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Title Rules of Magic
Series Practical Magic #00
Author Alice Hoffman
Genre Historical Fiction | Magical Realism | Fantasy | Witches
Publisher Simon & Schuster
Publication Date October 10, 2017
Setting New York and Massachusetts in the 1960’s
Synopsis: The Owenses are one of the oldest witch families of the New World, their lineage dating back to Maria Owens, who fell in love and had an affair with a married man, John Hathorne, who in order to hide his sins, branded her a witch and tried her during the Salem Witch Trials of 1692. A brokenhearted Maria, then already pregnant with Hathorne’s child, had cursed her own future family to caution them from ever falling in love – a curse that would bring ruin to anyone they fell in love with. For generations, witches of the Owens clan tried to escape the curse, leaving their family home in the little town of Massachusetts to find a “normal life”, as did Susanna Owens. But magic born of blood cannot be eschewed and so Susanna instituted rules to keep her children from discovering their magical heritage. Yet Franny, Jet, and Vincent always knew they were different and, like any other children, they broke all the rules. The eldest Franny was difficult but intelligent and inquisitive; she always thought the fact that birds flocking to her was a curious power to have, but being protective of her siblings, chose to turn a blind eye to her abilities. Jet was the beautiful kind mediator; she could read minds but chose not to reveal what she discovered out of respect for others’ privacy. Vincent, the first male to be born into the family, was heart-stopping handsome and possessed a gift for music; his charismatic ability to cast a lure on others was discovered soon after his birth when a mesmerized nurse had tried to steal him away and he was the first of the siblings to enjoy wielding his powers. However, by the summer Franny turned seventeen, all three Owens children had their turns in experimenting with their abilities. And though they were not aware of any elderly Aunt Isabelle, when Franny and her siblings were called to visit her to learn about magic, they were excited to go. Over the course of the following few months, the siblings come to learn about their family history and power as well as the privileges, responsibilities, and tribulations that come with it. And over the span of the next few decades, the siblings come to learn how everything they learned from Aunt Isabelle was absolutely true.
Experience: I had originally planned to do the review for this novel the Wednesday before Halloween. However, I had just finished reading Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South at the time and my head was still too full of Margaret and Thornton, so I put off reading Rules of Magic for a couple of days. Then it took me two weeks to finish reading this book – not because it was boring but because it was so languidly mystical.
Despite the topic of the novel, the central theme of the story was truly family and love. If one begins reading the book with expectations of bangs and pops, or potions and spells, one could sift through the entire plot without extracting more than a handful of notes. Rather the magic lay within the dedication Franny placed in ensuring her brother and sister were well taken care of, the undying love Jet possessed in her heart for a man born of the enemy to her bloodline, and the pursuit of self-worth that Vincent ventured upon even as he simultaneously accepted the magic in him while despising the fate his power portend. And through all this, each sibling must come to an understanding with the curse put on their love life and find the grounds upon which they build their own future – but not without plenty of encouragement and protection from each other. The life of magic is not for the faint of heart. The story demanded that it be read with heart and patience because patience is what each of the characters required most to endure all that entailed their inheritance.
The characters were so well developed that it was difficult for me to accept they were not real. It was as though Hoffman truly watched their lives unfold over the decades and were summarizing the events as she remembered them. There were little action or dialogue, the book having been written mostly in exposition, speaking more about how each character interpreted what their magic was and how their experiences with magic confirmed or refuted their original theories. And while this bode that I could not chase through the book in a hurry to reach the end – au contraire it rather slowed me down because there was no opportunity to skip a line lest I miss out on an important thought trail from one of the characters – the passages were by no means prosaic but rather lent the narrative a spiritual quality.
Having both read and seen Practical Magic, I felt Hoffman produced a historical account of the ancestors of Sally and Gillian, the protagonists of the original book. And in the process, quite dispelled the assumptions both the sisters of Practical Magic and I, as a reader, made about the aunts. Whereas in Practical Magic the aunts appeared rather matter-of-fact about their heritage and thought it pointless to shield their wards from the injustice magic rendered upon the family, both personal and social, here, we come to realize how much the aunts concealed about their own lives from Sally and Gillian. Once the girls became their charges, they set aside their past and allowed the girls’ happiness to become the central concern and were more than happy to let them live their lives and discover magic on their own terms without piling their own past fears, disappointments, losses, or even triumphs to overshadow the lives of their wards. While Rules of Magic may be faithfully read as a stand-alone and one need not have read or watched Practical Magic before venturing onto this book, reading Rules of Magic did give me a better understanding of the Frances and Jet in Practical Magic. I cannot help but respect the aunts in the original more for reading about the sisters in the prequel.
