5 Literary Cookbooks to Make You Feel Like You’re in Your Favorite Book!

5 Literary Cookbooks

Many readers dream of being able to travel into their favorite book–or at least dream of being able to try the food! Below we review five literary cookbooks that will take readers from Middle-Earth to Regency England.

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The Anne of Green Gables Cookbook by Kate MacDonald, Evi Abeler

Anne of Green Gables Cookbook

This book is charmingly illustrated with aptly-named recipes that correspond key moments in the story from Diana’s raspberry cordial mishap to Anne’s liniment cake. There are quotes from the Anne books scattered throughout, so readers know which lines inspired each recipe. Regrettably, however, there is no information on cooking history and only a brief biography of L. M. Montgomery at the end. I wanted to see fun facts about cooking in Anne’s time, even if the recipes are modernized for convenience.

The recipes look easy to make and generally require common ingredients, which is nice. However, perhaps because the book is geared towards children, many of the recipes seem pretty standard, like egg salad sandwiches, shepherd’s pie, and macaroni and cheese. There is nothing I could not already easily make without this book; even the raspberry cordial recipe is just raspberry lemonade.

I did appreciate the cooking tips at the beginning of the book, which make it–along with the simplicity of the recipes–a wonderful gift for children. I do not see myself purchasing a copy, however, since the recipes are so standard that I can already do most of them.

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Dinner with Mr. Darcy by Pen Vogler

Dinner with Mr. Darcy

This book is a delightful foray into the dining and cooking of Austen’s time. I loved the interludes explaining things like when meal times were taken or how tables were set, as well as the notes about how many of these conventions changed during Austen’s own life. The recipes are really interesting as many are probably not meals most would cook or eat today. Many of the meals are very meat-heavy, however, which is not really appealing to me. So any recipes I try out will likely be from the dessert and tea sections.

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The Little Women Cookbook by Wini Moranville

Wini Moranville clearly appreciates Alcott’s work and attempts to offer a cookbook that acknowledges Alcott’s beloved book while also providing recipes for authentic period dishes–thankfully updated for the modern cook. Recipes are mostly based on actual meals and food mentioned in Little Women. But other recipes are those found in the “receipt” book Meg consulted, or recipes that would have been common at the time. The result is that readers will feel confident that they are really experiencing something akin to what diners in the 1860s would have.

Fascinating historical facts and explanations intersperse the book, making it an interesting read for fans of Little Women, even if an individual does not feel like making any of the recipes. For example, Moranville illuminates readers as to the nature of the “messes” Meg cooked for Beth; discusses how the Marches, though poor, managed to afford lobster; and explains what a blacmange is. Other historical notes explain why Louisa May Alcott’s work was filled with apples, or talk about how her father was what we would now call a vegan. Moranville ends up answering questions about Little Women and its author that readers may not have even known to ask.

Easy-to-make recipes paired with full menu suggestions make this a cookbook that I actually use. I have tried the apple orchard chicken, the pickled lime cookies, the Dijon mustard, and the hot milk sponge cake–and I make the sponge cake regularly. I intend to try more recipes since they have all been delicious!

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The Secret Garden Cookbook: Inspiring Recipes from the Magical World of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden by Amy Cotler

This beautifully-illustrated cookbook was precisely the type of book I wished to find after reading The Little Women Cookbook. Period dishes are paired with explanations of how food would have been prepared during Mary Lennox’s time. The author also clearly explains the different types of food that might have been available in the countryside versus the city, and how people of different social classes might have eaten. There is even a section on recipes that were imported from or inspired by the British presence in India. Many of the recipes look delicious, and I have bookmarked a few to try out in the future.

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An Unexpected Cookbook: The Unofficial Book of Hobbit Cookery by Chris-Rachael Oseland

I have to admit that I was expecting more recipes directly inspired by Middle-earth, so I ended up merely flipping through this book and not cooking anything. The dishes are mainly English countryside Victorian fare that J. R. R. Tolkien might have eaten. I was not particularly interested in recipes for things like steak and ale pie, venison cobbler, porter cake, and Yorkshire pudding, however, so maybe I am not the target audience for this book. Also, there are similar recipes in here as contained in The Secret Garden Cookbook–and I thought The Secret Garden Cookbook was superior. I did appreciate the historical notes about cooking and food in Tolkien’s day, however.

