A Comb of Wishes by Lisa Stringfellow

A Comb of Wishes

Information

Goodreads: A Comb of Wishes
Series: None
Age Category: Middle Grade
Source: Library
Publication Date: 2022

Summary

Kela is mourning the death of her mother when she discovers a box holding a beautiful comb. The comb, it turns out, belongs to a sea woman–and she would do just about anything to get it back. So she offers Kela a trade: a wish for the comb. But wishes never turn out quite the way one thinks….

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Review

A Comb of Wishes invites readers on a magical story rich in the atmosphere, history, and folklore of the Caribbean. Kela is trying to deal with the loss of her mother, mostly by ignoring her father and her best friend Lissy. But she still wanders the beach looking for sea glass, trying to complete the collection she and her mom started. Instead she finds an ancient comb that belongs to one of the sea folk–and she agrees to give it back in exchange for the return of her mother. When Kela breaks the bargain, however, the mermaid threatens revenge. Fast-paced action; plenty of fascinating information about the beaches of St. Rita; and, of course, mermaids mean this book will likely appeal to tween readers, even though I found myself a bit perplexed by some of the plot points.

For me, the strongest part of the book is the information given about St. Rita and the ecological concerns Kela and her father feel for their home. The story overflows with evident love for St. Rita, as Kela explains the different rules that guide her in searching the beaches for treasure. For instance, she does not collect shells because that would negatively impact the environment, but she can collect sea glass (which comes from glass products weathered by the ocean). She also explains the different laws about finding treasures in different parts St. Rita, how to report any finds, and so forth. All of this really made Kela’s home come alive, while showing just how important it is to her to keep her home safe and beautiful.

The folklore in A Comb of Wishes is also fascinating. I love books where the fantastic is also shown to be dangerous, so I loved the allure Kela and her mother felt for the sea folk, while they also acknowledged that the sea folk are dangerous. Kela, of course, discovers this firsthand when she makes and breaks a bargain with a mermaid named Ophidia, who then stalks Kela in an attempt to scare her to return her comb. The dual aspects of the sea folk, however, ultimately got a bit confusing, and, for me, the ending is where the book fell apart. The book tries a bit too hard to humanize the sea folk and make them sympathetic, which ultimately both makes them seem less magical.

[Major spoilers about the ending in this paragraph!] A major part of the book is the lore that sea folk must steal a human soul in order to gain immortality, and readers learn that Ophidia steals the soul of a human who betrayed her. One assumes, naturally, that having one’s soul stolen is very, very bad–Ophidia has resisted the impulse before out of pity and only does it as a vengeful punishment. Yet, by the end of the book, Kela and her mother have discovered that Ophidia has stolen the soul of one of their ancestors and that it’s in the comb. One might assume that they would want to keep the comb to try to release their ancestor’s soul, or…something. Instead, they now feel a kinship with Ophidia because she has a family member’s soul, and they are all respectful of each other and even friends! Sorry, what? Did I miss something? Everyone is now supposed to like the scary mermaid who steals souls and tried to kill a child for an entire book?? I know mermaids are cool right now, but I thought the point of this book is that non-human magic folk are unknowable and dangerous. Not your awesome new BFF. The ending effectively undoes most of the book, turning this from a scary folkloric book into a child-friendly, “Mermaids are fun and sparkly!” book, and I do not really know why. [End spoilers!]

I realize, however, that my desire for logic in books is not always shared, and that tween readers are likely to overlook any contradictions in the plot. For those who do not mind some inconsistency in worldbuilding and messaging, A Comb of Wishes will prove an engrossing read.

3 Stars

The Ballad of Never After by Stephanie Garber

Ballad of Never After book cover

Information

Goodreads: The Ballad of Never After
Series: Once Upon a Broken Heart #2
Age Category: Young Adult
Source: Purchased
Publication Date: September 13, 2022

Official Summary

The fiercely-anticipated sequel to the #1 New York Times bestseller Once Upon a Broken Heart, starring Evangeline Fox and the Prince of Hearts on a new journey of magic, mystery, and heartbreak.

Not every love is meant to be.

After Jacks, the Prince of Hearts, betrays her, Evangeline Fox swears she’ll never trust him again. Now that she’s discovered her own magic, Evangeline believes she can use it to restore the chance at happily ever after that Jacks stole away.

