The Rules of Magic

The Rules of Magic by Alice Hoffman
Publication date: October 10th 2017
Genres: Coming-of-age, Fiction, Literary, Paranormal



Whatever is meant to be is bound to happen, whether or not you approve.

Frances, Bridget (Jet) and Vincent are born and raised with no sense of family. Their parents, actively discourage any discussion of grandparents or other relatives. Even worse, their mother, Susanna, gives them odd rules for living, including: no walking in moonlight, no red shoes, no cats, no candles, and no books about magic. Life overflows with dreary rules and each grapples with keeping their own unique abilities secret. Until the oldest, 17-year-old Franny, gets an invitation to a small town in Massachusetts to visit an aunt she knows nothing about. Susanna’s adamant ‘no’ turns into a reluctant ‘yes’ when Jet and Vincent offer to go with her to keep her safe. And, just like that, the wonder, thrill, and utter joy that is Alice Hoffman’s The Rules of Magic takes off.

The summer with their Aunt Isabelle turns out to be the greatest of their lives. Suddenly, everything about them that was supposed to stay hidden and unacknowledged is celebrated. Even better, there are NO rules—eat what you want, when you want, go where you want, do what you want. They finally learn the Owens’s family history, beginning with Maria, who built the house in the 1600s; a witch who escaped the Salem trials. The mysteries surrounding her mean that, even with the passing of 300 years, the Owens women are still viewed with distrust in the town. This, despite the fact that women show up on the porch every night to get help for love, pain, colicky babies, hives, and so much more. This is the reason for Franny’s invitation—she is next in line to take over the house and the family responsibilities when Isabelle dies.

The darker side of Maria’s life lies at the center of The Rules of Magic. In an effort to save her daughter and all the daughters that would follow the pain she suffered she curses them: if they fall in love, the man they choose will be destroyed. The Owens women are not meant to love. For the cerebral Franny, this is not too much of a problem, but that very same summer the romantic and gentle Jet falls desperately in love with the wrong boy, testing fate. And what of Vincent? The curse may not apply specifically to him, but his extraordinary charisma and rebellious nature lead him to tempt destiny in his own way. For all the freedom Isabelle granted them, there was a rule, only one: Accept your gifts, don’t hide yourself, but if you use your magic, do no harm. Vincent cannot resist pushing this boundary, especially as making money, lots of it, can come from dark magic.

Having set the stage for Franny, Jet, and Vincent, Hoffman lets their lives play out for the next three decades, but while magic is ever present, it is the least important part of the lives she gives them. Their magic doesn’t save them from the hurts and pain of the world or the consequences of their actions. Even with extra gifts from the universe, it is the heart and humanity of these three characters that is the most powerful thing about them. If there is witchiness to be found, it is in Hoffman who casts a spell that binds the reader to the pages and holds them fast. She makes The Rules of Magic a tender balm whose wisdom has very little to do with the supernatural and everything to do with life.

The best way to do this is to be who you are, every part of you, the good and the bad, the sorrowful and the joyous. You can never run away. There is nowhere to run to.



p.s. In case you’re wondering, The Rules of Magic is a prequel to Hoffman’s 1995 novel Practical Magic. I don’t mention it in the review because each book stands on its own. I enjoyed Practical Magic when it came out, but Hoffman’s writing is even better now. 


Mrs. Houdini

Mrs. Houdini by Victoria Kelly
Published by Atria Books
Publication date: March 1st 2016
Genres: Debut, Fiction, Historical



Bess Rahner met Ehrich Weiss the summer of 1894 at Coney Island where both were performers—she a singing and dancing girl and he doing an escape act with his brother. Little did she know that this brash, confident young man would become Harry Houdini and she would be his wife. Mrs. Houdini, by Victoria Kelly, looks not only their life together, from their beginnings in traveling circuses to the worldwide acclaim that followed, but also at Bess’s life after Harry’s death in 1926. Kelly uses the freedom of fiction to go into the decade Bess spent looking for signs that he was reaching out to her from the other side.

He had made it publicly clear before his death that when he was gone, he was going to try to come back, through the communication of a private code he and Bess had established. 