Sunny Makes a Splash by Jennifer L. Holm & Matthew Holm

Sunny Makes a Splash

Information

Goodreads: Sunny Makes a Splash
Series: Sunny #4
Age Category: Middle Grade
Source: Library
Published: 2021

Summary

Summer is here and, to escape babysitter her younger brother, Sunny gets a job serving snacks at the local pool. Watching the older kids flirt is like witnessing a real-life soap opera, too! But Sunny’s mom is having trouble realizing that her child is growing up.

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Review

Sunny Makes a Splash is my favorite Sunny yet. Our titular character returns for a delightful summer-themed story set at the local pool. The cute lifeguards, nostalgic snacks, and good old-fashioned fun all feel classic; this is what an American teen’s summer should look like (at least, according to the movies!). I adored the 1970s setting with its fashion, its food, and, yes, its dangerously high diving board. If only I could go on vacation with Sunny next year!

The 1970s setting is no doubt a good deal of the series’ charm, but the books go far beyond raising feelings of nostalgia. Though she is coming of age in another decade, Sunny feels completely relevant. She undergoes the same experiences as contemporary teens, trying to make her mother understand that she is growing up and feeling both interested in and baffled by flirting. Sunny’s easygoing nature is, however, what makes the books such a treat for me. Her unflappable attitude contrasts strongly in this installment with her mother’s worries, to great comedic affect.

Adding to the humor is an appearance by Sunny’s grandfather, who arrives unexpectedly for a visit when his home must undergo renovations. Sunny’s grandfather has always been delightful with his own positive approach to life. He really shines in this book, though, as he starts dating a woman and his daughter (Sunny’s mom) starts treating him like he is another teenager under her roof. Her attempts to send him to his room and impose curfews are hilarious, but her dad takes it all in stride.

Hints of romance also occur in this book for Sunny, which may please some of her readers. I found the potentially budding romance sweet, but was also pleased to see that, for now, Sunny and her love interest appear to be good friends. For what is a great romance built on, if not friendship? Perhaps future books will explore Sunny’s love life more in-depth. But I thought Sunny’s observations of the other workers at the pool–and their slightly convoluted flirting– were as entertaining as they were realistic.

Sunny Makes a Splash is a feel-good book that will transport readers to the ideal summer–an open pool, delicious food, good friends, and the possibility of romance. Absolutely wonderful.

4 stars

How Using Non-generic Graphics Might Increase Your Blog Traffic

When people ask for tips to increase traffic their book blog, I usually recommend a couple basic things that result in direct increases: comment around more on other blogs and utilize Pinterest. I would say these are the biggest ways we’ve increased traffic at Pages Unbound over the past couple years (and I can also see a decrease in traffic when I don’t put as much effort into these things). However, there are also less direct ways one can improve traffic, like working on SEO or posting more frequently. And one of these “minor” ways that a lot of bloggers overlook is by having custom, specific graphics for every blog post.

For a discussion post, a custom graphic means having something that specifically says the title/topic of the post. For a book review, a specific graphic could just be a picture of the book cover; it doesn’t have to be something you ~create~ in Canva or a similar program. The basic idea is that you want a graphic in the post that tells readers exactly what the post is about and that differentiates it from all the other posts on your blog.

Making an original graphic for every post is time-consuming, of course. I myself used to default to generic heading graphics that said things like “Discussion Post” or “Movie Review,” and I only really started doing specific graphics for every post when I made a concerted effort to add our posts to Pinterest, and I needed more original title graphics for that. However, even if you aren’t going to use Pinterest for your blog, unique graphics for every post will help your posts stand out where you DO share them, whether that’s on Facebook or Twitter or just the WordPress reader.

The WordPress reader post preview generally pulls in either one graphic/photo from your blog post, or four, depending on how many are in the post. (See examples below.)

Personally, I am MUCH more likely to be interested and click through to a post if 1) there is a graphic at all and 2) that graphic tells me specifically what the post is about. If I see an orange square that just says “book review,” that does not catch my eye. And it also makes it difficult for me to distinguish between posts from the same blog. I know I’ve seen the orange “book review” heading before, but have I seen it for THIS post? I don’t always remember, and I don’t always keep reading to find out.

Social media, of course, similarly provides scrollers with a preview of the post you are linking to, and I also am more likely to click on a link on Twitter or Facebook if there is some kind of graphic that tells me exactly what the post is about. If I see something that simply says “book review,” it’s hard to see what book the review is for, and I don’t have the cover image to give me a hint as to whether the book is MG, YA, adult, fantasy, nonfiction, etc. I don’t have a lot of free time to devote to reading things I might not be fully interested in, so I usually keep scrolling.

