Elizabeth and Zenobia by Jessica Miller


IMG_0301Elizabeth and Zenobia are inseparable. Light and dark. Timid and brave. Yin and yang. So when Elizabeth’s father decides to move the family to Witheringe House after Elizabeth’s mother runs off with an opera singer, of course Zenobia comes along. The key, though, is that no one but Elizabeth can see Zenobia. Her father *knows* about Zenobia but dismisses her as an “imaginary friend,” even as he plays along with his daughter’s insistence that Zenobia is real.

When they arrive at Witheringe House, Elizabeth finds a dreary, dusty, isolated old house. Zenobia is thrilled at the decrepitude of the house because it fits perfectly with her current fascination, which is making contact with a “Spirit Presence.” Eventually, they uncover a mystery involving Elizabeth’s Aunt Tourmaline, her father’s sister who mysteriously disappeared at age seven. As the girls work through a number of clues, they discover what happened to Tourmaline, and ultimately rescue her from a dark and dangerous place.

Miller cleverly creates a world where Elizabeth and Zenobia certainly seem like two independent girls, while at the same time creating this undercurrent of emotion that suggests they are one in the same girl. Light and dark, timid and brave, yin and yang. Elizabeth is a timid child. She feels unloved and ignored by her botanist father, who would rather spend his time searching for plants in the fields than with his daughter. Zenobia fills a void in Elizabeth’s life. She is everything Elizabeth is not, until Elizabeth finds her courage, a moment captured in this lovely quote:

There is one good thing about hearing your deepest fear spoken out loud – nothing else that made you afraid before will ever seem so large or so terrible again.

Zenobia represents all the anger and hurt Elizabeth has experienced – her mother’s abandonment, her father’s disinterest in her, and her own fear…of everything from the black keys on a piano to certain types of food. Miller does a good job of conveying Elizabeth’s insecurities, and gradually builds her up until she takes charge of a very thrilling and scary situation. Middle grade readers will enjoy this. Recommended.

Publication Date: September 19, 2017
Abrams Kids; Amulet Books
Thanks to NetGalley for the review copy

 

Rules of Magic by Alice Hoffman


IMG_0232“Writing itself was a magical act in which imagination altered reality and gave form to power.”

This is how Hoffman describes the power found in the writing of women, in this case the Owens women who we first came to know in Practical Magic. That book told the story of Sally and Gillian Owens and how they broke the curse on their family which made it impossible for them to love someone without tragedy. This book goes back two generations before Sally and Gillian, telling the stories of Franny, Jet (the Aunts), and Vincent (the Grandfather).

Hoffman builds a bigger world where there are Owens women and men all over the world, but the nucleus of the family remains on Magnolia Street in Massachusetts. We learn more about Maria Owens, caster of the infamous curse, and how she loved and was betrayed by an equally infamous witch-hunter in the 17th century. The focus here, though, is the three Owens siblings – Franny, Jet, and Vincent – and their lives in New York City through the 1950s-1960’s.

When we first meet the trio, they have no idea they’re witches. Their parents have kept the knowledge from them, trying to ensure they will live normal lives. Franny is the scientist, Jet the poet, and Vincent the musician. While their lives seem normal enough, they all know there is something different and special about themselves and their family. Exactly what that specialness is comes to light when they go to Massachusetts to spend the summer with Aunt Isabelle, when they learn about their magical heritage. They spend the next two decades experiencing great tragedy, running away from love, and participating in the major events of the time – Stonewall, Vietnam, the Summer of Love. Hoffman neatly connects Rules of Magic with Practical Magic at the very end, and I was left thinking about who will be cast in the film that will surely follow.

All the usual things a reader expects from Alice Hoffman are here – lovely writing, strong female characters, a solid and engaging story – so this will definitely be one of the hot books this Fall. I enjoyed learning about the Owens family history, and found the primary trio of characters both charming and exasperating. This was an advanced review copy, so I am sure there will be some editing, which is needed. There are parts of the story which could move a little faster, and I think the ages for Sally & Gillian at the end are too young for their behavior and language, but those are nit-picky things that truly don’t affect the readability factor of this wonderful story. It’s not necessary to have read (or to re-read) Practical Magic before you read this one, but I guarantee you will want to read it after you finish.

