Friday, February 23, 2018

Practical Magic by Alice Hoffman

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I like a bit of magic. Not hardcore magic of boiled lizard tongues and scavenged feathers of a raven, but the gentle magic of scented herbs to keep away misfortune or the use of crystals to bring good luck.

There is some of both in Practical Magic by Alice Hoffman. It is the story of the Owens sisters Sally and Gillian. They come from a long line of women with special powers. Men fall in love with their beauty in a heartbeat.  Fortune and misfortune follow them.

The two young sisters go to live with The Aunts after their parents die. The sisters are about as opposite as can be. Sally the older one is dark-haired and sensible and conscientious. Gillian is blonde and rebellious and idle.

The Aunts call them Night and Day.

The story follows the sisters growing up, finding love, and losing love. Then, after 18 years apart, when Gillian shows up on Sally's doorstep with a desperate secret, it becomes the story of how the sisters come together to handle the consequences.

But more than the spellbinding story is the language Ms. Hoffman uses to tell that story.  It is hypnotic. The images are dreamy. Full of sudden storms and slick toads in the garden and a lilac bush that blooms all year round. Twilight becomes the hour of sorrow. Lightning strikes bring grief and heartbreak. 

Be forewarned: In contrast to the rhythmic language, there are rough words and episodes of violence which I found to be quite jarring. Perhaps that was the point.

I have a vague memory of reading this book when it first was published in 1995, and I recall seeing the 1998 movie with Sandra Bullock and Nicole Kidman. I have rented the DVD and am ready to watch it again now that I have finished the book.

I wanted to reread Practical Magic upon hearing that Rules of Magic was published last October. It is Ms. Hoffman's story of The Aunts, their mother Maria, and how they came into their powers. I have now moved up to #8 on the library's reserve list for the book. I will eventually write about it here.

In the meantime, here is a sample of gentle counsel from Practical Magic:

If a woman is in trouble, she should always wear blue for protection. Blue shoes or a blue dress. A sweater the color of a robin's egg or a scarf the shade of heaven. A thin satin ribbon, carefully threaded through the white lace hem of a slip. Any of these will do. But if a candle burns blue, that is something else entirely, that's no luck at all, for it means there's a spirit in your house. And if the flame should flicker, then grow stronger each time the candle is lit, the spirit is settling in. Its essence is wrapping around the furniture and the floorboards, it's claiming the cabinets and the closets and will soon be rattling windows and doors.

Friday, February 16, 2018

Best Detective Stories by Cyril Hare

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Don't be put off by the bland cover of Best Detective Stories by Cyril Hare. There are treasures within. Thirty delicious tales of mistaken identity (and murder), legal shenanigans (and murder), slow-burning revenge (and murder), trickery (and murder), robbery (and murder). Oh, and did I mention murder?

How could I not love a book by an author with the name Cyril Hare? Actually, that is a pseudonym for British judge and crime writer Alfred Alexander Gordon Clark. He was born in 1900 and died just shy of his 58th birthday. He published nine mystery novels, one children's book, almost 40 short stories, a radio play, and two stage plays. Quite an output.

Many of his short mysteries appeared in the 1950s in London's Evening Standard. We are fortunate to have so many of them collected here.

Joan at Planet Joan put Cyril Hare on my radar. My library doesn't have a single one of his books, but I discovered a few Kindle editions on Amazon. This book of short mysteries was only 99 cents. In case you are interested, there are three of his crime novels available as ebooks as well. Two of those will run you a whopping $1.99 each. For some reason, his most famous book, Tragedy at Law, is $2.09. Still, it's a bargain.

I plan on trying one or two of his full-length mysteries. I am sure they are as entertaining as his short crime tales.

These stories are all written with a light touch. After reading the first few you know there is going to be a twist, but darned if you will be able to figure it out beforehand. Some are written in the first person and some are told by a third-person narrator. No matter who is telling the story, there is always a touch of wry humor. 

These are the perfect mysteries to read at night before turning out the light. 

