The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane

dsc_5618-4This novel (my third of 16+ to read in 2017) was another bargain-bin find which I snapped up at the beginning of January. The choice was a no-brainer. How could I resist the title, the cover illustration of aged parchment, herbs and an old key, plus reviews which promised “spine-tingling witchery”, “a captivating thriller of the hidden powers of women throughout the centuries” and “literary alchemy”? I dove right in, and, for the most part, wasn’t disappointed.

This debut novel by Katherine Howe (Hyperion, 2009), is set in New England in the early 1990s, with flashbacks to the Salem witch trials of 1692. (Howe claims to be a descendant of two trial victims – one who survived, and one who did not.) I was snared from the start by yet another case of the Stone Cottage Syndrome; I fall for this woman-inherits-old-fixer-upper plot every time. But there’s much more to the story, and it kept me turning the pages well into the wee hours.

Into the cauldron of delicious witchiness, Howe throws the discovery of a centuries-old relic and the search for a long-lost book of shadows, plant lore and spells, a taste of ivy-league academia, plus fascinating facts about the Puritans and what may have led to those 17th century witch trials – all the criteria, as far as I’m concerned, for a ripping good yarn.

I wanted to love this book, but found that, the farther in I got, I could only like it. There were times, however, when I was just plain irritated.

The first half of the story is well-paced and forms the bones of the book: a spooky thriller. But I feel that the author loses her way and allows events to bubble over the brim just a bit near the end. That’s not to say what’s left in the pot is a burnt mess; only that a tighter narrative and more judicious editing would have made for a rather more satisfying brew. But I cannot forgive Howe for making Connie, the heroine – a gifted Harvard PhD candidate – incredibly obtuse when presented with the most obvious of clues. I had the mystery figured out from the very first one (basic facts that a specialist in American colonial history like Connie couldn’t fail to know), but it takes her pages and pages before the lantern finally flickers on.dsc_5600-3

Those sins aside, I’m glad that I picked up this novel – happier still that I paid only $3 for it. (It was, by the way, originally published in the U.K. as The Lost Book of Salem, and retitled later.) And I’m willing to give Howe another try; her subsequent novels are The House of Velvet and Glass (2012), Conversion (2014) – which includes brief cameos by two Dane characters – and The Appearance of Annie van Sinderin (2015). She has also published The Penguin Book of Witches, a 2014 work of non-fiction.

Snow Good: Two satisfying winter reads

20170113_141853-2First Frost by Sarah Addison Allen (2014, St. Martin’s Press)

I was initially attracted to this bargain bin paperback’s cover image of a frosted rosy apple on weathered barn board and the synopsis on the back cover. In a modern yet genteel North Carolina college town of rambling, turreted old Queen Anne houses, Hallowe’en and the first frost of autumn approach. A family of eccentric women who handcraft magical confections from their herb garden is threatened by the ominous arrival of a mysterious stranger who may be every bit as powerful as the women themselves. When I read the author’s dedication, in which she refers to her work as ‘a strange little garden book’; I was pretty sure I was in for a good ride. Sold!

I loved this novel from the very first page. The story immediately brought to mind Practical Magic, Alice Hoffman’s 1995 book and the 1998 film starring Nicole Kidman and Sandra Bullock. Like that story, the Waverley women of First Frost have peculiar “gifts” which, in the eyes of the townspeople, mark them as odd and suspicious. Their magic is never malevolent, however, and each woman has her own way of using – or denying – her power. Their surroundings are also imbued with quirky magic: doors lock out those lacking inner peace, rooms spontaneously tidy themselves, and an ancient tree angrily lobs apples when it feels neglected. The main character, a teenaged daughter named Bay, has her own angst to deal with and choices to make. Will she accept her gift, or will she reject what she knows to be right and live to regret it? I was happy to find that this book is not a pale imitation of Practical Magic, but a well-crafted tale that follows its own lavender-lined path.

This story is rooted in the garden and kitchen, and is peppered with food imagery and exquisite description appealing to all the senses. Allen writes, “Simmering soup on a cold day was like filling a house with cotton batting.” Fallen leaves “looked like the world was covered in a cobbler crust of brown sugar and cinnamon.” And people’s moods are expressed in olfactory auras: the silvery-grey smoke of the mysterious stranger, and aloof Bay who “smelled like cold air and roses.” Insightful characters and a tight plotline kept me reading, and I was enchanted.

