims from the other side. In fact there is even a minaret marking the mosque, just as the bells and spire mark out the church. As usual though, even though Vianne has allegiances in the village, she finds herself drawn to the far side of the river, where a plot develops involving the treatment of women that I enjoyed a lot. Vianne’s charm brings her friends within the Muslim community, as well as for Rosette and Anouk too. Rosette has her own spirit friend Bam, just like her sister had Pantoufle, but friendship with Maya really blossoms and Maya would love her own ‘djinn’ just like Bam. Vianne is intrigued by Ines, a woman who wears a black veil and who the locals believe is a dark spirit bringing fear and unrest. As Vianne knows too well, first impressions are seldom correct.
This book is a little darker in tone than the others, as Reynaud and his parishioner’s suspicion of the Muslim community, comes to a head. Vianne seems compelled to befriend her one time enemy. Now that she knows and understands Reynaud, she finds herself caring about him and as readers we do too, almost in spite of ourselves. Roux reminds Vianne that it isn’t her responsibility to fix things, but she can’t seem to help herself. I loved being back in this beautiful village and for me it’s the place where Vianne belongs. Harris brings the place alive with her beautiful descriptive passages and she also recreates some of those memorable characters I loved in the first book, However, the new community has its own interesting characters and I enjoyed getting to know them too. However, her girls are uneasy about making strong connections. They know all too soon the wind will change direction. Do they have to go with it this time?
“The almond blossom from the tree has gone, to be replaced by new green shoots. It smells of spring, and mown grass, and tilled earth from the fields beyond. Now is the month of Germinal in the Republican calendar: the month of hyacinth, and bees, and violet, and primrose. It is also the windy month; the month of new beginnings, and I have never felt it so strongly as I feel it now: that sense of possibility; that irresistible lightness.” The Strawberry Thief
This final instalment in the series is sitting on my TBR pile and it’s about time I went back to these incredible characters. Vianne Rocher has finally settled down! It’s Lansquenet-sous-Tannes, ironically the place that once rejected her, that has finally become her home. With the help of Rosette, her youngest child, she runs the chocolate shop in the square, talks to her friends on the river, and is part of the community. Even Reynaud, the priest, has now become a close friend. Then, old Narcisse, the florist, dies, leaving a parcel of land to Rosette and a written confession to Reynaud, throwing life in this sleepy village into disarray again. Then a mysterious new shop opens in the place of the florist’s across the square – one that strangely mirrors J hpidbdn, and has a strange appeal of its own – seems to herald a change: a confrontation, a turbulence – even, perhaps, a murder . . .
What will the wind blow in today?
Meet The Author
Joanne Harris is the internationally renowned and award-winning author of eighteen novels, plus novellas, scripts, short stories, libretti, lyrics, articles, and most recently, a self-help book for writers, TEN THINGS ABOUT WRITING. In 2000, her 1999 novel CHOCOLAT was adapted to the screen, starring Juliette Binoche and Johnny Depp. She is an honorary Fellow of St Catharine’s College, Cambridge, and is Chair of the Society of Authors.
Her hobbies are listed in Who’s Who as ‘mooching, lounging, strutting, strumming, priest-baiting and quiet subversion’. She is active on Twitter, where she writes stories and gives writing tips as @joannechocolat; she posts weekly writing seminars on YouTube; she performs in a live music and storytelling show with the #Storytime Band; and she works from a shed in her garden at her home in Yorkshire.
She also has a form of synaesthesia which enables her to smell colours. Red, she says, smells of chocolate. Weirdly, I also have synaesthesia and at this time of year it’s very active, with every bunch of yellow daffodils, smelling or even tasting of lemon sherbet!
This has been one of my most anticipated novels for this year, then it’s publication date was changed to January 2022 and I was going to have to wait a bit longer. I finally snagged a copy on NetGalley last week, and its no surprise that I started to read it straightaway. Was it worth the wait?
This is the fourth and final book in Hoffman’s Practical Magic series and it really does come full circle. We have three generations of Owen’s sisters in this tale: Franny and Jet, Gillian and Sally, and finally Sally’s daughters Kylie and Antonia. In fact this really does take us full circle, rather like the symbol of the Ourobos, a snake swallowing its own tail which is, rather aptly, the symbol of dark magic. So, here we have those Owenses who have dabbled as practitioners of the dark arts, such as Franny and Jet’s brother Vincent. Could one of the younger members of the family be heading down that dark route and what would call them there?
Regular readers will know that the curse of the Owens family is lodged in the love part of their lives. This was a curse placed by Maria Owens who knew the truth of how women might become undone by men. The various family members have found their own ways of circumventing the worst of the curse, after Jet lost her true love as a teenager. Gillian is married, but she doesn’t live with Ben or wear a wedding ring. Sally has lived with a man but lost him very young and the heartache has closed her to that part of life. Now all she cares for are books. Antonia is married to her work as a doctor, but is having a baby with her gay best friend. However, for their youngest, Kylie, love has been part of her life for a long time. She is inseparable from her best friend Gideon but they have never spoken of their love for each other. Till now. Two losses happen to Kylie at once. The death watch beetle is clacking in the walls of the house on Magnolia Street where Sally, Kylie and both elderly aunts reside still. They have barely said their goodbyes, when Kylie’s Gideon is in a terrible accident and is so badly injured he is in a coma.
Kylie takes matters into her own hands and is drawn to a hidden Grimoire in the Owens Library. A Grimoire is a witches personal journal and book of magic. Kylie believes this book has the answer to ending the Owen’s curse, but the final pages are stuck together and she can’t enact the spell. Kylie returns to where the Owens story starts, in the original Essex county in England. Here she hopes to find the secret to opening the last pages of the book, but there are two warnings attached to her quest. She mustn’t trust the wrong person and if she is the one to overturn the curse, she must be prepared to lose everything. However, when Kylie is in danger, it will take Franny, Sally and her uncle Vincent to join the quest. Which one of them is the key to end the curse? And what price will they need to pay?
I struggled with the first few chapters of the book, but that might have more to do with me trying to read it Christmas week, when having a prolonged time to sit and read is impossible. Once I could spend some time with the story I really started to enjoy it. I welcomed the cross generational aspect to the story, and those reminders of everything that had gone before. From Levi Willard’s teenage love for Jet, Vincent’s years in NYC as a musician and all the way back to Maria Owens and her difficulties accepting the love of Samuel several centuries earlier. There are seeds of hope, as new life comes into the family, as Antonia’s love for Ariel takes her by surprise and new familiars seek out their human counterparts. Sally has always been interesting to me and her continued tightrope walk between the magic that is her birth right and her need to stay under the radar and keep her girl’s safe. The women are always treading a line between the future they are born with, shown on the right palm and the future they choose, shown on the left. I loved how her story ended, it felt satisfying and even full of hope, given the heartache that went before.
What stood out loud and clear was, that despite being cursed in love, the love the women have for each other is a blessing. In particular, Franny and Jet’s love for Sally and Gillian. Brought to the crooked house as small orphans, the aunts loved their nieces as their own and taught them everything they needed to be safe and understand the magic they were born with. Any trouble or danger brought both aunts running to help and protect them, even into their old age and especially in this story. This love stands out stronger than any other in all four books and never dies. Everything I love about Hoffman is there, her wonderful descriptions of nature and the women’s links to the natural world. Her descriptions of spells and their effects are fantastical and so vivid, especially the menacing red rain poisoning a whole community. I love that the books celebrate strong women, who support each other and their right to be individuals. This is a fitting end to a series that begins chronologically with persecution, betrayal and death. It ends with a sense of the Owens family being part of a community, playing a bigger part in the world and learning how to utilise their magic in harmony with the world.
