The Circus at the End of the Sea by Lori R. Snyder

The Circus at the End of the Sea Book Cover

Information

Goodreads: The Circus at the End of the Sea
Series: None
Age Category: Middle Grade
Source: Library
Published: October 2021

Summary

Maddy has never had a family or a place to call home. So when she feels the tug of magic calling her in Venice, California, she hops off the bus headed to her new group home. She discovers by the sea a magical circus, but, with the Ringmaster missing, the circus may soon have to close. Maddy offers to help, and suddenly finds herself on a wild adventure.

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Review

The Circus at the End of the Sea seems like just the quirky kind of middle grade fantasy I would love. It is filled with plenty of heart as well as magic, and I yearned to connect with the characters and to immerse myself in the world. Ultimately, however, it felt like the story was trying just a little too hard to be quirky for me to find it truly delightful. And I never connected with the protagonist Maddy, who possesses an amazingly bland personality, yet still overcomes each obstacle thrown her way with relative ease, as the apparent Chosen One. The Circus at the End of the Sea may find more love from its target audience, but I never felt the enchantment.

The story begins, of course, with an assurance that the protagonist Maddy is not like the other kids–and that, frankly, was enough for me to start the book with skepticism. Maddy, you see, can feel the tug of magic. And she still believes, even though she has learned not to tell anyone else. Yet there seems to be nothing particularly special about Maddy. She is not particularly kind or wise or brave–she actually comes across as kind of unlikable in her aversion to other children and her seeming resentment at having to be nice to her seatmate on the bus, a young girl who is worried about going to a new group home, but who is unable to see magic and, thus, ultimately too boring for Maddy to want to engage with forever. When thinking about her potential future, Maddy actually thinks back on this girl with horror–she can’t go back to that life and to more kids like that! So it was kind of hard for me to buy into the idea that Maddy was the only one who could save the circus, the only one who could complete the special tasks. The only thing special about her is that she loves magic. While this is often a sign of some great insight or openness or love of life in story books, Maddy does not really have any of that, just a desire to escape her current world.

The actual plot somehow seems rushed, as Maddy passes each challenge on her journey with comparative ease. Yes, there are few times when Maddy is confused, or fails, or has to ask for help. Generally, however, after a brief hiccup, she finds her way. The stories that often really grip me, that make me remember them long after I finish reading, are the ones where the heroes are truly challenged and even suffer. Maddy does suffer from loneliness, of course–because she apparently does not like any of the kids she has ever met before finding one who is, gasp, part of a magical circus–but most of this comes from telling rather than showing. And it is only sometimes related to the journey she must make to find the Ringmaster. While the book ultimately has a heartwarming message about finding one’s self by accepting one’s self, the good as well as the bad, Maddy finds this acceptance without much struggle, and that weakens both the story and her characterization.

Ultimately, The Circus at the End of the Sea is not the kind of story that will stay with me. I enjoyed many of the characters, I was entertained briefly by the plot, and I approved (as a stuffy old grown-up, I suppose) of the Good Messages imparted to the intended child audience. However, I was not moved, and I do not foresee myself rereading this book, or even reading a sequel. It is a good book. Just not the gem I was hoping to find.

3 Stars

Tidesong by Wendy Xu

Tidesong Book Cover

Information

GoodreadsTidesong
Series: None
Age Category: Middle Grade
Source: Library
Published: November 2021

Summary

Sophie longs to attend the prestigious Royal Academy of Magic, but instead is sent to learn her family’s special magic from her aunt and grandmother. But all her grandmother does is assign her chores! Determined to prove her power, Sophie attempts a difficult spell–and accidentally traps a dragon in human form. Can Sophie find a way to undo her magic?

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Review

Tidesong is a gentle fantasy reminiscent of a Studio Ghibli film. Young witch-in-training Sophie longs to prove herself, but her self doubt gets in the way of her ability to take direction. As a result, she creates a magical mishap that nearly results in disaster for both humans and dragons. The plot is simple, but also fast paced, so young readers can feel like they experienced a lot of action and growth in a short time.

