Review: “Seventh Heaven” By Alice Hoffman (Novel)

Well, it’s been a while since I last read an Alice Hoffman novel. So, I thought that I’d take a look at the second-hand copy of Hoffman’s 1990 novel “Seventh Heaven” that I found online a few weeks earlier.

If I remember rightly, I chose this novel because the premise vaguely reminded me of a hilarious comedy movie from the 1980s called “Elvira: Mistress Of The Dark” and because I’m a fan of Hoffman’s writing style.

Anyway, let’s take a look at “Seventh Heaven”. Needless to say, this review may contain some SPOILERS.

This is the 2003 Berkley (US) paperback edition of “Seventh Heaven” that I read.

The novel begins in the Long Island suburb of Hemlock Street in 1959. The street is an idyllic and perfectly ordered place until old Mr.Olivera dies and his wife moves out of town. Slowly, their empty house falls into disrepair- attracting a flock of crows and filling the vicinity with a strange stench. Eventually, a few of the local residents decide to fix up the house and convince Mrs. Olivera to put it up for sale.

The house is bought by Nora Silk, a recently-divorced mother of two. However, it soon becomes clear that she doesn’t quite fit into the prim and staid world of Hemlock Street. Meanwhile, local cop, Joe Hennessy. is feeling a sense of dissatisfaction with life after being promoted to detective and experiencing his first serious case. Local teenager Ace McCarthy learns that his brother Jackie is running some kind of scam involving their father’s garage.

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that, whilst it is a really atmospheric and well-written historical drama novel that is filled with excellent characters, I slightly preferred the other two Alice Hoffman novels that I’ve read (“Turtle Moon” and “The Ice Queen” ) to this one. Even so, it’s still a really good novel.

Unlike the other Hoffman novels I’ve read, this one is more of a diffuse “slice of life” drama novel than a story with a single clear plot. Although there are several interesting, dramatic, romantic, depressing, cheerful and/or poignant sub-plots, this novel almost feels more like a disguised short story collection at times.

Yes, there is sort of a main plot, but this novel feels more like an interesting window into a time and place than a traditional novel. Still, it’s a really interesting one that also takes a little bit more of a “realistic” approach to the plot (eg: some things are left unresolved, there isn’t really any “deus ex machina” morality etc..).

Still, this isn’t to say that the novel is without Hoffman’s traditional magic realist elements. Even so, these were a little bit more understated than I’d expected. Yes, there are a few psychic moments (which are just treated as ordinary) and a couple of moments invovling ghosts and/or magic, but these are more background elements than central parts of the story.

For the most part, this is a slightly more “realistic” drama novel and this is also reflected in the novel’s writing – which, whilst still expertly-written, doesn’t contain quite as many of Hoffman’s signature vividly magical descriptions as I’d expected.

The novel’s historical elements are really well-handled, and the novel contains a vividly atmospheric version of late 1950s/early 1960s America that almost feels real.

Like most historical novels about this period of history, it shows the tension between the idyllic popular image of the time and the problems (eg: abusive relationships, bullying, crime, ostracism/snobbishness and, briefly, racism) lurking beneath the stiflingly pristine and polite surface. Yet, unlike some more modern historical novels, the story makes it’s points subtly and credits the reader with enough intelligence to make their own moral decisions about what is happening and about the story’s characters.

Amongst other things, one theme in this novel is the end of the 1950s and the beginning of the 1960s. The novel handles this in all sorts of interesting ways, such as setting the first half of the book in 1959 and the second half in 1960.

In the latter half of the book, many of the characters become a little bit more friendly towards Nora, loveless relationships begin to end, characters change gradually in other ways etc.. Even so, it is interesting how the segment set in the 1950s still contains a few subtle hints of the 1960s (eg: one of the teenage characters trying marijuana for the first time etc..). It shows historical change as a gradual thing, with the late 1950s and early 1960s being both similar and different.

Likewise, this is a novel about dissatisfaction. About how the pristine idyll of Hemlock Street is as much a prison as a sanctuary. How many of the characters dream of better lives, repress their feelings and/or hold secrets from each other. You really get the sense of tension between reality and fantasy when reading this novel and it is both poignant and fascinating.

In terms of the characters, this novel really excels 🙂 This is very much a character-based novel and, although Nora is possibly the main character, you’ll get to know many of the residents of Hemlock Street extremely well.