Published by Scribner U.K. 6th Jan 2022.
Meet The Author.
Alice Hoffman is the author of thirty works of fiction, including Practical Magic, The Red Garden, The Dovekeepers and, most recently,The Museum of Extraordinary Things. She lives in Boston. Visit her website: http://www.alicehoffman.com
There are just so many books coming out next year that I’m really looking forward to reading, with some really gorgeous cover designs too. I. Lucky enough to have early access to all of these bar two, so I’ll be reading and reviewing in the coming weeks. Keep your eyes peeled and get some of these crackers on your TBR list.
House of Fortune by Jessie Burton.
I fell in love with Burton’s debut novel The Miniaturist at first page and I am in awe of her imagination and skill. As other readers of the novel will know, many questions remained unanswered at the end of the story, and while I don’t mind books having loose ends, when I heard a sequel was coming I let out a little squeal. We are still in the golden city of Amsterdam, but now it is 1705. Thea Brandt is turning eighteen, and she is ready to welcome adulthood with open arms. At the city’s theatre, Walter, the love of her life, awaits her, but at home in the house on the Herengracht, all is not well – her father Otto and Aunt Nella argue endlessly, and the Brandt family are selling their furniture in order to eat. On Thea’s birthday, also the day that her mother Marin died, the secrets from the past begin to overwhelm the present.
Nella is desperate to save the family and maintain appearances, to find Thea a husband who will guarantee her future, and when they receive an invitation to Amsterdam’s most exclusive ball, she is overjoyed – perhaps this will set their fortunes straight. And indeed, the ball does set things spinning: new figures enter their life, promising new futures. But their fates are still unclear, and when Nella feels a strange prickling sensation on the back of her neck, she remembers the miniaturist who entered her life and toyed with her fortunes eighteen years ago. Perhaps, now, she has returned for her . . . I can’t tell you how excited I am to find out how Nella is getting on. Maybe the mystery of who the miniaturist is, and what they want, might be solved?
Published by Picador 7th July 2022
Sundial by Catriona Ward
When writers like Alex Michaelides and Emma Stonex are giving rave reviews of a book, it’s always worth a look. Last year’s novel, The Last House on Needless Street, was incredibly unusual and original. That alone would make me want to look at Ward’s second novel.
You can’t escape the desert. You can’t escape Sundial.
Rob fears for her daughters. For Callie, who collects tiny bones and whispers to imaginary friends. For Annie, because she fears what Callie might do to her. Rob sees a darkness in Callie, one that reminds her of the family she left behind. She decides to take Callie back to her childhood home, to Sundial, deep in the Mojave Desert. And there she will have to make a terrible choice.
Callie is afraid of her mother. Rob has begun to look at her strangely. To tell her secrets about her past that both disturb and excite her. And Callie is beginning to wonder if only one of them will leave Sundial alive…
Published by Viper 10th March 2022.
Insomnia by Sarah Pinborough.
In the dead of night, madness lies…
Emma can’t sleep. CHECK THE WINDOWS. It’s been like this since her big 4-0 started getting closer. LOCK THE DOORS. Her mother stopped sleeping just before her 40th birthday too. She went mad and did the unthinkable because of it. LOOK IN ON THE CHILDREN. Is that what’s happening to Emma?
WHY CAN’T SHE SLEEP?
This is an absolutely brilliant domestic noir that keeps you on the edge of your seat to the very end.
Published by Harper Collins March 31st 2022.
Absynthe by Brendan P. BelleCourt.
The Great War has been over for years, and a brave new world forged. Technology has delivered the future promised at the turn of the century: automata provide, monorail trains flash between mega-cities, medicine is nothing short of magical.
Liam grew up poor, but now working for one of the richest families in Chicago, he reaps the benefits of his friendship with the family’s son and heir. That’s why he’s at Club Artemis. It’s a palace of art-deco delights and debauchery, filled to bursting with the rich and beautiful – and tonight they’re all drinking one thing. Absynthe. The green liquor rumoured to cause hallucinations, madness, even death.
While the gilded youth sip the viridescent liquid, their brave new world is crumbling beneath its perfect surface. Their absynthe is no mere folly. Some it kills, others it transforms. But in Liam something different has taken place. A veil has lifted and he can see the world without its illusion – and it isn’t the perfect world the government want the people to believe. As soon as I read the premise of this novel I was hooked and I’ve just been accepted on NetGalley I’m itching to get to it.
Published – Head of Zeus 9th Dec 2021
Outside by Ragnar Jónasson.
Four friends. One night. Not everyone will come out alive . . .
In the swirling snow of a deadly Icelandic storm, four friends seek shelter in a small abandoned hunting lodge. Miles from help, and knowing they will die outside in the cold, they break open the lock and make their way inside, hoping to wait out the storm until morning.
But nothing can prepare them for what they find behind the door . . .
Inside the cabin lurks a dangerous presence that chills them to their core. Outside, certain death from exposure awaits. So with no other option, they find themselves forced to spend a long, terrifying night in the cabin, watching as intently and silently as they are being watched themselves.But as the evening darkens, old secrets are beginning to find their way to the light. And as the tension escalates between the four friends, it soon becomes clear that the danger they discovered lurking in the cabin is far from the only mystery that will be uncovered tonight. Nor the only thing to be afraid of . . .
I love Nordic Noir and this author builds his literary worlds so carefully and his characters are multi-dimensional, complex and real. Once I’m a few chapters in it feels so real to me that I’m utterly immersed. This appeals to my psychologist brain. I’m dying to dissect these characters and their dynamic as they are trapped together.
Published by Michael Joseph 28th April 2022.
Miss Aldridge Regrets by Louise Hare.
I’ve been waiting to see what Louise Hare would write next after loving her novel The Lovely City. This looks like a fantastic second novel and I adore that cover too. Opening in London in 1936, Lena Aldridge is wondering if life has passed her by. The dazzling theatre career she hoped for hasn’t worked out. Instead, she’s stuck singing in a sticky-floored basement club in Soho and her married lover has just left her. She has nothing to look forward to until a stranger offers her the chance of a lifetime: a starring role on Broadway and a first-class ticket on the Queen Mary bound for New York. After a murder at the club, the timing couldn’t be better and Lena jumps at the chance to escape England. Until death follows her onto the ship and she realises that her greatest performance has already begun. Because someone is making manoeuvres behind the scenes, and there’s only one thing on their mind…Murder.
Miss Aldridge Regrets is the exquisite new novel from Louise Hare, the author of This Lovely City. A brilliant murder mystery, it also explores class, race and pre-WWII politics, and will leave readers reeling from the beauty and power of it.It’s next on my TBR so I’ll be reviewing soon.
Published by HQ 28th April 2022.
The Paris Apartment by Lucy Foley.
Welcome to No. 12 Rue des Amants. This book has been popping up all over #BookTwitter and I feel very privileged to have an early copy. I love a good thriller, it tends to be the genre I go to when I’m very busy with my MA or just have a lot on at home. For some reason, that I’m not prepared to look at too closely, I find thrillers relaxing. This one is set in a beautiful old apartment block, far from the glittering lights of the Eiffel Tower and the bustling banks of the Seine. Where nothing goes unseen. And everyone has a story to unlock. Our characters are the watchful concierge, the scorned lover, the prying journalist and the naïve student. But there’s also an unwanted guest. Something terrible happened here last night. A mystery lies behind the door of apartment three.Only you – and the killer – hold the key . . . I’m sure I’m going to be bleary eyed one morning from reading this till 2am.
