Alice Hoffman: Practical Magic & The Rules of Magic

 

“There are some things, after all, that Sally Owens knows for certain: Always throw spilled salt over your left shoulder. Keep rosemary by your garden gate. Add pepper to your mashed potatoes. Plant roses and lavender, for luck. Fall in love whenever you can.” 
― Alice Hoffman, Practical Magic

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The Owens women from Practical Magic  (film version) were a little definitive for me as a teen and young adult. Growing up in a Christian home (still a Christian), it may seem a little weird to some of my friends that I found a film about witchcraft to be so formative, but there it is. Essentially, it’s a contemporary (90s) fantasy/drama about two sisters, witches from a long line of witches, who rely on one another and ultimately set themselves free from a centuries-old curse. The curse? Any man they fall in love with will die. (There’s also a really evil boyfriend who gets killed, necromanced, and then killed for good.)

I fell in love with particular facets of the film: eccentric, maiden aunts in a Victorian house,  chocolate cake for breakfast (and midnight margaritas) , a garden by the sea full of lavender and rosemary,  the strong bond of sisterhood,  potions in the form of lotion and shampoo (before EOs were cool), and notion of cursed love.  For me, these  wove a spell of mischief, whimsy and melancholy that my young INFP heart found undeniable. Despite the B-rating Rotten Tomatoes gives this movie, I don’t think I was alone in this. I know so many people who still love this film today, and I’d argue that it is possibly even a cult classic.

So, when I finally started reading Practical Magic a few years ago, I was initially a little disappointed. Sally and Gillian, the sisters, did not fulfill my expectations as characters.  I actually preferred the film characters to their literary counterparts, which is an extremely unusual occurrence for me.  Though Hoffman is one of my favorite authors (for reasons I’ll discuss later),  I’ve got to be honest and admit that I have had this issue with her writing before. Somewhere between her third-person, omniscient point of view and her resistance to relying much on dialogue, I just have trouble connecting with her characters sometimes.

But by the time I finished reading Practical Magic, I decided that I actually loved the book. I just loved it in a different way than I expected.

“Writing itself was a magical act in which imagination altered reality and gave form to power.” 
― Alice Hoffman, The Rules of Magic

 Hoffman often writes in the genre of magical realism, and she nails it.  She blends together the real world and elements of magic so completely that, as a reader, the whole thing becomes seamless. It is all real. It is all magic. Something that definitely helps with this is that one of her great strengths is her ability to craft a vivid setting that draws you into the world of her book. In the case of Practical Magic (and the prequel, The Rules of Magic), much of this hinges on the Owen’s family home, a place of intense magic on the otherwise ordinary Magnolia Street.

Even more so,  Hoffman excels at crafting the world of her story around a theme.  The way she does this, especially in conjunction with the genre of magical realism, gives the adult reader a special gift: a novel that speaks to the heart in a way that only a true fairy tale can–revealing truths dark and deep, bright and sparkling. As someone who devours fiction, this is what I love.

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So when The Rules of Magic, long-awaited prequel to Practical Magic, came out last October, I had already pre-ordered it.  Much more quickly than its sequel, I was hooked. I loved many of the same things about it as Practical Magic: the world-building, the fascinating omens, raw bits of wisdom, the whimsical tone. There were new things to draw me in, too. The setting of 1960s New York was fascinating, and I found myself much more engaged with the characters (younger versions of the aunts, and their brother, Vincent.) What I loved the most, though, was the way it took the pattern of themes that we find in Practical Magic and went deepersimultaneously dissecting  and expanding upon them.  There are many kinds of love explored in this work and–at the center of it all–heartbreak and startling truth. Two truths especially spoke to me in both of these books.

  1. Love is a curse.
  2. The only way to survive the curse of love is to love more.

If you’ve lost someone that you love, you’ll recognize this “curse” and the way it plays out for the Owens sisters in their fantastical setting. You know what it is to lie awake at night and fear the inevitable: that this curse of love is one that you will meet again and again. There is nothing you can do to escape it. It is a fearful, heavy thought. It’s more than sadness. It’s horror, with a kind of guilt attached that requires no logic. It’s something that not everyone understands–until they experience loss for themselves. However, it is a club that we will all join. At some point, we all realize that it’s a curse we will have to live with.

