Book Review: Mrs. Houdini by Victoria Kelly

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Mrs. Houdini, Victoria Kelly Recently I had the opportunity to read an advanced reader copy of Mrs. Houdini by Victoria Kelly thanks to the publisher, Simon and Schuster through NetGalley.

Told from the perspective of Bess Houdini, wife of famed early twentieth century magician Harry Houdini, the novel looks at the quest for a wife to reach her husband beyond the grave. If anyone could find a way to communicate with the living from the afterlife, the world is certain Harry Houdini could do it. Bess, however, struggles with her grief and carving out her own identity as a woman after living for decades under the shadow of a man who was larger than life. Along the way Bess gets caught up in a mystery with a magazine reporter and they both begin to believe Harry is contacting them from beyond the veil of death. What is he trying to say? Why are they being brought together?

The one surprising aspect of Mrs. Houdini is the deeper look into the heart of a widow who doesn’t seem to know how to function without her husband. The darker themes of grief running through the main mystery plot keep the reader rooting for Bess and hoping she’ll find her footing as a woman in her own right before she gets too old to enjoy her second phase of life. Mrs. Houdini can make the reader uncomfortable at times with Bess’ inability to let Harry go but the unease is to the credit of Victoria Kelly as an author. Grief and the road to independence aren’t easy and they’re not supposed to leave the reader feeling cheerful about a wife’s lost husband. Even so, Mrs. Houdini recounts a stormy and passionate marriage through flashbacks that reveal, layer by layer, just why Bess struggles with letting old ghosts lie.

The writing in Mrs. Houdini is skillful and clean without being too overdone. It reflects the modernized attitudes in the Jazz Age and Art Deco periods in which Bess Houdini lived in her widowhood. She was a woman emerging from Victorian stiffness and embracing the freedoms women earned as they moved toward the vote and entering the workforce. Victoria Kelly’s imagery, language, dialogue, and narrative voices do a great job of sinking the reader into that transition period in world history.

Mrs. Houdini was an unexpectedly moving novel wrapped in a life-after-death mystery. It’s recommended for anyone who enjoys historical fiction, women’s fiction, spirits, mediums, magic, and fictional takes on true stories.

On sale now in hardcover, electronic books, and so forth. Mrs. Houdini on Amazon.

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So the sacred day is over. Now what?

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Jessica Jewett, witchcraftOne of the more difficult things for some pagans – sometimes those new to our “ranks” – is what to do in between major festivals when there’s a lull in the excitement before preparing for the next one. Right now, the northern hemisphere is between Imbolc and Ostara, although for me, activities related to my goddess Brighid last throughout February, not just at Imbolc. But what can be done in between times of celebration and ritual?

I was brought up to understand that our pagan tradition was never a religion but a way of living. It was in our daily lives, so very part of our makeup, that I never realized until I was an adult that I was raised raised in Celtic polytheistic tradition. It was handed down so thoroughly from generation to generation that we never used labels like witch or pagan or whatever until I started piecing things together and asking questions. My point? Well, for me, there really isn’t a lull between sacred days that some pagans seem to experience, as if they go back to “normal” life after Samhain, Yule, Imbolc, etc.

This is not to say you’re not a “real” pagan if you don’t have a bubbling cauldron brewing up eye of newt and dead man’s toes every single day. Far from it. I mean to say that there can be magick and intent in everything you do from the most mundane housework to the most complex ritual. If you want magick and intent in your everyday life, you can have it. Really, it’s just about teaching yourself to have that natural frame of mind.

For example, every morning I make an effort to reconnect with my environment, with the nature around me. This doesn’t require anything special beyond building enough time for a cup of coffee or tea or whatever you drink in quiet contemplation of your place in the greater scheme of things. And that morning coffee? As you stir it, you can infuse your cup with the intention of having a good and productive day. Take that short time to state your intention to yourself and the universe about what you’re going to accomplish with your renewed daylight.