Published by Harper Collins 3rd March 2022.
Saint Death’s Daughter by C.S.E Cooney
Nothing complicates life like Death. I noticed this book about two months ago and begged the publisher for a proof! Sometimes I have no shame. As soon as I read the short blurb I knew I wanted to read it and I’m excited at the thought that this is only the first in a new series. Lanie Stones, the daughter of the Royal Assassin and Chief Executioner of Liriat, has never led a normal life. Born with a gift for necromancy and a literal allergy to violence, she was raised in isolation in the family’s crumbling mansion by her oldest friend, the ancient revenant Goody Graves. When her parents are murdered, it falls on Lanie and her cheerfully psychotic sister Nita to settle their extensive debts or lose their ancestral home―and Goody with it. Appeals to Liriat’s ruler to protect them fall on indifferent ears… until she, too, is murdered, throwing the nation’s future into doubt. Hunted by Liriat’s enemies, hounded by her family’s creditors and terrorised by the ghost of her great-grandfather, Lanie will need more than luck to get through the next few months―but when the goddess of Death is on your side, anything is possible. I am always surprised by the amount of fantasy I read and while I don’t consider myself an expert on the genre, out of the books I love, a good third are fantasy novels. I’m hoping this one might join them.
Published by Solaris 14th April 2022.
The Unravelling by Polly Crosby.
This one is coming very soon, in early January in fact, since the publication date was pushed back from this year. I fell completely in love with her writing when I finally read The Illustrated Child a few months ago. The only reason it didn’t make my books of the year was because I was so late reading it; it was published in 2020. My anticipation for this one has been building and I hope to get to read it over the Christmas holidays. Also when the author of The Binding gives a book a great review, I know I’m going to love it.
’Like a surreal cabinet of curiosities – haunting, eerie, evocative’ Bridget Collins, Sunday Times bestselling author of The Binding
When Tartelin Brown accepts a job with the reclusive Marianne Stourbridge, she finds herself on a wild island with a mysterious history. Tartelin is tasked with hunting butterflies for Marianne’s research. But she quickly uncovers something far more intriguing than the curious creatures that inhabit the landscape. Because the island and Marianne share a remarkable history, and what happened all those years ago has left its scars, and some terrible secrets.As Tartelin pieces together Marianne’s connection to the island, she must confront her own reasons for being there. Can the two women finally face up to the painful memories that bind them so tightly to the past?
Published by HQ 6th Jan 2022.
The Christie Affair by Nina de Gramont.
I’m currently writing a review for this interesting novel and I can honestly say it’s a cracker. I loved the mix of factual events and fictional story, as well as the way the novel veered from historical, to romance and to murder mystery. You won’t want to put it down.
In 1926, Agatha Christie disappeared for 11 days. Only I know the truth of her disappearance. I’m no Hercule Poirot. I’m her husband’s mistress.
Agatha Christie’s world is one of glamorous society parties, country house weekends, and growing literary fame. Nan O’Dea’s world is something very different. Her attempts to escape a tough London upbringing during the Great War led to a life in Ireland marred by a hidden tragedy. After fighting her way back to England, she’s set her sights on Agatha. Because Agatha Christie has something Nan wants. And it’s not just her husband. Despite their differences, the two women will become the most unlikely of allies. And during the mysterious eleven days that Agatha goes missing, they will unravel a dark secret that only Nan holds the key to . . .The Christie Affair is a stunning novel which reimagines the unexplained eleven-day disappearance of Agatha Christie in 1926 that captivated the world.
Published by Mantle, 20th Jan 2022.
Peach Blossom Spring by Melissa Fu.
I have to say that the cover of this beautiful proof sung out to me when it dropped through my letterbox. This is one of those novels where I’ve already pre-ordered the finished copy even though I have this one. It’s quite simply stunning.
With every misfortune there is a blessing and within every blessing, the seeds of misfortune, and so it goes, until the end of time.
It is 1938 in China, and the Japanese are advancing. A young mother, Meilin, is forced to flee her burning city with her four-year-old son, Renshu, and embark on an epic journey across China. For comfort, they turn to their most treasured possession – a beautifully illustrated hand scroll. Its ancient fables offer solace and wisdom as they travel through their ravaged country, seeking refuge. Years later, Renshu has settled in America as Henry Dao. His daughter is desperate to understand her heritage, but he refuses to talk about his childhood. How can he keep his family safe in this new land when the weight of his history threatens to drag them down? Spanning continents and generations, Peach Blossom Spring is a bold and moving look at the history of modern China, told through the story of one family. It’s about the power of our past, the hope for a better future, and the search for a place to call home.
Published by Wildfire 17th March 2022.
The Book of Magic by Alice Hoffman.
This is my current read and it’s not surprising that I’m enjoying it, since Hoffman is one of my favourite authors. The Owens family started their literary lives in Practical Magic as we followed orphaned sisters Sally and Gillian as they are sent to live with their eccentric aunts Jet and Franny. There are rumours about the aunts. They live in a crooked house on the edge of town, with a well-stocked herb garden and a light above the door that alerts local women to when they are available for consultation. This might be for women’s health problems, but more often for reasons of love. This is ironic since the Owens women are born in a genetic line that’s cursed in the pursuit of love. Every woman in the family has tried a way round the curse, but if ever love is found, it can just as easily be lost. In this fourth and final book in the series we move forward, after two prequel novels, to Jet and Franny’s old age. When the deathwatch beetle starts clicking in the family home, one of the Owens women knows that their time is up. As the generations gather, Sally’s daughters have to face the truth of the family curse. So a quest begins to change this generation’s luck in love, but do the girls have the power within them or will they venture into darker magic?
Published by Scribner 6th January 2022.
The Key in the Lock by Beth Underdown.
I was a little bit giddy to open my book mail a couple of days ago and find an unexpected copy of this book. I’ve been talking about it since Halloween so it’s definitely time I read it.
I still dream, every night, of Polneath on fire. Smoke unravelling from an upper window, and the terrace bathed in a hectic orange light . . . Now I see that the decision I made at Polneath was the only decision of my life. Everything marred in that one dark minute.
By day, Ivy Boscawen mourns the loss of her son Tim in the Great War. But by night she mourns another boy – one whose death decades ago haunts her still. For Ivy is sure that there is more to what happened all those years ago: the fire at the Great House, and the terrible events that came after. A truth she must uncover, if she is ever to be free. But once you open a door to the past, can you ever truly close it again?From the award-winning author of The Witchfinder’s Sister comes a captivating story of burning secrets and buried shame, and of the loyalty and love that rises from the ashes.
Published by Viking 13th January 2022.
A Lady’s Guide to Fortune Hunting by Sophie Irwin.
This novel has quite recently appeared on the radar but looks like a really enjoyable read. I’ve just had NetGalley approval and it’s taking all my willpower to read my January blog tours first! The season is about to begin and there’s not a second to lose. Kitty Talbot needs a fortune. Or rather, she needs a husband who has a fortune. This is 1818 after all, and only men have the privilege of seeking their own riches. With only twelve weeks until the bailiffs call, launching herself into London society is the only avenue open to her, and Kitty must use every ounce of cunning and ingenuity she possesses to climb the ranks. The only one to see through her plans is the worldly Lord Radcliffe and he is determined to thwart her at any cost, especially when it comes to his own brother falling for her charms. Can Kitty secure a fortune and save her sisters from poverty? There is not a day to lose and no one – not even a lord – will stand in her way…
Published by Harper Collins 12th May 2022
Memphis by Tara M. Stringfellow.