The greatest strength of Tidesong just may be its illustrations, which are charming and sweet–and sure to appeal to the growing number of manga fans. The high stakes that are supposed to be a result of Sophie’s actions are not always effectively conveyed. However, Sophie’s emotions are–and those form the heart of the story.

Because, in the end, Tidesong is not really a book about human-dragon relationships, or magical training, or even finding one’s self. Tidesong is about a girl who seems to be experiencing anxiety, and who must learn not to listen to the voice in her head that tells her she is a failure. Every time someone offers constructive criticism, even in an encouraging and supportive way, Sophie hears that she is not good enough, and never will be. Her self-doubt is helpfully conveyed in red text boxes with jagged edges, showing struggle she experiences to believe in herself. But only by believing in herself can she undo the trouble she has caused with her magic.

Tidesong is not exactly the world’s most memorable story, or the most heartfelt. The action occurs too quickly, and so do the character arcs, to feel truly meaningful. It is, however, a sweet, feel-good book. Just the kind to cozy up with when one needs something uplifting.

Read Briana’s review of Tidesong.

3 Stars

Stuntboy, In the Meantime by Jason Reynolds & Raúl the Third (Illustrations)

Stuntboy in the Meantime Book Cover

Information

Goodreads: Stuntboy, in the Meantime
Series: Stuntboy #1 (implied by ending)
Age Category: Middle Grade
Source: Library
Published: 2021

Summary

Portico Reeves has a secret identity. He’s…Stuntboy! He uses his powers to protect the people around him. His best friend Zola from the class bully. His parents from themselves. But Portico is having difficulty processing the fact that his parents are divorcing, and his anxiety is getting worse. Can Stuntboy still save the day when he does not feel his best?

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Review

I am a huge fan of Jason Reynolds, so it hurts a little to say that I do not think Stuntboy, In the Meantime is his best work. The protagonist Portico Reeves comes across as a little too young to be relatable to what seems to be the intended audience. And I am not really sure what the benefit is of having Portico not understand familiar concepts and words. Is it supposed to be funny? Is it just so the narrator can take time out to teach readers the correct pronunciation of words like “anxiety” and define things like “meditation?” Whatever the reason, I found the narration to be grating, though I appreciate the concept of the book and the author’s commitment to writing about real things that affect young readers, from divorce to mental health.

Stuntboy, In the Meantime is apparently marketed towards readers 7-12 (according to the book cover), which is a fairly large range. I think the younger readers might actually appreciate it more. Gen Z and mental health have received a lot of press, and many schools are now trying to teach things like mindfulness and social-emotional learning. So I’m not really sure older readers would be as patient sitting through chapters on how to breathe and meditate, if they’re already getting a lot of that information from other sources. I also think they might be less inclined to find Portico cute when he does things like call his anxiety “the frets” or thinks about his physical responses by referring to his kidneys as “beaner cleaners.” But Portico does not seem to be assigned any particular age, grade, or even school (elementary or middle?) so I suppose readers of varying ages are meant to be able to relate.

Aside from Portico’s strange misunderstandings of basic concepts (like thinking the superintendent of his apartment is a superhero, and apparently maybe actually believing his apartment building is a castle??), the book does have classic Reynolds’ strengths. The characters are vividly drawn, the situations the characters experience are difficult ones readers may also face, and the language flows with a vibrant read-aloud quality. Oh, and this book also is heavily illustrated (though I wouldn’t call it a graphic novel, as I have seen it described), which will be a bonus for readers who like journal-type books like the Wimpy Kid and Big Nate series.

Stuntboy, In the Meantime is not my favorite Jason Reynolds book and it is not a book I can see myself reading again. I do appreciate the effort that went into it, though, and the concern that the author clearly has for readers who struggle with anxiety and who might need some strategies to help process their emotions.