In between times can be used for studying. No matter how experienced the practitioner, there should always be an understanding that study and learning is necessary. I find it dangerous for the ego when a practitioner decides they’ve learned enough and they know everything. It’s not a good thought process, in my opinion. Keeping a learning spirit alive will also keep the practitioner open to new experiences. Have a few free minutes? Read a little bit of a book on your craft, or even learn something about a path outside of your own, because it’s important to understand the beliefs of those around you even if you don’t follow them. Basic understanding of other people’s lives can stop a lot of prejudices, angry words, and misunderstandings. Always be willing to expand your horizons.

We always had winter gardens and summer gardens as well as indoor plants, which is another area where you can integrate your practice into everyday life. No, it’s not as glamorous as doing big rituals under the full moon but it’s just as necessary. We should be doing everything we can to replenish what’s taken from the earth. I was taught to view ourselves as nature’s helpers.

How are your tools of the trade doing? Between festivals is a good time to repair tools, cleanse them, and recharge them in whichever manner you were taught or prefer. I’m someone who was raised with the value of making my own tools from things in nature around me, which takes more time than simple repairs, cleansing, and recharging. It’s better for me to work on tools if I’m making anything when there’s a lull in the calendar. My current project is building a hanging altar with a shadowbox on my wall to save space (hello, urban witches!). There’s no hurry. Take your time with your tools and make sure they’re completely right for you.

Related to the care and upkeep of your tools is the care and upkeep of your Grimoire or Book of Shadows if you have such a thing. How is it? Have you added to it lately? If you died tomorrow, is it ready to pass on to your heirs? Better get on that.

Even doing household chores has the potential for magick or intent. There are all sorts of natural cleaning liquid or powder recipes out there designed by other practitioners. The ingredients are chosen not only for physical cleaning purposes but for maintaining a desired environment in the home. A pagan or witch is never so powerful as when on his/her/their home turf, so it’s important to maintain the home with the kind of power and respect you desire in yourself as a practitioner. These cleaning supplies and methods become so habitual that in time, you won’t even realize, “Hey, I’m doing pagan stuff.”

And that’s what I mean by the whole thing here. For some, being pagan is more of a religious experience conducted outside of the self with all the themes and worship that religion often entails. For others, being pagan is an internal state of being expressed through outside actions. You’re the handler and curator of nature and energies within yourself as well as surrounding you in your environment. Doesn’t it make sense to incorporate it into your everyday life because you are the curator of your everyday life?

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Life Update

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Jessica Jewett, 2016 A couple of weeks ago, I had my friend Brooke cut off almost a foot of my hair and then we dyed it almost black. I’d say that kind of drastic change to my appearance is symptomatic of the wild changes my life has undergone in the last year.

To say 2015 was a challenging year would be an understatement. We began the year with my mother recovering from hip replacement surgery and we ended the year with her going through a much worse revision surgery when the first procedure apparently failed. Many months of her surgical recovery meant I had to be homebound a lot more because she was no longer allowed to lift me into the wheelchair or the car. Going out was rare and accomplished with the blessing of friends who were willing to help. I learned a lot about the value of real, true friendship and who will be there when things get tough, not just when things are fun and exciting.

My mental health had a big upswing last year but I’m headed into a decline now. I’m self-aware enough to be able to say that. When you’ve coexisted with PTSD for all of your adult life, you can feel a bad period coming almost in the way old folks feel storms coming in their aching joints. I don’t cope well with abrupt changes and not knowing what to expect in my daily routine. I’ve cycled through about six or seven different home health workers this past year because the company has a big problem with not paying their CNAs on time. Don’t get paid? Quit working. It sounds like a small thing but constantly having different people in and out of your house when you have PTSD is extremely stressful. It doesn’t help that a lot of people don’t take mental health needs as seriously as physical health needs, or don’t seem to recognize PTSD in non-military personnel. My mental health has been an uphill battle this year. I’m considering the possibility now that I might need a change in medication too, which is a bit of a let down.

The actual x-ray of my foot.

The actual x-ray of my foot.