But when a new terrifying curse is revealed, Evangeline finds herself entering into a tenuous partnership with the Prince of Hearts again. Only this time, the rules have changed. Jacks isn’t the only force Evangeline needs to be wary of. In fact, he might be the only one she can trust, despite her desire to despise him.

Instead of a love spell wreaking havoc on Evangeline’s life, a murderous spell has been cast. To break it, Evangeline and Jacks will have to do battle with old friends, new foes, and a magic that plays with heads and hearts. Evangeline has always trusted her heart, but this time she’s not sure she can. . . .

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Review

I wrote in my review of Once Upon a Broken Heart that Stephanie Garber had blown me away with a fairy tale world that felt fresh and new and, of course, rather dangerous and with a romance that had my eyes glued to the page. And there is so sequel slump here. The Ballad of Never After continues Evangeline’s story with immersive writing and a story I could hardly put down, and now I’m dying to read the third book.

After reading and being underwhelmed by Caraval, I never would have predicted I would have a Stephanie Garber obsession, but the Once Upon a Broken Heart series has managed to give me one. This is the kind of original world building I love. Garber gives little nods to well-known fairy tales, but the Magnificent North feels totally her own, like something I have never seen before but somewhere I’d certainly like to go and experience a bit of magic (danger notwithstanding). I love, too, that she has created Fates, beings who like Fae are not quite human and don’t function by our rules, yet which humans are drawn to.

I do think The Ballad of Never After seems more romance-focused than Once Upon a Time. Obviously there’s a plot, but at times it felt a little bit slowed by how many romance scenes there were. I am all for it though. Garber knows how to write a gut-punching line about how a love interest will break kingdoms for his love, and it was rather moving. My only reservation is that Evangeline was married in book one so . . . her romance with Jacks involves her committing adultery. The book doesn’t really deal with this besides her occasionally saying, “I’m married, you know!” as if that achieves anything or stops all the caressing. (And as a content note for anyone looking for book recs for younger readers, there’s no sex, but there’s certainly a lot of touching of Evangeline’s breasts.)

I want to know what happens next though! I do like, minus the adultery bit, that the romance between Jacks and Evangeline seems fairy tale doomed, and I want to see how they get out of it. Because I am going to believe they do get out of it! And the book sets up a wild cliffhanger for the plot of book three.

I will be avidly awaiting the next release and ready to throw my money at stores to purchase it.

Briana
5 stars

My Thoughts on Galadriel in “The Rings of Power” after the First Two Episodes

Although there were only 8 voters, this is the post that won my Twitter poll when I asked what I should write about relating to The Rings of Power. So here they are: some of my rambling thoughts on how Galadriel has been portrayed in The Rings of Power so far. (All RoP content on the blog is tagged with “Rings of Power,” if you want to see more!)

Spoiler Warning!

Is the RoP Galadriel “Faithful” to Tolkien’s Work?

If you’re a casual Tolkien fan, the first thing to note is that there is no “definitive” version of Galadriel before her appearance in The Lord of the Rings in the Third Age. Tolkien left several versions of how he envisioned her and her story earlier in her life, and they are sometimes contradictory. So there’s no real way to say what the “canon” version of Galadriel in the Second Age would be.

But Does It Bother You She’s a Warrior in the Show???

There are a couple references to the fact that Galadriel competed in great feats of athletics in her youth, and Tolkien once describes her as “Amazonian,” and fans have pointed to these quotes as justification for the fact Galadriel is a warrior in the show, the Commander of the Northern Armies. To which I say . . . meh. I think her great athleticism would describe why she would be a good warrior if she were a warrior, but one can be athletic, muscular, strong, etc. without being a soldier. Obviously.

I don’t 100% hate this interpretation of her character, however. The showrunners clearly draw on the fact the Elves fought Morgoth for a very long time, and Galadriel would have seen the loss, in addition to the loss of her brother. She would have seen how evil Morgoth and Sauron were, and it is canon she felt obliged to see the eradication of this evil through. So who’s to say she didn’t pick up a sword at one point in her life in order to help hasten the defeat of her enemies?

Tolkien doesn’t specifically describe her as spending the Second Age doing wise Elvish mystical acts either, so really anything the showrunners came up with would have been made up. My reaction to her being a soldier is kind of just to shrug at this point.

What Actually Bothers Me about Galadriel

My real problem so far is that absolutely no other character in the show seems to respect her. Galadriel is supposed to be incredibly wise and powerful, plus she comes from a highly respected Elf family. People should be as impressed with and as in awe with her as they are in The Lord of the Rings.