3 Stars

Cold War Correspondent by Nathan Hale

Cold War Correspondent Book Cover

Information

Goodreads: Cold War Correspondent
Series: Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales #11
Age Category: Middle Grade
Source: Library
Published: 2021

Official Summary

Discover the Korean War through the eyes of the journalist who covered it in this installment of the New York Times bestselling graphic novel series

In 1950, Marguerite Higgins (1920–1966) was made bureau chief of the Far East Asia desk for the New York Herald Tribune. Tensions were high on the Korean peninsula, where a border drawn after WWII split the country into North and South. When the North Korean army crossed the border with Soviet tanks, it was war. Marguerite was there when the Communists captured Seoul. She fled with the refugees heading south, but when the bridges were blown over the Han River, she was trapped in enemy territory. Her eyewitness account of the invasion was a newspaper smash hit. She risked her life in one dangerous situation after another––all for the sake of good story. Then she was told that women didn’t belong on the frontlines. The United States Army officially ordered her out of Korea. She appealed to General Douglas MacArthur, and he personally lifted the ban on female war correspondents, which allowed her the chance to report on many of the major events of the Korean War. 

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Review

Cold War Correspondent brings readers to the start of the Korean War, to see it from the perspective of war journalist Marguerite Higgins.  Though Higgins encounters pushback from men who believe women do not belong on the front lines, she perseveres, rushing into danger time and again to get her story.  Following Higgins’ experiences allows Hale to expand the focus of his historical tales to include stories from participants other than white men (something he has begun to do more consciously in the most recent installments in the Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales series). It also gives a bit of a human face to a story that otherwise, frankly, just has a lot of guys shooting at tanks.  Cold War Correspondent once again, brilliantly, makes history come alive for readers.  I have to admit, though, that the books focused on war strategy tend to be my least favorite in the series.

Since I am a huge fan of Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales, I have eagerly been awaiting Cold War Correspondent since I learned of its release date.  Having a story about a female reporter (in a time when it was much more rare) also seemed really cool!  The actual reading experience was not quite what I was expecting, though.  I really wanted more of Higgins–and less of the soldiers she was writing about.  The human experiences are what I find most interesting about history, not warfare technology or even the overall plan to push back the advancing North Korean army.  I wanted to know what it was like to be Higgins, writing in a man’s world.  Some of that is there (though I got the impression that a lot of the crasser sexism was toned down for the children).  But, in the end, it did not really feel like this was Higgins’ story.  It was just a bigger story about war strategy and a poorly armed resistance that she happened to appear in periodically.

Readers who enjoy war stories will probably love this one more than I.  In fact, I get the impression that Nathan Hale really likes war stories, since we get so many of them from him.  In the end, I appreciated the effort to highlight a female reporter whom I am sure not many readers have heard of before.  And the effort to explain the start of a war that I imagine many Americans still not understand or find any meaning in.  As always, I learned something from Hale’s books–and that, I suppose, is the point.

3 Stars

Manu by Kelly Fernandez

Manu

Information

Goodreads: Manu
Series: None
Age Category: Middle Grade
Source: Library
Publication Date: 2021

Summary

Manu is the resident troublemaker at an all-girls’ academy for witches, until the day a curse makes her lose her magical powers. Distraught at the idea of being without magic, Manu summons a demon to restore her powers. But Manu cannot control her too-strong magic and soon her presence endangers not only the academy but also the nearby town.

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Review

Manu by Kelly Fernandez joins a spate of middle grade graphic novels about witches that focus on changing friendships and recognition of one’s sexual identity. While the setting is novel–a girl’s school where apparently Catholic nuns teach witchcraft and pray to the saints–not much about the rest of the book stands out. Manu is a solid and a serviceable book, but not one I would recommend above its competition.