“I’m fated to lose everyone I ever love,” April said. “I already know that.” “Of course you are,” Jet responded in her calm, measured tone. “That’s what it means to be alive.” 
― Alice Hoffman, The Rules of Magic

It is tempting to reach the same conclusion that the characters in Practical Magic/The Rules of Magic do, at various times in the the narrative: don’t love at all, and the curse will be irrelevant.

However, as Hoffman explores in this duo of grown-up fairy tales, to attempt to resist love totally is to truly fall under the power of the curse (in addition to being just plain impossible). Yes, the curse of love is real, but the only way to break free of the curse it to continue to choose love, over and over again.

“Know that the only remedy for love is to love more.” 
― Alice Hoffman, The Rules of Magic

It’s a hard lesson to explain, one of those things you don’t get until you feel it. One of the reasons I love fiction is that it allows us to feel and understand things as though we’ve experienced them. It creates empathy with others and helps us to understand ourselves more deeply, too.

Don’t take my word for it though, I’d much rather you experience this particular truth-bomb in fiction form. Read it. I’d say read them both, but if you have to pick one, I’d go with The Rules of Magic.

“Love someone and they love you in return, you ruin your lives together. That is not a curse, it’s what life is, my girl. We all come to ruin, we turn to dust, but whom we love is the thing that lasts.” 
― Alice Hoffman, The Rules of Magic

I will give a disclaimer here for my friends who know and trust me as a Christian reader/writer: there are a lot of things in these books, beyond the practice of magic,  that you may be uncomfortable with. There is definitely a good bit of language, sexual content, and some plain old morally objectionable stuff. I definitely don’t recommend these for kids/teens, and I’d also caution my adult reader friends who avoid this type of content. Personally, these sorts of things don’t really stop me from reading books if I feel that the books have substantial redemptive literary/moral value (which I do in this case.) I realize, though, that I have many loved ones who feel differently, and that’s okay too.

AMWAP Book Review: Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology

 

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Length: 297 pages

The following AMWAP review word count: 297 words

*AMWAP  stands for “as many words as pages.” I made this up as a challenge for myself. I’m not OCD…just quirky.

My AMWAP Review of Norse Mythology

Thanks to some recent superhero films, most of us recognize the names, “Loki and Thor.”

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(Oh, hey guys.)

And if you enjoy any type of  fantasy, you likely know who Neil Gaiman is, too.

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However, many of us don’t know much more about Norse mythology than what we’ve learned from Marvel.

Gaiman, the king of modern mythology, seeks to fix that by paying tribute to his roots with Norse Mythology .

This work consists of sixteen myths, arranged in a narrative arc that traces the Norse gods from origin to end.  It’s a quick read.  I appreciated that each story was short and engaging while also fitting into a larger, more complete story. We also come to know the characters more deeply with each chronicle.

My only dissonance with the work comes from own expectations.  Excepting the origin story of the gods (which was plenty weird, but dryly told), the rest of the content didn’t seem as creative as some of Gaiman’s other works.

The reason behind this is, of course, not an issue: these stories aren’t Gaiman’s to tell. But they are Gaiman’s stories to retell to us, the modern reader.

Does he do that?

I think so.

The voice of the work is humorous and knowledgeable, as if Neil has gathered us around the campfire to tell us about these ancient, mighty, childish heroes of the North.

I laughed at the antics of Thor, at the constant conclusion that “it is always Loki’s fault,” and at challenges and tricks that shocked and delighted me.  I also learned about the Norse concept of Hell (or Hel), the origin of the phrase “mind’s eye,” and countless other gems.  Ultimately, I come away from this work feeling pleasantly interested in, and more connected to, Norse mythology as a whole.