Instead, the show opens with young Galadriel appearing as some sort of outcast mocked by the Elf children, then moves on to show her troops mutinying and refusing to follow her orders. She next appears in Lindon, where Elrond emphasizes their friendship and obviously likes her as a person but also seems to think she’s delusional that Sauron is still alive and stupid for defying Gil-galad. And Gil-galad also implies she’s a fool. Next, we see her on the boat to Valinor, where the other Elves clearly think she’s crazy for not being excited to go to Valinor and clinging to her knife, and then we see her jump off the boat when she clearly is too far from any land to actually swim anywhere without dying.

Tolkien certainly characterizes Galadriel as rash and proud in her youth, as she chose to leave Valinor in the first place and was interested in ruling a realm of her own, so the hotheadness the show is leaning into makes sense. But at no point do I really feel that Galadriel is majestic and wise; her hunt for Sauron comes across as some crazed personal vendetta rather than something she’s pursuing because she’s farsighted and wise and can see the evil that’s hidden while others cannot.

It’s very probable the writers are aiming for Galadriel to have some sort of character arc where she becomes more like the stately Galadriel we know in The Lord of the Rings, but I’m not really asking for her to act stoic and wise and unperturbed at all times. I’m asking for other characters to respect her instead of clearly believing she’s a fool.

What are you thoughts?

Briana

Who Is “The Stranger” in “The Rings of Power?”: Here’s My Prediction

Spoiler Warning for the First Two Episodes of The Rings of Power

Introduction: The Stranger

After the first two episodes of The Rings of Power, one of the major mysteries for viewers is the identity of a character currently known only as “the Stranger” (or, well, “Meteor Man” as a joke among fans). He comes to Middle-earth in a meteor, crashes, and is found by the Harfoot Nori. He seems to have no memory of his own name or other mundane things like what food is or how to eat, and he only gives Nori (and viewers) a glimpse of his purpose/plans when he shows Nori and Poppy a constellation; Nori guesses he wants to go somewhere on Middle-earth where he can see it.

So . . . who is he?

My personal guess is Gandalf, though he’d probably go by the name Olórin in the Second Age.

Why the Clues Suggest the Stranger Is Gandalf

Nori and Poppy clearly establish for viewers that the Stranger is not of any the races they are familiar with: Men, Elves, Dwarves, or Harfoots. He survived crashing from a meteor and possesses some type of magic, and the Harfoots describe him as “giant,” apparently meaning he’s taller even than the Big Folk they’re used to seeing. This would imply the Stranger is probably one of the Maiar.

And there are several hints that he’s specifically Gandalf:

  • Gandalf has a particular affinity for heat and light, displayed in his love of fireworks in LotR, and the Stranger seems to control the fire around him after the meteor crash.
  • Nori talks about how she believes she was “meant to find him,” a line reminiscent of when Gandalf tells Frodo in LotR that Frodo was “meant” to find the One Ring.
  • The scene where the Stranger speaks to the fireflies calls to mind the scene where Gandalf speaks to a moth in LotR.
  • Gandalf has a soft spot for and interest in Hobbits that no one else in Middle-earth seems to, so the writers could be creating a situation where his love for them originates with the Harfoots saving him upon his arrival in Middle-earth.

But Is Gandalf in Middle-earth in the Second Age?

Both the Valar and the Maiar are spiritual beings and can take various physical forms as they choose (though Sauron eventually cannot assume a beautiful shape), and according to some writings from Tolkien, it’s possible Gandalf was in Middle-earth earlier than the Third Age, simply not in a form that anyone recognized him in. (Which may explain why the Stranger is described as “giant,” when Gandalf in the Third Age is never described as notably tall.)

See the quotes from tweets below:

Could the Stranger Be One of the Other Istari?

Sure, he could be. I’ve seen fans hoping it’s Radagast or one of the Blue Wizards, but I think this would be a bit strange considering all the connections to Gandalf that I pointed out above. The only connection I really see to Radagast is that he’s good with animals, and the Stranger spoke to fireflies, but that’s a bit tenuous. And we don’t know much about the Blue Wizards in general, so I don’t know what clues would point to one of them.

But Could It Be Sauron???