A bonus book-club section at the end of the novel offers opportunities for discussion, an epilogue following up on some secondary characters, and a few recipes featured in the story. There it’s revealed that First Frost is a sequel to Allen’s 1997 work, Garden Spells, which deals with the earlier years of the two oldest Waverley sisters. I’m conjuring it up on Amazon right now!

April Snow by Lillian Budd (1951, J.B. Lippincott Co.)

I’m also re-reading this old classic, which is set on a snowy, windswept island in 19th century Sweden. I first read April Snow as a teenager and was drawn to the resolute tenacity of its main character, a peasant woman named Sigrid. Life is hard on her isolated farm, and her lazy, selfish husband’s affections wane with the birth of each of their eleven children. In quiet rebellion, Sigrid harnesses her vibrant creativity, faith and hope to cope with the rigors of farm life and a loveless marriage, all the while staying true to her heritage. Although the prose is simple and rather stilted at times, this novel is a fascinating insight into Swedish tradition and culture, and, if you can snag a copy, is well worth a read.

Lady Mary’s Swell Novella

20161222_101055-4If you’ve read my book reviews or lists, you’ll have caught on to the fact that I’m an avid Mary Stewart fan. My mother introduced me to Stewart’s work when I was a teen, and I fell in love with her five Arthurian novels (The Crystal Cave through The Prince and the Pilgrim) as well as the delightful series of romantic travel thrillers at which this British author excelled.

I love them all, but my favourites include The Ivy Tree (1961, superbly-written and one of her more complicated plots), The Gabriel Hounds (1967), Touch Not the Cat (1976), Stormy Petrel (1991) and Rose Cottage (1997, her last published work). These tightly-written suspense tales feature smart, adventurous women who set off to exotic locales in which nefarious criminals menace, mysteries need solving, and dashing heroes, well, dash — all amidst ancient Provençal ruins, Greek islands, or crumbling palaces in the Lebanon. The stories are well-researched, swiftly-paced and always end happily. Just what the gothic romance-minded armchair traveller ordered!

I still remember the year I received Thornyhold (1988), my all-time favourite, for Christmas. That evening, after the merrymaking was over and comfy pj’s were donned, I snuggled into our plush wing chair and lost myself in the magical world of English country cottages, white witches and herb-filled stillrooms. The next day, I read it again. Every year or so, when the moment is quiet and I can’t face the stack of unread new novels which sit mockingly beside my bed, I open one of Stewart’s well-thumbed paperbacks and travel down those dusty, lavender-strewn paths once again.

Sadly, there will never be another new work from this beloved author. Lady Mary Stewart, who was born Mary Florence Elinor Rainbow in 1916 and whose husband was a knight, died in 2014. But, as I was thrilled to recently discover, there was yet one book in Stewart’s romantic suspense canon that I’d never heard of, let alone read!

20161221_122901-4The Wind Off the Small Isles is a novella first published in 1968. At under 100 pages, this slim work has long been out of print and was never published in North America, which accounts for why I didn’t know of its existence. To celebrate what would have been the author’s 100th birthday, her longtime publisher, Hodder & Stoughton, reissued the novella earlier this year in a new hardcover edition. I ordered a copy at once; it’s available here. In no time flat, this little novel flew with the wind across The Pond and landed on my doorstep as an early Yuletide gift to myself.

I read the book yesterday in one sitting (whilst enjoying tea and a few coconut-covered “snowballs”) and was not disappointed. The story features another of Stewart’s signature settings – this time, the Canary Islands, where lava fields stretch barrenly to azure seas and dragon trees ooze red sap. (Walnut Whips strike again! I read this book just a few days after writing about these trees and their dragon’s blood resin.) A century-old tragedy, a perilous disaster, pirates and a new love all play out in the story’s compact but efficiently-told arc; Stewart even references a character I recognized from a previous novel. The author’s adept descriptive skill transported me to the tropical island, and I could taste the salt air and feel the gritty volcanic ash on my skin.

The Wind Off the Small Isles, which can also (rarely) be found in used paperback, is a masterful little story that any fan will want to own. I’m so grateful that the publisher decided to give this work another go. Should you read it, however, I offer two words of caution:

1. If you don’t like spoilers, don’t read the back cover. Perplexingly, it gives everything away.
2. Once you start reading Lady Mary’s works, you won’t be able to stop.

Speaking of Stewart’s canon, there are also three children’s novels and a collection of poetry which I have yet to track down:  The Little Broomstick (1971), Ludo and the Star Horse (1974), A Walk in Wolf Wood (1980) and Frost on the Window: Poems (1990).

Happy Travelling, Happy Reading!