 

 

AMWAP Book Review: Wintersong by S. Jae-Jones

Note: AMWAP Reviews are a thing I made up. Each book review is exactly the same amount of words as number of pages in the novel being reviewed. I like to challenge myself to read a few books a month, but don’t always write a review. If there’s a book you would like to see reviewed, leave it in the comments! -Katie

 

Length: 406 Pages, The following review: 406 words

Jae-Jones’ debut novel is a dark, romantic fairy-tale for young adults that combines traditional folklore with modern themes of self-discovery. Nineteen-year-old Liesel seems plain and responsible, but she has a wild streak, and a fierce talent, buried beneath her familial duties.  As a child, she danced to the music in her head and played games with a mysterious boy whom she pretended was the Goblin King. As years pass, she grows into a stifled composer living under the shadow of her beautiful sister and gifted brother.  When her sister is taken to the Underworld by the (very real) Goblin king, Liesel must accept the reality of her childhood imaginings. Armed with tenacity, Liesel travels to the Underground, where she discovers that the Goblin King and his domain are more complicated, and more connected to her own passion, than she ever would have guessed.

It’s a tale as old as Hades and Persephone. And it’s undeniable that S. Jae-Jones took blatant inspiration from Phantom of the Opera and Labyrinth, too.  Honestly, there are a few times when it’s a little too much. For instance, Wintersong’s Goblin King bears an uncanny resemblance Bowie’s Goblin King (down to the two differently-colored eyes). Still, Jae-Jones expands this character in ways that makes him angsty and interesting in his own right. In fact, character development is something that this author does really well.  The main character, Liesel, toes the line between complacent young woman and fiercely-passionate feminist in a way that will resonate with almost any female reader.  Her relationship with music, too, is evocative and unique. Ultimately, this protagonist’s complexities, and her unexpected decisions throughout the book, give this story a fresh spin.  The author’s writing is lyrical and descriptive with some unnecessary repetitions. I enjoyed her style, though it is not for readers who prefer more action-driven writing. My main criticism of this novel is that the pacing seemed slightly off.  With minor tweaking and editing, this book had enough plot to be two separate novels. As it is, the story comes across as a little unbalanced.

This novel is labeled as YA, but I actually think there is more there for the emerging New Adult audience (twenty-thirty somethings).  Adult lovers of music, fairy-tales and dark romances will gobble up this escapist novel with hidden depth. Wintersong renewed my inner-teenager’s passion for Labyrinth and Phantom of the Opera, while giving me some brand new characters to love.

 

 

 

AMWAP Book Review: The Light Between Oceans

Note: What is an AMWAP review? It’s a thing I made up. It stands for “As Many Words as Pages.” My AMWAP book reviews are uniquely crafted towards a specific word count. It’s my little way of keeping things snappy (and driving myself crazy).

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The Light Between Oceans

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Pages:343

      The following book review is 343 words.

With The Light Between Oceans (2012) M.L. Stedman wrote the “first novel” which only exists in most writers’ daydreams. The story reads like a classic, and maybe it will considered as such one day. Meanwhile, it’s already a New York Time’s Bestseller, an O Magazine favorite, fodder for book clubs everywhere, and the basis for a 2016 film with an all-star cast.

Like I said: not bad, Stedman, not bad.

When a stoic WWI veteran (Tom) sets off to become the lighthouse keeper of uninhabited Janus Rock, he meets a passionate young woman who steals his heart (Isabel). The two marry and are happy in their own little world on the island—until Isabel’s series of miscarriages begin. Wracked by grief and loneliness, Isabel believes it is a miracle when an infant washes ashore in a boat. The little girl-Lucy- will draw them together as they become a family, and pull them apart as the truth struggles to become known. Meanwhile, a woman named Helen is haunted by the disappearance of her husband and baby daughter…

Some things about this story read like a fairytale: the idyllic setting of Janus and the coastal town of Partageuse, in which the author’s familiarity with her birthplace of Australia shines through. Other elements are more fable. The story is driven by consequences of the characters’ actions and questions of right and wrong. However, I found the most prominent thing about the novel to be the realness of the characters’ emotions: Tom and Isabel’s complicated love for one another; Isabel and Helen’s maternal grief; the rage of betrayal; the quiet emptiness after an internal storm.  Stedman expertly conveys the many facets of human emotion which are woven through every important relationship which can exist between two people.

Loss is real in this story. Love is real. Right is real. Wrong is real. Perhaps, more real than anything, is the idea that the lines between these experiences are not clearly marked—not at all.

This exquisitely written page-turner had me underlining sentences while soaking them with my tears.