Joan can’t change her family’s past. But she can create her future.
Joan was only a child the last time she visited Memphis. She doesn’t remember the bustle of Beale Street on a summer’s night. She doesn’t know she’s as likely to hear a gunshot ring out as the sound of children playing. How the smell of honeysuckle is almost overwhelming as she climbs the porch steps to the house where her mother grew up. But when the front door opens, she does remember Derek. This house full of history is home to the women of the North family. They are no strangers to adversity; resilience runs in their blood. Fifty years ago, Hazel’s husband was lynched by his all-white police squad, yet she made a life for herself and her daughters in the majestic house he built for them. August lives there still, running a salon where the neighbourhood women gather. And now this house is the only place Joan has left. It is in sketching portraits of the women in her life, her aunt and her mother, the women who come to have their hair done, the women who come to chat and gossip, that Joan begins laughing again, begins living. Memphis is a celebration of the enduring strength of female bonds, of what we pass down, from mother to daughter. Epic in scope yet intimate in detail, it is a vivid portrait of three generations of a Southern black family, as well as an ode to the city they call home.
Here’s the final instalment of my favourite reads of 2021. As I look back it’s been a brilliant reading year and I always think the past year can’t be topped but I have a huge list of anticipated reads for next year already! I’m spending the next fortnight doing the same things as everyone else – stuffing my face, drinking sherry, seeing family and watching far too much television. However, I’m also doing something that’s probably peculiar to book bloggers. I’m reading what I like for a fortnight. This might not sound like much, but it really is wonderful to read purely for pleasure. I enjoy what I do, but between blog tours and my NetGalley list (I’m greedy with both) I’m often reading to a schedule. So it’s nice to be able to go with my mood or my gut for a little while. I have reached a couple of milestones with the blog: I have reached ten thousand views this year and two hundred subscribers. I never imagined that I would have two readers of my writing, never mind two hundred. It’s amazing what a year’s hard work can do. Over the holiday I hope to evaluate how I’ve been working on the blog, maybe leading to some changes and hopefully time to share my personal writing too. I wish you all a very Happy Christmas with your loved ones and I look forward to writing for you all again in 2022.
The Snow and the Works on the Northern Line by Ruth Thomas.
This is what I would call a quiet book; gentle, subtle even, but so charming and witty. I remember posting that only three weeks into January I was already in love with a new literary heroine. I absolutely adored Sybil and felt so at home in her company, that I just kept reading all day. I finished at 11pm and was bereft, because I wouldn’t be with Sybil any more. Yes, this is what happens to avid readers. We fall head over heels with a character, can’t put the book down, then suffer from withdrawal. All day I was grumpy and reluctant to start a new book. Sybil’s life is puttering along nicely. She has a job she enjoys at a London museum – Royal Institute of Prehistoric Studies (RIPS). She has Simon, her boyfriend and ardent baker of bread from obscure grains. Her quiet life is turned upside down when she, quite literally, bumps into an old nemesis from university, Helene Hanson. Sybil and Simon are ice skating, when they first spot Sybil’s old university lecturer. Sybil doesn’t want to say hello, after all Helene stole some ideas from her dissertation, then put them into her own research on the Beaker people. They’re very unsteady on ice and end up careering into Helene’s group, in Sybil’s case ending up in hospital from a head injury. Only weeks later, Helene has stolen Sybil’s boyfriend and taken a huge interest in Sybil’s workplace. Now RIPS will be selling her Beakerware (TM) in the gift shop and welcome her onto their committee. Sybil’s mum suggests a mature exchange of views, but Sybil hates confrontation. She’s not felt herself since her injury and we see how she thinks in the fragmentary structure the author uses. Sybil has to find a way to expose Helene Hanson as a fraud. I felt a deep connection with Sybil. She’s offbeat, quirky and has a dark sense of humour the comes through beautifully into the narration. A simply lovely read that I’ll happily pick up again and again.
Before My Actual Heart Breaks by Tish Delaney
This was one of those novels that didn’t connect with me at first. In fact if it hadn’t been for a blog tour I might have stopped reading. Yet part way in I was suddenly won over by the intelligent, spirited and strangely beautiful Mary Rattigan. She is a character who will stay with me, especially the childhood Mary and her battles with Mammy – a woman who I hated so strongly it was as if she was a real person! Mammy is a hypocrite, playing the perfect Catholic matriarch on the surface – always loving or feeding her sons, cooking perfect chicken roasts and getting out the best china when the priest comes for tea. It broke my heart when she left Mary without tea, then next morning as the boys all lined up for their lunch boxes Mary was given an empty one. I felt so emotional for this girl, who doesn’t expect any better. The Rattigan’s life on her parent’s farm in Ireland is at odds with Mary’s romantic and wild nature. She wants to fly out of her dirty and dangerous surroundings, leaving ‘The Troubles’ behind her. However, life has a way of grounding us and Mary is no exception. In a life punctuated by marriage, five children, bombings, a long peace process and endless cups of tea Mary learns that a ten minute decision can change a whole life. These lessons are hard won and she’s missed a hundred chances to make a change. Can she ever find the courage to ask for the love she deserves, but has never had? Mary’s need to be loved is so raw she can’t even articulate it. How can she understand or recognise love when she’s never felt it? She has been told she’s nothing, so nothing is what she deserves. Delaney writes about love and the realities of marriage with such wisdom and tenderness that I was rooting for Mary Rattigan till the very last page.
Wish You Were Here by Jodi Picoult.
Jodi Picoult has been one of my favourite writers since PlainTruth and I was so happy to see that this was a real return to form and is the first novel addressing the COVID pandemic I’ve read. Diana and her boyfriend Finn live in New York City, he is a doctor and she works at an auction house for fine art, on the verge of promotion to become an Art Specialist at Sotheby’s. She’s trying to acquire a Toulouse Lautrec painting that hangs in the bedroom of a Japanese artist -loosely based on Yoko Ono – when everything changes. Finn and Diana have a very set life plan and part of that was an upcoming visit to the Galápagos Islands. However there are rumours in the medical community of a strange new virus in Wuhan, China. It seems like SARS in that it’s a respiratory virus and requires huge amounts of resources to keep patients alive. Diana’s boyfriend feels torn, as a doctor he’s worried and thinks they should be preparing, but the president is on TV telling everyone it’s no worse than flu. What’s the truth? Finn tells Diana to go on holiday and she gets to the islands just as their borders are closed. She has to throw herself upon the kindness of strangers – a hotel cleaner called Abuela, her granddaughter Beatrice, and Gabriel her tour guide father. He is the perfect person to be stranded with because he knows every corner of the island and has no work, so he can show Diana some of the sights she would never have seen. The seals lazily basking on the jetty, the sea turtles and their nests buried in sand, lush vegetation and lizards lying around intertwined. I could see and taste the salt air. Everything is vivid and almost hyper-real. Then came the twist!! Oh my goodness I did not expect that at all. This was brilliantly done and shocked me. The world Diana has at the beginning, becomes subsumed by the pandemic. It’s a structure that echoes how our own lives have been interrupted and changed forever. There are people who went into the pandemic with a job that no longer exists. People have lost friends, family members and partners. The pandemic has changed people, they are looking at how they live and making changes. I could understand Diana’s decision at the end of the novel. When you’ve been through something momentous you change, and part of that is re-evaluating life and choosing what makes you happy. It’s trying to recapture hope. Why should things ‘go back to normal’; I want this pandemic to mean something and I want things to get better. Diana takes that decision for herself and I found that both brave and uplifting.
