Lily Ivory, when we first meet her, is 31 and has just moved to San Francisco where she has opened a vintage fashion shop called Aunt Cora's Closet. She also happens to be a witch, who had earlier been run out of her little home town of Jarod in West Texas on a rail. She now hopes that her vintage store will give her a chance to make friends in San Francisco - and so it does. And if all else fails, she still has the support of her friendly goblin Oscar. It is Lily who tells the story throughout so we get no real description of what she looks like, beyond the fact that she has long, dark hair.
Juliet Blackwell (real name: Juliet Goodson-Lawes) was born in Palo Alto, California, but her family soon moved to Cupertino, an hour south of San Francisco. She went on to major in Latin American Studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz. After living in Spain and travelling widely, she studied Anthropology and Social Work at the State University of New York at Albany, before working as a teacher and social worker, and eventually began painting portraits and murals for a living.
Finally she turned to writing and, with her sister Carolyn, produced the Art Lover's Mystery series, under the the name of Haily Lind. This was followed by her own series, the Witchcraft Mysteries, reviewed below, and the Haunted Home Renovators.. She explains that she has long been "fascinated with seers, conjurers, and covens from many different cultures and historic traditions". She lives in a "happily haunted house" with her teenage son in Oakland, across the bay from San Francisco, where she has run her own design studio for over a decade.
Secondhand Spirits (2009)
Secondhand Spirits is at its best when describing Lily's working life and her vintage dresses. However, the basic plot (in which a little girl disappears from the Bay Area having been kidnapped by a fearsome demon called La Llorona who can only be caught by Lily with the help of sexy "myth buster" Max Carmichael and powerful male witch Aidan Rhodes), seems plain silly.The story is written with some humor as when a "gorgeous" stranger comes into her shop and presents her with his card:
Aidan Rhodes – Male Witch
Spells Cast – Curses Broken – Love Potions
145 Jefferson Street, San Francisco
But what are we expected to make of Oscar? He is “a misshapen creature perched, gargoyle like, atop an antique walnut jeweler display case. He was small and bent, with a muscular body and scaly skin, a large head, a snoutlike nose and mouth, and outsize ears like a bat's. His fingers were long and humanlike, surprisingly graceful, but his enormous feet had three toes and long talons. His voice was deep and gravelly. “I'm your new familiar," it said. It all seems part of an in-joke, for Oscar is also the name of a real cat known to the author.
Lily explains to him that she can't have a goblin in her shop so he obligingly changed into “a miniature Vietnamese potbellied pig. He gru'nted, dragged his curly tail, and darted round the counter". Apart from his unfortunate habit of creeping under changing room curtains to watch ladies undressing, Lily grows to like him more and more as he accompanies her on her adventures.
This is all quite amusing in a juvenile sort of way, but then there is La Llorona who, according to legend, had taken her children “down to the river and drowned them, one by one, finally flinging herself in to join them in their watery grave. Now (as a demon) she haunts the banks of rivers and creeks, crying for her lost babies and abducting children who happened to be out at night, adding their souls to her brood." When the little girl is kidnapped, and Lily hears La Llorona's "horrifying scream", she consults her “unique Book of Shadows, full of spells, recipes, and remembrances" and soon knows what she must do: cast a few spells (with the aid of a freeze-dried bat, carefully selected herbs, and four drops of her own blood) and then arrange to recover the little girl by swapping a soul for a soul.
But Lily has time for lighter things as well, ranging from building up relationships with the two new men in her life, one the "devastatingly handsome" male witch and the other the sexy "myth buster", who fortunately recovers after being "skewered" with a ritual knife. Doubtless it will take more than one book to sort out which is the better man/witch for her. No wonder she needs to take a big bite out of her bagel for “staying up half the night casting spells and hunting demons gave a girl an appetite."
Even after an old lady has been murdered, Lily still manages to keep her shop going realising that “It felt unseemly to talk about a gruesome murder scene during a mimosa- fueled bridal-finery try-on party." First things first!
Voodoo comes into the story too. It is, Lily tells us, “a religion just as legitimate as any other". Her flippant approach comes out again when she tells us, “Trying to run us down with a driverless car was the trick of a witch. Now I just had to figure out which which.
"At the end, the author solemnly tells us, "Most of the spells used throughout this book are based on information gathered from practicing witches in personal interviews, but none should be repeated." The oddest thing of all, however, is that an author, who is herself an anthropologist, should have so trivialized her knowledge. But perhaps I'm expecting too much from what must be intended just as an amusing tale of romantic escapism.