Publication Date: October 10, 2017
Published by Simon & Schuster
Thanks to NetGalley for the advanced review copy

The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert


Do you believe in fairytales? If you answered yes, do you think you could survive in a fairytale world? Alice Crewe knows nothing about the world of fairytales, called The Hinterland here, until her famous grandmother dies. Althea Proserpine wrote a mysterious, rare book of completely original tales after disappearing in the European woods for several years. All Alice knows about Althea is that she and her mother, Ella, have been running from her for years. But now she’s dead and everything changes. Ella disappears, Alice is being followed, and weird things are happening wherever Alice goes. She becomes focused on finding Ella, and the trail eventually leads her to Althea’s mysterious compound deep in the forests of upstate New York. There Alice discovers the true story behind her birth, her relationship with her mother, and her role in the Hinterland.

Everyone knows there is a dark side to fairytales, and Melissa Albert freely explores that darkness in a fresh and inventive manner in this debut novel. Albert has been writing for teens and an online audience for a long time, and that experience has resulted in a richly plotted, beautifully written, imaginative reboot of the fairytale world. What if the stories are real? What happens when the order of things is disrupted? What happens when the stories change? Alice definitely shakes things up when she gets into The Hinterland. She’s the clod in the churn, the pebble in the shoe, and she is most definitely *not* the “Alice” as written into the story ‘Alice-Three-Times.” At one point, when she is acting all contrary to the story, she says

“I did it because a girl doing nothing in a fairytale ends up dead or worse, but a girl who makes a decision usually gets a reward.”

Seems like a sensible choice to me!

Albert explores many themes here: people who use stories to escape from their real lives, people who manipulate others to affect the outcome of a story, people who challenge the status quo for love, people who *can* and *do* change. Alice and Ella are both flawed characters, but you end up loving them in spite of their flaws simply because they love each other so fiercely. The Hazel Wood is a little bit Beautiful Creatures meets The Matrix and is dead-on entertaining. Highly recommended.

Publication Date: January 30, 2018
Published by Flatiron Books
Thanks to NetGalley for the advanced copy.

To the Bright Edge of the World by Eowyn Ivey

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IMG_0225I fell in love with Eowyn Ivey’s work when I read her debut novel, The Snow Child, and then met her while she was in Rochester for Writer’s & Books “Rochester Reads.” When To the Bright Edge of the World was first published, I devoured it, and wrote this on Goodreads:

Ivey has produced another brilliant novel of the Alaskan wilderness, blending history and adventure through the telling of three simultaneous stories. Typically, South American authors tend to write the best magical realism, but Ivey is just as adept at merging fantasy and reality, plus she has given us a splendid character in Sophie Forrester. Hands down, one of the best of 2016.

The book is newly released in paperback, so will be showing up on shelves in stores and libraries again. My recommendation from 2016 still stands. If you love magical realism blended with a little history and a strong female protagonist, you should pick this one up.

 

Secret History of Witches by Louisa Morgan

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IMG_0200The concept of women’s power being rooted in magic has become a regular theme in recent fiction, and The Secret History of Witches adds to that growing genre. Louisa Morgan has created a captivating tale of six generations of Romani witches, women whose talents include “simples” like healing potions, knowledge of the weather, affinity for animals or growing things, and, most importantly, seeing the future.

The story begins in Brittany in the early decades of the 19th century, where the Orchiere family is cornered in a ring of standing stones by an angry mob out to burn them. Matriarch Ursule, a powerful seer, uses her power to hide her family. This act takes her life, but not before she sees her family travel across the sea to a farm on a cliff, where they will live in peace. The family buries Ursule between the stones, and heads off across the sea, where they find the farm, just as Ursule predicted, on the Cornish coast. The sisters continue to perform the family rites in a hidden cave, but none of them possess Ursule’s magic until the youngest sister, Nanette, comes of age. Nanette is the only sister to whom Ursule’s scrying stone responds.

The stone becomes the thread tying the family together through subsequent generations. The stone is the indicator of magic – if it responds to you, you’ve got it. Each generation experiences its own heartaches and tragedies. At the same time, the belief in magic waxes and wanes, until we end up with Veronica, who has no mother or aunt to initiate her into the magic of the Orchiere witches. This is where the story stretches belief a bit, by introducing Veronica to a coven of aristocratic witches led by the Queen of England during World War II. The best part? The Queen is descended from the Glamis witches. If you know Shakespeare, you’ll get the reference. The Queen’s coven instructs Veronica in the magic of her ancestors and draws her into their work focused on defeating Hitler, including exhausting work meant to manipulate the weather to assist with the Normandy invasion.

