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CARPE LIBRUM: Locally set fantasy-fiction entertains, while loosening reins on accuracy

Wilmington’s literary community keeps gaining accolades (two National Book Awards nominees in 2015) and attention in the press. With multiple established publishers in the state (Algonquin, Blair) and new smaller presses gaining traction (Lookout, Eno, Bull City), and a pair of well-regarded literary magazines out of UNCW, it is timely to shine a light on discussions around literary publishing. More so, it shows the importance of communicating a truthful story in our present world.

Welcome to Carpe Librum, encore’s biweekly book column, wherein I will dissect a current title and an old book—because literature does not exist in a vacuum but emerges to participate in a larger, cultural conversation. I will feature many NC writers; however, the hope is to place the discussion in a larger context and therefore examine works around the world.

Spell Booked
Joyce and Jim Lavene
Berkley Publishing, 2014, pgs. 294

As happens about three times a week, Rachel and I were comparing notes on the latest mystery books we were reading. Sometimes our tastes overlap (“Amelia Peabody” and the “Bruno” books are two examples). Frequently, they veer off in different directions as well. Rachel can handle a lot more violence than I can and a lot more female friendships. She explained “The Poor Relations” series before we started discussing the “Retired Witches Mysteries” I had just started.

“It’s set in Wilmington and somehow it got past me!” I exclaimed.

“So does that distract you?” she asked. “With a location you know?”

“Not as long as it is done well,” I answered. “So far they’ve got their geography pretty OK.”

Then I hit two moments in the book I have been unable to get past … but more about that later. First, a little discussion about why I was so excited to discover this book:

As I said, it is set in Wilmington and my love of my hometown is a big part of the lens through which I see the world. It is written by two authors from North Carolina—though, they did not live here. Joyce and Jim Lavene have both since passed away. It is essentially a fantasy mystery, which are two of my favorite genres of escape reading.

The premise centers around a coven of three witches living in Wilmington who are coping with the waning of their powers and trying to find replacements to pass their spell book to so they can retire to Boca Raton, Florida.  The three own an occult shop in The Cotton Exchange, Smuggler’s Arcane. Things get complicated when one of the witches, Olivia, is killed in an alley off Water Street. The homicide detective in charge of the case, Joe, is married to one of the other witches, Molly. For some reason in this world, Molly cannot tell Joe she has magical abilities. The witches in the book have what I would call “enchantment magic” rather than witchcraft represented in Jennifer David Hesse’s books about a solitary practitioner of Wicca who keeps finding herself in a variety of mystery-solving scenarios. For example, these three can bewitch binoculars to see through buildings. They also have to deal with some sort of governing body, in this case, the Grand Council. And they cannot tell their non-magical friends and family members about their superpowers.

“Spell Booked” combines enough of the Harry Potter enchantment and struggle with the mundane world, and illusions to things that appear in Wicca, to make for an interesting magical system. It’s gripping, the pacing is phenomenal, and plot twists and turns are superb. The Lavenes understand foreshadowing and plot reveal, which is fabulous.

But does the setting distract if it is Wilmington—a place I know and love, oh so well? Oh, so much! Yes.

It didn’t until the witches had to get into a car to drive across town from The Cotton Exchange to the community college. Apparently, walking across Walnut Street was going to be too simple. Then there is the meal they have at Flaming Amy’s. The college-aged son of one of the witches comes home, and the family goes out to his favorite restaurant for dinner. Flaming Amy’s as the favorite restaurant of a college-aged boy sounds completely believable: large portions of extremely tasty and delightful food.

“Jock, have you ever had a waiter show you to your table at Flaming Amy’s?” I asked.

“What?”

“In the book I’m reading, the characters get seated at a table by a waiter at Flaming Amy’s. They also pay the bill at the end of the meal.”

I looked at him meaningfully.

“So, clearly, whoever wrote the book never stepped foot in there. What—did they pull the name off Google maps?”

“They must have,” I grumbled. Apparently, any further research was beyond the call of duty.

“Did you know we have a free parking zone on Water Street?” I asked a few pages later.

“What are you talking about?” he gave me a quizzical look.

“Yes, apparently, on Water Street we have a free parking zone, where two people can easily find parking places next to each other in the middle of the day.”

I shook my head.

“It is located right in front of the bar on the waterfront that caters to all the fishermen on the river.”

“What?” Jock sputtered. “What are you talking about?”

I held up my book.

“It’s all in here. Apparently, we have lots of free parking, and we have a fisherman’s dive bar on Water Street.”

Jock shook his head and went to make sure the house was locked up for the evening. When he came back, beer in hand, he commented, “I am glad you are enjoying getting upset with this book. It should entertain you and give you something to complain about for days.”

I stuck my tongue out at him and started to ask another question about Wilmington geography when he silenced me with a kiss. “Like I said, darlin’, I’m glad this will entertain you.”

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