As for the “rules of magic”, Hoffman does share many of them – first as instructions and then with the exceptions tot he rules. We are allowed to experience the rules as the siblings (returning to Franny, Jet, and Vincent) successfully break them, come to accept them, and then learn to circumvent them, each playing a cat-and-mouse tango with fate in their turn. It was delicious to watch sisters and brother experiment with the unique power inherited by each as well as the general rules they found in their family grimoire – and even the forbidden texts meant to lead them astray of the course of “not to bring harm”.
Although, I must say few of the witches or wizards in this book cared much for that mother of all rules, harming others and self frequently enough to get out of binds. If anything, I think this was one place where Hoffman could have added a little – including some direct consequences of the magical manipulations the siblings and their aunts rendered would have brought on consistency to the rules. However, all we get to read about is a few blisters from telling uncomfortable lies. Yes, the siblings face their share of hardship but those seem to be unavoidable lessons of their inherent magic rather than the consequences of harms they cause others. Apart from this inconsistency, I think Hoffman wrote yet another masterful tale, weaving together an utterly believable myth.
Recommendation: It will be a bit of a slow read, I tell you, but if you’re into magic and if you’re into the power of family, this book is for you.
Title Last Man Standing
Author Jane Ashford
Genre Historical Romance, Regency Romance
Publisher Sourcebooks Casablanca
Publication Date September 05, 2017
Setting Regency England
Synopsis: Ever since her father’s death, Elisabeth Elham has fended for herself by teaching at a finishing school for girls. So when her curmudgeon reclusive elder uncle – a man who cut off both his brother and sister for choosing spouses he did not approve of – dies and leaves her all his possessions as a joke to instigate further family estrangement, Elisabeth chose not to fall for it. Instead, she collects her aunt’s orphaned children, who are almost of age and should have received their share in the will, and brings them to live with her in her new London home. At the advice of her solicitor, she also invites a very eccentric matronly cousin from her mother’s side to act as her chaperone. Soon she finds herself in a flurry of activities that include refurbishing the London house, arranging a complete makeover for the country estate which was left to decay for two decades, bringing up her wardrobe up-to-date, launching one beautiful cousin into society while schooling the other overexcited cousin and his even more unmanageable dog into proper decorum, and, of course, navigating the height of season among the ton. The responsibilities of a newly-minted heiress are many and not the least critical is fending of fortune hunters. Elisabeth’s artless and unassuming air and easy sense of humor endear her to many of London’s eligible bachelors, including a most-sought-after heir to a viscount, a self-proclaimed and jovial fortune hunter, and a Byronic hero with a checkered past from the West Indies, all the while she herself collects a bevy of unconventional friends to occupy her time. Though Elisabeth enjoys her trials and pleasures alike with humor, misfortunes still threaten to set her stoic constitution into decline. Especially, at the risk of losing the regards of the one man she could indeed fall in love with.
Experience: I have been reading romance novels for nearly twenty years now but ventured into historical romances only as recently as 2013. The reason for my general aversion to historical romances was, I’m ashamed to admit, something very superficial – the models on the cover in their usual state of undress. My ultra-conservative mother would have a conniption if she saw me reading them (the fact that some of the stories I have written emanate moderate amounts of steam is not yet known to her). So it was only when I started reading off of tabs that I dared procure my first copy of Regency romance [not including classic literature, of course]. There. I have now revealed the most hypocritical secret of my reading and writing career. String me up if you will, fellow romance readers, I probably deserve it.
You are probably wondering why I have chosen to reveal this about me in this particular post. What does my proclivity to hide the cover arts of some of my favorite novels have to do with Last Gentleman Standing? Well, it’s the fact that those steamy cover arts do deliver what they promise; most historical romances have no trouble fogging up my spectacles every few chapters. The prude in me that my mother managed to instill usually just peruses through them unless they are written exceptionally well or, even better, exceptionally ill [really, some of them are sheer comedy]. So when Last Gentleman Standing did not feature a single such specs-steamer and I discovered that quite a few reviewers condemned the story for it, I decided this book needed my defending.
I should clarify that the fact I found the lack of sex scenes in this book perfectly in-form has nothing to do with my natural diffidence [I already confessed to writing some myself]. Rather that I feel Ashford remained true to a Janeite scheme of romancing. Austen’s heroes and heroines always demonstrated a rather restrained form of courtship. It did not mean that their emotions lacked intensity but only that because they felt it so deeply and consistently, they did not need to prattle on about it to attest its existence. To have discovered the same characteristics present in Elizabeth and her wooers was a rather refreshing promenade down the “original order”. After all, to me, the primary reason for reading Regency romances is the fact Miss Austen is no longer alive and printing new materials.