A Cast-off Coven (2011)
A Cast-off Coven takes place just a couple of weeks after the previous book. Students at San Francisco's School of Fine Arts are plagued by frightening moaning noises so Lily (who "has now reached the ripe old age of thirty- something") is called in to search for possible paranormal activity. In exchange for her help, she's been promised a trunk full of Victorian-era clothes recently discovered in a school storage closet. But Lily finds something else: the body of a wealthy patron of the school.
In between running her store and seeing her new boyfriend, Max, a "myth buster" who is (understandably) uncomfortable with her witchcraft, and on whom she had, with difficulty, resisted the urge to use a love spell, she employs her sleuthing skills to try to solve the murder. She soon sniffs out the unmistakable aura of a demonic presence and sets about confronting it, helped along by an old demonology book and her "familiar" the goblnlike Oscar who usually assumes the appearance of a talking pig so as to make himself less noticeable!
It's another extraordinary mixture of the flippant and plain silly but the author herself seems to take the "witchy" bits quite seriously, as when she gets Lily (who again tells the story throughout) to explain to the reader that "Witchcraft is an enormous field of knowledge, and just as in any other profession, different witches excel in distinct areas. I'm a whiz at all things botanical, but a complete bust in the 'foreseeing the future' or 'talking to the dead' departments; my ornate crystal ball sat, generally unused and virtually useless, on a shelf in my bedroom."
She enjoys telling us in detail how she prepares her spells: “I continued to chant while I dropped the herbs into the boiling cauldron, one by one, then added a thin slice of unleavened bread, a tiny crumb at a time. I stirred the concoction deosil, or clockwise, until it began to swirl on its own. The brew continue to boil after I removed it from the fire, a sign of a proper brewing. Thirteen drops of raw goat's milk, two pine needles, and, (not a partridge in a pear tree), but three threads of a spiderweb. And finally, I cut a small X in my palm, adding two drops of my own blood." And I don't think all this is meant to be funny. Unfortunately.
Later on she comments, “A suspicious death and supernatural entities. Never a good combo.“ But you can see where the author's real interests lie when she goes on, "I tried to shake it off, as I flipped through gauzy patterned summer dresses from the mid-fifties. Thinking of the changeable spring weather and my brunch date with Max, I decided upon one of my favorite styles: an early 1960s sleeveless dress with a pinch waist and wide skirt. The turquoise chintz was detailed with tiny white Xs in a wide embroidered band along the neckline, sleeves, and hem. A thin cloth-covered matching belt sat at the waist. I paired it with a cream colored three-quarter sleeve cashmere cardigan…." And so it goes on.
Lily continues to be attracted not only by Max, with his “deep and sexy" voice. .. that made me want to tuck him into bed… and curl up right next to him", but also by his brother Luc as “the gleam in his eyes was too beautiful, strange, seductive." Unfortunately he gets himself demon possessed ("there are “tens of thousands of demons", or so Lily tells us) so that when he kisses her. “It wasn't Luke who was kissing me; I was very sure of that." There was also handsome male witch Aidan with those “bright blue eyes running down my body, and back to meet my eyes." Then she is warned that Max “doesn't have the greatest track record with women." Oh dear, just one problem after another, and all at the time when “I had a million things to do, including getting back to my clothes washing and tracking down a team.
"After Max makes loves to her, she finds that “The clothes I had liberated from the closet were dancing about my store; Victorian frills swaying and swooping, keeping time to the music emanating from the old box on the counter. I tried closing the music box, but opened or closed, it continued playing its tinny tunes." As strange as it seemed, the clothes were happy for me. I leaned back against the counter, let out a long sigh and shook my head." Other people had sex and all they had to worry about were questions of morality, unintended pregnancy, and STDs. I had to contend with accidentally setting off supernatural forces, inspiring the equivalent of a ghostly dance hall. Life is just not fair."
Lily enjoys the support of a friendly local coven of Wiccans which “focuses on the holidays, the good stuff ... We're pagans, but we're all about the good." The idea of this group of prosperous American ladies amusing themselves in this way might have provided the author with some good comic moments - but instead she solemnly thanks "all the witches and wiccans who welcomed me and shared their beliefs and knowledge with pride and humor"! So it all It all ends up as a rather strange combination of the amusing and the odd, with occasional demons hovering in the background.
Hexes and Hemlines (2011)
Hexes and Hemlines describes how Lily gets called in to help the police when Malachi Zazi is found stabbed to death in his apartment, under a ladder, surrounded by the number 13, a broken mirror, and a black cat. When the police identify a suspect from the Serpentarian Society (snakes seem to play quite a large part in this story), Lily is shocked to learn it is someone she knows. As is only to be expected, she soon finds evidence of dark witchcraft and a hex (curse) on her friend's doorstep. But luckily Lily has access to magic of her own that helps her find the murderer.
