First, I picked up Sarah Addison Allen's first novel, Garden Spells, at Osondu Booksellers when I visited Waynesville, NC on vacation a month or so ago. When I was packing readables for my conference trip to Illinois, I happened to think of it, and I realized it might make good plane reading. I'm a horrible plane reader--bad concentration skills when I'm feeling cramped. Anyway, I started Garden Spells the moment my plane took off from Raleigh en route to Detroit for a layover, and by about 4:00 that afternoon I was lounging on a very large bed at the Chateau Hotel and I was done as done could be. If it's rare that I read on a plane, it's even rarer that I finish a book all in one day. I didn't really know what to expect from Garden Spells, but given that Nancy enjoyed it, I felt like I was in good hands.
The book is about sisters Claire and Sydney Waverly. Their family is considered weird in their hometown of Bascom, North Carolina. The Waverly's have...abilities...you see. They are not witches, just gifted. In the back yard of her big old Victorian home, Claire Waverly grows flowers with the power to affect the emotions of their eaters. She is a caterer and often crafts meals with the host's intentions in mind. Want your guests to focus on the good things in life? Fall in love? Just have Claire whip up some cupcakes topped with sugared violets or some ice cream with rose petals mixed in. Claire's sister Sydney hits the door running at the close of her adolescence and years later finds herself at the mercy of an abusive husband with a young daughter, Bay, to care for. Fates collide when Sydney returns to Bascom and the friends who once snubbed her, and Claire must learn to open up to people--her sister and the increasingly interested art professor next door.
This book reminded me very much of Alice Hoffman's writing in many ways. It's full of juicy, tactile details. I could almost taste, and could definitely imagine, all of the wonderful things Allen described. The smell and look of the garden, the roving eyes of the hot neighbor. You get the picture. In many ways the comparison to Hoffman extends past the style to the storyline as well, as Allen's plot reminded me very much of the movie version of Practical Magic. Not in the particular details, but in the feeling and flow of the story overall.
While it was pretty darn predictable, I really didn't care. I was totally immersed in Allen's world and the concerns of her characters. It certainly grabbed me by the nosehair and wouldn't let go until the final page. That's a high compliment! I'll be counting this one for Carl's Once Upon a Time Challenge since the fantastical elements were so strong. It definitely goes further than magical realism, in my opinion.
I was surprised to find Ceridwen Dovey's first novel, Blood Kin, at my door last week, and I was really excited. I heard about this one on NPR's Books podcast a while back, and the premise grabbed me. It's the story of a coup told from the outgoing President's barber, chef, and portraitist. The respective workers detail their lives caring for the president and their experiences when they're caught and imprisoned along with him as the regime changes. In addition to the workers' points of view, we also get additional information from the women in their lives.
I guess you could classify this book as something of a fable given there are no names and few details. It's an imaginary country and an imaginary political system, and it's plenty troubling in spots. I guess my big disappointment here was not so much in the style or premise, but specifically in the ending. There should've been a big ta-dah! type moment--a twist--but I was pretty let down by it. It didn't surprise me or impact me much, and I can't figure out if that's a by-product of the nameless characters and a lingering sense of distance from them, or if I just didn't get into the book as much as I normally would because I was in the midst of traveling. It's definitely not a warm and fuzzy story like Garden Spells, so it was harder to get involved.
Despite my lack of enthusiasm at the end of the novel, I appreciate Dovey's writing, and I think it's a great first effort. I'm looking forward to whatever else she comes up with. She seems a really interesting person, so take a few minutes to explore her website (linked above) and read her bio. She's incredibly accomplished at a relatively young age (my age, she makes me feel like a slacker!).
Check for a fuller review in the July issue of Estella's Revenge.
In an unexpected twisted of reading fate, I picked up the first in Neil Gaiman's Sandman series last night. I need something shortish and quick since Galatea 2.2 is so cerebral, so it seemed like just the thing. I'm making a play to finish up Carl's Once Upon a Time Challenge and I need to make some headway on Dewey's Graphic Novels Challenge, so this one fits the bill perfectly. And it's been on my shelves for a good five years now. So far, so good! I hope to finish it today or tomorrow at the latest.
I hope you all have a great Sunday full of books!