Hocus Pocus & The All New Sequel by A. W. Jantha (2018)

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I adore hokey holiday-themed movies…absolutely adore them. Not only to watch with my kids (although they do watch with me sometimes), but to enjoy all by myself several times each season. Among my favorites: the 1993 Halloween movie Hocus Pocus. Admittedly campy and over-acted, nonetheless I love to watch it at least ten times each October.

So, when I was shopping in Target this Fall and saw this book, I could not resist buying it. The book contains two sections: section one is a word-for-word recreation of the 1993 movie; and section two is a newly imagined sequel to the movie and the basis for a new Disney Channel original movie to air October 2019.

On Halloween night 1993 in Salem, Massachusetts, Max Dennison and Allison Watts unwittingly awoke three long-dead witches and had to fight to keep the witches from killing all of the children in Salem. In the (unnamed) sequel, we fast-forward twenty-five years and head back to Salem, Massachusetts where we Max and Allison married and parenting their seventeen-year-old  daughter, Poppy Dennison.

Poppy has been raised knowing the story of the Sanderson witches and her parents battle to stop them. Although her parents do not publicize their belief in witches and magic, Poppy knows they fear Halloween and worry constantly that people ignorant of the Sanderson Sisters powers will accidentally conjure them once more. In order to keep Poppy safe, her parents demand she follow strict rules during the Halloween season and forbid her from visiting the Sanderson sisters home, which still stands alongside the town’s ancient cemetery.

Now almost an adult, Poppy has her doubts about her parent’s tale and finds herself bristling under her parents rules. She is sick of feeling outcast by her friends for her parent’s weird anti-Halloween obsession. When Isabella, the girl she has a desperate crush on, shows up at her house on Halloween night with a Ouija board, daring Poppy to come use it in the Sanderson house, Poppy agrees. Dragging along her best friend Travis — a science nerd who absolutely does not believe in ghosts — Poppy steals the keys to the house from her parents safe and leads the trio into the cemetery.

The trouble begins almost immediately, it seems as if the cemetery is trying to prevent them from reaching the Sanderson house, and once there Isabella admits she does not actually want to play a game but rather use the Sanderson sister’s spell-book to cast spells. Going against all of her parents rules (and her better judgement) Poppy agrees and the three cast a spell that causes an whirlwind to tear through the house.

The whirlwind is so strong it alerts Poppy’s parents who arrive and are instantly caught up in the spell; they disappear just as the witches reappear. Now armed with only the book, the three teens must find a way to prevent the witches from causing more damage, find a way to send them back to their graves, and bring Poppy’s parents back.

A fun sequel to a story I love, with lots of modern details that make it feel familiar but fresh. My 13-year-old also loved the story and we agree the movie is a must-watch once it airs.

 

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The Daughters of Temperance Hobbs by Katherine Howe (2019)

Sequel to The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane 

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Ten years after her wonderful, haunting book, The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane,  Katherine Howe has written a sequel revealing more secret stories about the women in historian Connie Goodwin’s family. When reviewing the first installment of Connie’s story, I wrote this summary; “two interwoven stories: one of a witch on trial in Salem in 1692 and one of a modern-day historian who studies colonial America, which combine into one haunting tale filled with secrets and magic.”

Since discovering that special knowledge and abilities have been passed down matrilineally in her family for centuries, Connie’s own possession of these skills was established when she had to use her ancestors’ “recipes” (or spells) to keep herself and her boyfriend safe in the first book.

In the ten years that have passed, Connie has only revealed these talents to her mother. The further away she moves from those terrifying events, the more outrageous it seems that what happened was “magic” at all. Immersed in the hectic, stressful life of an academic with thoughts of spells and conjuring far behind her, Connie she has moved on…or so she believes.

When a visit to the ancient home that has housed her female ancestors and their magic since the 1700’s, she feels a stirring of something other-worldly. Connie reveals to her mother that her boyfriend wants to marry her but she is deeply ambivalent about such a commitment. Her mother confirms that Connie is right to be fearful; after all the women in their family live under a curse that means their beloved husbands will die horrible deaths as young men, often right after they become fathers.