I’m not saying that switching up your graphics and putting a unique one on each post is going to miraculously increase your traffic by 50% or anything, but it’s my personal opinion that this IS a a thing that affects how many people click through your links, whether they see them on social media or on the WordPress reader. Having a unique graphic that says what the post is about can quickly catch readers’ attention and make them less likely to simply scroll on by.

What do you think? Do you find yourself passing on generic graphics more than specific ones?

Briana

Thoughts on Rereading The Return of the King: This Book Is Dark

Spoilers!

This year, I embarked on a quest to finally reread The Lord of the Rings. (I know: I talk about it enough on the blog that people probably assume I must reread it every year or something, but that’s not true. It’s been a while since I last read the story cover to cover.) In April, I posted some reflections on the geography of Middle-Earth after finishing The Fellowship of the Ring, in which I realized the world is much more isolated than I tend to remember. Now, after finishing The Return of the King, I’ve realized the story is also darker than I often remember.

The Lord of the Rings is generally a story I associate with hope. Small, unimportant people do great deeds. Disparate people band together to fight an incredible threat. Frodo succeeds in his quest despite all odds. I’ve written before about how the ending is bittersweet, as some things blossom and come to fruition (the actual return of the king) but other things pass away (the Elves). However, I don’t generally think of the book as actually dark. That changed with this rereading.

This time around, I really felt the despair of the peoples of Gondor, and slightly less so Rohan, as they prepared to take on the forces of the Dark Lord in battle. I know, of course, that Lord Denethor despairs of victory, but I always have it in the back of my mind that, of course, he’s supposed to be wrong. Gandalf tells him off for his despair, and readers learn that he’s been tricked into by Sauron, who has selectively shown him things in the Seeing Stone that will make him think Gondor has no chance of winning the coming battle. Knowing that, I’ve come to have in the back of my mind the idea that the other characters must be a bit more optimistic about the situation, but upon rereading, I’ve realized that’s not true.

None of the characters really know what’s coming before the battle at Minas Tirith, but they are not hopeful about it. In general, they are convinced they are going to die. Pippin fears the battle and that he will never see his friends again. Gandalf thinks they have a slim hope of winning this battle, maybe, but of course the whole war rests on Frodo’s ability to destroy the Ring. The people of Rohan ride hard to Gondor’s aid but are half-convinced they won’t arrive in time to participate in the main battle but instead will simply have a chance to briefly harry the orcs and Men who have triumphed over Minas Tirith before succumbing to said orcs and Men themselves, with no one even left to sing songs about their deeds. There is truly a sense that all the characters are going to fail. Or, even if the main battle is won, a lot of these characters are going to be dead.

Things get even more dire after the Battle of the Pelennor Fields, when Aragorn and the Captains of the West go to challenge Sauron at the Black Gate. They’re not even pretending there’s a chance they are going to come back alive at this point. It’s basically a suicide mission to buy Frodo a little more time and privacy to get to Mount Doom while Sauron is looking elsewhere. This is very depressing! And when a chapter ends with Pippin’s being attacked and subsequently closing his eyes and losing thought, well, it certainly seems as if he’s dead! I cannot remember what I thought the first time I read the book, and didn’t know the ending, but I assume I really thought Pippin was gone, and perhaps Aragorn and all the others were next.

Of course, the Eagles come, Frodo’s quest succeeds, and things generally become happy by the end. It’s the eucatastophe Tolkien wanted, but for many, many chapters in this book, it really feels as if hope is missing. One gets into the minds of the characters, who do not know where Frodo is or if he’s even still alive, who assume they have a part to play in fighting Sauron because, really, it’s the only option, but they’re not convinced it’s going to work or they’re gong to come out alive. In some places, this may in fact be the most hopeless book I’ve ever read! Or perhaps the most realistic about how people feel before a large battle in which they are outnumbered. Why should they expect to be lucky enough to survive?

The Lord of the Rings is, of course, still one of my favorite books. I simply did not remember the amount of darkness and despair Tolkien manages to convey in the first part of The Return of the King, especially since I now know how it all ends. It’s really a masterpiece of writing, and I think this bit of darkness is often overlooked.

Briana

The Last Legacy by Adrienne Young

The Last Legacy

Information

Goodreads: The Last Legacy
Series: None (companion to Fable)
Age Category: Young Adult
Source: Library
Published: 2021

Summary

Bryn Roth has waited her whole life for the letter that arrives on her eighteenth birthday from her uncle Henrik. Now, finally, she can return to Bastian and take her rightful place in the family. But the Roths play a dangerous game, creating fake gemstones for trade, and they have many enemies in the city and abroad. If Bryn wants to survive, she will have to create her own stake to bring in money for the family. She just didn’t count on losing her heart in the process.