All of the characters come across as realistic people with quirks, flaws, hopes, feelings and dreams. Seriously, I cannot praise the characterisation in this novel highly enough. Although the story’s plot is a bit diffuse, the characters are one of the main things that will probably make you want to keep reading it.

This, of course, brings me on to the writing. Hoffman’s third-person narration here is as excellent as ever. This novel is written in the wonderfully flowing and vivid style that you’d expect from an Alice Hoffman novel. However, whilst this novel still contains the brilliantly imaginative, magical and evocative descriptions that you’d expect, the narration here can also often be a little bit more “mundane” or “down to earth” than you might expect.

Given that this story is a slightly more “realistic” drama, then this was probably a deliberate dramatic choice. Even so, the narration still flows really well and there are enough of Hoffman’s brilliant moments of description here to give the story the kind of atmosphere you’d expect (albeit in a slightly more understated way).

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is fairly good. At 255 pages in length, the novel feels neither too long nor too short. Likewise, whilst the novel has a fairly “slow paced” kind of plot that focuses on everyday life and more small-scale drama, the story itself still moves at a reasonable pace thanks to Hoffman’s expert narration that just flows really, really well.

As for how this twenty-nine year old novel has aged, it has aged excellently. Thanks to it’s historical setting and the very slightly more modern perspective on said setting, this novel feels like it could easily have been written any time within the past couple of decades. The characters are still as interesting as ever, the setting is still atmospheric and the writing is still really good.

All in all, although this isn’t the best Alice Hoffman novel I’ve read, it’s still a really good novel. If you want a story with an interesting historical setting, well-written characters and lots of atmosphere, then this one is certainly worth reading. Yes, it is slightly more of a “slice of life” drama than a traditional novel and there aren’t quite as many of the quirky magical realist elements as you may expect, but it is still a really well-written and interesting novel.

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get four and a half.

Review: “The Ice Queen” By Alice Hoffman (Novel)

Ever since I watched the film adaptation of “Practical Magic” and, later, read Alice Hoffman’s excellent “Turtle Moon” I’ve been meaning to read another Alice Hoffman novel. And, since this review will be the hundredth book review since I got back into reading regularly several months ago, I thought that it was the perfect time to do this.

But, since both new and second-hand copies of Hoffman’s “Practical Magic” were still a bit on the expensive side of things at the time of writing, I looked around online and ended up buying a second-hand copy of Hoffman’s 2005 novel “The Ice Queen” instead.

So, let’s take a look at “The Ice Queen”. Needless to say, this review may contain some SPOILERS.

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[Note: I read the 2006 Vintage (UK) paperback edition of “The Ice Queen”, although I’ve decided against showing what the book looks like because the previous owner of the second-hand copy I read has scrawled what appears to be a phone number onto the cover and, on the grounds of privacy, I thought it best not to show this.]

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The novel begins with a flashback to the nameless narrator’s childhood, showing how she feels that a single angry thought caused the death of her mother. Since then, she has been racked by self-loathing and has lived a rather cold life. She works in a library, where she becomes an expert on death due to frequent information requests from a local police officer. Although the two of them have several trysts together, she breaks up with him when she realises that he is falling in love with her.

After the death of her grandmother, the narrator agrees to move to Florida with her brother, who is working on a research project into lightning strikes. On the car journey, the narrator thinks about being struck by lightning and, sure enough, it happens to her some time later. Amongst other injuries, the lightning strike removes her ability to see the colour red- turning the world into a cold, icy landscape.

During a support group meeting for lightning strike survivors at the university, she hears about a mysterious recluse called Lazarus Jones who died from a lightning strike and returned to life sometime later. According to the gossip, Lazarus’ body is warmer than usual, giving him the ability to burn things just by touching them. Fascinated, she decides to seek him out….

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it, although it sounds like the most random and depressing novel ever written, it is actually one of the most profound and beautiful books that I’ve read recently 🙂 It is a story that is worth reading for the characters, the atmosphere and the way that it is written. And, yes, it is also a novel that will probably make you cry at least a few times.

At it’s heart, this is a novel about fairytales – about the differences between the sanitised moralistic fairytales of Hans Christian Anderson and the macabre fairytales of the Brothers Grimm, about the difference between reality and fairytales and, most importantly, about the bizarre logic of fairytales.

In particular, how random small things can have a huge influence on other things. This is kind of a running theme throughout the novel with, for example, the course of main character’s entire life being shaped by a single thought that she had when she was a child. It is a theme that is both fascinating and eerily terrifying at the same time.