Plants from the Past: Nine volumes for apothecary-herbalists

20160924_111926-3Most of these books have huddled happily together in my library for years. I really only use them occasionally, especially when I need to look up an
archaic reference or remedy. All, however, contain fascinating information on the history, properties and applications of therapeutic, ornamental and culinary plants  ̶  invaluable for herbalists, gardeners and anyone interested in traditional folk medicine.

  1. Herbs in the Middle Ages by Evelyn Meagher (Grant Printing, 1983). In the preface to this slim booklet, the author quotes a medieval herbalist commenting on his own observations, “Most of these I am confident are true, and if there be any that are not so – yet they are pleasant.” How well that must have summed up the extent of 12th century medical wisdom! Brief but interesting facts are given on monastery, royal and kitchen gardens, the development of herbals (reference books of plant knowledge), symbolism, medieval beliefs, food and customs, archaic plant names and a list of herbal remedies used long before modern therapeutics were known. Check used & out-of-print book services.
  1. Plants from the Past: Old Flowers for New Gardens by David Stuart & James Sutherland (Penguin, 1989). “Even the most modern garden can be full of history.” The first part is a gardening history from ancient Mesopotamia to English cottage gardens of the 19th The rest is an extensive list of plant “antiques” which graced the flowerbeds of yesteryear but still work well in today’s modern plots. Includes photos and illustrations. Available new & used from Amazon.
  1. Proven Herbal Remedies by John H. Tobe (Provoker Press, 1969). This volume also gives a comprehensive history of herb use from ancient times to the present. The notes on the flyleaf, however, state, “It is important that you remember that, unlike drugs, these natural healing herbs bring you their healing benefits without doing you any harm whatsoever.” We know now, of course, that herbs are drugs, and sometimes quite powerful ones, so they should always be used with common sense and caution. The author zealously defends the individual’s right to choose his or her own type of treatment, whether it be herbalism (“mankind’s oldest form of healing”) or more modern methods; the rant goes on at length and becomes rather tiresome. (The publisher’s name is a good clue.) However, the book does include a long list of plants and the ailments they’re supposed to treat, plus sections on the different forms of medicinal preparations, a glossary of terms and tables of doses, weights and measures. Tobe also discusses herbal teas and methods for plant gathering and preservation. Text only. Check used & out-of-print book services.
  1. A companion book to the television series of the same name, The Victorian Flower Garden by Jennifer Davies (BBC Books, 1991) brings the garden plots of the nineteenth century to life. Davies was the associate producer and researcher for a trilogy of PBS series, all of which featured the expertise and reminiscences of Harry Dodson, longtime head gardener at an estate in Chilton Foliat, Wiltshire. Highly detailed information is given on Victorian flowerbeds, herbaceous borders, wild gardens, greenhouses and conservatories, and the craze for cut flowers, flower shows, orchids, ferns and roses. The charming “language of flowers” is discussed as well as the Victorian preoccupation with death and memorial flowers. Lots of beautiful illustrations and photos. Available new & used from Amazon.
  1. Guide to Medicinal Plants by Paul Schauenberg & Ferdinand Paris (Keats Publishing, 1990) was originally published in French in the 1970s. The plants presented in this book are grouped by the substances they contain, such as alkaloids, vitamins, antibiotics, flavonoids, oils, resins and tannins. A true guidebook, it lists the Latin and common names, origin, range, habitat, description, active constituents, properties and applications for each species. There are also herbal recipes, a brief list of famous figures in the history of medicine, a glossary of botanical terms, and a list of maladies and the plants to treat them. Pretty botanical illustrations in colour round out this intriguing collection, which I have referred to time and again while writing a novel featuring a wise woman in Dark Ages Britain. Available new & used from Amazon.
  1. Herbs in Ontario: How to grow and use 50 herbs by Charlotte Erichsen-Brown (Breezy Creeks Press, 1975) is another bare-bones, illustration-free booklet that delivers exactly what it promises. The most common kitchen garden herbs are here, plus instructions on making a Tudor knot garden as well as potpourri, sweet bags and tussie mussies. Check used & out-of-print book services.
  1. World of Herbs by Lesley Bremness (Ebury Press, 1990) outlines the use of seeds, leaves, flowers, roots, bulbs and essential oils in culinary, cosmetic, medicinal, household and decorative applications. There are some recipes scattered throughout. The section on essential and carrier oils is particularly helpful, as it points out which ones are skin- and food-safe. (For the record, I would neverknowingly ingest an essential oil.) Mostly text with a few decorative and not particularly useful line drawings. Available new & used from Amazon.
  1. Edible & Medicinal Plants of Canada by MacKinnon et al. (2009) is one of many nature guides issued by Lone Pine Publishing. Categories include trees, shrubs, vines, herbs, sedges and grasses, ferns and poisonous plants with a photograph for each species. As the title suggests, their historical, traditional and modern uses as food, drink and medicine are discussed, as well as other applications (past or present) such as smoking, tinder, spiritualism and superstition, furniture and construction, clothing and bedding, dyes and more. Toxicity and contraindications are also covered. Note: Peterson and National Geographic publish similar guides which I haven’t yet had the pleasure to read. Available in bookshops and new & used from Amazon.
  1. I recently purchased The Complete Book of Incense, Oils & Brews by Scott Cunningham (Llewellyn Publications, 2016; originally published 1989). Reviews on the back cover tout this book as a “magical cookbook” and “a natural, Earth-oriented approach to magic that should make readers more aware of their connection to the Earth Mother and all of her children.” Indeed, the focus (I really, really want to say hocus-pocus focus) is on using herbs and herbal preparations for ritual magic, which Cunningham defines as “the use of natural energies to bring about needed change”. The main chapters of the book are devoted to incense, oils, ointments, inks, tinctures, herb baths, bath salts, brews, sachets, charms and powders, with some recipes and helpful information on scent combining, artificial ingredients and substitutions. Here you will also learn about more obscure plant and animal materials such as ambergris, civet, copal and storax. Mostly text with a few decorative line drawings. Available new, used & in Kindle format from Amazon.20160924_110913-9

