Welcome to Bascom, North Carolina, where everyone has a story to tell about the Waverleys. There's the house that's been in the family for generations, the walled garden that mysteriously blooms year round, and the wild rumors of dangerous loves and tragic passions. Claire has always clung to the Waverleys' roots, tending the enchanted soil in the family garden from which she makes her sought-after delicacies. She has everything she thinks she needs, until one day she wakes to find a stranger has moved in next door and a vine of ivy has crept into her garden... and Claire's carefully tended life is about to run gloriously out of control.
I picked up Garden Spells at a library charity sale with no thought to actually reading it. The cover was beautiful but the book itself didn't really sound like my cup of tea. Plus, I was in the middle of furious edits and didn't really have time to read. But one rainy Sunday the edits got the best of me and I closed my laptop in disgust and went in search of a good book, only to be thwarted. I hadn't bought any good books in a good long while because I was attempting to remove temptation. Then the cover of Garden Spells caught my attention and all my good intentions about returning to the edits went out the window. I picked it up and began to read. I was hooked. Immediately.
Consider the first paragraph:
Every smiley moon, without fail, Claire dreamed of her childhood. She always tried to stay awake those nights when the stars winked and the moon was just a cresting sliver smiling provocatively down at the world, the way pretty women on vintage billboards used to smile as they sold cigarettes and limeade. On those nights in the summer, Claire would garden by the light of the solar-powered footpath lamps, weeding and trimming the night bloomers - the moon vine and the angel's trumpet, the night jasmine and the flowering tobacco. These weren't a part of the Waverley legacy of edible flowers, but sleepless as she often was, Claire had added flowers to the garden to give her something to do at night when she was so wound up that frustration singed the edge of her nightgown and she set tiny fires with her fingertips.
The story feels familiar, two sister with special powers and I was reminded of Alice Hoffman's Practical Magic and Nora Robert's Three Sisters Trilogy. But the book definitely stands on its own merit. The writing is simple yet provocative and the characters feel like people I know. I especially connected with Claire, the oldest sister. As I was reading, listening to Claire lament the longing for belonging (nice rhyme, I promise I won't attempt that again) and for a reconnection with her sister (although she isn't sure how much of a reconnection she wants) I found myself sympathizing with her in a way I had not done in a long time. Sydney, the youngest sister, is also a bit universal. She made mistakes when she was younger and paid her dues, made mistakes when she was older and found a way out of them. She doesn't make excuses for herself and she does what is best for her daughter Bay, never once taking into consideration her own feelings. She makes the family whole again, and in the process, fills the voids in herself. She and Claire are remarkable characters and they stayed with me long after I put down the book.
I liked the dual romance between Claire and Tyler and Sydney and Henry but I also liked that the romance didn't overtake the book, nor was it underscored. It was part of the story, not the whole story.
And as for the apple tree, my do I wish I had one of those. Allen does a fabulous job of making you believe in her magic.
THE SUGAR QUEEN
From the author's website:
Josey, at 27, doesn't go out except to do chores for her mother, she doesn't wear clothes that her mother says don't suit her, and she eats, secretly, as a substitute for the life she's not living. One morning, when she goes to her closet to raid her secret stash of sweets, she finds a woman sitting there. Della Lee, on the run from something in her own life, has decided to take up residence in Josey's closet. Thus begins Josey's quest to get this madwoman out of her closet, and along the way she discovers a world where the color red has astonishing power, passion can make eggs fry in their cartons, and romance can blossom any time -- even for her.
After I finished Garden Spells I immediately went in search of more from Allen. Unfortunately, I only found one. The Sugar Queen. I checked it out of the local library and devoured the novel in one sitting. If possible, I enjoyed this book more than Garden Spells.
Again, the story resonates with other plots - the overbearing mother with a secret, the secretive maid who knows more than you think she knows, a dark and dangerous criminal who gets the girl to fall for him - and yet, all these things combined make a completely different plot. So all these devices may be cliché but they work and work well.
What I liked most about Sugar Queen is Allen's way of making you forget the book is contemporary. Josey Cirrini (painfully shy Josey who hides food in her closet from the prying eyes of her mother) lives in a house and a world that would be more comfortable in the early 1900s and when she steps out of the house, and into her new life, it's like she is stepping into a time warp. But it doesn't feel awkward in the least. Rather, the symbolism is strong and vibrant. The secondary characters, most notably Chloe, add to the spell of book by providing a look at the real world while Josey is still trapped inside her own life. Eventually with the help of the other characters, Josey breaks out of this world and away from her mother, much in a way that a princess would escape an evil queen.
As for Della Lee (the woman who shows up in Josey's closet without any explanation) ... I think I will leave that bit alone because she adds such twists and turns to the story I would feel as though I were robbing a potential reader of the enjoyment of discovery. Suffice to say Della Lee is a surprise all in herself but again, like the other characters, she reflects Josey's life, providing another scope to The Sugar Queen's complexity. All the characters serve as a mirror for Josey - who she wants to be, doesn't want to be and finally, how she finds herself. The supporting cast is her conflict and her resolution.
Like Garden Spells, the romance with Adam (who I adored) is part of the tapestry of the story instead of being the whole story. In this book, however, I enjoyed the romance much more. Perhaps because it was very fairytale-ish. A girl wishes for something she never thought she could have and the boy finds something he never expected to find, and the theme of FATE. That's my favorite kind of romance.
Things I Liked:
The writing style - Allen literally pulls you into her character's world and it's only when the secondary characters show up that you realize her heroines are not living in some magical fairy land, but everyday America.
Things I Disliked:
I have been wracking my brain for things I do not like but it's been a least three weeks since I read the books and I can't think of a single one. This doesn't mean they didn't exist, but it does mean that whatever they were, they did not diminish my enjoyment of the story in the least.
Released ~ Garden Spells: April 2008 (paperback), The Sugar Queen: May 2008 (hardcover)
Just a Midwest girl with a slightly neurotic twist and a crazy dream of becoming a working writer. Why?
1. I'm a Hopeless Romantic
2. There are voices in my head
3. There is nothing more appealing than a good story.
But aspiring writers can't buy groceries with unread manuscript pages so first, I must go to work. And do my dreaming there.
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