Halloween is just around the corner, and we’ve just survived an October Friday the 13. Spooky! October is for witches, ghosts, and the unexplained. It’s for fog and lightning and the feeling that anything can happen. Readers who’ve had your costumes on since 12:01am on October 1, this week’s book club is for you; filled with the supernatural and scary, these new novels are guaranteed to get your pulse — and your imagination — racing.
1. The Rules of Magic by Alice Hoffman ($28): If Hoffman’s name sounds familiar, it’s because she’s the author of one of the most popular witchcraft novels of all time; Practical Magic was a smash hit, leaving readers spellbound with the powers of the Owens sisters and spawning a movie starring Sandra Bullock and Nicole Kidman. In the original, sisters Sally and Gillian must ramp up their powers to try to prevent a curse that causes any man in their lives to meet a disastrous fate. They’re aided by magical grand dames Aunt Franny and Aunt Jet. Now, more than 20 years later, Hoffman’s back with another Owens tale, this one a prequel about Fanny and Jet (short for Bridget) coming of age in 1960s New York.
The family story and curse began with Maria Owens, who had arrived Massachusetts in the late 1600s, but some of the family chose to try to escape, like Susanna Owens, moving to Paris and then New York. Franny, Jet, and their eerily charismatic brother Vincent were told nothing of their heritage or potential power, and had never met a single relative other than their parents. “Susanna felt she had no choice but to set down rules. No walking in the moonlight, no Ouija boards, no candles, no red shoes, no wearing black, no going shoeless, no amulets, no night-blooming flowers, no reading novels about magic, no cats, no crows, and no venturing below Fourteenth Street. Yet no matter how Susanna tried to enforce these rules, the children continued to thwart her. They insisted upon being unusual.”
The children also found it odd that people became infatuated enough with Vincent to attempt kidnapping, and that the other kids at private school who attempted to cross Franny and Jet suddenly ran into some very bad luck. That, and the occasional levitation. When they’re finally allowed to visit Aunt Isabelle in small-town Massachusetts one summer, however, the family secrets will soon be discovered, and the young witches will begin to flout the rules — in particular, the one about never falling in love. Enjoy the wizardry of Hoffman’s words as she brings us up to speed on what happened before magic was quite so practical.
2. The Power by Naomi Alderman ($26): What if most, or even all, women had the power of witchcraft? How would the world change? Alderman’s novel, written as a history book from thousands of years in the future, posits a world ruled by women for centuries after a latent power awakens. Seemingly at random, teenage girls from all over the world can suddenly transmit electricity through their fingertips. The shocks they can give range from the mild to the fatal. “Something’s happening. The blood is pounding in her ears. A prickling feeling is spreading along her back, over her shoulders, along her collarbone. It’s saying: you can do it. It’s saying: you’re strong.”
At first, nobody can believe what’s happening, but after 22-year-old Tunde captures an extreme event in a Nigerian market on his cellphone, things kick into high gear. Politicians and news anchors pontificate, religious predictions and bad science dominate, and everyone panics. Boys are bused to segregated schools, and girls are accused of witchcraft. No matter the reaction, however, these young women can’t be stopped. Roxy, a mobster’s daughter, can fight off the men trying to harm her family. Allie can get out of her foster home, and from the convent where she seeks refuge begin to question and change religious tenets. The teenagers soon find out they can help other women attain this power for themselves, and mayor Margot, who has her sights on the governor’s house, finds herself having to hide the gift her daughter Jocelyn’s given her.
Winner of the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction in Britain, and called “Electrifying” by The Handmaid’s Tale author Margaret Atwood, this work of speculative fiction gives us a world far enough in the future that people can no longer believe that men held positions of power, fought in wars, or weren’t considered to be the naturally nurturing gender. Simultaneously creepy and empowering, it’s perfect for Halloween.
3. The Lairdbalor by Kathleen Kaufman ($16): Many of the fears that originate in childhood stay with us for our entire lives, and they can be some of the creepiest. When seven-year-old Jamie takes a tumble down a hill, the anxieties he carries in the real world are magnified and distorted, and he finds himself in a terrifying nightmare version of reality. All of childhood’s monsters are there, and in particular, one of Jamie’s own creation, the titular Lairdbalor.
“Jamie hated crying, but he supposed it didn’t really matter now; no one was around to see him. Momma would have pulled him into her arms and stroked his hair — he loved that. Daddy would have given him a big bear hug, knocking the breath out of his lungs — he loved that too. The realization that no one was there to do either made the tears well up even faster, until they ran down Jamie’s cheeks.” Jamie stumbles through this land, the Oidhche, with only his enlivened stuffed rat Bilbo for company, meeting unreliable guides and constant nightmare monsters along the way. It’s like a twisted version of the Narnia book his mother was reading him before bed.
To make matters worse, he seems to be rapidly aging; every time he moves on or wakes up, he must deal with being years and years older than his time. His changing body and understanding of the world are at war with the child he used to be, and Jamie must either be able to find peace, or give in to the demons. The Lairdbalor might just have you checking in your closet and under your bed for some things that go bump in the night.
What books scare you silly? Tag us in your next spooky read @BritandBo.
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