The Watchers by A.M. Shine.
I don’t often read horror novels, mainly sticking to Stephen King and gothic historical fiction, so this is a departure from my usual reading and it was exhilarating. Mina, is a young woman living alone in urban Ireland, and has lost her mother. Now without family – except one sister who appears to phone once a month or so, just to feel disappointed – she is largely a loner. Her loves are sketching, red wine and her friend Peter who is a buyer and seller of various things and often pays Mina cash to deliver his client’s purchases. On this occasion she’s to take a golden parrot to a remote part of Galway. Having broken down on the edge of a forest, Mina realises the likelihood of anyone passing by and helping are probably minimal. So, with the parrot in tow, she sets off walking in the hope of finding a remote farmhouse with a phone that works. Once in the forest Mina realises her mistake, it seems bigger than from outside and the light is fading fast. She feels unnerved, although she can’t say why, then she hears a scream that isn’t human, but isn’t like any animal she’s ever heard either. As the shadows gather she is beginning to panic, when suddenly she sees a woman beckoning her and urging her to hurry. She’s standing by a building and although it seems odd, Mina decides it’s better than staying out here to be found by whatever made that terrible noise. As they hurry inside and the door slams behind them, the screams grow in intensity and volume, almost as if they were right on her heels. As her eyes adjust to the light she finds herself in a room with a bright overhead light. One wall is made entirely of glass, but Mina can’t see beyond it and into the forest because it is now pitch dark. Yet she has the creeping sensation of being watched through the glass, almost like she is the parrot in a glass cage. A younger man and woman are huddled together in one space, so there are now four people in this room, captive and watched by many eyes. Their keepers are the Watchers, dreadful creatures that live in burrows by day, but come out at night to hunt and to watch these captive humans. If caught out after dark, the door will be locked, and you will be the Watcher’s unlucky prey. Who are these creatures and why do they keep watching? This was unsettling, because of the creatures and the dynamics of the small group trying to survive. The author has an uncanny ability to instil dread in his readers, all the way to an incredible and terrifying end.
The Beresford by Will Carver.
This was a brilliantly funny and clever book that had me smiling from the first page at theaudacityof this clever and creative author. This was my very first Will Carver novel and I came away wondering where he’d been my whole life. This novel had such a darkly, delicious opening set at The Beresford, an old forbidding looking building in the city. In my imagination this conjured up the Gothic looking Dakota Building, where John Lennon lived and was killed back in 1981. Inside The Beresford are a number of apartments, bigger and better appointed than you would expect for the money. They even have large roll top baths that are the perfect size to dismember and dissolve a body. Resident Abe finds that as soon as one tenant ‘leaves’ another will ring the doorbell in sixty seconds. The building is presided over by a lovely old lady called Mrs May, who starts every day the same way. By brewing a coffee while the taps run, then enjoying a bath with bubbles, followed by eggs with her cold coffee. She has a routine, and is found at the same time every day pruning the roses in the front garden. As any fan of the film The Ladykiller’s knows, you should never underestimate sweet looking, little old ladies. She knows everything that happens at the Beresford because the same thing happens over again – some people leave and some people just disappear. Occasionally they stay. For a price. I loved the dark humour, the unexpected murders and the characters who pass through – sometimes in seconds! Maybe one day the author will venture further into the other side of The Beresford? The side Abe calls ‘the bad side’. If so, I’ll be waiting – but I’ll probably stick to reading in the daylight hours.
The Spirit Engineer by A.J. West
I’d anticipated this book for a couple of months having been told by my Squad Pod ladies that it was going to be a fantastic read. It certainly was, and even more than that, it was surprising too. Our setting is the city of Belfast, the Titanic sinking is still fresh in everyone’s minds. It’s especially fresh at Professor William Crawford’s house since his brother-in-law Arthur was on the ship. Crawford is our narrator and he introduces us to his happy, but chaotic household as the novel opens. He is a man of science, working at an institute both furthering scientific enquiry and teaching the next generation of engineers. He’s a sceptic, so when he finds out that his wife is visiting a medium and has been trying to contact her brother Arthur, he’s shocked and angry. There’s no question that this girl is a fraud, stringing his wife along with a show put on with the help of her shady family. Yet, the couple have lost their son Robert too and Crawford’s grief is overwhelming. So when he hears Robert’s voice calling to him alongside an angry, vengeful Arthur who blames Crawford for his death, a small crack grows in his scepticism. What if he were to apply his scientific rigour to to this girl medium’s powers? If he could prove a link exists between this world and the next he could make a name for himself, not just in Ireland but all over the world. What I loved more than anything was the author’s ability to surprise, because as we neared the end I had no idea how the book and Crawford’s investigations would conclude. The theme of dishonesty is there right from the start, in Arthur’s reasons for being on Titanic, to the hidden note from their old maid who left in a hurry, and Elizabeth’s absence at weekly church meetings. By the end I felt triple bluffed, but couldn’t help smiling at how clever the author had been. As many of our characters find out, when it comes to being dishonest, the person we deceive most often is ourselves.
The Lighthouse Witches by C.J. Cooke
Just look at that stunning cover! Lighthouses have been a recurring motif in this year’s reading and this cover was particularly beautiful. This is a fascinating tale from the writer of last year’s The Nesting. Set on a remote Scottish Island, and with a hint of The Wicker Man about it, Liv and her three daughters arrive at a lighthouse named The Longing. We’re not sure what they’re driving away from, but Liv jumped at an opportunity to paint a mural in the lighthouse. An eccentric millionaire wants to use the lonely spot as a writing retreat. Liv and her three girls set up home in the bothy next door, but then some unusual happenings leave them wondering exactly what’s going on in this isolated place. There are some really unsettling scares for the family: a baby floating in flood water that turns out to be a doll; a child’s skinny arm creeping out from behind Liv’s paint supplies; a near naked and very dirty little boy appearing at the bothy, with no one on the island interested when he disappears again. Liv wonders why the lighthouse is named The Longing and finds a whole history involving the island’s women and the 16th – 17th Century witch hunts sanctioned by King James IV. Throw in some time travel and this is a brilliant combination of the supernatural and the historical. I enjoyed it immensely and would happily read it again.