Morgan has created a readable, entertaining story around women and how they acquire and wield power. The writing and character development is well done, with a strong thread binding each generation together. I found Morgan’s honest portrayals of each generation’s “witch” to be refreshing, meaning they were not all paragons. In fact, some were downright unlikable. She balances the stories of each generation skillfully to demonstrate the idea that magic and power can corrupt if not used properly, culminating in the decision by Morwen, the second-to-last witch, of putting it away altogether.

The introduction of the Queen’s coven was unexpected and rather delightful. This is the woman I’ve known as the Queen Mother – the dainty, perfectly coiffed woman off to the side of the current Queen Elizabeth. I found it interesting that the Queen laments that neither of her daughters has shown any inclination to the craft, although Margaret might still have a chance. I also appreciated the way in which the author brought the Orchiere line full circle by connecting Veronica with a young man of Romani descent from Brittany, where her family originated.

This joins The Witch’s Daughter and other books by Paula Brackston, the Physick Book of Deliverance Dane by Katherine Howe, the All Souls Trilogy by Deborah Harkness, Practical Magic by Alice Hoffman, and the Waverly novels by Sarah Addison Allen as one of my favorite “witchy” books. Recommended.

Publication Date: September 5, 2017
Thanks to Edelweiss+ for the review copy

 

House of Shadows by Nicola Cornick


IMG_0195Elizabeth Stuart (1596-1662), daughter of James VI, wife of Frederick V, known as the Winter Queen due to her single winter as Queen of Bohemia. Not a familiar queen to most, but an engaging subject in this entertaining piece of semi-historical fiction from Nicola Cornick which blends history, mystery, mysticism, and romance.

The story opens at the close of Elizabeth’s life with a deathbed scene between her and William Craven, to whom she transfers ownership of the mysterious Sistrin Pearl. The pearl, we come to understand, is a powerful vessel for magic when combined with a particular crystal mirror. Elizabeth and Frederick, members of the clandestine order Knights of the Rosy Cross, use the pearl and mirror to foresee the outcome of battles and negotiations during their lifetime of effort to regain control of their Palatine lands. Craven, Frederick’s trusted advisor and defender, becomes the love of Elizabeth’s life, although hurt and betrayal abound throughout. Despite all the intrigue, or perhaps because of it, the pearl and mirror drive the actions of the 17th century characters through to Elizabeth’s final breaths.

Fast forward to present day, where Holly Ansell is woken in the middle of the night by a frantic phone call from her young niece, who reports that her Daddy, Holly’s brother Ben, is missing. Holly hotfoots to Ashdown Dean and the old mill where she and Ben grew up, only to find that no one seems to know much about why Ben was there and, more importantly, where he’s gone. As the days pass, Holly learns that Ben was researching family history, as well as Elizabeth Stuart, the Winter Queen. As she digs deeper, she discovers that Ben was searching for the Sistrin Pearl and the Crystal Mirror and that the story of the Winter Queen and William Craven has more significance than she could possibly imagine, both for her and the magnetic and handsome Mark, a local developer to whom Holly is attracted. Past and present come crashing together as Holly uncovers the stories of Elizabeth, Craven, and their descendants, and finally discovers what happened to Ben.

It seems I’ve been reading a lot of multi-century, historical-mystery-romances lately. Some are good, some are not so good. House of Shadows, fortunately, is one of the good ones. The author moves seamlessly between the 17th and 21st centuries, and paces the chapters and action well. Often in stories like this, the chapters are too long and full of extraneous detail, making it difficult to remember what happened in the previous chapters/centuries. Cornick devotes just enough time to each story – Elizabeth/William and Holly/Mark – alternating between past and present but always managing to tie the two together. The mystery of Ben’s disappearance keeps the action flowing in the present day, while William and Elizabeth tie everything together in the past.

The stories are interesting, and the characters are appealing. I can’t comment on the accuracy of the history, but I am intrigued enough by the Winter Queen to do some research and learn more about her, Frederick of Bohemia, and the Rosicrucians (Order of the Rosy Cross). When a novel prompts me to do that, I count it as a winner. Recommended.

