Penny Vincenzi

British best-selling novelist Penny Vincenzi died recently at 78.  A profilic writer, Vincenzi focused on strong female heroines – a little romance and sex mixed with family secrets and intrigue.  I’ve read a few of her books, but can’t remember the plot of even one; I do remember them being long, with more plot than the usual romantic Chick Lit.

When asked if she aspired to write more “highbrow material,” she said she didn’t:

“I have a strong aversion to people saying the kind of novels I write are escapist.  Books ought to be escapist.  I don’t think there’s anything wrong with a good old healthy slug of glamour and glitz.”

51fO4NCUIpL._SX328_BO1,204,203,200_Her writing has been compared to Barbara Taylor Bradford and Julian Fellowes, and her bestsellers include The Decision, The Best of Times, Absolute Scandal, and her latest (2017) A Question of Trust.

Maybe I’ll try her again.  Escape is good.



Happy Halloween! The Rules of Magic

636425476301544428-Rules-of-Magic      Celebrating the power of witches in Alice Hoffman’s The Rules of Magic seems an appropriate way to celebrate Halloween.  Hoffman reveals the back story of the two witch aunts who raise Sally and Gillian Owens in her novel made into a movie – Practical Magic.  This prequel dates back to the childhood of Frannie and Jet,  played in the movie by a feisty Stockard Channing and an aerie Dianne Wiest.

The premise of the family curse bequeathed from the seventeenth century –  that any man who falls in love with an Owens woman will die – controls the romance in the story, but thankfully Hoffman spins this tale with less horror and more introspection.  History plays a big role with the assassination of John F. Kennedy and the Vietnam War changing the direction for some of the characters.  And, if you were wondering how two maiden aunts could have nieces?  Hoffman writes in a brother for them in the prequel, a handsome wizard who resists going to war.  The children in Practical Magic are his grandchildren.

A fast and entertaining read – try it while you are munching on your Halloween stash.

And, if you’d like to try Aunt Isabelle’s Chocolate Tipsy Cake for breakfast, the recipe is here.


images 61UV9XX4+aL._AC_US218_

More Books About Witches:

The Chalk Artist

9781400069873_p0_v1_s192x300   Allegra Goodman cleverly combines the worlds of computer gaming with poetry and art in The Chalk Artist.  Through her three main characters’ disparate interests: a young man, Colin James,  with a untapped artistic talent; his true love, Nina Lazare, a struggling idealistic teacher; and a bright teenager caught in the hypnotic trance of an imaginary computer game world, Goodman addresses their common element – the need to relax into themselves to find happiness.  But this is not a book about art or romance or happiness; it is about gaming.

Just as Nathan Hill used one of his characters in The Nix to demonstrate the evil effects of addiction to computer games, Goodman targets the dangers of living in the virtual world by having her teenage character, Aiden, play to exhaustion and eventual hospitalization.  Hill had his character sleep his way into a new life, but Aiden’s addiction is harder to kick.  Surprisingly, his young English teacher, Nina Lazarre, leads the way with poetry.

In a complicated riff on the effects of computer games on teenagers, Goodman connects her characters with the game itself.  Nina’s father is the wealthy game developer.  Recognizing Colin’s potential when she meets him waiting tables and drawing on chalkboards, she helps him get a job drawing dragons and avatars for her father’s new game.  Through a marketing ploy, Aiden, who happens to be in Nina’s American literature high school English class, gains access to the unpublished game, and falls into the pit of nonstop playing, disregarding his school work, his family, his life.

The story jumps around from Colin’s descent from pure artistry to the cynical world of marketable images for the company, then to Nina’s frustration over not being able to convey the magic of Shakespeare to eleventh graders, then to Aiden’s downfall from A student to disaffected drone in school.

Goodman’s descriptions of the virtual world have the most impact, as Aiden’s gaming takes on more reality than the real world.  The effect of dissolving, at times, into a movie set rivaling The Neverending Story or The Hobbit can be disconcerting, and its believability easily demonstrates how Aiden could have difficulty leaving a place where he is a knight conquering monsters to return to his teenage world of angst and uncertainty.