So that’s my 21 favourite books and even now I’m wishing I could add a further three of four to the mix! Keep an eye on the blog over Christmas and New Year for some great recommendations for 2022 which is already looking like a bumper reading year. Happy Christmas and a peaceful, safe New Year. ❤️📚
“Christmas ought to be brought up to date, Maria said. It ought to have gangsters, and aeroplanes and a lot of automatic pistols.” – John Masefield, The Box Of Delights
My Christmas fascination with this particular book may owe more to the BBC adaptation, broadcast in the run up to Christmas in the Sunday teatime slot, than it does to the book. Although I do still have a copy, one I bought with a gift token I’d won at school for trying hard, sometime in the mid 1980s. I read the book after the series aired and was captivated by this strange tale of wolves, clergymen, gangsters and Herne the Hunter. I think it captured my imagination because this was Christmas, but not the Christian version of events. This tale owes more to pagan winter festivals, fairy folk and ancient magic. I have always felt there’s something magical and transformative about Christmas Eve. I’ve never celebrated Halloween, we belonged to a restrictive church that frowned upon any sort of occult meddling, so we had to go to ‘Light Night’ instead. Instead of the magical witching hour, I felt that anything could happen on Christmas Eve. Before our swap to a ‘happy clappy church’ I’d been brought up Catholic. For me there was nothing like the excitement of being woken up late at night, bundled into the car and travelling to Midnight Mass in the frosty cold when others were in bed. I felt like a nocturnal creature, up and about just as rabbits and badgers were popping up from their burrows and sniffing the night air. My brother and I would press our faces up against our windows, looking up into the sky as far up as we could, just in case we saw Father Christmas. Miraculously, he would always have been when we arrived home again. We loved seeing everyone’s Christmas lights on and landscapes turned a glittery white with frost. I had a sense that the veil between this world and others was very thin at this time of year. That there was still magic afoot in the world and I might see something mystical and strange, much like Kay does in this novel as he travels home by train for the holidays.
In fact Kay’s adventure starts as soon as he sets out on his homeward journey by steam train. Kay thinks he hears wolves, but that’s impossible. He does meet an old Punch and Judy man though, who inevitably draws him into an adventure.
“And now, Master Harker, of Seekings,’ the old man said, ‘now that the Wolves are Running, as you will have seen, perhaps you would do something to stop their Bite?”
The wolves he speaks of are not the howling ones outside. The wolves are Abner Brown and his dastardly crew of henchmen. They’re after a magic box that the old man uses to go small (shrink) or go swift (travel), and which he now gives to Kay so he can keep it safe. This box sets Kay off on marvellous adventures and although I don’t remember it all, there are parts that have stuck with me. I remembered a mouse who enters Kay’s room via tiny archway in the skirting board. As Kay shrinks to avoid Brown’s henchmen, he finds himself having to navigate the ‘rapids’ in a paper boat and then disappears for a while after finding a fairy door. He’s welcomed into a fairy gathering, attended by the King and Queen of the fairies. He’s not completely alone in his adventures either and new friend Maria is a plucky little character who wants the exciting Christmas quoted above. She’s incredibly posh, cut from the same cloth as the ‘boy’s own’ heroes and has an excellent line in slang.
‘They know better than to try that game on me. I’ve been expelled from three and the headmistresses still swoon when they hear my name breathed. I’m Maria Jones, I am: somewhat talked of in school circles, if you take the trouble to enquire.’
Such intrepid characters are needed to foil the plans of Abner Brown and his men, who seemed truly evil when I first saw them. What I loved though was that sense of ancient magic – ‘I do date from pagan times’ – mixed with the public school language and sensibility. There’s a sense of Kay’s quest turning him into a man or at least trying it on for size. It’s hilarious when he adopts an important tone and asks the family servant if she knows how to make him a posset. There’s also the wonderful vocabulary that sounds like it’s come from a Roald Dahl novel, with words like splendiferous, scrobbled and purple pim. This truly is a little magic box of a novel, with richly painted scenes of nature and fairies as well as unnerving moments like the boy trapped behind a waterfall. The best thing is that every time I think about this book a huge wave of Christmassy nostalgia washes over me.
The opening of this book, where Lara enchants her own wedding dress so it’s more to her liking, showed promise for the rest of the novel. Her marriage to Todd is the next morning, but as she’s waiting for her groom some bad news arrives. His best man is local law enforcement officer Ben and he tells her that Todd can’t be found. His car is found abandoned at a bend in the road where thirty years earlier another young man disappeared without a trace. Pete was in a band with Lara’s father, who has always been affected by the loss of his friend. Surely there’s a connection? Lara’s search for answers leads them to a journal written by her great-grandmother and the tale of a secret circus, where they perform using real magic. In Belle Èpoque Paris we follow the story of Cecile Cabot, Lara’s great grandmother, the subject of one in a series of three paintings by artist Émile Giroux. Cecile’s life is bound to the circus as is her sister Esme’s, but why are they cursed in this way and is it a price that the women in the family are still paying to this day?
From Lara’s wedding day onwards, the first section of the book set in idyllic Kerrigan Falls didn’t quite have the spark of that first scene. I worried that the book might be a bit saccharine sweet for my taste. It was typical small town America, but with barely any crime or unpleasantness. Residents seemed to get along easily and everyone cared about the town’s history, it’s beautiful period buildings and stunning setting. Lara bought the local radio station, her love of music coming from her famous musician father. I didn’t quite believe how lovely the place and it’s people were and I suspected there was a darker underbelly. This was hinted at in the the disappearances of these young men, but also the strange happenings in Lara’s life that started when she was a young girl and saw an unusual looking man and woman in their field who disappeared into thin air. Schooled by mum Audrey to keep her powers under wraps, Lara is sad about how her premonitions affect people. When she hears a vaguely familiar song, lurking underneath a track on one of her dad’s albums, she plays it on her guitar. The refrain is like a nagging tooth ache, but when her father hears it he goes white. It was one of Pete’s songs and they never recorded it.
I found it sad that these powerful women were having to hide their real selves to be accepted, especially when it came to love. Audrey’s marriage to Lara’s dad was blighted by Peter’s disappearance and now Todd was gone too. I really enjoyed Lara’s relationship with Ben, who was Todd’s friend and is just as invested in knowing what happened as Lara is. They’ve grown close trying to solve the mystery, but their relationship is full of unspoken feelings and guilt. When Audrey gifts Lara with a painting of her great-grandmother, to put up in her new home, the framer recognises it as a lost painting of Giroux. They then travel to Paris to meet an expert on the painter and have it’s provenance confirmed. It’s here that the story really took off for me, because the sense of place is wonderful and there’s a real momentum in their search for answers. The circus is the perfect antidote to the sweetness of Kerrigan Falls. I won’t ruin your discovery of this world, but it is truly fascinating, macabre, beautiful, magical and horrifying all at the same time. I was hooked by the scene the author was describing and fascinated by Lara’s family history. The small details, such as the circus only appearing to those with a personal invitation which bled if it was torn, were quite disturbing. The magic practiced there had parallels with Lara’s skills – simple tabby cats turned into ferocious big cats. There were surprises I hadn’t expected and Cecile’s final diaries are the vital first hand account of the circus’s history, as well as her own love story. I was immersed in this magical tale and didn’t really want it to end.
Published on 9th November 2021 by Redhook.
Meet The Author.
Constance Sayers is the author of A Witch in Time. A finalist for Alternating Current‘s 2016 Luminaire Award for Best Prose, her short stories have appeared in Souvenir and Amazing Graces: Yet Another Collection of Fiction by Washington Area Women as well as The Sky is a Free Country. Her short fiction has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net. She received an MA in English from George Mason University. She lives outside of Washington D.C. Like her character in The Ladies of the Secret Circus, for many years, she was the host of a radio show from midnight to six.