Publication Date: October 17, 2017
Thanks to Edelweiss+ for the review copy

The Fortune Teller by Gwendolyn Womack


IMG_0190Part mystery, part psychic adventure, part romance – The Fortune Teller has it all. The story opens with a death, that of Marcel Bossard, renowned collector of rare books and manuscripts. That disturbing scene is followed by our introduction to Semele Cavnow, an employee of the auction firm hired to sell the Bossard collection. As she begins her work, she feels an immediate, unusual attraction to Bossard’s son, Theo, which only intensifies as she spends more time in the Bossard home in Switzerland. Eventually, she finds a hidden book, very ancient and very mysterious, but not as mysterious as the handwritten note left in the book by Marcel Bossard, which is addressed specifically to her.

As Semele translates the book, the story splits in two – the present day story revolving around the book, and the ancient story which begins in 45 bc at the Library of Alexandria. The book, it turns out, was written by a powerful seer, selected by the Egyptian Goddess Wadjet to shape the future. Semele is stunned to discover that the seer wrote to her by name in the book, and that the book foretells what will happen to Semele and Theo in the present day. Typical action-adventure ensues, with Semele eventually coming face to face with the evil genius who put all the story-pieces in play for his own demented purpose.

With this second novel, Womack cements her place in the genre with authors such as M.J. Rose and Kate Mosse. Her writing is engaging and clever, the characters and their stories are interesting, and the action moves along at a decent pace. Blending two story arcs – one in the past and one in the present – can sometimes lead to a disjointed narrative, but Womack has paced her chapters perfectly. The story is fascinating and heartbreaking at the same time, and I loved the way Womack brought two strands of the story (Nettie and Lilyas) together at the end. The only dissonance for me is the way in which Semele’s adoption news is handled. (She found out she was adopted when looking through papers after her father died.) Her reaction seemed really extreme, although the scene where she confronts her mother over her father’s death rang true. Despite this one minor issue, I thoroughly enjoyed the story and was captivated to the very end.

The Fortune Teller joins favorites such as M.J. Rose’s Reincarnationist series, Susanna Kearsley’s The Winter Sea, and Kate Mosse’s Labyrinth and Sepulchre on my bookshelves. I read and enjoyed Womack’s first book, Memory Painter, but this, her sophomore effort, is even better. Recommended.

Goblins of Bellwater by Molly Ringle

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goblinHow could I resist a book inspired by one of my all-time favorite pieces of writing, Christina Rossetti’s Goblin Market? Molly Ringle’s reimagined Market takes place in the forests of present day Washington State, where we are introduced to Kit Sylvain, a young man bound by a family curse to take care of a tribe of goblins. By “take care of” I mean provide them with gold or whatever else they want to prevent them from messing around with the nearby humans. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, since goblins are wily, deceitful creatures.

While Kit is tending to the goblins, sisters Skye and Livy Darwen have grown up in the small town of Bellwater, and spend hours exploring the forest, where they imagine “teeny-tinies” call to them. One day, Skye follows a path that wasn’t there before, drawn by the call of the “teeny-tinies,” which turn out to be goblins who ensnare her into their world. Kit, Livy, and Grady (Kit’s cousin who is unwittingly drawn into Skye’s drama) eventually come to understand that Skye has been cursed and join forces to keep her from becoming a goblin.

The story is fresh and engaging, and the characters well-written. Ringle skillfully develops four likable characters and weaves their stories together to an exciting, nerve-jangling ending. The story moves along at a rapid pace, with the current dilemma of Skye’s curse being nicely woven into the older story of how the goblins became attached to Kit’s family. I especially liked the fact that all four of our heroes were essentially saved by the first goblin “victim” who was snared so long ago. There’s an extraordinary amount of sex here, more than I expected, but it fits with the darker side of fairytales that few dare to tell, and creates a sizzling romantic side to an otherwise folklore/fantasy-heavy story.

I give Ringle props for taking an old story and hanging new skin on it. This will appeal to fantasy fans, for sure and would make an awesome graphic novel. Highly recommended.

