Posted in Sunday Spotlight

Sunday Spotlight! Alice Hoffman.

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.

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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.

Posted in Netgalley

Halloween Reads: Magic Lessons by Alice Hoffman

This month I took some time off from blog tours and other commitments to spend a couple of weeks reading my own choices. Not only did this give me a lot of freedom, it allowed me to read one of my all time favourite authors followed by one of my most recent loves; Alice Hoffman and Alix E. Harrow. Even more of a coincidence is that both have written books based within the folklore of witches, healers, and wise women. In Hoffman’s case this is her third novel in the Practical Magic series, which delves back further than ever before to the origins of the Owens family and the formation of communities whose religion will not suffer a witch to live. Harrow also creates a world of sisters, three separated sisters who come together at the very beginning of the 20th Century and the suffragette movement.

In Magic Lessons, Maria is found as a baby by wise woman Hannah Owens, who brings her up with 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 not to be taken in by a man. Tragically, Hannah is burned as a witch and Maria knows she must run to save her life. She 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 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 the very human need to be loved.

I had been waiting for this prequel for a long time and I wasn’t disappointed. It only took me moments to be in Hoffman’s magical world thanks to the layers of description she uses to create an unusual atmosphere. In some senses she creates an instantly recognisable sense of place. Her descriptions of Massachusetts, and later, Brooklyn are full of local floral and fauna, the sense of wilderness and pioneering spirit within these early settlers of the Americas. It is dark, foggy, wet and often icily cold with dangerous animals and even more dangerous people. By contrast the time spent travelling to the West Indies and the beautiful island of Curacao are vivid. In the daytime full of colour, exotic flowers and birds and I could feel the sun on my face, the warm sand beneath my feet and the incredible animals such as the turtles and tiny hummingbirds. By night, when Maria and her friend explore the island, it is still warm, with a vast sky full of stars. On the other hand there are times when these places seem otherworldly as we see them through the eyes of a witch: the magical properties of plants, the incredible loyalty of an wild animal like Keeper the wolf, and the witches’ power to control these elements to their advantage. It’s our world but not quite. The difference is viewing it through the lens of history, but most unimportantly, by magic.

There were times I didn’t fully understand Maria, although she’s the more sympathetic character of the three generations. She protects herself against love after seeing what it did to her mother, but then later says she couldn’t protect herself against love. I think this is almost a push and pull between the human and more magical signs of her character. She tries to use her power to prevent love, but perhaps her heart truly longs for it. The tragedy is in protecting herself against the right man, while letting the wrong one in. I find her choice to go to Massachusetts with her daughter Faith inexplicable given that she has friends and support in Curacao. John Hathorne is a very dangerous man, to women in general and not just the witches he persecutes. He drags young girls into a battle he is constantly fighting between his appetites and his conscience. There is part of him that emerged in Curacao that wants to shed his responsibilities, to throw off inhibition and dive into the sea as well as give in to his passions for a woman he desires. In Massachusetts he is a pillar of the Puritan community, yet he marries his wife Ruth when she is just 14 and his ward. She describes crying as he takes her to the marital bed, but her fear and young age does not stop him. It’s worth mentioning that in a historical context this isn’t unusual, but to me it shows a lack of compassion and respect for women. He turns his back on his daughter, both when she’s a baby and when she returns as a young woman. Maria, his wife Ruth and his daughter Faith are all his victims. Samuel, or Gogo as Faith calls him, is a good man and I was desperate for him to win Maria over. He is not scared of Maria or her power. He loves her intelligence, her fortitude and her power. I could have cried for how much time is wasted as Maria fights him.

I enjoyed the way Hoffman weaves in the historical context for America in this period. These are early settlements, some first colonised by the Dutch then by the English. She doesn’t forget the indigenous tribes either, often completely massacred by these ‘Christian communities’ who hold themselves in such high regard. They hold women with healing knowledge in the same regard as these natives of USA, as if they are cleansing their area of magical and primitive beliefs. Hoffman doesn’t forget her Jewish heritage either, situating them as a persecuted race often moved on from areas they’ve settled and treated with suspicion. We see this in the characters of Samuel and his father, who have chosen a life on the sea instead, but still hold their heritage close to their hearts. There’s a sense in which Christianity is anti-magic whereas Judaism is closer to ancient magic and respectful of its power, especially in its capacity to do good. The only time Samuel stops Maria from practicing her magic is when it’s in a darker form, as she tries everything to keep his father alive. The Christian beliefs practised by the Dutch and English settlers has become corrupted and Hoffman presents their acts as the very evil they fear. When Maria is taken for the trial by drowning in Massachusetts, there is a frenzy and mob like mentality that is seen later in real life witch trials of Salem and the fictional arrest and trial endured by Faith. When Faith is taken by a Christian woman, confined and forced to live as her daughter we again see obsession and evil. Her captor never seems to doubt she is doing God’s work removing Faith from her mother, taking her far away and putting her in irons to remove her power. Yet this evil, begets more evil as Faith escapes and uses her freedom to practice blood magic steeped in anger and revenge. Yet she still has a conscience. Faith is haunted by the death of her captor, despite helping women to wreak revenge and enchantment by night.

I would have liked to see a more time between John Hathorne’s wife Ruth and Maria, because they were both exploited by the same man. I also think that there was perhaps too much complex detail in the women’s appearances such as Faith’s changing hair colour or the different colours of thread used for different purposes. I found myself becoming confused at times, but it’s a small issue in a magical story. I think this was a thoughtful and atmospheric origins story of a family many fans have come to love. I think the strength of this series is in that combination of the mystical and the very human elements of the story. 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 as Maria saw her ‘mother figure’ Hannah murdered by men who feared her, as she realised the man she loved didn’t really exist, and as 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. It was a series coming full circle, as we see the formation of that mistrust of love that shapes Jet’s journey or that sees Gillian constantly pick the wrong man. I truly loved my time back with the Owens women again.

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. This book is the prequel to Practical Magic and The Rules of Magic.

Visit her website: http://www.alicehoffman.com