I don’t think this theory makes sense. I’ve seen people suggest the Stranger is Sauron because early in the first episode, Galadriel says one of Sauron’s old hideouts is a place so evil that it sucks the heat from the Elves’ torches — and then fires around the Stranger aren’t actually hot, so it’s as if the heat is being sucked away. This is an interesting point, but I don’t think it’s enough.

There’s no reason Sauron would be in a meteor. Certainly it’s kind of ridiculous anyone is in a meteor, but I can see it as a weird way of transportation between Valinor and Middle-earth. There’s no reason I can think of at all that Sauron would have been in a meteor when the whole premise of the show seems to be that Sauron is hidden away in Middle-earth actively building an orc army and planning world domination.

I also don’t think it works narratively for Sauron to be the Stranger. Tolkien’s work is generally not about crazy plot twists. So, even though this point of the plot was created entirely by the showrunners and not by Tolkien himself, I take it at face value when Nori says the Stranger is important and she feels she was meant to help him. I believe, because of this, that the Stranger is someone good, and these Second Age Hobbits are not accidentally enabling Sauron.

What’s your theory?

Briana

The Unicorn Quest by Kamilla Benko

Unicorn Quest cover

Information

Goodreads: The Unicorn Quest
Series: The Unicorn Quest #1
Age Category: Middle Grade
Source: Little Free Library
Published: 2018

Official Summary

Claire Martinson still worries about her older sister Sophie, who battled a mysterious illness last year. But things are back to normal as they move into Windermere Manor… until the sisters climb a strange ladder in a fireplace and enter the magical land of Arden.

There, they find a world in turmoil. The four guilds of magic no longer trust each other. The beloved unicorns have gone, and terrible wraiths roam freely. Scared, the girls return home. But when Sophie vanishes, it will take all of Claire’s courage to climb back up the ladder, find her sister, and uncover the unicorns’ greatest secret.

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Review

I’ve had The Unicorn Quest on my TBR list for years, and Krysta’s positive review and the rave reviews on Goodreads had me convinced I would love this. After all, it’s a story about sisters in a fantasy world with unicorns! (Well, there used to be unicorns.) Unfortunately, poor pacing and writing let me down, and I didn’t love this nearly as much as I’d hoped.

This is likely a case where younger readers will not mind the issues that I mind, but I thought the book was really choppily written. It’s one of those novels where something happens and as soon as it’s resolved, some other problem pops up. Literally in the next sentence. Imagine a scene (I’m making this up), where a character is drowning, and as soon as someone saves her a sea monster pops up, as a soon as the sea monster is defeated, the boat falls apart. And it goes on. I could have used a little more space in between each problem the protagonists faced.

I also thought the writing was underwhelming, a bit cliché and awkward at times. Again, I don’t think actual ten year olds will care.

I liked the sister relationship, but this is yet another book where the sisters barely interact with each other during the course of the novel, and readers have to assume a lot about their relationship from what the protagonist says about it while the other sister is off-page somewhere.

So, no, I won’t be reading the rest of the series, but it seems to be doing well, so I’m probably an outlier here.

Briana

The Drowned Woods by Emily Lloyd-Jones

The Drowned Woods

Information

Goodreads: The Drowned Woods
Series: None (Set in the same world as The Bone Houses)
Age Category: Young Adult
Source: Purchased
Published: August 16, 2022

Official Summary

Once upon a time, the kingdoms of Wales were rife with magic and conflict, and eighteen-year-old Mererid “Mer” is well-acquainted with both. She is the last living water diviner and has spent years running from the prince who bound her into his service. Under the prince’s orders, she located the wells of his enemies, and he poisoned them without her knowledge, causing hundreds of deaths. After discovering what he had done, Mer went to great lengths to disappear from his reach. Then Mer’s old handler returns with a proposition: use her powers to bring down the very prince that abused them both.

The best way to do that is to destroy the magical well that keeps the prince’s lands safe. With a motley crew of allies, including a fae-cursed young man, the lady of thieves, and a corgi that may or may not be a spy, Mer may finally be able to steal precious freedom and peace for herself. After all, a person with a knife is one thing… but a person with a cause can topple kingdoms.

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Review

Every so often I am blessed to read a book that is nearly everything I could want in a YA fantasy. With compelling characters, a fast-paced plot, a vividly imagined world and a corgi sidekick, The Drowned Woods delivers an enchanting reading experience. I finished this book in two days after a minor reading slump, and I’d be happy to check out more of the author’s work in the future.

