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Tuesday, May 26, 2015


Author:  Donna June Cooper  
Plot Type:  Soul Mate Romance (SMR)
Ratings:  Violence—3-4; Sensuality3-4; Humor—2-3   
Publisher and Titles:  Samhain
          More Than Magic (e-book, 2/2014; paperback, 1/2015)
          Mostly Magic (e-book, 6/2014; paperback, 1/2015)
          Making Magic (e-book, 1/2015; paperback, 6/2015)
          Mirror Magic (TBA)
          Missing Magic (TBA)
          Momentary Magic (TBA)

This post begins with a description of the series world-building and continues with reviews of the first three novels.

     On Cooper's web site, she introduces the series with this mythological statement: "In some parts of the earth, fireflies flash in synchrony, remembering a song they heard long ago. And those marked by the old magic, hear the echoes of that ancient song. For She who sang the song has awakened, and has need of those who bear Her gifts. And one by one they will answer the call, for—like the fireflies—they are kindled. The Books of the Kindling tell their stories." Click HERE to go to a page on Cooper's web site that explains more about the Kindling mythology.

     The series is set in the Appalachian Mountains, specifically in a small town named Patton Springsnamed for its mineral-rich, healing waters. The first three novels tell the soul-mate romance stories of the three Woodruff siblingsGrace, Danny, and Theawho grew up near Patton Springs on Woodruff Mountain on magic-infused, wild lands that have belonged to their family for many generations. Over the years, the Woodruff family has become wealthy by growing and gathering local herbs and selling them through retail outlets around the world. The siblings' great-great-grandfather is said to have "built his fortune on those herbs and on the Woodruff reputation for purity and efficacy. Some folks even attributed magical qualities to the stuff. The Woodruff label on a bottle meant something." (from More Than Magic, chapter 2)

     The business was created and developed by Logan Woodruff, a brilliant botanist locally known as "The Woodsman." Logan believed equally in ancient tradition and modern technology, so his granddaughter (Grace) continues to grow and sell the herbs, but she also has a state-of-the-art quality control laboratory and her own personal cell-phone tower (camouflaged to look like a very tall tree). 

     Each sibling has a particular magical gift, and each of the first three books follows one of the siblings as he or she deals with that gift and falls in love with someone who also has a touch of magic. As the series advances, the group finds more and more people who have magical talents, many of whom have struggled with the side effects of their gifts. Eventually, they are guided by a poem written by their Great-great-great-grandmother Lilya poem that explains why they have been given their gifts and what they are expected to do with them. After the first three books, the series will expand to include gifted heroes and heroines outside the Woodruff family.

     As the series begins, Logan has recently died from a fatal fall in the rocky forest. Grace has inherited the mountain and has returned to take over the business. 

                    NOVEL 1:  More Than Magic                    
     DEA agent Nick McKenzie is sure magic exists—a dangerous drug called Smoky Mountain Magic that’s wreaking havoc on the streets of Atlanta. He’s also sure that locating and eliminating the source could mean his death.

     When he arrives undercover on Woodruff Mountain, the beautiful owner’s anxious attempts to scare him off tell him something’s afoot, and it’s not her secret patch of a rare, ancient species of ginseng.

     As her dream of seeking medicinal plants in the Amazon fades into the distance, Grace Woodruff struggles to come to terms with an inherited magical gift she didn’t want, and searches desperately for the meaning behind her late grandfather’s final, cryptic message.

     The last thing she needs underfoot is a handsome, enigmatic writer recovering from a recent illness. Until an accidental touch unleashes a stunning mystical force and Grace senses the wrath of a malicious blight at the heart of the mountain. Now she must choose between her need to hide her gift from the world…and her desire to save Nick’s life.

     Warning: This book contains a fiery redhead whose magic cannot be contained and a handsome DEA agent whose final case might give him a second chance at life. 

     When Nick McKenzie (aka Nick Crowehis undercover name) arrives at Grace Woodruff's isolated mountain retreat, he falls for the beautiful redhead as soon as he meets hereven though she has an unfriendly shotgun over her shoulder and dirty smudges on her face from working in the greenhouse. But Nick fights the attraction because he is certain that Grace is running a meth lab somewhere in the woods near Woodruff Herb Farm. He has booked one of the farm's guest cottages and is pretending to be a writer researching rural Appalachia. Nick knows in his heart that this is his last mission because he is pretty sure that his lymphoma is no longer in remission. He has lost weight and is tired, pale, and listless, so he realizes that he probably doesn't have long to live. He hates drug dealers and addicts, especially since one shot and killed his brother, so he is determined to live long enough to solve this case.