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Review

After reading the Fable duology, I was thrilled to be able to return with Adrienne Young to the dangerous world of the Unnamed Sea. The Last Legacy mentions characters readers have seen before, but works as a standalone, exploring the Roth family, their trade in fake gems, and their new desire to be accepted by respectable society as part of the merchant class. The stakes are high as Bryn attempts to navigate this new world. Readers who love their YA fantasy filled with dark secrets and intrigue will devour The Last Legacy.

The Last Legacy has the opportunity to expand on the world of the Unnamed Sea, as readers learn more about the city of Bastian, and the traders and merchants who vie for supremacy there. Unfortunately, however, much of Young’s vivid worldbuilding is lost in this story, as it focuses more on Bryn’s budding romance than it does on anything else. Even Bryn’s concerns about finding her stake in the family and being accepted by the Roths feel like a bit of an afterthought, as if the story exists mainly to give readers more Ezra (a character from the former duology)–and to maybe give Ezra his chance at happiness.

The romance, however, feels very lackluster, just as it does in the Fable duology. The timeline here is very fast and the story slim, so Bryn and Ezra do not actually know each other–or anything about each other. They are inexplicably drawn to each other, and I guess readers are supposed to accept that passion or lust for someone they just met is enough for the two to risk their lives to be together. Personally, however, I could not buy into this, so I felt no real emotional pull for the pair.

The actual intrigue also proves a little disappointing. The story does have its twist and turns, with Bryn trying to figure out whom she can trust and whom she cannot. Savvy readers, however, will know when Bryn is being played long before she does, which makes the story somewhat less gripping. Furthermore, the book is so short that the drama feels underdeveloped. Perhaps it would have been less of a problem had I not had higher expectations based on Fable and Namesake.

Still, despite its flaws, The Last Legacy still manages to entertain. I kept reading because I wanted to know what would happen next and because I wanted to see Bryn succeed and free herself from her family. The book may not quite live up to its predecessors, but it likely will still please fans who wish to return to the Unnamed Sea.

3 Stars

What’s Wrong with Boring Characters?

Have you ever noticed that stories love to celebrate the daring and the quirky? Perhaps that is no surprise; characters who enjoy staying at home to garden or read, or whatever it is that nice, quiet people do, are not exactly as exciting as characters who head off to slay dragons or explore space. But sometimes it can feel as if stories, far from accepting the joy of a quiet life, instead dismiss those who do not crave novelty and adventure. Yet, if we are honest with ourselves, a great many of us are probably the “boring” type of person that (some) stories tell us must be shallow, without vision, and unfulfilled. That is far from the truth. Even the most boring of us can be fulfilled and, yes, even interesting.

Not every story dismisses the “boring” characters, but a great many do imply that anyone who just stays at home or does not “put themselves out there” is somehow lacking. Think of all the stories where characters have to “find themselves” by doing something unusual–maybe taking a road trip across the country, skydiving, or attending a bunch of parties in order to be “cool.” While there are certainly benefits to traveling, trying something new, and being social, oftentimes these types of stories suggest that the people who do not do these things just do not have the same zest for life as people who are always searching for novelty. They suggest that, had the character not taken a European tour, or not smoked that thing at that party, their lives would have been empty, their transformation incomplete.

Most recently, I was pondering the retelling of Peter Pan in Soman Chainani’s Beasts and Beauty: Dangerous Tales. [Spoilers ahead!] Narrated by an older Wendy, the story follows her initial crush on Peter, her realization of his brutality, and her subsequent romance with a pirate. Despite her love for the pirate, however, she leaves Neverland and marries a boring man. But she carries on an affair with the pirate for years, eventually bearing him a son. The implication is that, because the husband is boring, because he has not been to Neverland, and because he presumably never would want to visit Neverland even if he had the chance, his wife is fully justified in cheating on him and having a child with another man. A person just can’t love a man who carries on through daily life as if there is nothing more.

However, the reality is that many people probably would not want to go have adventures in Neverland due to the high probability of death or injury. Which seems very reasonable. Adventures are nice to read about, but not necessarily nice to have. But does that mean that the people who would not fly away to fight with pirates are not worth respecting and not worth loving? Though Wendy tells the story and gives readers her perspective on the matter, I could not help but sympathize with the husband. It is not really his fault that he is satisfied with his life and his job. His main mistake seems to have been marrying someone who does not appreciate him. If only he had married an equally boring person who would have been content to live a quiet life–and loved him! [Spoilers ended.]