In this way Houdini was a bit of a conundrum because throughout his life he was an outspoken critic of psychics and anyone who said they could communicate with the dead. He attended séances and debunked spiritualists to the point that he was harassed by them. As a Jew he did not believe in the afterlife, but Bess, as a Catholic, firmly believed in heaven. Only his mother’s death seemed to temper something in him and as Kelly portrays him he does flirt with the belief that there is more to the world than we see.

I think there’s another plane of living right here where we’re standing. People who have been, people who have yet to be, what if they’re right here with us? And yet, most of us aren’t even aware of them. 

At the same time, this is only one aspect of Mrs. Houdini. Kelly shifts between the years of failure and hardship, providing insight into Houdini’s rigorous work ethic and Bess’s contributions to their act, and the years of success as Bess tried to create a life of stability for them. From the beginning she was his most trusted advisor and knew what was real and what was illusion. By continuing the novel past Houdini’s death Kelly delves into the emotions felt by any woman whose life is spent in the shadow of a famous man.

In the three years since Harry’s death, she had become unmoored, searching for the sparks of her own identity while continuing to cling to Harry’s.

Mrs. Houdini does a good job of playing in the field of ‘wife-of’ historical fiction. Recent years have seen the wives of Hemingway, Poe, and Hawthorne (among others) being fictionalized in ways that are both laudatory and sad, so I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from Mrs. Houdini. Kelly blends known details of the Houdinis’ lives with fictional what-ifs that veer from the facts for the sake of entertainment, but does so without causing the spirited Bess to disappear.

It seemed to Bess that her husband was a magician who wanted, desperately, to believe that magic was real. 


The Book of Speculation

The Book of Speculation by Erika Swyler
Published by St. Martin's Press
Publication date: June 23rd 2015
Genres: Fiction, Magical Realism, Mystery

book of speculation

Debut novelist Erika Swyler does not waste any time before throwing the reader into the deep end of The Book of Speculation. The novel begins with Simon Watson, a librarian with the ability to hold his breath for underwater for almost ten minutes at a time, a skill passed on to him by his mother before she drowned herself when he was seven. Now, he lives alone in the family’s home on the Long Island shore, and watches both his life and their house slide slowly away, one into the ocean and the other into aimless unemployment. When an Iowa bookseller sends him a book that appears to be a carnival owner’s log, it provides the distraction he needs from the pressing realities around him. When he discovers it dates back to the 1800s and contains his grandmother’s name the distraction becomes an obsession.

Hermelius Peabody is the carnival owner, a wise and resourceful man, capable of making something out of almost nothing. One of his best discoveries is Amos, a mute abandoned by his family, who becomes the Wild Boy, and is our introduction into the world of Simon’s ancestors. Later, he becomes an apprentice to Madame Ryzhkhova, a fortune-telling crone who tells him early on

“Water comes, strangling what it touches as if made flesh. Father, mother, all will wither. You will wear and break until there is nothing. For you it will be as water cuts stone.” 

Shortly, thereafter he meets Evangeline, a beautiful young woman who can hold her breath underwater long enough to play the part of a mermaid. She draws in the crowds and Amos as well. Through the carnival log and his own research Simon begins to piece together a family history that is both haunting and tragic. Namely, that going back for generations the women in his family have been drowning themselves in their early twenties on July 24th—a date that is fast approaching. Oh, and did I mention that Simon’s fortunetelling sister Enola decides to come for a visit in late July after having been out of touch for years?

Swyler has a prodigious ability to shift eras, merge and add elements in a way that mimics the unusual and somewhat magical skills of the carnival members. By its midpoint, The Book of Speculation is moving so quickly and with such intensity that it feels as if she is channeling the story rather than directing it. In the present, Simon is battling to keep his house from falling into the ocean, has lost his job, and is trying to sort out his personal life while in the past Amos and the carnival, with its plethora of fascinating characters, is generating the backstory for what lies ahead. This profusion of plot, characters, magic, mystery and a fluid timeline generates a riptide of information with the potential to pull the reader under. There are horseshoe crabs, selkies, tarot cards, history, affairs, suicide, curses, men whose bodies conduct electricity, an old book and always, the lure of water, that ties all this to Simon’s family. For some there will simply be too much happening in The Book of Speculation, but for those who want to dive in and stay submerged it is a wild ride.