Despite her mother’s insistence that she break thing off with her boyfriend, Connie refuses. Curses, she rationalizes, do not exist. Although Sam had nearly died when Connie first fell in love with him, he had recovered. She wants to ignore her mother, but the warnings of curses and deaths haunt Connie.

When mysterious things begin happening, Connie soon thinks there might, indeed, be magic stirring once again. Determined to prove to her mother and herself that the curse is not real, Connie turns to the historical record left by her mysterious female relatives.

Connie is certain that facts — wills, birth records, family trees, letters, and such — will show that the curse is not real, that men in her family can and did live long, happy lives. The opposite is proven. None of the men lived long after their wives gave birth, always to a daughter.

Her worry turns frantic when she learns she is pregnant. Now Connie must reopen the recipe books of her ancestors to try to find a spell that can undo the curse before she has a baby and seals her beloved Sam’s fate.

A great sequel overall, although it does get a bit bogged down in the beginning chapters with dull descriptions of academic bureaucracy. The tempo soon picks up and resolves into a thrilling conclusion. As with Deliverance Dane, Howe uses her professional knowledge of history to paint vivid flash-back scenes starring Connie’s  relatives, which give the story depth and levity that might otherwise be missing in a book about witches.

Evvie Drake Starts Over by Linda Holmes (2019)

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Evvie Drake finally worked up the courage to leave her terrible husband. As it turns out, the day she picked finally leave him was the very day he died in a car accident. The year that follows is a dark one for Evvie, not because she is mourning her husband, but because she must pretend to mourn him and that deception sinks her into a terrible depression.

When her best-friend Andy asks her to rent the apartment on her coastal Maine property to a friend of his, Evvie hesitates. She has grown used to her quiet, empty days of not-mourning her dead husband. Andy tells her it would be an act of generosity to open her home to this man: he is a once-famous baseball pitcher who suddenly and spectacularly stopped being able to throw a ball and watched his career come crashing down around him.

Moved by the plight of the disgraced baseball star, Evvie agrees to take in Dean Teeney. She is taken aback to realize that Dean is a very handsome, very charismatic man who she feels instantly drawn to. Sickened to be thinking of Dean while still pretending to be grief-stricken, Evvie buries her feelings deep.

The two quickly develop a friendship that grows stronger and more intimate as time passes. Eventually, Evvie reveals her true feelings toward her asshole ex-husband and Dean opens up about the humiliation of losing his career. Still refusing to face the truth about her own emotional problems — and still refusing to move on from the unhappy life she had with her now-dead husband and her pretend mourning — Evvie decides she will invest her time in improving Dean’s life.

Energized by having a “project” (that is not her own life,) Evvie concocts a plan restore Dean to his former pitching glory. However, the harder she pushes, the rockier their relationship grows. Soon it becomes clear that diverting her attention from her own issues to Dean’s does not make her troubles disappear, nor does it make for a promising start to a new romance.

City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert (2019)

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Vivian is a spoiled, sheltered socialite whose life has been limited to experiences and relationships of her wealthy parents choosing. She has given little thought to things other than her looks, her clothes, and her partying since her teens and finds herself deeply uninterested in the hardships or complexities of life.

When her parents send her to New York City to live with her loving but seldom-seen Aunt Peg, Vivian embarks on the adventure of a lifetime. Peg’s building houses a ramshackle theater and several floors of apartments lived in by various down-and-out showgirls, musicians, writers, and bohemians. There, Vivian meets a more colorful cast of characters than she could have imagined just a few months before: openly gay couples, showgirls who sell sex to keep their dreams of Broadway alive, writers and actors who drink round the clock, and all manner of people ignoring the rules of society.

Although the Depression has affected others in her orbit, Vivian remains woefully ignorant of the plight of those less fortunate than herself. And though she has heard of the war in Europe, she cannot possibly imagine that is has anything to do with her life.

The glamour and wildness that has captivated her since her arrival is taken to new heights when Peg and company decide to write, score, and star in an original show that has the potential to become a hit.