Quite a lot of people probably qualify as the “boring” characters so many stories dismiss. But there is nothing wrong with leading a quiet life or being content with what one has. Nor is it true that one cannot find one’s self unless one spends a lot of money to go on a trip or unless one does things one would not normally do. Self-reflection can happen anywhere, not just exotic locales. And unusual external events do not have to be only impetus for change in one’s life.

It makes sense that writers love to write characters who encounter exciting events or who find themselves in unusual circumstances. But not everyone has to chase novelty to be fulfilled. So let’s celebrate the boring characters–the ones who, hopefully, have already found happiness in their lives and in the simple pleasures those lives bring. In some ways, that seems more inspiring than having to chase adventure to find meaning.

Beasts and Beauty: Dangerous Tales by Soman Chainani (Spoilers)

Beasts and Beauty

Information

Goodreads: Beasts and Beauty: Dangerous Tales
Series: None
Age Category: Marketed as Middle Grade; More Suitable as YA
Source: Library
Published: 2021

Official Summary

You think you know these stories, don’t you?

You are wrong.

You don’t know them at all.

Twelve tales, twelve dangerous tales of mystery, magic, and rebellious hearts. Each twists like a spindle to reveal truths full of warning and triumph, truths that capture hearts long kept tame and set them free, truths that explore life . . . and death.

A prince has a surprising awakening . . .                           

A beauty fights like a beast . . .

A boy refuses to become prey . . .

A path to happiness is lost. . . . then found again.

New York Times bestselling author Soman Chainani respins old stories into fresh fairy tales for a new era and creates a world like no other. These stories know you. They understand you. They reflect you. They are tales for our times. So read on, if you dare.

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Review

Beasts and Beauty: Dangerous Tales promises readers that these are stories “for a new era” and that they “understand you” and “reflect you.” The question while reading, however, is whether making the characters diverse and gender swapping some of the characters is enough to make them fully new. In many of the stories, negative gender stereotypes against women remain. And in many of the stories, there is no modernized “enlightened” moral. Rather, the “heroes” in several of the tales become the villains. It is unclear whether readers are supposed to cheer them on for taking on the role of their enemies– or not.

Ultimately, the book does a wonderful job in being dark, gritty, and somewhat depressing. Virtue does not really triumph over evil in this volume because none of the characters are that virtuous to begin with. And most of the endings are more bitter than sweet, with princesses finding themselves unloved by their husbands and many of the fairy tale characters getting divorced. Presumably this makes the stories more realistic. But most people do not read fairy tales for the realism.

Further, the content of the book really veers more towards adult or YA fiction, making this a really odd choice for the middle grade audience. Yes, tales such as “Bluebeard” have always had violence in them. But it does seem like the stories are crossing some sort of invisible line here over from MG to YA when there are (positive? neutral?) depictions of cannibalism, “happy” endings with the prince marrying two girls at once, and a lot of uncomfortable sexual overtones throughout the book. Usually this type of content is considered mature, and I am not sure what to make of a publisher marketing this content to educators, parents, and children who are likely unaware that it is in this book. Frankly, it does feel like a violation of trust because many people use age categories to find content that is developmentally appropriate for children–and this, by most people’s standards, is not probably not for the average 8-12 year old.

Below, I give my thoughts on a few of the selections from the book. To fully review the tales, however, I do spoil the endings and as well as any notable deviations from the original stories. Read on only if you do not mind being spoiled!

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“Bluebeard”

Not too original for a retelling. Instead of marrying and murdering girls, the titular character buys orphan boys. It’s unclear exactly what he does with them, but there does seem to be a creepy sexual undertone to this story, as with many. The story is not too remarkable, however, since the main feature is the gender swap.

“Cinderella”

I admit I had no idea what to make of this one. The original twist is that Prince Charming actually fell in love with a different girl–not Cinderella–who ends up being turned into a mouse by a witch. Now the mouse lives with Cinderella and is using Cinderella (by lying to her) in order to get into the castle for the ball. The mouse has a lot to say about the evil stepsisters, in a way that links their evilness with their ugliness. There is no clear messaging that this is wrong or that the mouse is just nasty and jealous, and probably should not be criticizing other women about their looks the way she does.

Normally, I would suggest that a book does not need a clear moral message from the narrator, but this is a fairy tale. More than that, it is a retold fairy tale in a book touting how wonderful it is that we have these updated stories that are presumably supposed to align with contemporary values. So why the woman-on-woman hate?