Of course, there are many more beautiful herbals and guides out there; I’ll follow up with a personal wish list of the ones I’d love to get my hands on!

The Stone Cottage Syndrome

I’m attracted to stories in which the protagonist (usually a woman who’s divorced, widowed or otherwise on her own) flees her city life and heads deep into the British countryside or to a far-flung island to work through grief, research a paper, write a book, or inherit a deceased relative’s dilapidated cottage. Even before she crosses the sagging threshold, the heroine struggles to cope with the challenges of unfamiliar surroundings, eccentric villagers and the surly yet handsome neighbour who lives in tortured angst down the dank, hedgerowed lane. As our fish-out-of-water negotiates how to repair her leaky roof or feed the wheezing coin-operated boiler (encountering mysteries, ghosts and the occasional moonlit pagan ritual along the way), as she unblocks chimneys and scrubs ancient grime from the massive oak worktop, she gradually sweeps away the dusty echoes of the house’s – and her own – past. And as she cleans up the mess of her own life, she helps her odd neighbours come to terms with their respective wounds and secrets.

I call this recurring fixer-upper theme the Stone Cottage Syndrome. It’s not so much a syndrome as a device many authors I’ve read seem to use. It could very well be considered cliché, but, if done right, this motif can set a scene that’s both wildly romantic and hauntingly eerie. In other words, right up my ivy-covered alley.

DSC_7967 (7)From my bookshelf are some novels which use the cobweb-clearing Stone Cottage device to very satisfying effect:

  1. Stormy Petrel by Mary Stewart, who’s permanently entrenched near the top of my list of favourite authors. The main characters of Stewart’s adventure romance novels – intelligent and determined females all – find mystery, peril and love in foreign climes. This one takes place on an isolated Hebrides island with no motorcars and post that comes by ferry thrice a week. (Hodder and Stoughton, 1991)
  2. Running Wild by Victoria Clayton. Leaving her unsuitable fiancé at the altar, the main character flees to a decrepit cottage in Dorset. (Orion 2001)
  3. As with Thornyhold (which I’ve discussed before but easily belongs in this category as well), the first time I read Mary Stewart’s Rose Cottage, I devoured it in a couple of hours and immediately went back for a second helping. And I learned what a green baize door is; you can’t have a proper English country house without one. (William Morrow, 1997)
  4. Mandy by Julie Edwards (otherwise known as singer/actress Julie Andrews) is a sweet children’s novel about a young English girl who stumbles upon and secretly fixes up an empty cottage and its overgrown garden. Shell rooms, wildflowers and plucky orphans – what could be better?! (Harper & Row, 1971)
  5. Speaking of resourceful kids, my next selection features three of them, stranded in Wales during a heavy blizzard. Snowed Up by Rosalie K. Fry (who also wrote The Secret of Roan Inish) doesn’t have an adult lead character, but young cousins who must work together to survive a frightening night in a freezing, abandoned stone farmhouse. This book made a huge impression on me when I was a kid and has survived many a zealous purge, remaining with me to this day. Plus, this tale taught me the meaning of the word ‘swede’. (Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 1970)
  6. When it comes to meticulously researched historical romance and superb storytelling, Ontario’s Susanna Kearsley is hands-down my favourite author. (BTW, this blog is a Harlequin-free zone; no ripped bodices and heaving bosoms here. Ever.) Beginning with her first novel, Mariana, each story features an element of time-slipping, ghosts or past-life regression. But, like the zombies of The Walking Dead, these suspension-of-disbelief devices take a backseat to the real story, which is about actual historical events – and true love. In The Winter Sea (Allison & Busby, 2008), my favourite of her works, all of these are expertly combined in a remote cottage setting, and there’s even a derelict Scottish castle thrown in for good measure. This story riveted me from the get-go, and I wept at the end. For half an hour. As if that weren’t enough, The Firebird (2014) is the sequel to The Winter Sea, and both share ties with 1997’s The Shadowy Horses. Go read these, and all of Kearsley’s books. Posthaste.