Readers, I suspect, will have varying reactions to Manu, based on sympathetic they are towards annoying characters. Though the storyline tries valiantly to make readers feel bad for Manu because the other students find her obnoxious, the reality is that Manu is obnoxious. And it is not just that she skips class and has trouble with authority. Manu repeatedly pulls “pranks” that end up causing physical injury to people and that her classmates are then obligated to clean up–which makes them feel like they are being punished for Manu’s crimes. The story keeps reminding readers that Manu is an orphan, an outsider–but no one in the story ever brings that up as an issue, until they reach a breaking point and are trying to explain Manu’s bad behavior. If Manu would stop hurting people, they undoubtedly would have no problem with her mysterious background. The students and townspeople are not exclusive or small-minded so much as they are fed up.

All this culminates with Manu making a pretty bad life decision by anyone’s standards–calling up an evil spirit to give her magical powers–leading to an epic showdown in which the sisters and her friend Josefina once again must clean up Manu’s mess. But the story ends with a feel-good message of acceptance of Manu (despite a shocking revelation about her past) and a hint at romance for Manu in the future. Probably Manu deserves none of this, but maybe that is the point. The love others have for her is unconditional.

The elements of the story will be nothing new to readers who are familiar with the current offerings of the middle grade graphic novel market. There is nothing that really makes Manu stand out or that would make it any sort of must-read for fans of the genre. It is a solid book, however, and for many that will be enough.

3 Stars

The Beatryce Prophecy by Kate DiCamillo

Beatryce Prophecy Book Cover

Information

Goodreads: The Beatryce Prophecy
Series: None
Age Category: Middle Grade
Source: Library
Published: 2021

Summary

One day, a girl appears at the Order of the Chronicles of Sorrowing. She cannot remember who she is, but the king wants her dead. Brother Edick wants to help the girl, but the head of his Order does not. So the girl sets out with a goat and an orphan boy to try to find her way in the world. She only hopes that she will be shown the way back home.

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Review

The Beatryce Prophecy is, I suspect, one of those books beloved by adults, but perhaps not as much by children. The book takes on an almost fable-like feel, one created by the flatness of the characters and the generous repetition of ideas, phrases, and thoughts. The moral? That Words Are Important, of course. For some readers, any story about the power of stories is an automatic gem. For my part, however, I found the story veering a little too close to self-indulgent. I can see this one being a contender for many awards, but more because I think adults will find it Important and not so much because children will be lining up to read it.

My feelings towards The Beatryce Prophecy are, I must admit, very ambivalent. While the plot is not particularly original, the characters are winning, and I think many a reader will fall in love with Jack Dorey, Brother Edick, and, of course, Answelica the goat. The titular character, Beatryce, is beloved in turn by all the characters, but it must be admitted that she exhibits the least personality (which is saying something in a book where pretty much no one has a personality). Readers are supposed to take it for granted that she is special because she can read, and that she is intelligent because her mother and her tutor say so. Why Beatryce should be treated like an angel because someone taught her to read is beyond me–she just happened to be rich and lucky. And Beatryce, in fact, does not make any intelligent decisions during the course of the book. But because love prevails and other people love her, it doesn’t much matter–they keep saving her from herself.

The slow pacing and the repetition of words, phrases, and thoughts also weigh the story down. Listening to a long ramble about the demon goat Answelica at the opening almost made me put the book down. Fortunately, however, the book is short, so I figured I could try to power through. This did prove a little more difficult than I had imagined, since nothing much happens in the book–the bulk of it really does come from the repetition. Three phrases are often needed just to describe something like the sky or someone’s thoughts that they are afraid. While this is soothing at time, I do think repetition is often most effective in smaller doses.

Finally, the ending of the story proves confusing–if one thinks about it too closely. The trouble comes from revelations about Beatryce’s mother that make her one of the most rounded characters of the book, though she barely appears except in flashbacks and through other people’s memories of her. However, readers do learn that her husband died years ago, that she allegedly thinks her children might one day take the throne (maybe the reason she saw that they were all educated), that she is proud of her family’s bloodline, and that she (again allegedly) is classist and would not be amenable to marrying someone of common birth.