Last month I started a new feature on the blog where I shine a spotlight on one of my favourite authors. I feature the books I most enjoy from their back catalogue and in October I’d hoped to feature four authors who write books that are spooky, sinister, or magical in some way, hoping to give you some interesting Halloween reads. These featured everything from the evils that men do, to families of witches, cunning fairies, strange powers and other ghostly goings on. However, last weekend it didn’t happen because my other October evil crept up on me. I have MS and I always have an autumn relapse. I was just starting to pick up, but had a very dodgy weekend. So I’m bringing you last Sundays author today instead that’s Alice Hoffman. I’ve featured her book Blue Diary on Throwback Thursday before, but that’s a rare magic free novel. Magic realism flows through most of Hoffman’s works. Some of the strangest include a woman falling in love with a magical talking heron, angels descending to earth, a family of women who can see the future, a golem made from river mud protecting a girl fleeing the Nazis, a man struck by lightning leaving a pattern on his skin and a mermaid girl living in a freak show at Coney Island. However, for most people it’s the Practical Magic book, or the film starring Sandra Bullock and Nicole Kidman as two sisters coming to terms with their heritage as witches, that first comes to mind. This October sees the publication of the fourth and final book in the series, The Rules of Magic. So, I thought it was perfect timing to feature the whole Owens family series in chronological order.
Despite being the most recent novel in the series, Magic Lessons is actually the first in the series chronologically. I was lucky enough to have a preview copy of this novel and reviewed it only last October. Maria is found as a baby by wise woman Hannah Owens, who brings her up in the old ways. Maria learns how to grow a healing garden, to use herbs for ailments of body and mind, and help women with problems caused by love. However, Maria’s power isn’t just learned. She has the mark of a blood witch from her birth mother, and has been chosen by her familiar Cadin who is a crow. Maria feels she must be the result of a woman being fooled by love and vows that she will never be taken in by a man. Tragically, Maria’s adopted mother Hannah is burned as a witch and Maria knows she must run to save her life. She then meets her mother and birth father, and realising there is no room in their love for a third person she takes a gift of red boots from them and sails to the island of Curacao where she has been sold into servitude for a period of five years. Here, her vow against love will be tested. Taking us through the dangerous years of the 17th Century, where Puritanical communities like Salem in Massachusetts were whipped to hysteria, and would not suffer a witch to live. Hoffman’s prequel to Practical Magic takes us back to the beginnings of the Owens family and the complicated relationship between their power and their very human need to be loved.
This was a thoughtful and atmospheric origins story for a family many fans have come to love. I think the strength of this series is in that combination of the mystical and the flawed human aspects of these women. Despite their powers Maria, her mother Rebecca and her daughter Faith experience the highs and lows of every woman’s life – the changes of adolescence, falling in love with the wrong man and the right one, motherhood, illness and ageing. I felt emotional when Maria saw her ‘mother figure’ Hannah murdered by men who feared her, when she realised the man she loved didn’t really exist, and when she lost Cadin her loyal companion. These women’s fight to be accepted and even acknowledged for their skills is a fight that continues today as we fight for women’s rights to equal pay, to save reproductive rights and to be seen as more than sexual objects. Their fight to stay alive is still echoed in our fight to stop child brides, exploitation of young girls and domestic abuse. This was a series coming full circle, as we see the formation of that mistrust of love that shapes Jet Owens’s journey or that sees Gillian Owens constantly pick the wrong man. I really enjoyed being back with these strong, powerful women once more.
This is the second in the series and my personal favourite of the four books. We meet the family on the cusp of the 1960’s in New York, where Susanna Owens has three very unique children, two sisters and a brother. Franny has deep red hair and the palest skin, which make her distinctive, but she’s also very difficult. Jet is so beautiful but terribly shy, and has the magical ability to read people’s thoughts. Vincent is trouble, from the moment he was born. Susanna knows that the Owens girls are unlucky in love and lays down the law to save them from heartbreak. She also wants to save them from the magical heritage: no walking in moonlight; no red shoes; have nothing black whether it’s crows, cats or clothes; no candles; no books about magic and most definitely no falling in love. Yet family secrets are still uncovered, back in the Massachusetts town where the Owens women have been scapegoats for anything that goes wrong. Aunt Isabelle doesn’t care what people think and the children open up for the first time to the truth of who they are. The two girls will become the fabulous aunts in Practical Magic and Vincent leaves an unexpected legacy. I loved the mix of ordinary teenage growing pains with the twist of something supernatural, and the magic even us mortals feel when we fall in love.
The Owens girls, who live in the strange house on the edge of the town, were always treated as different by the children and adults living alongside them. Gillian and Sally lived with their elderly aunts who did nothing to dissuade the townsfolk of their suspicions that witches lived among them. One look at the turrets on their house, the herd of black cats, and the aunt’s love potions would tell you there’s a possibility of magic. Unfortunately for the girls, the aunt’s freedom of expression has been their prison; schoolyard pointing, taunts and whispers have followed them through their childhood. The girls responded to this in different ways. Gillian ran away and became the beautiful, mysterious stranger always passing through and always falling in love with the wrong man. In losing the magic that was her birthright, she’s fallen for the charms of men and the magic of attraction. Sally disappeared too, but into a marriage with a respectable man in the hope of being ordinary and accepted. Now she has two girls and is determined they won’t have the same childhood she did. Then Gillian turns up, still running, but this time back to the family she left behind. She’s fallen in love with a very bad man and needs the help and comfort of her sister. Will Gillian’s troubles bring the sister’s closer? It might even bring their very elderly aunts back into their orbit. However, it also brings a detective into their midst. He could change their lives, in a very negative way if they let him. Yet the magic of love hasn’t finished with the Owens girls and maybe magic is the answer to all of their problems.
This is the last instalment of the series and involves the family, after the events of Practical Magic. Sally’s girls are now teenagers and the aunts are very elderly. However, it’s difficult knowing your time on earth is coming to an end. Aunt Jet has heard the Deathwatch Beetle ticking – a sure sign she only has a week left. However, the Owens family curse is at work and Jet isn’t the only one to hear it. The family must come together, for Jet’s sake but also to save another life. Much to the aunts surprise, a long lost brother returns to help. The family roam from Paris to London and deep into the English countryside where Maria Owens took her first tentative steps into magic. The youngest girls start to learn how much their Sally has kept from them, in terms of their heritage but also each tragic, family secret too. Kylie in particular relishes learning who she is and starts to dabble in some dark arts. Franny embarks on a journey of realisation, she will do anything for this family and Sally Owens will do anything for those she loves too. Magic comes in many forms and this is a very human type of magic – the magic of love within a family. This novel’s strength is in those well-known characters coming full circle and a new generation to explore. A magical tale of love and family lore passing from mothers to daughters.
Alice Hoffman was born in New York City on March 16, 1952, and grew up on Long Island. After graduating from high school in 1969, she attended Adelphi University, from which she received a BA, and then received a Mirrellees Fellowship to the Stanford University Creative Writing Center, which she attended in 1973 and 74, receiving an MA in creative writing. She currently lives in Boston. Hoffman’s first novel, Property Of, was written at the age of twenty-one, while she was studying at Stanford, and published shortly thereafter by Farrar Straus and Giroux. She credits her mentor, professor and writer Albert J. Guerard, and his wife, the writer Maclin Bocock Guerard, for helping her to publish her first short story in the magazine Fiction. Editor Ted Solotaroff then contacted her to ask if she had a novel, at which point she quickly began to write what was to become Property Of, a section of which was published in Mr. Solotaroff’s magazine, American Review.