Additionally, the ending was unusual, to say the least. The prince ends up marrying both Cinderella and the other girl (yes, bigamy). I have to admit that I was not aware that this is something most contemporary readers would celebrate as a happy and appropriate ending.

“Hansel and Gretel”

The big twist here is that, instead of the witch trying to eat Hansel and Gretel, Hansel and Gretel team up with the witch to (apparently) eat their evil stepmother. Usually fairy tales try to have morals about how being virtuous will bring good things to a person. Are Hansel and Gretel actually the good characters here, though? Why do they get a happy ending for engaging in cannibalism? Is the point of this story something about how darkness is within us all and no one is really that good? Is that the modern twist–a belief that the world holds no light? Or are readers supposed to cheer on Hansel and Gretel for becoming like the witch readers are used to hating because, you know, killing and eating people is wrong? It’s all very unclear, but neither option seems like a good one.

“Jack and the Beanstalk”

This retelling shows how ineffective merely writing a gender-swapped ogre is in any attempt to make old stories feel less sexist. Negative gender stereotypes about women still abound here. They have, in fact, been added to the story! The ogre becomes a female who henpecks her husband. Jack’s mother, meanwhile, is understandably stressed and bitter because she married a lazy man who squandered all their wealth, and then got himself killed, and now her son seems to be following in his dad’s footsteps. Somehow, however, Jack’s mother becomes the villain because Jack thinks she’s a nag. So evidently she needs to suffer so that Jack can go and be happy with a new family. Ouch.

“The Little Mermaid”

This one is one of the less imaginative retellings, largely because it is not really a story. It reads like a Tumblr-esque critique of the Disney film, with the sea witch merely running a monologue about how silly and shallow the little mermaid has to be in order to give up everything for a guy she has never even spoken to. I imagine most readers will not be particularly impressed by this one.

“Peter Pan”

This is possibly the highlight of the collection. It is told by an older Wendy, who recounts her early adventures in Neverland, and then her growing understanding of how vile Peter Pan really is. She ends up falling in love with a pirate instead. The one aspect I really didn’t like was that Wendy marries someone, but has a years-long affair with the pirate. And I guess readers are supposed to be okay with that because her husband is boring. But being boring is hardly wrong. Why are readers supposed to be disdainful of anyone who does not want to engage in deadly adventures? I so wish that the husband had been fortunate enough to marry a boring woman who would have loved him.

“Sleeping Beauty”

I was not sure what to make of this one, either. It begins with the prince waking up every morning with bleeding wounds, and he worries that he is being attacked by a demon. It seems clear that this is supposed to be a metaphor for his being gay. However, he attacks the boy who has been attacking him at night, then ends up marrying a countess. But he now he is not happy, so he locks himself in a tower, so the boy can return to…hurt him?…every night? This does make him happy. His wife gets upset that her husband has locked himself in a tower, but readers aren’t supposed to worry about her too much because she’s a gold digger (ahem, sexist stereotype!) so she deserves what she gets.

I don’t understand the link between violence and pleasure here. Also, if the wounds are supposed to be some uncomfortable metaphor for sex, like in vampire lore or something, does that mean the the prince was being raped…and then decided later to become lovers with his rapist?? Because, remember, initially the night attacks were unsolicited and not consensual. They hurt the prince and worried him. How is this an appropriate story for anyone, let alone children?

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Conclusion

Ultimately, I was not overly impressed with the collection. The originality of each tale varies a lot and often the author seems to rely on a gender swap alone to make a story “new,” but without removing gendered stereotypes. The content, too, is too mature for a middle-grade book. I imagine most 8-12 year olds are not developmentally ready to read a book where cannibalism is depicted as either a neutral or a laudable act, and certainly not ready for one where sex is equated with violence and where apparent rape is depicted as the prelude to romance. This is not what children should be learning about sexuality when they are at an impressionable age. That these stories are specifically marketed as updated to reflect contemporary values and sensibilities only makes many of the narrative choices stranger because it implies that readers should take the stories at face value.

Maybe read this one if you like dark tales where no one is the hero and everyone is the villain. But go in knowing that the content here is mature and that the book is not what most would typically call a middle-grade read.

2 star review

Witches of Brooklyn: What the Hex?! by Sophie Escabasse

Witches of Brooklyn What the Hex

Information

Goodreads: Witches of Brooklyn: What the Hex?!
Series: Witches of Brooklyn #2
Age Category: Middle Grade
Source: Library
Published: 2021

Summary

Sophie loves exploring her new powers as a witch and, even better, she’s starting to meet the other witches in town. They’re really cool women who do their best to help others! But there’s a new girl at school, and suddenly everyone seems way more interested in her than they are interested in hanging out with Sophie. Can this witch figure out how to save her friendships?