     Grace has always dreamed of finding cures for cancer and other termini diseases by finding new plants or by combining known plants in different ways. She recently received her doctorate in pharmacognosy (the study of medicines derived from natural sources) and had planned to head for the Amazon with her boyfriend to continue her research, but then her beloved grandfather died and left her his land and his business. 

     As the story opens, Grace has a disturbing experience with Tink, one of her patientsa child near death with terminal cancer. Grace has always been able to soothe her patients just by touching them, but when she touches Tink, something magical happens. Both Grace and Tink go into some sort of trance and then Grace faints dead away. When Tink wakes up, she is in full remissionentirely cancer free. Grace is so spooked by the incident that she races back to her mountain, where she isolates herself and tries to figure out what's going on. Then, to make things even worse, every plant she touches begins to grow exponentially faster than normal. Grace is also having nightmares in which she is attacked by a viscous black fog and then saved by an apparition of her Great-great-grandmother Lily and by a vision of Tinkboth of whom keep urging her to save the mountain. 

     The story plays out like a mystery, with Nick trying to decide whether Grace is the meth cooker and with Grace trying very hard not to touch Nickbecause deep down she feels compelled to heal him and she doesn't know what would happen, to him or to her, if she does that. Cooper develops their relationship slowly but steadily and sweetly, as they get to know one another over a period of a few days. Of course, you know from the beginning that they are soul mates, but still, Cooper does a nice job of avoiding that insta-love trope that weakens so many paranormal romances. Yes, they fall for one another quickly, but at least they take the time to have some long and meaningful conversations before they hit the sheets (or, in their case, the cave floor).

     You will be able to spot the villains immediately, just as Nick does, but Cooper adds a twist near the end that you might not see coming. The tone of the book is quite mystical, with the mountain singing within Grace's mind (and eventually Nick's, too). In certain places on the mountain, neither GPS nor compasses work, and legends say that the mountain decides who will arrive at their destinations and who will get lost. 

     This is unlike any Samhain book that I've ever read. The characters are well developednot the usual one-dimensional, sex-crazed stereotypesand the plot is interesting, with just enough twist to give it some light suspense. The humor comes mostly from Jamie Campbell, the young neighbor child who spends a lot of time with Grace. Jamie is a brilliant math whiz who doesn't fit in with her peers, so Grace becomes her friend and confidante and Jamie helps out on the farm, always emitting a continuous, unfiltered stream of non-stop chatter.

     There is a major plot weakness involving Grace's failure to have recognized the villain long before she did, but I'll give that one a first-book pass and hope that Cooper is more careful in her plotting in subsequent books.

     I really enjoyed this book and am looking forward to the next one which will tell Danny's soul-mate story. Click HERE and scroll down a bit to find links to excerpts from this book.

                    NOVEL 2:  Mostly Magic                    
     Do dreams come true? Dr. Daniel Woodruff hopes they don’t, because his dreams predict a devastating future for him, for those he loves—and for the planet.

     His latest premonition, which blows a huge crater in his eroding sanity, holds a singular horror—the loss of a wife and unborn child. Yet another reason he can let no one into his chaotic life, least of all a perky, persistent investigative reporter he finds simultaneously frustrating and fascinating.

     Melissa (Mel) Noblett leaves no stone unturned in her one-woman crusade to save the environment. When a whistle-blower in Italy proves too frightened to talk, Mel turns to a fall-back lead, an extremely eccentric, beekeeping professor who might just make the trip worthwhile.

     Despite their instant attraction, Mel is relieved when Daniel keeps her at arm’s length. After all, she has a secret of her own—one that makes her preternaturally good at her job. And, when Daniel’s terrifying visions prove cannily accurate and begin to revolve around Mel—it is a gift that could put her life in danger.