All this makes Beatryce’s mother intriguing and fleshed out. But. In a story where everyone else is flat and pretty much divided into Good and Not So Good–what does that make her? The story wants to make her Good. But she’s too complex for this type of tale. Her pride and her apparent ambition (in a story where ambition for the throne is coded very negatively) suggest that she should be on the Not So Good Side. So why does the book try so hard to make her seem wonderful? Just because she is Beatryce’s mother? It’s a knotty problem and one that the book closes with unresolved.

I do think that there are readers out there who will love The Beatryce Prophecy. The types of readers who love romantic tales of old, who enjoy knights and ladies, who dream of going on medieval adventures. I also realize that these types of readers are probably less abundant than the ones repeatedly bringing humorous books like Dog Man and Wimpy Kid to the top of the bestseller lists all the time. But I do think it’s worth pondering whether this book has more kid appeal, or more adult appeal. To me, it seems like a book that will be most beloved of adult readers who already love everything Kate DiCamillo writes.

3 Stars

The Secret Garden on 81st Street: A Modern Retelling of The Secret Garden by Ivy Noelle Weir & Amber Padilla

The Secret Garden on 81st Street

Information

Goodreads: The Secret Garden on 81st Street
Series: None
Age Category: Middle Grade
Source: Library
Published: 2021

Summary

After her parents’ deaths, Mary Lennox moves to New York City to live with her uncle. Unused to living in a tech free home, she discovers an abandoned rooftop garden and, with the help of her new friend, her babysitter’s brother Dickon, she begins to bring it back to life. Her cousin Colin, who stays in his room all day, also slowly discovers the magic of the garden. But will Mary’s uncle approve?

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Review

The Secret Garden on 81st Street updates Frances Hodgson Burnett’s beloved classic for a modern audience not only by diversifying the characters and changing the setting to New York City, but also by addressing topics such as loss, grief, and anxiety. The story is charming, but fervent fans of the original may find that some of the magic is lost in the book’s attempts to teach a lesson.

The original Secret Garden also has a moral at its heart, of course, but, somehow, Frances Hodgson Burnett never lets that detract from the story. Discussions of the work seldom mention the quasi-spiritual nature of the book, with its references and pleas to the Magic that makes things grow and, in turn, transforms Mary into a loving, vibrant little girl and makes her cousin Colin physically healthy again. Generations of readers instead seem attracted to the vision of nature presented by Burnett, and thee wonder it evokes. In contrast, The Secret Garden on 81st Street does not tap into that same source of wonder, instead preferring to focus on characters giving speeches about things the characters–and, in turn, readers–should know about mental health.

This modern retelling takes the events of the original and casts them in a new light, one reliant on updated understandings of mental health. Colin, for instance, now experiences anxiety and panic attacks that convince him it is safest for him to stay in his room. Characters like Martha and Mrs. Medlock spend a bit of time explaining the situation to Mary, letting her know that what Colin experiences is real, though she cannot see it. However, the realization of Colin’s experiences only really starts to make sense to Mary after the infamous episode in which she screams at Colin. In the original story, Mary’s tantrum shocks Colin into realizing he cannot always get his own way, and Burnett suggests that this is beneficial to him. In the updated version, Colin’s therapist takes Mary aside to explain that Mary’s screaming is not appropriate, and that she needs to let Colin decide for himself when he is ready to leave his room.

Mary herself gets a modern remake, transforming from a sullen, selfish little girl who has to learn kindness into one who is simply lonely and having difficulty admitting and expressing her grief. In this, she mirrors Colin and his father Archie, who are also dealing with the grief over Archie’s husband’s death in a way that is not altogether healthy. The story, then, moves away from a focus on the healing power of nature instead to a focus on recognizing that everyone deals with grief differently–but that it can help to talk about it and to confront it.

Though Mary does plant a garden in The Secret Garden on 81st Street, the garden really seems somewhat extraneous to the plot. Mary could have engaged in any activity that got the family interested in participating together and thus bonding with each other. The sheer love of nature Burnett seems to have is, frankly, not really captured by a few apparent blog posts Mary makes about what flower or herb she planted recently. And the bulk of the story is really focused more on adults teaching Mary about mental health and grief. There is powerful stuff in here–it is just not about nature.