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Review

The sequel to Witches of Brooklyn is an engaging, if not particularly memorable read. Like many middle-grade graphic novels, it focuses on the drama of changing friend groups, though with the added twist of making the protagonist a witch. Sophie, however, does not experience any real struggles with her magic in this installment, thereby lessening much of the drama and keeping the focus on her jealousy towards her friend’s infatuation with the new girl at school. What the Hex?! is a pleasant read, but not the type of story that invites rereading.

What the Hex?! attempts to intertwine two parallel stories, with only partial success. One thread follows Sophie’s anger at her friend for paying more attention to the new girl than to her. Another follows Sophie as she meets more neighborhood witches, and learns about a city corner that seems to be cursed–at least, everyone who goes by seems to meet with bad luck. Predictably, Sophie’s ability to move past her jealousy and reach out is what ultimately enables her to solve the conflict at the corner, as well.

Unfortunately, however, the magic system is somewhat undeveloped, as is the process whereby Sophie solves the problem of the curse. As a result, the ending scene feels a bit rushed or perhaps unearned. Sophie has a random idea about the corner, based on little evidence, that just happens to be right. And then all is solved by the power of friendship! I support messages of friendship, but sometimes just throwing out that love can solve everything seems a bit too facile to be believable. There needs to be work involved, as well.

In the end, I did enjoy What the Hex?!, but the story and the art do not stand out from all the similar titles. Witchy middle-grade books are trending, as are middle school friendship dramas. As are witchy friendship dramas, which is apparently now its own subgenre. What the Hex?! simply is not as strong as the titles it is competing with. And it is not really the kind of book that I see lasting.

3 Stars

Roxy by Neal Shusterman and Jarrod Shusterman (ARC Review)

Information

Goodreads: Roxy
Series: None
Age Category: Young Adult
Source: Giveaway – Goodreads
Publication Date: November 9, 2021

Official Summary

The freeway is coming.

It will cut the neighborhood in two. Construction has already started, pushing toward this corridor of condemned houses and cracked concrete with the momentum of the inevitable. Yet there you are, in the fifth house on the left, fighting for your life.

Ramey, I.

The victim of the bet between two manufactured gods: the seductive and lethal Roxy (Oxycontin), who is at the top of her game, and the smart, high-achieving Addison (Adderall), who is tired of being the helpful one, and longs for a more dangerous, less wholesome image. The wager—a contest to see who can bring their mark to “the Party” first—is a race to the bottom of a rave that has raged since the beginning of time. And you are only human, dazzled by the lights and music. Drawn by what the drugs offer—tempted to take that step past helpful to harmful…and the troubled places that lie beyond.

But there are two I. Rameys—Isaac, a soccer player thrown into Roxy’s orbit by a bad fall and a bad doctor and Ivy, his older sister, whose increasing frustration with her untreated ADHD leads her to renew her acquaintance with Addy.

Which one are you?

Star Divider

Review

Roxy, being an exploration of the opioid crisis, is one of those books where the reviews are going to be dominated by discussion of the message of the book, rather than discussion of the story. Already on Goodreads, before the book’s release, one can see reviews ranging from “It’s against drug abuse, so 5 stars!” to “It doesn’t mirror my experience with drugs, so 1 star!” I thought long and hard about whether the book even is trying to tell a story, or just send teen readers a message, and I ultimately I had to conclude that the story just isn’t quite there. The book is interesting and experimental in some ways, but the plot and characters are completely secondary to the commentary on drugs, which is disappointing.

The choice to personify drugs is interesting. There are the main ones, Roxy and Addison, but Shusterman and Shusterman add references to nearly every drug you can think of and even gives some of them their own “interludes” in the book so you can see them as “people.” On one hand, this is extremely allegorical. And allegory is something today’s readers often make fun of, like, “Ha ha, look as those ridiculous medieval writers personifying Fortitude and Charity.” But maybe it’s cool to readers when the allegorical is about drugs.

Personifying them, however, means the drugs aren’t necessarily represented as all bad because they’re “people” with strengths, weaknesses, flaws, hopes, dreams, doubts. I’m sure that makes sense in terms of representing why people do drugs (they seem appealing for whatever reasons), but I imagine readers wanting a very, very strong “these drugs are bad and you certainly should not do them and become addicted” message might think it’s undermined by making the drugs seem occasionally like kind of nice people who make good points about things.