     Warning: Reluctant seer of a bleak future meets petite force of nature who lights up the heart of his darkness. Where there’s smoke, there could be an unpredictable blaze of passion, but the rewards are oh, so sweet…

     This book takes place about four months after book 1 ends. Dr. Daniel Woodruff is an famous apiarist (beekeeper) who lectures around the world on the importance of bees to our food supply. He is also a seer who constantly dreams of a bleak future in which the world faces global disastersplagues, massive crop failures, deadly pollutionall caused by corporate greed. Now, Daniel's clairvoyance has suddenly expanded to the point that if he touches a person skin-to-skin, he sees that person's future. Unfortunately, every time this happens, Daniel goes into a trance that leaves him temporarily blind. As the story opens, Daniel goes to Italy to give a lecture and when he shakes hands with Francesca, one of his colleagues, he has a vision that she will die in a train wreck. What is he to do?

     Meanwhile, Mel Noblett is also in Italy. She is a free-lance writer specializing in environmental issues and is there to meet with an elusive source who refuses to talk to her. Then her publisher tells her that Daniel is lecturing near-by so she takes the opportunity to add him to her list of interviewees. Mel arrives just in time to see Daniel go into a blinding trance when he shakes Francesca's hand. She gets him away from the scene, and he talks her into driving him to Florence to try to intercept Francesca and, perhaps, rescue her from her fate. Daniel does all this without explaining to Mel exactly what's going on, but Mel suspects that magic is involved because she herself has a magical "gift." She is a tele-empath who can receive the emotions of others as well as send her own emotions to them. The latter part of her gift plays out humorously when she and Daniel fall into a lusty embrace in the middle of a crowded street and are stunned to see that everyone around them immediately becomes just as lovestruck as they are.

     The rest of the story follows Daniel and Mel as they race around Italy in Mel's rented Mini, enjoying the delights of Florence while dealing with the side effects of both of their "gifts." Naturally, they begin to fall for one another almost immediately. When both return to America, someone tries to kill Mel, and the story begins to morph into a mystery.

     This would have been a stronger book if the author had lightened up on the environmental doomsday narrative. The series story arc has taken a definite turn toward a condemnation of Big Pharma, genetic modification of foods, the pesticide industry, and corporate greed in general. Daniel and his family are portrayed as nature-loving environmentalists who are fighting a losing battle to save Mother Earth from the greedy industrialists who will do anything just to pump up their profits.

     When Daniel gets back to Woodruff Mountain, the story gets mystical as he and Grace make a trip down into the cave where Grace found the handprint when she was a child. (This story line was introduced in book 1.) The series theme involving Great-great-great-grandmother Lily's prophetic journal is expanded, along with the firefly and kindling themes. Although the book could be read as a standalone, I don't recommend it because Cooper begins her mythological build-up in book one and develops it further in this book.

     The heavy application of environmentalism to this book frequently slows down the pace, as Daniel keeps having one horribly depressing dream after another about the bleak and hopeless future ("fruitless trees and blasted fields, food shortages and a slow slide into extinction"). Along with the environmental theme, Daniel's dreams and visions intermittently show him that Mel will die if they maintain their relationship. Daniel tries (unsuccessfully) to hold her at arm's length, but that just confuses her and hurts her feelings. Their relationship is extremely rocky because of Daniel's hot and cold behavior.

     The book has a few plot bumps and oddities. For one thing, Mel carries around pieces of paper so that she can make origami flowers and animals whenever she is nervousrestaurants, airports...wherever. The origami eventually becomes a key plot element, but her paper-folding habit is so odd as to be distracting. Since Daniel is known as the "Bee Whisperer" and has dedicated his life to bees, they play a major role in the story, but Cooper goes too far, throwing in so many bee factoids that she slows down the pace. For example, click HERE to read the historical derivation of Melissa's namenothing in the KINDLING world is a coincidence.

     At one point, Cooper drops in an oddball scene that doesn't relate to anything else in the book. In that brief scene, Nick tells Daniel about what happened when he and Grace and Sheriff Moser dealt with some politically connected plant poachers the previous day. There is no explanation for why Nick and Grace were involved with the sheriff's capture of the poachers, and there is no follow-up to the scene. It's just there…and then gone. After reading book 3, I suspect that Cooper threw in the scene to illustrate some of the frustrations that Jake Moser faces in his job and why he might want to quit. Cooper should have found a way to weave the Jake Moser job element into the actual story line rather than interrupting an already complicated plot with an ambiguous clue about her next book.