It is, of course, all a load of nonsense, as the title suggests. So it comes as no surprise when Lily solemnly tells us, “I knew from my training (as a witch) that all sorts of supposedly imaginary creatures are, in fact, real: unicorns, pretty much all the woods folk, elves and brownies and faeries."
However, it's also quite amusing, as when Oscar, Lily's familiar, who usually takes the form of a potbellied pig, tells her, "There are gargoyles on this building. I love gargoyles! They're practically family." It turns out later that his mother had been one of the goblins who had got turned into a stone gargoyle: “When my mother was in her walking time, she laid an egg. My father found it and took it to the faery circle and hatched me." Well what would you expect?
Lily's ability in “tuning in to each vibration, every wisp or echo of those who had come and gone," certainly helps her select the vintage clothes with which to stock her shop - and she really enjoys “having a huge closet to choose from every day" and explaining to the curious reader exactly what it is that she is wearing. Her magical powers have their everyday uses too, as when she uses an antitheft charm to hang above her shop door (a red leather bag filled with charged caraway seeds). "Plus I cast a spell of protection over the store every morning."
She is able to gain access to the murdered man's house by charming the doorkeeper with the supplies she always kept "in the trunk of my car. Basic herbs, oils, roots, and resins: lavender, Deer's tongue, Devil's Shoestring, rose hips and petals, cinnamon, angelica, Queen Elizabeth root. I mixed these together with some Van Van oil, put them in a small black silk bag, charged it with a mumbled charm, and was ready to go." Who could resist her? And she can always fall back on her "Hand of Glory" which “According to legend was the left hand of a hanged man, cradling a thick candle in its palm. Upon lighting the candle, all doors before it swung open and it lights the way–not like a flashlight, but bright as day."
One of the people whom she wants to impress is male witch Aidan Rhodes who possessed “soul-melting good looks. Too good .... Tall and broad-shouldered, he had golden hair that curled slightly at the nape of his strong neck, while his square jaw held just a hint of manly whiskers. His long-lashed eyes were a captivating periwinkle blue, his crooked smile showed white, even teeth, and his easy laugh was accompanied by a slight duck of the head that gave him an endearing sense of aw-shucks, little-boy vulnerability – an openness that was sheer veneer, of course." Perhaps Lily would be better off with "myth buster" journalist Max although he still seems put off by her witchy ways. The best parts of the book are those concerned with such personal relationships, including that with Oscar, her friendly half-goblin, and with the running of her shop.
In a Witch's Wardrobe (2012)
In a Witch's Wardrobe tells how Lily, taking a night off from running her successful San Francisco clothing store, attends a local Art Deco ball, where a young woman called Miriam falls under a mysterious sleeping sickness. Lily senses (as she would) that Miriam's spirit is trapped inside a mirror but the words she hears her say are all strangely garbled - and it's some time before Lily realizes that, because it's a mirror image, each word has been reversed! She wonders if a curse could have been placed on the victim's corsage. In this this book it certainly could, and, as she tells the police, "You know I don't make this stuff up."
Before she can solve this little problem, she is asked to assist in investigating a string of poisonings in the Bay Area witchcraft community. She usually tries to "avoid local witchy politics", but, although her own magical powers give everyone an unfortunate electric shock when she joins in a witches' sacred circle, she had gained the trust of the local covens by supporting women's charities through her clothing store, but soon she suspects that one of her new acquaintances might not be so well intentioned and could be gambling in dark magic and deadly botany. She herself "used blood sacrifice from time to time, but avoided it whenever possible." It's less worrying when she just uses her magic powers to produce car parking spaces as required.
In many ways it Is all much as before: a basically silly story told in quite an entertaining way - with a lot of emphasis on descriptions of the clothes that Lily wears and/or sells ("The moment I picked up the tea-stained silk chiffon, I fell in love. The fabric was embossed with beads and flat gold leaf sequins in a twisting vine pattern. Simple spaghetti straps led to a deep V neck ... ").Lily's familiar, Oscar, who is half goblin and half gargoyle, and wisely takes the shape of a potbellied pig when he appears in public, turns out to be one of the more convincing characters in the story, as when he resents being left out of the action, and is left at home to watch scary videos.
I do not propose to review any more books in this series as although Lily certainly does do some successful detective work, the whole setup is so absurd.
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