Review: “The Rules Of Magic” by Alice Hoffman

 

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Hardcover: 369 pages

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Release Date: 10th October 2017

4 STARS

SET IN NEW YORK CITY AND MASSACHUSETTS

 

I’m struggling to remember the last time I read a book that didn’t have magic in it…. This hasn’t been an intentional decision – maybe it’s just the autumnal weather kicking in, but it has had the beneficial side effect of immersing me in literary depictions of otherworldliness and getting me to think about what I do, and definitely do not, like about how the extraordinary is dealt with by authors.

The Blurb: For the Owens family, love is a curse that began in 1620, when Maria Owens was charged with witchery for loving the wrong man.

Hundreds of years later, in New York City at the cusp of the sixties, when the whole world is about to change, Susanna Owens knows that her three children are dangerously unique. Difficult Franny, with skin as pale as milk and blood red hair, shy and beautiful Jet, who can read other people’s thoughts, and charismatic Vincent, who began looking for trouble on the day he could walk.

From the start Susanna sets down rules for her children: No walking in the moonlight, no red shoes, no wearing black, no cats, no crows, no candles, no books about magic. And most importantly, never, ever, fall in love. But when her children visit their Aunt Isabelle, in the small Massachusetts town where the Owens family has been blamed for everything that has ever gone wrong, they uncover family secrets and begin to understand the truth of who they are. Back in New York City each begins a risky journey as they try to escape the family curse.

The Owens children cannot escape love even if they try, just as they cannot escape the pains of the human heart. The two beautiful sisters will grow up to be the revered, and sometimes feared, aunts in Practical Magic, while Vincent, their beloved brother, will leave an unexpected legacy.

Alice Hoffman’s writing is really lovely and I mean that in every sense of the word. There is a softness and lyricism to the way she describes scenes, a focus on the senses and how they mix with emotions for the characters. She’s able to deal with difficult situations for the characters in a way that touches you but doesn’t have the brutal edge that lots of authors seek in an attempt to make their writing ‘hard-hitting’ or ‘gritty’. Hoffman weaves her words around you like a spell and draws you in gently.

I wasn’t massively enamoured of the characters in the beginning and it took me a little while to settle into this novel. It is a prequel to Hoffman’s wildly successful “Practical Magic” and I must confess that whilst I’ve seen the 90s movie adaptation with Sandra Bullock and Nicole Kidman (and that took me until last month…) I have never read the original. Perhaps this was why I found the connections a little tricky – I wasn’t already invested in these characters. In the end didn’t even really notice being sucked in. I suddenly realised that I was half way through. And it was dark outside.

Hoffman deals with the supernatural elements superbly. There are plenty of magical shenanigans but it never seems to tip over into the absurd. The fact that the three siblings each go on a journey with their discoveries and that their relationships with magic are heavily influenced by their different approaches to life keeps it grounded and stops it becoming boring. There is no ‘magical fix’ for the obstacles they need to overcome and Hoffman grows the characters throughout the story really effectively as they realise this themselves.

Overall this is a really gorgeously descriptive novel that transports you to 1960s New York. There’s no need to have read “Practical Magic” to enjoy it and if you’re new to Hoffman’s writing this is a great place to start.

 

@ahoffmanwriter

www.alicehoffman.com

Great Reads In Great Places: Cape Cod

I don’t know about you, but three things spring to mind when I think of Cape Cod:

  1. Beaches. Some of the most gorgeous stretches of sand in New England can be found on this fish hook of land that curls out of Massachusetts into the Atlantic.
  2. Kennedys. Hyannis Port is synonymous with them. You can’t walk more than a block it seems without tripping over a house, memorial or postcard dedicated to America’s most golden of families.
  3. Lobsters. Now a pricey delicacy rather than food for prisoners, you can eat this delicious shellfish from morning ’til night. In fact if you leave without being covered in misfired lobster juice at some point, have you even been to Cape Cod?

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Old Harbour Life Saving Station

But it’s not really somewhere, for all its beauty, that I associate with literature. That gets left to its gritty neighbour – Boston, which is positively teeming with alcoholic, brooding detectives and abrasive former boxers either finding redemption or careering towards an ignominious end. My choice for this trip was a collection of short stories – “Cape Cod Noir” compiled and edited by David L. Ulin which promised to get beneath the tourist veneer of preppy, white, rolling in cash to something closer to the real Cape and the New Englanders that live there. Each story is linked to a different town which makes it perfect pick and choose travel literature.

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We decided to visit the Cape, as it is affectionately known, on Memorial Day weekend. Rookie error. Turns out, this is one of the busiest times of the year in Cape Cod and there is basically one road in and out. Route 6A is a gorgeous drive from the east of Boston down the length of the peninsula cutting through many of the small historic towns that make up the larger area which is Cape Cod (turns out that it’s not an actual place as such…) but it is also one MASSIVE bottle neck as all the local traffic feeds into it. You can safely double whatever drive time Google Maps gives you and add a bit for good measure.

Our bed and breakfast, The Belfry, was in Sandwich, on the north side of the Cape. The town itself is beautiful, a picture postcard New England town complete with white clapboard houses that look like they’ve stepped out of the pages of Martha Stewart’s Living and it’s quiet – something that I’ve come to really appreciate since moving to NYC. The B and B is actually made up of three separate buildings, not just the converted church that contains the main dining room and reception, all beautifully maintained and decorated in a typical colonial style. This meant that we were able to be in a room that was a little out of the way (baby in tow and super thin wooden walls do not friends make) and we were grateful for the privacy that came with having our own porch and entrance and somewhere to park the stroller. Breakfast here is limited in choice but awesome and the owner/manager is very knowledgeable and helpful, offering us itineraries and ideas as well as great restaurant recommendations.