The Secret Garden on 81st Street is a charming enough tale. However, readers should not expect it to be quite the same thing as The Secret Garden. The story is really all its own–with a new setting, new takes on the characters, and a new focus meant to draw out the inner experiences of the characters in a more direct way. It is an interpretation worth reading–and I think the target audience especially will enjoy it.

3 Stars

The Jumbies by Tracey Baptiste

The Jumbies

Information

Goodreads: The Jumbies
Series: Jumbies #1
Age Category: Middle Grade
Source: Library
Published: 2015

Summary

Corinne La Mer does not believe in jumbies–trickster spirits said to live in the forest near her home. But then one day she sees a pair of yellow eyes in the trees. And then a beautiful woman follows her from the marketplace and appears in her house, trying to win over her father. Corinne learns that the woman desires to take over the island and reclaim it for the jumbies. Can Corinne stop her before she loses everyone she loves?

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Review

Inspired by Caribbean folklore and the tale of “The Magic Orange Tree,” Tracey Baptiste’s The Jumbies offers supernatural thrills and chills to middle grade audience. Corinne La Mer does not believe in jumbies–malevolent spirits said to live in the forest–until the day one shows up in her house and puts a spell on her father. Now, she must unlock her own magic in order to save him, and the rest of the island, from being turned into jumbies forever. An original fantasy sure to delight–and scare–young readers.

Much of the joy of The Jumbies comes from watching Baptiste introduce a new audience to the tales of her own childhood. An author’s note at the end explains some of the stories of the jumbies, as well as the ways in which Baptiste adapted them to create a story of her own. These tales are not for the faint of heart! Creatures who carry their own coffins with them? Or lure children into the woods when they learn their names? Eek! Fortunately, Baptiste’s versions are slightly less terrifying. They, at least, seem able to be beaten, either with physical resistance or a bit of magic.

Though I enjoyed the concept behind the story, I have to admit that the pacing of it is a bit uneven, particularly at the start. Baptiste likes to jump around the perspectives of different characters and one of those happens to be the villain, the jumbie who calls herself Severine. By showing Severine’s movements and trying to get into her mind, Baptiste loses some of the suspense she might have been able to build. Readers know upfront that she is a jumbie, that she is bad news, and that she has a very specific plan regarding Corinne and her father. I think a stronger tale would have unfolded from Corinne’s point of view, leaving readers to piece together the mystery along with her.

And, strangely, even though readers get several chapters from Severine’s perspective, her motivations remain unclear–as do the motivations of all the jumbies. Jumbies are initially introduced as basically pure evil–they are bad creatures who lure in the unwary in order to harm them. Severine does seem pretty awful, but then she seesaws between wanting to…love? Corinne and her father and wanting to hurt them. Maybe Severine is just really confused, with competing and contradictory desires. But it makes for an unusual reading experience, with readers not knowing precisely if they are supposed to feel bad that Corinne fights Severine’s evil magic. Because, you know, the rejection hurts Severine’s feelings.

Ultimately, however, The Jumbies is a fun and spooky middle grade fantasy that will have readers rooting for Corinne and her friends to save the day. There are currently two sequels, but the book also works as a satisfying standalone.

3 Stars

Salt Magic by Hope Larson & Rebecca Mock

Salt Magic

Information

Goodreads: Salt Magic
Series: None
Age Category: Middle Grade
Source: Library
Published: 2021

Summary

When Vonceil’s older brother Elber returns to their Oklahoma farm after the end of WWI, Vonceil imagines things will go back to the way they were before. But Elber has changed. He’s serious and grown-up now, and he even proposes to his boring girlfriend. Then a sophisticated woman arrives all the way from France, looking for Elber–and she is furious to find Elber married. The witch curses the family’s well so it turns to salt water and, now the town people who will rely on it will likely die. So Vonceil grabs a horse and runs away to find the witch and break the spell before it is too late.