Since that remarkable beginning, Alice Hoffman has become one of the most distinguished novelists. She has published over thirty novels, three books of short fiction, and eight books for children and young adults. Her novel, Here on Earth, an Oprah’s Book Club choice, was a modern reworking of some of the themes of Emily Bronte’s masterpiece Wuthering Heights. Practical Magic was made into a Warner Brothers film starring Sandra Bullock and Nicole Kidman. Her novel, At Risk, which concerns a family dealing with AIDS, can be found on the reading lists of many universities, colleges and secondary schools. Hoffman’s advance from Local Girls, a collection of inter-related fictions about love and loss on Long Island, was donated to help create the Hoffman Breast Center at Mt. Auburn Hospital in Cambridge, MA. Hoffman has written a number of novels for young adults, including Aquamarine, Green Angel, and Green Witch. In 2007 Little Brown published the teen novel Incantation, a story about hidden Jews during the Spanish Inquisition, which Publishers Weekly chose as one of the best books of the year.
Aside from the Practical Magic series, the novels I would recommend highly are:
Blue Diary – a picture perfect family in a small town is torn apart when Jory’s husband is accused of rape and murder.
The Marriage of Opposites – this stunning novel explores the difficult relationship between the painter Camille Pissarro and his mother. Set on the island of Sao Tomae this novel is an incredibly visual book, with stunning descriptions of Pissarro’s island home akin to impressionistic paintings.
The Museum of Extraordinary Things – set in a Coney Island freak show at the beginning of the 20th Century, this is the story of a girl who is shown as a mermaid by her father. As her confidence and self-belief grow and she falls in love, we also see the birth of Manhattan as we see it today.
This book has been one of my most anticipated reads of 2021, because I loved the blurb of course, but also because I’ve had a lot of luck this year with fantastic books that have a lighthouse on the cover. The Lighthouse Witches was even darker than I expected and I enjoyed it immensely. In the late 1990s, artist Liv Stay finds herself homeless and without work so travels all the way up to Scotland and an island called Lòn Haven where a friend has recommended her to paint a mural. She travels to the coast, with her three daughters Saffy, Luna and Clover. There she meets Isla, caretaker of the bothy they’ll be staying in next door to the sea lashed lighthouse where she’ll be painting the mural. The mural is planned out on a large roll of paper and Liv is bemused to see a diagram of sorts, full of runic symbols she doesn’t understand. Getting this accurate in a circular building is her first challenge, and the second is to inject some of her own creativity in the design to make it beautiful. The girls are a bit shell-shocked to be brought to this remote and wild place, and there are certainly some unanswered questions as to why and how they ended up somewhere so remote and creepy. Liv carries a huge secret inside her, but the family are about to find out that Lòn Haven holds its share of secrets and ancient beliefs too, causing the whole family to disappear.
The story is told through different characters in three main time zones. Liv narrates the main section in the 1990s, then we meet her grown-up daughter Luna twenty years later, but we also go back into the history of the island and the witch trials of the 17th Century. The grown-up Luna is drawn back to the island when her sister Clover is found. However, to Luna’s shock, her contact Eilidh the social worker takes her to a little girl. Clover should be around thirty years old. Yet, Clover recognises her childhood toy and his name; she immediately squeezes Gianni the Giraffe like an old friend. Luna can’t understand why the social services haven’t noticed the anomaly in Clover’s date of birth, but her instinct is to protect her sister. So when asked, Luna fudges her date of birth and takes Clover away with her to the Air BNB she’s booked. At times, once they’ve settled, Luna does wonder if everything is okay with her sister. There’s the strange marking like a brand on her skin, which has four tiny numbers inscribed. There’s also a look she has, as if she isn’t present in her body and doesn’t recognise Luna. Over a couple of days she also displays some disturbed behaviour. Luna finds Gianni with his insides pulled out and his head cut off and then Clover floods the bathroom on purpose. Luna is desperately trying to find some sort of disease or syndrome that might have regressed her sister’s age. The only other explanation is a supernatural one and Luna isn’t sure she’s ready to accept the the local folklore she heard when she went missing all those years ago. However, she’s pregnant and alone with Clover in the middle of nowhere, so what if she isn’t her sister?
The author creates a brilliant atmosphere across all three time periods, starting with the name of the lighthouse, The Longing. Rather than full on horror, it’s a sense of the uncanny that starts to unsettle the reader. We all know that sense of rising tension when we feel so on edge, that anything would scare us. Here, it’s glimpsing a baby in the water that’s flooding the floor of the lighthouse, when it’s just a doll; a small child’s arm reaching out from behind Liv’s art materials; or opening a door to see your own double standing there. As we delve into the past and the history of The Longing, we are faced with the real-life horror of the 17th Century witch trials encouraged by King James, the first joint King of England and Scotland who ascended the throne after Elizabeth I died without an heir. Women with skills such as herbalism or midwifery could come under suspicion, but more usually local disputes and grudges led to women being branded a witch. In this case the local midwife, her friends and their daughters have all been accused and in matters like this the islanders stick to the rule ‘thou shalt not suffer a witch to live’. Accused women in this time period were often checked for the Devil’s mark – a mole, birthmark or blemish of any kind – had their hair shorn, were stripped, humiliated and then burned. The history of the island shows that a burning happened on the very rock, that now serves as a foundation to The Longing. I wondered how the old beliefs, in the fae or fairies, witches, and strange children called wildlings still held sway in the present day. In the 1990’s narrative there is still a definite undercurrent of ancient beliefs, with their followers having enough reach to influence both the police and the richest man on the island, owner of the bothy and lighthouse. Liv comes up against the reach of these believers when she reports seeing a small boy who looks like he’s been living wild. The police don’t want to know when she reports him missing, and it feels as if they view her as a nuisance, someone who doesn’t understand the island’s ancient way of life. When you visit Lòn Haven, as Luna does years later, there’s a sense of the ancient past existing alongside the present, as if time isn’t linear but looped upon itself.
I did get a little confused at times, especially with the elements of time being manipulated, through the cave known as the Witches Hide. There is old magic here. I was trying to understand the marks and numbers branded on Clover and others, and match them to the different time frames. In the end I gave up and decided to just go with it. I found this quote, in a letter from mother to daughter, very apt:
‘I’m not sure if I’ll make it, Luna. I’m not sure I’ll be able to hang on long enough to see you one last time. I’m going to try. But if not, if I slip away before I get the chance to hold you again, I wanted to write down the story of what really happened on Lòn Haven. As you’ll see, Cause and Effect in this tale do not fit easily together. The pieces are odd and mis-shaped because truth is messy and porous’.
I enjoyed the ending, despite feeling it was untidy. I thought it was a great story of women, and how their power and position changes over time. It also has a lot to say about mothers and daughters, how they communicate and the stories they tell each other to help navigate a world that can be set against women. I felt so much for Saffy, a very confused 15 year old who, in the midst of all the supernatural activity, is dealing with the usual teenage angst. Unsure of herself and this new place, she is lured into sexual activity and sending explicit pictures to one of the local boys. This is a girl who desperately needs her Mum, and isn’t getting any support or advice. There’s one occasion where Liv honestly has no idea where Saffy’s been for the last 24 hours. I wanted to give this girl a massive cuddle and help her set boundaries that she’s comfortable with instead of being coerced. The author mixes the present day perfectly with ancient folklore, supernatural happenings, and time travel, which is not an easy feat. Not to mention the depth of historical research that underpins the more fantastical elements. So, it seems my attraction to books with lighthouses on the cover, has paid off once again.
Meet The Author
C J Cooke (Carolyn Jess-Cooke) lives in Glasgow with her husband and four children. C J Cooke’s works have been published in 23 languages and have won many awards. She holds a PhD in Literature from the Queen’s University of Belfast and is currently Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of Glasgow, where she researches creative writing interventions for mental health. Two of her books are currently optioned for film. Visit http://www.cjcookeauthor.com