Sometimes the action seems as fast and furious as the virtual gaming the author is describing, and connecting the three plot lines can be a little harrowing.  Not everyone will appreciate Goodman’s style, but her intent is clear.  Eventually, Aiden finds his way by participating in a poetry recitation contest.  The sixteen year old finds wisdom through an Ezra Pound poem that demonstrates the universality of his feelings, realizing that “these lines scared him,” that “a stranger had been telling his secrets, publishing his dreams before he was born.”   English teachers all over the world who read these lines will rejoice and have their faith restored – someone finally got it.

If you get to the ending, you will find it dutifully romantic, with a final nod against the computer world, as Colin leaves his lucrative yet artistically confining job to find true love with Nina, and venture into the indie-animation world.

Not a compelling book, The Chalk Artist was easy to put down.  Nevertheless, Goodman, who has a Ph.D. in English, had a clear message – good literature outweighs virtual reality, and relationships are far more important than video games or chalk dust.


Cocoa Beach

Unknown   Despite Beatriz Williams’ complicated plots with murder, deceit, and harrowing escapes, she always delivers a happy ending, and Cocoa Beach is no exception.  With American volunteers in London during World War I, wealthy aristocrats in Cornwall, and rumrunners at a posh plantation in Florida during the Prohibition, the varied settings add to the historical context of a fast-paced melodrama of romance and intrigue.

Virginia Fortesque, young American volunteer ambulance driver, meets Simon Fitzwilliam, the tall dashing British doctor, and, of course, they fall in love as she drives him across the battlefields.  Their lives are complicated by their families.  She has a wealthy father who has been imprisoned for murdering her mother; he has a wife and son, with a huge debt attached to the ancestral home.

When the war ends, he divorces his wife, marries Virginia, and leaves to make his fortune at the downtrodden family investment in Cocoa Beach, Florida, while she returns to her family in New York.  When he dies suddenly, she and their two year old daughter travel to Florida to settle the estate.  And so the real story begins.

Williams cleverly changes tacks frequently, as she alternates between the war years and the present in 1922.  No one is who they seem, and the intrigue hardens into murder for greed, with lies about everything.  The reader is never sure who is telling the truth until the end.

Virginia remains the only character who is decent and true, the victim of the villains surrounding her.  If you read Williams’ A Certain Age, you may remember her as a minor character whose father is accused of killing his wife, Virginia’s mother.  Williams fleshes out her story in Cocoa Beach, with her usual successful combination of romance, mystery and murder, adding a dash of prohibition and infidelity, and the compelling formula of distracting foils and dangerous tension.

Fun and compelling – Cocoa Beach is a great beach read.

Review: A Certain Age

Maybe in Another Life by Taylor Jenkins Reid

After meeting this author at a literary conference, I bought her book.  I liked the author’s witty presentation and decided her book would be a good companion for my next long flight.  As I usually do with authors new to me, I wondered if my library had any of her books, and found three.

Unknown-1  If you remember the Gwyneth Paltrow movie “Sliding Doors” or the book by Peter Howitt, you will recognize the theme – the consequences of choices.   Reid uses a turning point decision to outline two possibilities for her heroine, Hannah Martin, a displaced Angeleno returning home, confronting her old life and loves.  Chapters alternate between the decision, and the suspense carries both life possibilities into thoughtful dilemmas.

When Hannah meets her old boyfriend after years apart, she recognizes her feelings still offer possibilities with him, but their communication is not as fine-tuned as it once was.  In one scenario, Hannah goes home with him and restarts their love affair; in the other, she goes home with her friends and gets into an almost fatal car accident.  Reid addresses each concurrent storyline with strengths and weaknesses, and keeps the suspense alive, as the reader wonders if the resolution will be the same.  Do small choices have drastic effects on the future? Do decisions matter or are we all fated to come to the same destiny, no matter how we get there?

Reid’s story is a light romance with an appealing twist – a good summer beach read.  The theme of her new book, The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo, reminds me of The Thirteenth Tale (one of my favorites) about a famous author revealing her secrets as she uses a young woman to write her memoir.  In Reid’s book the woman is a fading movie star – another possibility for a long plane ride.