Protagonist Mer grounds the book as a powerful water diviner (basically she can control water in general, not just find it) who has done heinous deeds but sort of accidentally or without knowledge of what horrors she was accidentally contributing to. So basically she’s an excellent blend of power and regret, anger and righteousness. She can be dangerous and she is willing to when necessary, but she’s not exactly heartless, which makes her a complex character and one it’s easy to root for.

The band for the heist comes together nicely, and I also enjoyed that Mer is not the organizer. The book even notes that Mer was never a leader, and I love that she can be strong while not technically being in charge. The actual leader of the group is a spymaster. Then the group adds a fighter, a scholar, a thief, and a man whose talents are kept under wraps. And the group and the readers are ready to go!

The plot did not always go where I expected it to; it wasn’t always a heist in the way I was expecting. And Emily Lloyd-Jones seems to play with this and poke fun at it a bit (in the same ways she occasionally makes small jokes about the stock phrases one might expect characters in a fantasy to say). Nonetheless, the plot is always enjoyable and often surprising. There were some twists I anticipated and a few I did not, which were a pleasant surprise. I do think the author could have made some bolder choices about the ending of the book, but it was still fine.

I have never read anything by Emily Lloyd-Jones before, but I certainly will be looking out for her work in the future. This is exactly the type of fantasy I like, and the prose is beautiful on top of everything else. I was immersed in this, and I would love to go back to this world when I finally get around to reading The Bone Houses.

Briana
5 stars

Wingbearer by Marjorie M. Liu

Wingbearer

Information

GoodreadsWingbearer
Series: Wingbearer #1
Age Category: Middle Grade
Source: Library
Published: 2022

Summary

Zuli was raised in the Great Tree by mystical birds who oversee the reincarnation of the birds from across the world. But one day, the spirits of the birds stop travelling to the Tree to be reborn. Determined to find the cause, Zuli, along with her guardian owl Frowly, leaves the Tree for the first time. Her quest will lead her to many strange places. But her greatest adventure might be discovering her own past.

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Review

Wingbearer invites readers on a magical adventure full of danger and mystery. While the plotline does not feel entirely original, and the elements of the quest will be familiar to any lovers of history, tween readers likely will not mind. The fast-paced action and vibrant illustrations will likely be enough to make the target audience fall in love with the courageous protagonist and her world.

Reviewing books meant for younger audiences often proves a struggle. While I firmly believe that a good story is a good story, no matter whom it was written for, I also recognize that I tend to be more critical of books than many of the children I know. I have seen the quest story play out many, many times and it is much easier for me to predict what will happen next, and much harder to impress me. Thus, while I think Wingbearer is a solid story, and an entertaining one, I do not feel like it rises to greatness; it just seems so standard. Yet, I also know I would not hesitate to recommend it to any tweens who love fantasy graphic novels.

I also struggled a bit with the artwork. On the one hand, I really loved it. The colors are vibrant, the worlds beautifully drawn, and the creatures magnificent. The demon monster is truly terrifying, and the dragon breathtaking. On the other hand, the illustrations have some sort of quality about them that makes them feel a bit like computer animations to me. I think I was hoping for something that felt a little more organic or intimate. I enjoyed the illustrations, but again, I do not know if I really connected to them in a way that made me think, “Wow!”

So should you pick this up? If you love middle grade graphic novels, especially fantasy ones, yes. It is worth the read! The characters are lovable, the plot engaging, and the worlds magical. I was drawn in by the mystery and am willing to read the sequel. Wingbearer might not have blown me away, but not every book needs to. It is still a fun read!

4 stars

The Patron Thief of Bread by Lindsay Eagar

The Patron Thief of Bread Book Cover

Information

GoodreadsThe Patron Thief of Bread
Series: None
Age Category: Middle Grade
Source: Library
Published: May 2022

Summary

Eight-year-old Duck was fished by the river as a baby. Now she forms part of the Crowns, a crew of pickpockets who move from town to town. But their leader Gnat has a new plan. They will settle in Odierne and install Duck as a fake apprentice to a baker. From the bakery, she can more easily pass bread and money to the Crowns. But soon Duck starts to care for Griselde, and to wonder where she really belongs. Interspersed periodically with chapters told from the perspective of a gargoyle, made to watch and protect.