Everyone realizes that the play has the potential to be huge — to make stars of them all, to make money for the struggling theater — and the higher stakes lead to greater drama. Calls for moderation go ignored and despite a host of warning signs, the group ecstatically plunges forward with a production growing more elaborate by the day. Drinking, drugs, fighting, and chaos become the norm and what few rules were being followed go out the window.  Despite the blinders Vivian tries to keep in place, wider world — including the World War II —  begins to intrude.

Recursion by Blake Crouch (2019)

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Barry Sutton and Helena Smith have never met and will never meet; in this version of reality, anyway. When we first meet these two main characters, Helena is a world-class neuroscientist in California and Barry is a cop in New York City and it seems inconceivable that the two should ever meet. Then in 2018 — or, the first time the two live through 2018 — the ground-breaking research that Helena is working leads to an unimaginable discovery, a discovery that will have horrific consequences.

Flashback’s show us Barry, busy living his (not that great) life, while Helena was feverishly working to create a medical device that could help Alzheimer patients preserve their rapidly fading memories. While she had the theoretical knowledge of the brain, she did not have the funding to build such a device. Enter a mysterious billionaire who hires Helena and provides her with millions of dollars to create her “chair;” a device that will allow doctors to record memories and then replay inside the brains of patients.

Except, the billionaire has no plans to use the chair for good. He has foreseen the potential Helena’s creation has to allow man to travel back through time and reap the benefits of future knowledge. Once it becomes clear what is in store for her research, Helena tries to destroy the chair, but she is too late. Once the chair successfully allows people to go back in time and manipulate history, there is suddenly no outcome in which the billionaire cannot anticipate her moves and stop her.

Barry enters the picture when he begins investigating a mysterious illness — called FMS or False Memory Syndrome — that is affecting people across New York. People are waking up and suddenly remembering not one but two sets of lifelong memories. Terrified that they cannot tell what is real and what is imagined — for the two sets of memories are equally realistic — people are committing suicide to escape from the confusion. Barry unwittingly uncovers the mind-manipulation and time travel plots and soon becomes ensnared in the stop-reset-restart game Helena is playing against her former boss.

With the fate of the entire world in their hands, Barry and Helena team up to try to rewrite history to erase the chair and FMS for good, but it turns out to be a far more grueling and hard-fought battle then they ever could have imagined.

This book is a science-fiction novel that goes all-in on the “science,” spending a large majority of the story trying to convince readers of the accuracy and believability of its time travel and memory-manipulation themes. However, the story really shines in its more human moments, when it details the characters struggles to cope with — and ultimately reverse — what has happened. Overall a great read that will thrill readers as much as Crouch’s previous best-selling sci-fi novel, Dark Matter.

 

 

A Better Man by Louise Penny (2019)

Chief Inspector Armand Gamache Series Book #15 (Three Pines Mysteries)

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Armand Gamache has once again returned to the page for the fifteenth installment in Louise Penny’s outstanding Three Pines mystery series. In A Better Man, Armand has finally weathered the storm caused by his actions in Glass Houses and in the opening pages he returns both to Montreal and the Surete du Quebec Homicide division ready to investigate crimes across the Quebec province. Only this time, Armand is not the Superintendent of the Surete but once again the Chief Inspector of Homicide, reporting to his former-subordinate, Jean Guy Beauvoir. While this demotion is meant to humiliate and humble Gamache, it does neither as Armand is happy to work with such a seasoned and dedicated homicide investigator and friend.

A Better Man does not begin with a murder, but rather a missing persons case that should be handled by another division or even a local police department. However, the missing woman is known to a member of the homicide division who is insistent that Armand Gamache personally help her handle the search.

With Jean Guy Beauvoir‘s approval, Gamache heads to a rural town not far from his beloved Three Pines to search for a missing pregnant woman who is married to a man widely known to beat her and almost certainly has murdered her. Except…except, Armand warns first one junior officer after another, they cannot assume that the husband is guilty, they must prove it beyond a doubt. At every turn the investigative team makes assumptions, misses evidence, acts with overconfidence and impatience, and rushes to act as “judge, jury and — possibly — executioner.”