Now, ostensibly, the main characters of the book aren’t just the drugs; there’s also siblings Isaac and Ivy. Isaac is a smart, well-behaved kid who gets his hands on Roxy after busting his ankle, while Ivy is a party girl with a drug dealing boyfriend who can only get back on track once she starts hanging with Addison again. Part of the “hook” of the story is supposed to be having the readers guess which of the two becomes a complete victim of their drug of choice, but there was never any mystery for me, and I felt no suspense in the book. I also just wasn’t too invested in either of their lives, since it all just seemed like a vehicle to pontificate on drugs.

Some of the most interesting commentary in the book, simply because it’s subtle and not spelled out like everything else, is what on earth’s going on with Isaac and Ivy’s parents, letting both their kids get addicted to drugs. The parents are in a weird space where they’re sort of present in their kids’ lives but seem bad at actually . . . parenting. Like they yell at Ivy for sneaking out and having a terrible sketchy boyfriend, but their “parenting” is just arguing with her and not actually solving anything. There’s possibly some cautionary tale for parents in here.

So, Roxy has an interesting premise. I’m not sure it does what readers will want it to do which is BOTH tell a good story and suggest to teens that while drugs might seem alluring and it’s possible for anyone, not just “bad” kids, to become addicted, they should really avoid drugs. However, the story itself is just really buried under the message, and the fact that the personified drugs don’t really seem that bad means any anti-drug message is not necessarily as strong as it could be.

Briana
3 Stars

Tidesong by Wendy Xu (ARC Review)

Tidesong by Wendy Xu instagram photo

Information

Goodreads: Tidesong
Series: None
Source: PR company for review
Publication Date: November 16, 2021

Official Summary

Perfect for fans of Studio Ghibli and The Tea Dragon Society, this is a magically heartwarming graphic novel about self-acceptance and friendship.

Sophie is a young witch whose mother and grandmother pressure her to attend the Royal Magic Academy—the best magic school in the realm—even though her magic is shaky at best. To train for her entrance exams, Sophie is sent to relatives she’s never met.

Cousin Sage and Great-Aunt Lan seem more interested in giving Sophie chores than in teaching her magic. Frustrated, Sophie attempts magic on her own, but the spell goes wrong, and she accidentally entangles her magic with the magic of a young water dragon named Lir.

Lir is trapped on land and can’t remember where he came from. Even so, he’s everything Sophie isn’t—beloved by Sophie’s family and skilled at magic. With his help, Sophie might just ace her entrance exams, but that means standing in the way of Lir’s attempts to regain his memories. Sophie knows what she’s doing is wrong, but without Lir’s help, can she prove herself?

Star Divider

Review

Tidesong by Wendy Xu is a whimsical graphic novel that has the feel of Kiki’s Delivery Service, but with dragons and a setting by the sea. The result is a story that ebbs and flows with protagonist Sophie’s struggles but ultimately will feel warm and familiar and cozy to readers.

The greatest struggle, I find, for many graphic novels is to create a complex story using limited words and space, and I do think Tidesong ultimately feels a bit sparse. There’s the main conflict of Sophie’s wanting to learn magic but then getting her magic tied up with a dragon’s and needing to sort it out so she can continue to practice for her audition for the esteemed magic academy she wants to attend, and there are side plots about Sophie’s family and Sophie’s own inner turmoil. It’s simply not as developed as I’d expect it all to be if the story were told in novel form. However, I don’t think it this will be an issue for the target audience of middle grade readers. As a child, I often imagined fuller stories into the books I read and was surprised to find as an adult that many of the books I loved so much seemed so short and simple. So I think young readers will absolutely fall in love with Tidesong and its world.

And the world has a lot to offer. In a brief space, and with the help of her gorgeous illustrations, Xu brings readers to a seaside town where Sophie’s family works magic and consorts with dragons. You can practically smell the salty air on the pages. I love the idea that Sophie’s magic is tied to water and that her family has a history of special magical traditions they have passed through the ages.

Finally, Xu ensures each character in the book has an arc, from Sophie who has to deal with learning magic in ways she didn’t expect, to Lir who has to come to terms with his memory loss and family problems, to Sophie’s extended family members who need to learn to let go of the past in order to truly see the present. The journey for each of them has up and downs but is a joy for readers to watch.

Tidesong is a book that is sure to delight readers and have them hoping Xu will return to this world with a sequel.

Briana
4 stars