We discovered pretty quickly that there is not a huge amount to do in Sandwich itself – especially on a slightly grey weekend in May. If you want a bit of action and walkable restaurants and shops then you’re better off in Chatham or Hyannis. This place is all about the beach and the boardwalk, which is beautiful and cuts across a large patch of marshland by the coast. There are lots of steps up and over the dunes though, so this place is not really stroller or wheelchair friendly. Sandy Neck Beach and Town Neck Beach are two of the most popular in the area and it is easy to see why. These are long stretches of sandy beach that go down to a nice open shoreline that’s perfect for swimming. There’s also plenty of parking if you don’t fancy a long wander through largely residential streets (although this is great for house perving if you like New England architecture).

Beyond the beach you can really take it all in in under a day – there’s Dexter’s Grist Mill, a mid 17th century mill restored in the 1960s which is worth a look and then it’s a short stroll to the Glass Museum which Sandwich is famous for. If you want to stray about 1/2 mile outside of town it’s worth going to see the Hoxie House which gives you a good understanding of how life was lived in the 1630s on the Cape. If you manage to pack that in and have a few hours to spare before dinner then there are some gorgeous antique shops tucked away to help you while away the time.

Foodwise, we wanted seafood, seafood and more seafood. It seemed a capital crime to come to Cape Cod and not indulge. A great lunch spot is The Pilot House, there is plenty of outdoor seating and a great view of the modern harbour. The menu is extensive and reasonably priced – even the lobster roll, which comes in a choice of sizes and breads. Not only was it delicious, it was enormous, which let’s face it is something you don’t often get too say about lobster sandwiches.

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On our second day we decided to drive further out along the peninsula to Chatham. There was some debate amongst the party about going south – there is a great cycle / walk route from Falmouth to Woods Hole, The Shining Sea Bikeway, but as it was pretty wet and miserable, those of us who wanted to duck from shop to pretty shop won out.

If I were to do this trip again I think I would actually have our base in Chatham. It really reminds me of Padstow in Cornwall, England mixed with East Hampton NY – smart shops and restaurants with a nautical leaning and pretty frontages. There is certainly more to do here, especially on a wet day. There was a mad dash through the downpour to Chatham Lighthouse, very New England, and an attempt to salvage something of the view from the cliff top. I imagine this is far more impressive when there isn’t low lying cloud… In better weather there is plenty of opportunities to investigate the wildlife that the area is famous for. Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge is nearby and you can take a variety of trips out to do dolphin, shark and whale watching, which is something I’d definitely do if I came again.

Lighthouse

We grabbed lunch at The Impudent Oyster before hitting our nightmare drive back to NYC. The inside of this Chatham institution is homely and no fuss but the food is excellent. Much delicious chowder was consumed, the seafood stew was declared marvellous and they even did a decent beer battered fish and chips, something that us Brits struggle to find in the US to be honest. There are no baby changing facilities here though – it’s the car (if you can get a parking spot anywhere near the restaurant) or the loo floor. Luckily there are plenty of lovely friendly locals who will jump at the chance to hold your baby whilst you pack up all your stuff!

Bookshops:

There are plenty of bookshops all over the Cape but three that I think are well worth a trip are Titcomb’s Bookshop in East Sandwich, The Brewster Book Store in Brewster and Where The Sidewalk Ends (what a great name!) in Chatham. All are independent, big tick, and can advise on locally set reads and authors.

The Great Read: “Cape Cod Noir” compiled by David L. Ulin

“Cape Cod Noir” is part of series of noir style compilations that centre on various towns and cities around the world (so if you like the concept you can pretty much pick up one for wherever you are headed on your holidays) and is published by Akashic Noir. I always like a short story selection to pick through. It’s digestible and if you don’t like an author’s style you aren’t married to it for a further 500 pages out of sheer stubbornness. I am a chronic book finisher, even if I hate it. As you might expect, the quality of the fiction is a little up and down – Cape Cod is a small area, I guess you’re fairly limited as an editor in what you can select from, but it certainly delivers on its promise to explore the dark and unseen underbelly of this glamorous part of the world.

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I particularly enjoyed “Variations on a Fifty Pound Bale” by Adam Mansbach – the structural concept of this story, exploring how urban legends can be built up, is fun and focuses on Martha’s Vineyard. “Bad Night in Hyannis Port” by Seth Greenland was a great example of the alienation of youth that is a running theme in this book. There’s a little of “Catcher In The Rye” in its disaffected frat boy narrator and ‘bad night’ doesn’t really tell the half of it! If death and narrators from beyond the grave a your thing, “When Death Shines Bright.” set in Sandwich, is a classic piece of dark noir.

Overall this is an enjoyable read, with a couple of real highlights. I love the concept of compiling short fiction set in a particular place and will definitely be revisiting the series for other cities.

Already read it? 

Why not try these other titles set in Cape Cod:

  • “Caleb’s Crossing” – Geraldine Brooks
  • “The Orphans of Race Point” – Party Francis
  • “The Sparrow Sister” – Ellen Herrick
  • “Love Antony” – Lisa Genova

 

Feel free to add any of your own Cape Cod recommendations in the comments below 🙂