Shadow Weaver by Marcykate Connolly


IMG_0159Marcykate Connolly has begun a wonderful new series with Shadow Weaver, which tells the story of Emmeline, a child blessed with talent bestowed by a comet that passed overhead when she was born. Emmeline’s talent is, as the title suggests, the ability to control shadows. However, Emmeline’s parent consider her talent more of a curse than a blessing, and have kept her hidden away on their estate for years. Emmeline is an outcast in her own home, reviled and avoided by family and servants alike, with no friends other than her shadow, Dar. When Emmeline’s parents invite strangers into their home who claim they can cure her of her talent, Emmeline and Dar run. Emmeline is running from the very real danger posed by the strangers, emissaries of the much-feared Lady Aisling, while Dar is running for a very different reason. As Emmeline encounters others with talents and begins to understand that she is not alone, Dar becomes increasingly cantankerous and sly, urging Emmeline to help her escape the shadowland and become flesh once more.

Connolly has begun building a compelling but familiar world, where people with special talents are hunted by those who wish to use them to achieve power. It’s a familiar construct, but Connolly has done an excellent job of introducing readers to a new world populated by likable characters. There is potential here for this to grow into a well-loved series, with many possible storylines for Connolly to explore. Here, we meet a shadow weaver, a light bender, a wind whistler, and a shape shifter; and we hear about a fire breather and a magic eater. I look forward to seeing what other talents Connolly creates!

The story moves at a fast pace, with enough nail-biting action to keep even a reluctant reader engaged. Character development is good, with Emmeline receiving the most attention. We watch her grow from a sheltered, easily led child into a caring young woman who is becoming self-aware, loyal, and brave. I hope that Dar’s story is developed more in the next entry; I would love to read about how she and her sister fell out and Dar became a shadow. Overall, this is a winner and one I would recommend to readers in grade 6 and up. Well done!

The Library of Light & Shadow by MJ Rose


IMG_0110MJ Rose continues the La Lune series begun in Witch of Painted Sorrows with this story of Delphine Duplessi and her gift of painting people’s secrets. The pattern is familar to fans of the La Lune series – a passionate love affair gone wrong, a young artist struggling with her gift, and people who want to use her and her gift in nefarious ways.

We first meet Delphine in New York City, where she is engaged to a wealthy young man and is the current cause celebre at all the fabulous parties where she performs her “party trick” of drawing people’s secrets while blindfolded. That, you see, is her talent. Having been blinded at age 8, then her vision miraculously restored by her witch of a mother, she can see all the things people want to keep secret when she puts on a blindfold, or when she looks in a mirror. Her talent is a form of scrying and makes her constantly in demand at parties, until one night when the “party trick” reveals a dangerous secret that results in tragedy.

Shocked and numb, questioning her art and her purpose, Delphine slides into a deep depression, rescued only when her twin, Sebastien, arrives to take her home to France. Once there, Delphine continues to struggle with her art, refusing to put on the blindfold again in fear of creating more tragedy. At the same time, Sebastien, who is also Delphine’s manager, pushes her to put the blindfold back on and resume her work, specifically for Madame Calve, who wants Delphine to draw the secrets of her castle in order to find a valuable book hidden there for centuries. Underpinning all this is a failed and painful love affair, which is what initially sent Delphine to NYC. We learn about her passionate affair with Mathieu through entries in Delphine’s diary, all leading up to the two meeting face to face at Madame Calve’s.

Rose layers on more fascinating detail to the world of the Duplessi’s with each entry in this series, while still keeping some key elements common to each story. In addition, there are connections to and mentions of characters from Rose’s earlier books worked in throughout, which add a great deal to the world-building going on here.

My only issue is the pace of the storytelling, which is super slow for the first half, then very rushed at the end. For me, the best part of the story is what happens once Delphine and Sebastien get to Madame Calve’s, which doesn’t happen until halfway through the book. All the angst and self-pity Delphine experiences in the first half just bored me, as did her diary entries about Mathieu. Rose is known for incorporating some pretty steamy sex in her books, and that remains true here in the diary entries; however, I find it is getting repetitive and not adding much to the story. I wish there had been less of the first half and more of the second half of this book. I found the ending to be very rushed and would have liked to see a resolution between Delphine and Sebastien, given the surprising revelation that occurs near the end.

All that said, I continue to be fascinated with the world of the Duplessi’s and all who inhabit it. The story is, as always with Rose’s work, captivating. I expect the final entry in the La Lune series will focus on youngest sister, Jadine, who can read people’s tears. I look forward to it!