Moreover, I did not think the main hero was “tame”, as one reviewer put it, but respectful to the heroine’s wishes. I thought he was consistent of character. He fell in love with Elisabeth because she was independent of mind and spirit and very unlike other simpering toadying females of his acquaintance. So if he gave her space, it was because he did not want those very attractive qualities of her to diminish. While he did have one or two spurts of admonishment to issue her way when he felt she took unnecessary risks with her person, he soon reconciled that he had no authority to do so either because she was, after all, an independent woman – perhaps more independent than most women of her time since she was an heiress without a guardian. He was perfectly aware of all her strengths, both intrinsic and extrinsic, and acted with the caution the situation demanded. I thought his wisdom and ability to not be guided by ego rather sexy in itself. He did not need to demonstrate his sexual awareness of her to make me enjoy a secret smile or two or feel the temperature kick up.
The Elisabeth of this story, too, shared a very telling trait with my favorite Elizabeth in literary history. Early in the story, the narrator shared how the heroine had inherited her father’s good humor and ability to take life’s hurdles with a pinch of salt. And throughout the novel, we see just that – Elisabeth brushing off any jittery sensation or blinking away any prickling of the lashes. When her father died, instead of seeking assistance from the family Scrooge, she chose to find employment to sustain her livelihood – it was the quality that made her stand apart in her uncle’s eyes and procured her the inheritance. The same self-sufficiency with a side order of humility that allows her to graciously accept assistance once actually offered is what helps her survive through all the ordeals in the novel. Very admirable quality to have in a heroine.
If the heroine and her hero are not convincing enough that the book is worth the read, there are still a host of very entertaining and very eccentric characters to motivate. Even better, I liked how varied these characters were in their appearances. For example, not all the men who managed to steal the belle of the ball were tall, dark, and dashing, which is like stepping away from one of the cardinal rules of historical romance writing. Also, not all fortune hunters were without a heart. I liked one particular fortune hunter extremely who had a bit of dash in him but moreover was burdened by a penniless title that his mother tried to rectify by being the ultimate Mrs. Bennet, and he felt his shortcomings acutely. My heart went out to his sense of vulnerability that he hid so well behind a jovial demeanor and I dearly hope that Ashford will provide him with a good romantic ending one day. [I think that last bit could be a spoiler… oops! Well, at least there are plenty of other competition for Elisabeth’s hand to keep readers guessing]
Coincidentally, the book was apparently originally titled Bluestocking. And, indeed, when I searched online, Ashford had published a novel by such a name in 1980 with the blurb indicating a very similar plotline and same name heroine. I would love to get my hands on that book and see if it varies in any way because how else does the same book continue to exist simultaneously with two names [I can imagine customers clamoring for their money back]? In any case, the new name is so much more suitable to the plot because indeed it was about a crowd of romantic contestants vying for Elisabeth’s affection as well as hand and fortune and only the most faithful gentleman gets ahead. Moreover, by definition and historical account, to be a bluestocking, a woman would have to demonstrate a certain desire for intellectual pursuit. While Elisabeth was quite intelligent and levelheaded, and even once a teacher, she does not demonstrate particular craving to build her knowledge. She enjoys reading when the opportunity presents her with a good book and circumstances had compelled her to acquire the level of education necessary to survive. This provided her with cognitive independence but it was all very contingent of her various stations in life. No, no, Last Gentleman Standing is a vast improvement to the title.
Recommendation: Though I branched out a bit on my book review for this post, what I’m trying to say is, romance readers, do not write this book off just because it does not offer the usual display of amour. But rather embrace it for the practicality with which it upholds the Puritan nature of a society once lived.