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Review

Salt Magic is the kind of enchanting tale that only comes along once in awhile. Vonceil lives what she considers a boring existence on a farm in Oklahoma. But, after a witch curses her family’s well, she has to journey into the wilderness to find the witch and reverse the spell. Along the way, she discovers that magic and adventure are not as elusive as she thought, but also that dangerous journeys always come with a price.

Though Salt Magic is set after the end of WWI, the beauty of it comes in how relatable it all feels–even with the magic. Vonceil is a young girl waiting for her life to start, and she is convinced that will happen when her beloved older brother Elber returns home. But going to war has changed Elber in ways Vonceil cannot understand; he values safety and stability and home, while all Vonceil wants is to get away. Plus, she feels alienated and betrayed when Elber marries his girlfriend; Vonceil cannot accept that someone else might be more important to Elber than she is. Vonceil’s growth comes from meeting a witch who also lashed out because she feels lonely and betrayed. In helping the witch, Vonceil also helps herself.

Plenty of magic appears in this tale, and readers will likely find themselves charmed (and alarmed!) just like Vonceil. However, the real depth and beauty comes from the character development. From Vonceil realizing that she and a witch are not so different, after all. From Vonceil realizing that a bit of good and bad resides in everyone. From Vonceil realizing that doing the right thing does not always mean a person will end up happy.

Growing up is bittersweet–and so is Salt Magic. This is the kind of story that stays with a reader. The kind of story that makes them want to return to it again and again.

5 stars

Hooky by Miriam Bonastre Tur

Hooky

Information

Goodreads: Hooky
Series: Hooky #1 (implied by ending)
Age Category: Middle Grade
Source: Library
Published: 2021

Summary

When twins Dani and Dorian miss the bus to school, they head to their aunt’s house, hoping she will teach them magic instead. But it seems like their aunt might be in league with some witches intent on reviving an old war between magic workers and the non-magical. So the twins go on the run once again. With a group of friends, they will have to figure out what the witches are up to–and what role they want to play in the approaching conflict.

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Review

Hooky by Miriam Bonastre Tur begins a little rough–perhaps because it started as a web comic and the conventions for setting up background and characterization may be different. However, soon the story hits its stride, bringing together a lovable (and comedic) cast of characters for an exciting magical adventure. Though I initially thought of DNFing the story, by the end I was hoping for the sequel.

The start of Hooky admittedly had me baffled due to a lack of exposition. It begins in media res, with twins Dani and Dorian missing the bus to magical school, saying something about having to hide their identity as witches (even though Dani’s openly flying through the street), and then wandering off to their (obviously evil) aunt’s house, where they unquestioningly do her bidding–down to taking some hapless young man to a secret prison where (for unknown reasons) Dorian attempts to steal a dragon, leading the twins to be branded traitors (why? who knows!). It’s all kind of frenetic, which is compounded by Dani’s (and later other characters’) peppy personalities–illustrated by a lot of enthusiastic yelling and popping up with big grins. The story does not really seem to know where it is going at this point, only that it needs to keep adding exciting scenes (missed bus! evil aunt! stolen dragon!) to keep readers coming back for the next installment.

At some point, however, the story calms down and the background starts to get fleshed out a little more (even though it’s honestly still confusing and even seemingly self-contradictory). What really helps is that the story gets a main goal around which the other events can kind of cluster. Dani and Dorian have heard about a gathering of witches dedicated to taking back the kingdom from the non-magic folk and they want to check it out–whether to join or resist is still up in the air. Their friends, yes, have their own problems, like finding a lost prince and trying to reverse a spell gone awry, but the sense is that finally the story has some sort of plot that is driving the narrative. And it’s a relief.

By the end of the book, I was finally invested in the characters and interested to know what they might do next. The beginning is rough, yes, but the writing and the structure improves–and it can improve still further! The ending leaves room for a sequel and I hope that we get one!

3 Stars