     I read this book on my Kindle and found that there are no print symbols that signal changes in point of view. Pages of paragraphs written from Mel's perspective suddenly turn into pages written from Daniel's perspective with no signal of separation for the reader. In the print books, the publisher leaves extra line spaces to indicate these changes, but not in the e-books. Also a problem is that sometimes Daniel's scenes are dreams, and sometimes they are reality, and you can read for a page or two before you realize that what is happening isn't really happeningit's only a dream. Most books put dream scenes in italics to signal the reader that a scene isn't real, but this one just drops the dreams into the narrative and lets the reader sort it outa technique that, once again, slows down the pace as the reader has to go back and forth in the text to figure out where reality stops and dreams begin. 

     To sum it up: I enjoyed the love story and the mystery, but the environmental drum was beating a bit too loudly in this book. It is now obvious that the Woodruffs and their allies are the all-good, nature-loving world-savers, and all who oppose them are greedy, nature-destroying villains. It's like a battle between Greenpeace and the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse, but with too much preaching and not enough dimension or drama. Click HERE and scroll down a bit to find links to excerpts from this book.

                    NOVEL 3:  Making Magic                    
     During his law enforcement career, Sheriff Jake Moser has been called to Woodruff Mountain a few times to deal with some rather weird situations. Now, recovering from a bullet wound that should have killed him and fending off his mother’s ravings about the evil that lurks on the mountain, he’s making alternate career plans.

     Just as those plans begin to take shape, someone starts kidnapping newborn babies, then returning them unharmed. To make things even more interesting, an irritating adversary from his past has returned to bedevil him in a whole new, delightful way.

     After her erratic psychic gift forced her to abandon her home and a promising musical career, Thea Woodruff has spent years trying, unsuccessfully, to atone for the death of Becca Moser, Jake’s sister. Once she has mourned those she’s lost and apologized to those she’s failed, she intends to flee her mountain once again.

     Jake would rather she stay to compose a new tune—with him. But their complicated harmony reveals a guilty secret that threatens not only their future, but their lives…

     Warning: A temperamental flute-player returns to torment an old flame, but he has other ideas, and the music they make together is combustible—and magical.

     In this book, we get the full back story for Althea (Thea) Woodruff, who was mentioned, but never seen, in the first two books. After double-crossing her father by backing a whistle-blower within the ranks of his huge pharmaceutical corporation, Thea heads back to Woodruff Mountain to recover her physical and mental health. Thea's talent is her voice. If she gives it a magical "push," she can make a person do and think whatever she wants. For example, she confesses her corporate treachery to her father, but then she orders him to forget what she told himand he does, permanently.

     Back in Patton Springs, Thea's childhood frenemy, Sheriff Jake Moser, also has a giftthat of telekinesis. He recently saved himself from a fatal gunshot wound by slowing down the bullet before it hit a vital organ. Now, he has decided not to return to his law enforcement career full time. Instead, he plans to open a musical instrument shop filled with dulcimers and flutes that he hand carves from local woods. He also plays in a small band that performs at local events. (Before she left the mountain, Thea played the flute in that band.)

     The romance story line plays out nicely until the very end when a major flare-up between the two just flickers out with a complete lack of drama, and we get the usual HEA ending. Cooper's heroes and heroines are all so high-minded and noble that it is sometimes hard to connect with them, and that's the case here.

     The drama in this plot comes during a local festival when several babies disappear and then reappear moments later. This is the lamest part of the entire series so fareven when it is explained it comes across as weird. 

     Meanwhile, Thea and Jake are falling for one another, but both are having difficulties. Thea hates her gift because when she uses it on people she robs them of their free will. Jake is dealing with his decision about his job, his alcoholic mother (who HATES the Woodruff family for their involvement in a family tragedy), and other aspects of his dysfunctional life. At the moment, Jake's mom is under the influence of a self-proclaimed witch who also hates the Woodruffs, but for different reasons that relate back to the events of book 1.

     The true villain doesn't emerge until after a major showdown scene near the end of the book, but that "reveal" scene portends future problems for the Woodruffs and their friends. More gifted people turn up in this book, and the group realizes that they must get organized and shield themselves against discovery by people who would use their gifts against them.

     Thankfully, the environmental overkill of book 2 is dialed down in this book, but that story line about the disappearing babies definitely weakens the overall plot. At this point, it looks as if the series will be going in a familiar directiongreedy corporate powers and black ops government groups trying to find, capture, and control anyone who has magical gifts. Although I have some quibbles here and there, Cooper is a decent story teller, and I have enjoyed reading all three of these books. I just wish that the good guys and gals weren't quite so saintly. Click HERE and scroll down a bit to find links to excerpts from this book.

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