Mental health concerns led me to decide against clubfoot corrective surgery as well. I consulted with a number of surgeons, including the orthopedic surgeon who works with the dancers in the Atlanta Ballet who also worked with children in third world countries. My case is rather severe and features the added bonuses of completely fused ankles, osteoarthritis, and poor circulation just for the fun of it. Correcting my case would require doing it by what’s called the Ilizarov technique plus slicing out a wedge of bone from each foot. The Ilizarov technique means drilling a series of rods into the foot and ankle, then fitting a cage around those rods. Each day the mechanism is tightened and the goal is to move the bones two millimeters or so every day until the foot is straightened into the correct position. It meant wearing cages and having rods driven through open wounds for three months or so. Since I can’t care for my own wounds, I would have to be hospitalized. For months. And there was never a guarantee that the procedure would succeed because my bones are so brittle. I could have an oh so fun shattered ankle in the process. Have you ever tried jamming a titanium or steel rod through glass?

Then they started talking about voluntary amputation as an alternative option. It sent my family into a divided uproar. Some were for it and some were against it. Everybody had a very loud opinion about both the Ilizarov technique and voluntary amputation. I started having nightmares, I crawled into my shell, and I started to pretend like surgery discussions never happened. I don’t have the guts to go through either procedure. Maybe when I was a child and had no understanding of complications, sure.

Lois Jewett, Jessica Jewett's grandmotherMy grandmother died in July. The night she was taken to the hospital, we didn’t yet know it was something serious. My uncle had called me in the car – something unusual for him – and there was a minute for me to talk to my grandmother. The last thing I told her was feel better and she said she loved me but she wasn’t feeling well and couldn’t talk at that moment. I never told anybody else about that last call. Why I’m writing about it here now, I’m not sure. That last call haunts me in a way because I remember thinking at the time how strange it was that my uncle did it while driving her to the hospital. There were numerous hospital visits in the past that never came with a phone call. It felt slightly foreboding at the time but I pushed that feeling aside, choosing to remain hopeful instead. Did he know something I didn’t? I don’t think so. He was more startled and traumatized by the suddenness of her death than anyone else in the family. I’ll never know what circumstances led to the last phone call but I’m grateful for it.

I reunited with my father and the paternal side of my family that same week but I was never able to tell her about it. My parents got divorced when I was a little girl and I didn’t see my father for years at a time. He had problems that are his own to tell or not tell, but what’s important now is rebuilding our relationship over the last ten years. We finally got to spend a week together last summer and it was like no time passed. My daddy is my daddy, you know? Spending time together in the Wyoming wilderness completely cut off from technology was honestly the best way to reconnect with my family. I recommend it for everyone. You can’t make memories any other way than eliminating the distractions of computers, phones, television, etc. Going to Wyoming was seriously the high point of my year.

Jessica Jewett art

Mountains over the South Platte River in Wyoming. From my sketchbook.

Now I’m facing new health challenges. Around the time I was in Wyoming, I was sick (and so was my father). It got much worse when I came home and it turned out I had a very serious infection stretching from my respiratory system to my left ear. It took three rounds of antibiotics and six weeks to kill the infection. It’s almost March now and I still don’t have much of my hearing back in my left ear. My primary doctor can’t see anything wrong with it aside from the ear canal being misshapen, so I’m going to have to be checked out by an ear, nose, and throat doctor. Since the infection lasted so long and my family already has a major history of hearing loss from illnesses, it looks like my hearing might have been damaged. Don’t ignore infections. The longer it takes to kill them and the more severe they are, the higher chance you have of damaging your hearing. As if I need more ailments to contend with, now I have significant hearing loss in my left ear. Sigh.

Christmas Eve came and our neighborhood flooded. You might have heard about the widespread flooding around Georgia at that time. All the floors in my house had to be redone, which took almost a month counting all the packing, moving, cleaning, and unpacking. On top of that, my mom was only a month out of hip replacement revision surgery and that involved a bone graft from a cadaver.

Now you guys know why it takes me forever to answer emails sometimes. There’s always a bunch of stuff I have to overcome and I just don’t have the stamina to keep up like I should, or other people can.

But you know what? I’m still living. As long as there’s breath in my body, there’s always hope, courage, and the determination to keep moving forward. I have more family and friends now than I did a couple of years ago. The people in my life are rather understanding about my health problems if they get to know me and very rarely do those closest to me make me feel like a burden. People who don’t know me as well can sometimes be impatient but I can only do the best I can. Life has a way of sorting everything out.

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