Friday, February 9, 2018

Framed! by James Ponti

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Framed! by James Ponti is the perfect read-in-bed story and a welcome relief from the cares of the world. It offers intrigue, art thievery, the FBI, a look into foreign embassy protocol, and just a tinge of middle-school angst. 

The tale stars 12-year-old Florian Bates and his new friend Margaret. It's summer and Florian and his family have just moved to Washington DC after living in Italy for eight years. He is definitely the new kid on the block. His mom is an art conservator at the National Gallery and his father designs security systems. 

When three Impressionist works of art worth sixty-five million dollars disappear one night from the National Gallery, Florian uses his system of TOAST - Theory of All Small Things - to help solve the theft. He is like a young Sherlock Holmes. Florian looks at the tiny details, an accumulation of which lead to bigger truths. He uses the theory not only to solve the art theft but for daily guidance as well. It's fun to read his observations of tiny details and how he reaches bigger conclusions.

Florian was on the scene the night of the theft with his dad who had been called in to check the security systems. Based on Florian's  observations, Agent Marcus Rivers of the FBI was able to recover the paintings within a few hours. Then a fourth masterpiece is discovered to have been stolen and a forgery left hanging in its place. Another crime to solve.

Agent Rivers is quite impressed with Florian and decides to use him as an FBI 'covert asset'. Florian even gets a trip to Quantico, the FBI training center, where he learns a few defensive moves and what to do if he is ever kidnapped. (He wishes he had paid more attention to that last bit.) 

What 12-year-old wouldn't want to be in the FBI? Heck, I want to be in the FBI!

His friend Margaret caught on quickly when Florian explained TOAST and together they figure out who the mastermind is behind the thefts and the forgery. They create their own headquarters named The Underground and Margaret tags their crime-fighting organization FBI - Florian Bates Investigations.

This is such an entertaining read. It is witty and exciting and the two friends are kind and loyal to each other. The kids are smart, the adults believe in the kids' abilities, and the reader gets a small look into the ways of the FBI. All in all, a terrific story.

Best news yet. There is a second book, Vanished!, in which Florian and Margaret go undercover at a private school where the U.S. President's daughter is a student. It's already on my reserve list at the library.

Friday, February 2, 2018

The Family Vault by Charlotte MacLeod

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Charlotte MacLeod had quite a career as an author. She wrote two mystery series under her own name and two series as Alisa Craig. There are also stand alone mysteries and a biography of mystery grande dame Mary Roberts Rinehart.

I must say, however, that I was disappointed in The Family Vault, my introduction to Ms. MacLeod. This book is the first in a series with Sarah Kelling Kelling and art investigator Max Bittersohn. The action takes place in Boston in the upper-crust society of Beacon Hill.

Young Sarah Kelling is married to her much older cousin Alexander Kelling - hence the Kelling Kelling - and they live in faded elegance with Alexander's mother who, due to a swimming accident, is now blind and deaf. Despite the fact of the age difference (in itself cringe-worthy), Sarah does love Alexander. Her controlling mother-in-law, not so much.

The story opens in a cemetery with the discovery of the body of a murdered woman in the Kelling family vault. The investigation into that death leads Sarah to discover many more murders past and present. 

The reader is introduced to a profusion of eccentric family members (that I couldn't keep straight) and family friends who were not all that friendly. Finally, about half way through the story, the momentum picked up and eventually things don't end too badly for Sarah.  

Reviews online for the mystery (published in 1980) run from great to terrific, but I honestly can't see what all the hoopla is about. Perhaps as the series goes on - there are eleven more books - the people and plots smooth out. I found the inbred family atmosphere stifling and oppressive and was happy to see that Sarah does grow more gutsy as the tale progresses.

Of course, some of you may have had a different experience with Ms. MacLeod's books and I would be happy to hear from you. Perhaps this wasn't the best introduction to her, but for me this tale should have been titled The Family Fault.