This fairytale-like atmosphere is also emphasised by a few well-placed fantastical/ magic realist elements throughout the story. Whether it is the narrator’s belief that wishes can cause death, or the fact that one character burns everything he touches, or people returning from the dead or the way that the story depicts lightning, this is one of those stories that is both realistic and fantastical at the same time. These fantasy elements also help to lighten the more depressing elements of the story too, by giving the reader a little bit of emotional distance from the story.

Likewise, this novel contains some brilliant romance elements. Although they are a bit stylised, they have an intensity and a passion to them that really helps to add some vivid warmth to this bleak tale. There’s also a lot of stuff about the blurring of love and obsession, the contrast between fire and ice, how secrets define who we are and lots of other stuff like that. Likewise, the mystery of Lazarus’ backstory and the narrator’s intense curiosity about it also help to add some compelling suspense to the story too.

Emotionally, this novel is incredibly profound. Although it is filled with misery, woe, angst, death, sorrow, fear, self-loathing, guilt and bleakness, this is leavened by both the beauty of Hoffman’s writing style and the inclusion of things like dark humour and profound statements about humanity, life, death and everything else.

Like with Hoffman’s “Turtle Moon”, this is one of those novels that has a real sense of humanity to it. This is kind of difficult to describe but you get the sense that, for all of the story’s darkness, there’s an underlying warmth, compassion and wisdom lurking in the background.

In terms of the characters, they’re really good. The nameless narrator gets the most characterisation and she is a flawed, realistic character whose entire life and outlook on the world has been shaped by feelings of self-loathing and fear. She’s a misfit who is obsessed with death and prefers to be alone. She’s a really complex and fascinating character (who is kind of like a much less creepy/sociopathic version of the narrator in Kaaron Warren’s “Slights”). The other characters in the story also receive a fair amount of characterisation and they all come across as quirky, flawed, realistic people.

In terms of the writing, this novel is spectacular. Although most of the first-person narration is fairly informal and “matter of fact”, it is filled with numerous small moments of poetry, weirdness, magical descriptions and other beautiful things that really give the story a vivid and unique atmosphere. The combination of all of these things means that the story flows really well – having the pacing of a mild thriller whilst also having the deep atmosphere and intellectual/emotional depth of a literary novel.

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is brilliant. At a wonderfully efficient 211 pages, this story never feels too long 🙂 Likewise, as mentioned earlier, the narration means that this novel is both fast-paced and slow-paced at the same time – this is really difficult to describe. This is one of those stories that just flows really well, which moves slowly yet feels like it is moving quickly. In other words, it is compelling.

All in all, this is a really great novel. It’s a weird dark fairytale that is also filled with magic and profundity. It is both an incredibly beautiful and an incredibly depressing novel. It probably isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but it is one of the most profound and well-written novels that I’ve read recently.

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get a five.

Review: “Turtle Moon” By Alice Hoffman (Novel)

Ever since I learnt that the film “Practical Magic” was based on a book by Alice Hoffman, I’d meant to read one of her books. And, although I looked at a few of them online after I discovered this fact, I never got round to buying one.

But, a week or so before writing this review, I was shopping for books online and I suddenly remembered “Practical Magic” but, for cost reasons, ended up getting a second-hand copy of Hoffman’s 1992 novel “Turtle Moon” instead.

So, let’s take a look at “Turtle Moon”. Needless to say, this review will contain some SPOILERS.

This is the 2002 Vintage (UK) paperback edition of “Turtle Moon” that I read.

“Turtle Moon” takes place in the Florida town of Verity. A town where there is a heatwave every May and strange things happen. This town is also a place where divorced women from across America sometimes find themselves living after they’ve left. One of those women is a former New Yorker called Lucy Rosen, whose twelve-year old son Keith seems to be both the local school bully and a criminal-in-training.

Another of those women is Karen, who used to be called Bethany until she realised that her husband was going to get custody of her daughter. So, she fled New York with the baby, a suitcase full of cash and a fake ID that she got made along the way. She is Lucy’s neighbour, although they only talk to each other occasionally.

Then, one night, Karen is murdered. Both Keith and Karen’s baby daughter are missing. It quickly becomes apparent that Keith has run away with the baby.