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Review

I will be among the first to admit it. I do not understand the hype surrounding The Patron Thief of Bread. Books about crews of child thieves who earn their living as pickpockets are plentiful enough, as is the idea that growing up often means moving on–to an honest day’s work and relationships that are built on more than usefulness. The Patron Thief of Bread tries to stand out by offering occasional chapters told from the perspective of a gargoyle rather than the orphan thief Duck. But these seem out of place and unnecessary. On the whole, The Patron Thief of Bread is a solid book, one I enjoyed–but one that seems not only uninspired but also a bit too long and too reflective for its target audience. I see this book as a potential award winner, one beloved by adults, but I have trouble imagining a child I would recommend it to.

I have read enough children’s books that the concept of a crew of child pickpockets needs a little something more to seem exciting to me. It is this feeling that I imagine must form the basis of including chapters from the perspective of a gargoyle. Duck’s chapters, you see, the one’s following an orphan thief selected to masquerade as a baker’s apprentice so she can more easily steal bigger change, are interrupted periodically by those of the gargoyle. Duck’s chapters focus on the concept of family and what it means to belong–she must decide if her crew are still her family, or if they are only using her as a tool. Or if Griselde the baker could be her family, too. The gargoyle’s chapters focus mainly on his feelings of impotence being attached to an incomplete cathedral that the ravages of time have worn down. Unable to protect–with nothing to protect–he rages at everything and spends his time alternately mocking the other gargoyles or substituting lewd lyrics to the hymns the nuns sing below. What the gargoyle and his feelings of inadequacy have to do with Duck and her feelings about family is not really clear. It just seems like they are there to be interesting, to be unique. “What other book has chapters from the point of view of a gargoyle?” one might say, impressively. In short, the gargoyle chapters seem out of place and add little to the book or its overall themes.

The gargoyle chapters also add length to a book that is arguably already a bit too long, coming in at 448 pages. Plenty of children adore long books, yes, but the pacing of this one is slow and the themes are redundant. Duck spends most of the book reflecting on whether she still belongs in the crew, or if they are just using her to get food, while also acting like she is an outsider who left them and no longer belongs. Like most problems, Duck’s could be solved by talking them out with her master the baker Griselde, who loves Duck like her own child and refuses to see any wrong in her. But, of course, that would make less of a story, so we get hundreds of pages of Duck worrying instead, with the climatic scenes coming in only when about 80% of the story has been told. The pacing feels off–too slow and then too fast, with everything needing to go wrong and then get fixed in the final pages.

In the end, I really see this as the type of book adults in particular would enjoy. It’s just so unique with its gargoyle chapters and so sweet and deep with its look at the definition of family, right? I myself enjoyed the book, though I cannot say I want to rave about it. It is a solid story, one with interesting characters and an interesting premise. I just do not see it doing anything particularly new or thought-provoking. And I really am interested if this is a book tweens would enjoy, or if it the grown-ups who see all the meaning in it.

3 Stars

How to Succeed in Witchcraft by Aislinn Brophy (ARC Review)

Information

Goodreads: How to Succeed in Witchcraft
Series: None
Age Category: Young Adult
Source: Publisher Giveaway
Publication Date: September 27, 2022

Official Summary

An overachieving teen witch vies for a prestigious scholarship at her elite high school in this contemporary YA fantasy for fans of Never Have I Ever and Sabrina the Teen Witch!

Magically brilliant, academically perfect, chronically overcommitted…

Shay Johnson has all the makings of a successful witch. Now that she’s a junior at T.K. Anderson Magical Magnet School, she’s one step closerto winning the full-ride Brockton Scholarship–her ticket into the university of her dreams. Her main competition? Ana freaking Alvarez. The key to victory? Impressing Mr. B, drama teacher and head of the scholarship committee.

When Mr. B persuades Shay to star in this year’s aggressively inclusive, racially diverse musicalat their not-quite-diverse school–she agrees, wearily, even though she’ll have to put up with Ana playing the other lead. But with rehearsals underway, Shay realizes Ana is…not the despicable witch she’d thought. Perhaps she could even be a friend–or more. And Shay could use someone in her corner once she finds herself on the receiving end of Mr. B’s unpleasant and unwanted attention. When Shay learns she’s not the first witch to experience his inappropriate behavior, she must decide if she’ll come forward. But how can she speak out when the scholarship–and her future–are on the line?

An unforgettable debut, How to Succeed in Witchcraft conjures up searing social commentary, delightfully awkward high school theater, and magical proclamations of love.