Via: Daily Prompt – Pluck
Title Seducing Mr. Knightly
Series The Writing Girls #4
Author Maya Rodale
Genre Historical Romance | Regency | Adult
Publication Date October 30, 2012
Setting London, Great Britain, 1825
Synopsis: It has been exactly three years, six months, three weeks, and two days since Ms. Annabelle Swift fell in love with her boss Mr. Derek Knightly, the owner and editor of The London Weekly. This is precisely the amount of time she has been employed as one of the Writing Girls to feature in her own advice column and since the day she laid her eyes on the tall, dark, and determined Knightly. Unfortunately, not only is he totally unaware of her feelings but he seems also oblivious of the fact that she is a living breathing flesh-and-blood single woman worthy of male attention. Exasperated with being continuously overlooked and desperate to get out of her brother’s house where she lives as an unpaid servant and governess to her malicious sister-in-law, niece, and nephews, Annabelle decides to resort to drastic measures – she courageously reaches out to her readers for advice for a change on how to attract the attention of the nodcock! she’s in love with. Suddenly all of London swoops in to assist her cause, sending mails carrying the most outlandish and scandalous advice and, with the additional help from her fellow Writing Girls, she finds herself in lowered bodices and silk unmentionables, waltzing with lords of the ton, flirting up a ruse with fellow male colleagues, and being dropped off home after work by Knightly in his private carriage. Her quarry is finally paying attention but one obstacle still stands in the path of true love. Knightly, who has built his empire and reputation as a media tycoon to raise himself from the status of a by-blow of a late earl, has one other life goal: marry high into the aristocracy so that his half-brother is finally forced to acknowledge him as one of his class. Unfortunately, this puts Annabelle squarely out of the running for his affection… or does it?
Experience: I came to know about Maya Rodale a little late. Only this year, in fact, upon watching the live feeds of the #RomanceisFeminist discussion hosted by Avon Romance at The Strand bookstore in NY, NY where Rodale was on the panel of authors. I appreciated a particular comment she made about being more than willing to “throw historical accuracy under the bus” for the sake of diversity and inclusion. That is precisely what I have found – as much as the realm of believability will allow – since I began reading her works (three novels so far) and thought I should do a review of at least one. I picked Seducing Mr. Knightly because I have a soft corner for heroines who write professionally and this is the most hilarious piece of Rodale’s works I have come across thus far.
Imagine Lucille Ball in I Love Lucy and you will get a rough idea of the kind of scrapes Annabelle gets into in this novel. Short of hitting our hero in the eye with her spilling bosoms, she has done it all – leave a shawl behind to find herself alone with him at work during after office hours, fake a swoon and fall lush into his arms so she can awaken his “baser inclinations”, make all of London – including the hero’s best friends – fall in love with her and defend her heart for her candid attempts to lasso the hero, and climb into his bedroom via a gradually-splintering bark in the middle of the night in hopes of ravishment, etc. And Knightly likewise reciprocates with a steady repeat of “Oh Annabelle, you have some explaining to do” whenever he finds himself at the end of her courtship tactics. It makes the relationship between our heroine and hero positively adorably frustrating – just what good romances require.
But apart from the cat-and-mouse conflict development of the romantic plot, the individual characters of Annabelle and Knightly are also fully plausible. I enjoyed how much pluck Annabelle demonstrates as pushes herself to cross her self-imposed boundaries to blossom out of her shell even as her natural timidity continues to attempt to keep her in check. She may be meek by genetic disposition (her brother shows fairly submissive traits in his marriage too) but that doesn’t mean that she doesn’t dream big or aim high. After all, she pulls the wool over her family’s eyes for over three years pretending to go out on charity work while really working for a national newspaper and saving up for rainy days. She continuously challenges her shortcomings and faces her fears, which is a lovely display of feminism.
Our hero too has his demons to fight and has been fighting them quite successfully for over a decade. Being the firstborn son of and earl and a renowned stage actress, he craves acknowledgment from his step family and society. He has slogged day-and-night to build up his newspaper, laboring at the press himself and pushing boundaries of polite expectations, to get himself noticed, following three simple rules of life: “Scandal equals sales, drama was for the pages, and be beholden to no one”. It’s has made him a bit stoic but it has worked for him. And even as his heart tugs while watching Annabelle amidst her antics and his heart begins to unfurl the more details of her he starts to notice, he refuses to examine the burning question being asked in parlors across London, “Who is the nodcock that has yet failed to fall in love with Annabelle?” because he is afraid the answer might demand he surrender his heart to the heroine, which he is not in the position to do. Because all he wants to do is marry Lady Marsden, claim his rightful place in society while avoiding getting his newspaper shut down by her brother Lord Marsden’s mass inquisition against media extortion and nefarious means of procuring news, and kill two birds with one stone. The struggle is real.
Yes, I truly did enjoy reading this book. The only thing perhaps that did not suit me entirely was Rodale’s roundabout way of prolonging the story. While I loved each scene, I found reading through all the inner workings that bracketed each scene that mostly related the same conclusions over and over a bit tedious. Frankly, I felt there was more room for editing and perhaps leaving a little for readers to infer. But this is easily discounted for the fact that the overall content was engaging and oh-so-funny.
Recommendation: Well, if you haven’t read it already, what are you waiting for? I thoroughly endorse this novel as an experienced romance reader.