The local police, especially their dog handler Julian (a solitary man, tormented by guilt over a car crash that claimed his cousin’s life when he was younger), look into the case. But, in addition to looking for Keith, Lucy also decides to investigate Karen’s past in order to work out who killed her and prevent Keith from falling under suspicion.

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it is a masterpiece. Even though it contains many depressing moments – the writing, characters, atmosphere, plot complexity and level of depth in this novel are utterly spectacular. This is a novel that I couldn’t put down during some parts because of the sheer quality of the writing and this is a novel that made me cry (with both joy and poignant sorrow) several times towards the end.

The writing in this story is absolutely beautiful. It is a joy to read 🙂 I haven’t seen writing this good since I read Poppy Z. Brite’s “Lost Souls” about eleven years ago. And, this is about the highest compliment I can pay a writer.

Hoffman writes in a wonderfully flowing, atmospheric, warm and vivid style that is both formal and informal at the same time. The novel’s third-person narration is filled with fascinating details and beautifully artistic metaphors. It is a style of narration that could only have come from 1990s America and it is such a joy to see a writer using this type of narration again so long after I read Brite’s “Lost Souls” all those years ago 🙂

One interesting thing about this novel is that it is actually a noir detective story in disguise. Everything from the focus on the grimly mundane, to the Florida/New York settings, to Lucy and Julian’s investigations, to the premise of the story to some of the later scenes could have easily come from the pages of Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammmett. Yes, this story is a bit different to the average noir story, but even so, the influence from the noir genre is surprisingly clear in some scenes.

Another interesting thing about this novel is how it relates to both “The Simpsons” and “Terminator 2: Judgment Day”. Neither of these things are directly referenced but, like both of these things, it features a delinquent boy (Keith Rosen) as one of the main characters. Keith seems to have the spiky hair of Bart Simpson and the troubled background of John Connor.

In the early part of the story, he is the kind of criminal (the narration often refers to him as “the meanest boy in Verity” – initially seriously, then ironically) that could have come from any 1990s tabloid page. Yet, as the story progresses, we get to see that he is actually a nicer and more human person than even he thinks that he is. He also seems to go on some kind of mythical odyssey where, for example, he loses his voice for quite a while. There are also lots of surprisingly heartwarming scenes where he looks after both the baby and a ferocious rescue dog who seems to take a liking to him.

This brings me on to the novel’s characters, and they are all extremely well-written. They all have backstories, flaws, motivations and personalities that really help to bring the novel to life. Seriously, this is one of those novels that has a real sense of humanity to it when it comes to how the characters are described.

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is really good. Whilst the story is neither fast-paced nor slow-paced, the plot and the style of the writing means that it keeps moving constantly. Likewise, the novel is about 275 pages long (in the edition I read) and it is always great to see shorter novels 🙂 The novel feels like no space is wasted and it still feels like a fairly substatial story. Seriously, I miss the days when 200-300 pages was standard for novels.

This novel also contains some rather interesting magic realist elements that work surprisingly well. The most notable of these is probably the ghost of Julian’s cousin, who haunts a tree near a doughnut shop. These elements of the story are kept subtle enough not to break the reader’s suspension of disbelief, and they are also a really good fit with Hoffman’s vivid, descriptive writing style too. In other words, they add to the quirky, dream-like atmosphere of the story without ever really standing out as fantastical.

This novel’s emotional tone is incredibly interesting. Although the first third or so of the novel is filled with nothing but miserable and depressing events/backstory, the beauty and style of the writing helps to keep these parts gripping nonetheless (in addition to preventing them becoming too depressing to read).

Then, as the story progresses, the emotional tone occasionally lightens very slightly – with the novel’s later moments of joy and love being tear-jerkingly poignant in contrast to all of the gloom and bleak misery that has preceded them. Seriously, the last hundred pages or so of this novel made me cry (mostly with joy, but occasionally with poignant sorrow) more times than I could have expected.

In terms of how this twenty seven year old novel has aged, it has aged astonishingly well. Yes, some parts of this story come across as very distinctively ’90s such as the focus on divorces and juvenile delinquency or the infrequent ’90s references (eg: Keith looks a little bit like Bart Simpson, there’s a mention of Guns N’ Roses etc..). But, there’s nothing shockingly dated here and I really loved the “early 1990s America” atmosphere of the book too 🙂

Plus, this story is just as readable and emotionally powerful today as it probably was in 1992. This story is a 1990s story in the best possible way – it’s the kind of lush, vivid, beautiful thing that could only have existed in early 1990s America (kind of like “Lost Souls”). It has a humanity to it that could have only come from the 1990s. When you read this book, you get the sense that it is both old and yet timelessly new at the same time.