These assumptions and mistakes do not stop with the less experienced officers, but begin to also plague Armand, Jean Guy, and their former partner Isabelle Lacoste. They are so convinced they are looking for a murder victim and that they know who her killer is, that corners are cut and, as a result, missing woman may never be found and a potential killer might very well go free.

Penny once again brings her wonderfully rich, complex, and intricately drawn characters to life and forces them to confront their own demons, prejudices, and fears as they try to dissect those of the men and women they hunt. In this installment, we see her employ a few new nuances — such as a thrilling courtroom scene — that add some fresh dynamics to her familiar story patterns. Another fabulous novel by a master storyteller and not to be missed.

Magic For Liars by Sarah Gailey (2019)

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Magic for Liars brings readers a jaded Private Investigator’s tale blended with a touch of Harry Potter (imagine a deep dive into the rift between Lily and Petunia Evans, set in another magical boarding school) to create a immensely enjoyable fantasy/mystery mash-up.
     Our narrator is Ivy Gamble a PI living on the margins — lonely, broke, sick of her sleazy clientele — not far from the bottom. Her only family are a grief-stricken father and a twin sister, Tabitha, whom she has not spoken to for more than fourteen years. Her sister is no ordinary woman, however, but a powerful mage who lives in a parallel but hidden world for people of magic. While she wishes her sister was never on her mind, the truth is that she seethes with rage at the unfairness of it all. To be the one with nothing — no magic, no power, no success — while her sister has it all has embittered Ivy.
     When a mage arrives on her doorstep, asking Ivy to travel to a boarding school for magical children to investigate the death of a teacher there, Ivy is shocked. Why would the school need (or want) a non-magical PI to look into the case? Surely, she reasons, far more worldly people than her, with skills far surpassing her own mundane ones, must be better suited.  The mage insists Ivy is just who she needs: a non-magical person who has some basic understanding of the magical world, but who is removed enough to have a fresh perspective.
     When she is told the school is also her sister’s employer and her home, Ivy agrees in an instant. Since Tabitha left their small town for boarding school, Ivy has ached to know more about the world she was denied entrance to, a world that was just out of reach but tantalizingly possible. This is her chance to be allowed to look behind the curtain and see what she missed.
     From the moment she steps onto the hallowed, hidden grounds of Osthorne Academy, Ivy is haunted by a unsettling intense sense of “double vision.” She wanders the halls and can almost glimpse the life that could have been — should have been — hers. Split from her twin by her lack of magic, she feels echos of their almost-connection everywhere, even before she sees her sister.
     Being there and seeing so many with so much power leaves Ivy nearly paralyzed with jealousy and loneliness.  Why not her? Why was only Tabitha chosen? Ivy’s anger and envy leave her edgy and mistrusting. Not being able to do magic and not being able to detect when other people are using it against her amplifies how far on the outside she feels.  She’s especially frustrated that kids as young as fourteen have a power she knows nothing about and can never wield.
     She begins her investigation into the death cautiously, never really sure if she is being manipulated by magic. More than once Ivy compares being the only non-mage among them to having to “expose her underbelly,” highlighting just how vulnerable she feels.
     These feelings of inadequacy do not stop Ivy. In fact, the harder she works to convince herself (and readers) that she’s not envious, the clearer it becomes just how deep her feelings run and just how much her anger is motivating her to solve the case.
     Her sister reaches out and after some awkwardness, the two being to forge a tentative relationship. Ivy is staggered by how much she wants Tabitha back in her life and, in her haste to repair things between them, she begins to allow some aspects of her investigation to lapse…namely, the role her sister might have played in the death.
     The longer she stays at Osthorne, the clearer it becomes that only a few people know she is non-magical. This gives Ivy the nerve to begin acting as though she is magical, too. She is secretly thrilled to be welcomed in by the staff and students as one of “them” and she loses sight of how little she knows about their world and about how dangerous magic can be in the hands someone inexperienced. The happiness she feels when she fits in throws into even sharper contrast her real life with its “aching loneliness.”
     Despite her deception, Ivy uncovers events connected to the death and spooks someone at the school. When she begins receiving messages to watch her step, she knows for certain she is looking for a murderer. How, she wonders, is she going to outsmart someone who can do magic?