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Review

How to Succeed in Witchcraft is a creative and moving story that brings readers to a world that functions very similarly to ours–except it’s magic! Protagonist Shay Johnson faces the same pressures as many high schoolers, taking a full load of AP courses in subjects like Potions and Transfiguration and competing hard for a free-ride scholarship to a magical licensing college. Author Aislinn Brophy seamlessly blends her rich magical world building with these real world concerns, creating a story that is sure to stick in readers’ minds after the last page is turned.

I do admit that, although I very much liked this book, it was at times difficult to read. While Shay’s fixation on academic excellence and balancing too many activities she’s trying to stuff onto her resume can be relatable, and her blossoming relationship with academic rival Ana is just as charming as the actual magic in the book, I hesitate to call the overall book “delightful” as some other reviewers have. At its heart, this book is still about a high school teacher being a predator and grooming underage students so . . . it was actually stressful for me to read at times. I cringed and gagged and really didn’t want to watch this teacher being a creep. The book is very well done and shows how the teacher starts small and builds up, and how his behavior is excused by 99% of people by innocent, and how there are rumors about his hooking up with students but no one seems to care — all the things that, unfortunately, happen in these situations in our own world. It’s sensitive and moving and deeply realistic. But I hesitate to say it was “fun” to read!

So I can see why a lot of the other reviews I’ve seen have focused on the other aspects of the book. Aislinn’s relationship with her best friend, who is bright and talented but can’t seem to get accepted into a magical licensing college and (in Aislinn’s eyes) might have to “settle” for a lesser school. Her relationship with Ana, the other top contender for the coveted college scholarship, whom Aislinn has hated since freshman year. Her time practicing for the high school musical, since the creepy teacher convinced her to join theatre after implying it would boost her scholarship application. All these things are well done, too, and I do think they help keep the book light. Aislinn gets to have fun with her friends, and flirt, and learn all about the highs and lows of theatre. She has such a great high school experience in many ways, and anyone who was in their own high school drama department, or who spent far too many late nights studying for AP courses, or who worried about how to pay for college, will doubtless see a bit of their own lives in hers.

How to Succeed at Witchcraft is an amazing blend of fantasy and contemporary that speaks on important issues while also incorporating a bit of whimsy. Brophy is an author to watch.

Briana
4 stars

Cat’s Cradle: The Golden Twine by Jo Rioux

Cat's Cradle

Information

Goodreads: Cat’s Cradle
Series: Cat’s Cradle #1
Age Category: Middle Grade
Source: Library
Published: 2012, 2022

Summary

Suri is a street orphan who longs to be a monster hunter. What luck then that a heartless man drives up one day with a monster inside his wagon! This is the start of an adventure that just might take Suri to the place where all monsters cross to enter her country.

Star Divider

Review

Cat’s Cradle: The Golden Twine seems just the type of middle grade fantasy to appeal to a large audience, so I am unsure why the book, first published in 2012, apparently was never followed by the intended sequels. The book opens with the orphan Suri who lives in a traveling caravan and tells visitors tales of monsters–for a fee. Her true longing, however, is to be a monster hunter. And her opportunity comes when a strange man joins the caravan with one in his wagon. This, along with a chance encounter with a family of monsters who can take on the forms of humans, begins Suri’s adventures. Adventures that are sadly cut short when the book abruptly ends.

Cat’s Cradle: The Golden Twine is one of those books that really just exists to set the stage for the following books. Readers receive an introduction to our spunky heroine Suri, learn that she lives in a country where monsters invade from across the mountains, and watch Suri fall afoul of a family of monsters and set herself up for a future encounter with the prince–who is a bit of a monster hunter himself. Characters are hastily drawn and the worldbuilding is sketchy. But none of that is supposed to matter, as long as readers get the gist of it. The true adventure will start later, when the mystery of the golden twine is revealed.

Unfortunately, however, as of my reading, book two of the series was never published. I tried to ascertain if the republishing of book one is meant to herald a new attempt to get readers for the series and justify publishing the rest of the series. But I could find no mention of book two online. So, while the book is just the type of thing I would want to recommend to tween lovers of fantasy, I feel awkward doing so as long as it seems readers will not be able to finish the story. Hopefully, things will change and we will receive news of book two. If you have any, feel free to share in the comments!

Cat’s Cradle: The Golden Twine is a story I know I would have loved as a tween, and I was excited to enter its world of magic and adventure. I just wish I knew if there will be more magic in the future.

3 Stars