All in all, even though this book contains many depressing moments, it is still a masterpiece. Even if it’s the kind of story you normally wouldn’t read, it is well worth reading just to experience the quality and style of the writing. Not to mention that, if you’re a fan of 1990s America, then you’ll love this book too.

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get a solid five.

Narrative Styles And Emotional Tone – A Ramble

Well, for today, I thought that I’d look at how the narrative style of your fiction can affect your story’s emotional tone. This is mostly because I’ve seen some really interesting examples of this in some of the novels that I’ve been reading recently.

The most striking example is probably in the novel I’m reading at the time of writing this article. This is an Alice Hoffman novel from 1992 called “Turtle Moon” and, on paper at least, it should be an incredibly bleak and depressing story.

Literally none of the characters seem to have cheerful backstories and virtually nothing good or happy has happened within the first hundred pages or so. Yet, despite this, I’ve kept reading it eagerly and thankfully haven’t been overwhelmed by misery and sadness. But, why?

Simply put, the writing in this novel is beautiful. All of the story’s grimness, sorrow and bleakness is expertly contrasted with a lush, poetic, magical and hyper-vivid writing style that is an absolutely joy to read. Seriously, the sheer beauty of the writing means that the depressing elements of the story are kept at a slightly safe distance from the reader. We still see all of these bleak, gut-wrenching, depressing things happening, but it’s like looking at a beautiful painting rather than at a grim photograph.

On the other hand, Shaun Hutson’s 2009 horror novel “Last Rites” contains a lot of similar themes to “Turtle Moon” (eg: broken relationships, bereavement, delinquent youth etc…) and also contains lots of characters with miserable backstories too. Yet, this horror novel feels about ten times more grim and depressing than “Turtle Moon”. But, why?

Ok, there are reasons like temporal and geographic distance (eg: early 1990s America vs. late 2000s Britain) too. But, the most important reason is the different writing styles that these authors use in the two novels.

Whilst Hoffman is able to give the reader a safe level of emotional distance through beautiful, magical, poetic writing – Hutson takes the opposite approach. Hutson’s writing style is a lot more “matter of fact”. This makes the story seem a lot more realistic, which emphasises the grim and bleak elements of the story a lot more. If reading Hoffman’s narration is like looking at a beautiful painting, reading Hutson’s narration is like looking at stark CCTV footage.

This, incidentally, is why traditional 1980s splatterpunk horror novels are so morbidly fascinating. When writers like Clive Barker or Shaun Hutson were telling horror stories during the 1980s, their narration would become (or, in Barker’s case, remain) very beautiful, vivid, detailed and poetic whenever they described something grisly, grotesque or disgusting. This contrast between the beautiful and the grotesque lends these scenes a unique quality which is both intensely horrific and intensely fascinating at the same time. It’s a really weird emotional tone that is difficult to describe (and has to be read in order to be understood properly).

Of course, writers can use the narrative style to affect the emotional tone of their stories in lots of other interesting ways too. A great example of this is a time travel-themed sci-fi novel from 2013 called “Just One Damned Thing After Another” by Jodi Taylor that I read recently. This novel uses informal, punk-like first-person narration which is fairly “matter of fact”, whilst also emphasising the narrator’s irreverent, eccentric and practical personality.

This style is really interesting because it makes the novel’s many comedic moments even funnier by, for example, showing the narrator’s irreverent attitude towards serious things (eg: rules, history etc..) and also showing how different her perspective is to a typical sci-fi thriller protagonist. It also lends the story’s comedic scenes a jaunty and chaotic punk-like atmosphere too.

Yet, at the same time, this “matter of fact” narration also means that when bleak, nasty and depressing things happen to the main character, they’re considerably more intense and depressing. The same “down to earth” narration that makes things like the narrator getting wasted the night before a crucial research mission so hilarious also makes the novel’s grim moments about ten times bleaker, more intense, more “realistic” and/or more shocking too.

So, yes, your choice of narrative style can have a huge effect on the emotional tone of a story. A vivid, poetic, artistic narrative style that can lend beauty to joyous things will also moderate the effect of grimmer or more depressing things. By contrast, a more “matter of fact” style will add intensity to anything from comedy to bleak sorrow.

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Anyway, I hope that this is useful 🙂