Honourable Mention:  In Veil of Time by Claire R. McDougall, not only does the heroine find herself holed up in a remote cottage complete with ancient standing stones, she astrally projects (in a cool, totally believable way) to 8th century Scotland as well. Many parts of this novel were entertaining, but I found the ending a tad abrupt and disappointing. (Gallery Books, 2014)

Cauldron Bubble: 7 best books featuring wisewomen, witches and woad

DSC_8657 (3)Fragrant bunches of rosemary and thyme, hung to dry from the beams of a thatched monastery workshop. An old village healer, stirring mandrake into a simmering potion as her lovestruck client looks anxiously on. The nurse with an interest in botany, searching for a rare medicinal plant amongst ancient stones. Girls warding off evil spirits with curses from their Book of Shadows.

Any novel featuring such characters or scenes has me from the faded title on its well-thumbed front cover. An introverted and highly impressionable youngster, I always had my nose buried in a book, often sneaking reads by flashlight long past bedtime. I was entranced by the, er, charms of fantasy and historical fiction, especially if those stories involved herb-growing, mortar and pestle-wielding, spell-casting crones. I longed to be there with them, in that dimly-lit herbarium, grinding exotic cardamom to a fine powder and concocting chilblain-busting salves. My fascination with herbs and, more widely, things mystical and magickal, owes a great deal to these shiveringly evocative tales.

The very same volumes which kindled such sparks within me as a child and young adult still grace my dusty bookshelves today, alongside more recent and equally entertaining efforts. On the parchment below, in no particular order (I cherish them all), I hereby enscribe my seven favorite witchy works:

  1. The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare (Dell, 1958). A wise woman and her young apprentice, both social outcasts, face prejudice, ignorance and accusations of witchcraft in 17th century New England. 1959 Newbery Medal winner for best American children’s literature.
  2. Double Spell by Janet Lunn (Peter Martin Associates, 1968). This spooky mystery involving an antique doll takes place in my native Toronto. Not a lot of witchery here, but … Toronto!
  3. Victoria by Barbara Brooks Wallace (Dell, 1972). A huge influence on my preteen self, this coming-of-age novel makes delicious use of an isolated boarding school, secret societies and a little black book.
  4. Mary Stewart’s Merlin trilogy, The Crystal Cave / The Hollow Hills / The Last Enchantment (Hodder and Stoughton, 1970 / 1973 / 1979). The Arthurian legend masterfully told from the wizard’s perspective.
  5. Brother Cadfael, a 12th century crusader-turned-healer/monk, steeps herbs and solves murders in The Cadfael Chronicles, Ellis Peters’ prolific series, beginning with A Morbid Taste for Bones (Macmillan, 1977). Perfectly interpreted for 1990s British TV by the great Derek Jacobi.
  6. Thornyhold by Mary Stewart (Hodder and Stoughton, 1988) blends some of the best and most effective ingredients into the brew: plucky, resourceful woman, deserted English cottage, herb-filled stillroom, ghosts and a gall-darned happy ending. A clue to the book’s magickal motif comes from the heroine’s name – Geillis (Gilly) – a traditional moniker for a witch. Reference is made to real-life Geillis Duncane, who was tried for witchcraft in 16th century Edinburgh.
  7. Geillis Duncan appears again, this time alongside time-travelling healer Claire and her Scottish wonder, James Alexander Malcolm MacKenzie Fraser, in Diana Gabaldon’s outrageously popular Outlander book and TV series (Delacore Press, 1991). [Haven’t heard enough about Outlander yet? Dinna fash! I may just mention it a wee bit more!]