Friday, January 26, 2018

A Year in Provence by Peter Mayle

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Peter Mayle
la vie en rose

I mentioned last week the recent death of author Peter Mayle. His novels and crime capers that mostly take place in the south of France are loads of fun. Since it is always appropriate to travel to France, I decided to reread his A Year in Provence and see how it held up after 30 years.

I am happy to report that it is still as funny and fresh as it was when it was first published in 1989. 

Mr. Mayle takes the reader through his first year after buying a home in the LubĂ©ron in Provence. Originally from England, he and his wife (I don't believe she is ever named) look forward to settling in to life in an area they had often visited. 

Things go well at first, but... 

Well, we start the tale in January and just as the ex-pats are thinking perhaps they will be enjoying their pool soon, the Mistral comes blowing across the region bringing frigid temperatures and the sound of bursting frozen water pipes. This, of course, leads to calling the plumber who is the first of many local characters who are introduced throughout the year.

In February, the area is covered in snow and they decide it would be wise to invest in central heating.  In March, they learn to deal with the random hours of the workmen hired to remodel the kitchen. There is also a lesson in truffle hunting. 

In April, friends of friends and acquaintances of acquaintances begin calling and hinting that they would love to come for a visit and houseguests begin to arrive. In May, the couple take to their bicycles and find it is a painful way to navigate the steep hills of the region.  

That is as far into the year as I have read. I savor one chapter/month each night before bed.

It is a pleasure to hang out with the couple and the many characters they meet as they make headway into becoming a part of the weft and warp of the culture. There is plenty of delicious food and wine as always and I enjoy reading Mr. Mayle's wry observations on life lived the French way.

There are two more books recounting his adventures — Toujours Provence and Encore Provence. More tales to look forward to.

If you haven't had a chance to read A Year in Provence or if it has been a while since you first read it, go ahead and pick it up. I don't think you will be disappointed. Besides, who doesn't want to spend a little time in Provence?

Friday, January 19, 2018

The Solace of Open Spaces by Gretel Ehrlich

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Perhaps it is because I have been snowbound for a week. Or, perhaps it is because of my marathon uncluttering project, but the title The Solace of Open Spaces appealed to me right away.

The book contains a series of personal essays written by Gretel Ehrlich during her sojourn in Wyoming - a state that certainly has its share of open spaces. 

She originally went to Wyoming in 1976 to film a documentary on the life of its sheepherders. While there, her lover and partner in the project died. She tried to outrun her grief for two years - first living in Santa Fe and then just moving restlessly about. She finally went back to Wyoming to live on a ranch at the foot of the Big Horn Mountains and that was when these essays - they began as journal entries - were written.

In lyrical prose she covers Wyoming's harsh topography and weather. She rides her horse every day to the tiny post office. She helps with birthing and shearing and all sorts of sheep related tasks. She regales the reader with stories of the cowboys, sheepherders, ranchers, hermits, and hoarders she meets. There are also elk, antelope, eagles, and bobcats. Definitely an eclectic mix of inhabitants and ones you will most likely not meet in your urban neighborhood.

There are twelve essays in the book. The one titled From a Sheepherder's Notebook is dreamy and poetic, covering her three days on horseback herding sheep from one feeding ground to another. She's a tougher woman than I am!

Here are two images from that essay that struck me:

About her sheep charges that cluster together and defiantly refuse to move in the heat: ...their heads knitted together into a wool umbrella.

and

As her friend drives away: Dust rises like an evening gown behind his truck.

Ms. Ehrlich has another book of personal essays The Islands, The Universe, Home. You can be sure it is on my list to be read.

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Je suis triste. I read this morning about the death of author Peter Mayle. He is probably most famous for A Year in Provence and Toujours Provence about his experiences relocating from London to the south of France. I have quite a few of his books on my shelves. I especially enjoyed his later crime caper novels as I do so love a humorous tale. I relished his writing style, his sense of humor, and the smattering of French phrases throughout his books. I have a feeling I will be rereading Mr. Mayle very soon. Au revoir, mon ami.