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A Witch’s Kitchen by Dianna Sanchez.

Stars: 5 out  of 5

 

I feel the need to add a disclaimer at the beginning of my review – this is a children’s book. Well, a Middle Grade book, but the point is that this is not my usual reading fare. In fact, I stumbled upon this book by mistake: I loved the cover on Netgalley and requested it without looking for the intended audience. Glad I did, because I loved it!

Millie thinks she is a useless witch who can’t do proper magic. None of the spells her mother tries to teach her turn out right. In fact, the only thing she can do and loves to do is cook, much to her mother’s disappointment. But then she is enrolled into the Enchanted Forest School and discovers that there are other kinds of magic then the one her mother uses and that maybe she isn’t as useless as she thought. She also makes some friends and a few enemies and uncovers the truth about who her father really is.

The story sounds simple when summarized like that, doesn’t it? Well, despite its simplicity, this is a wonderful story that touches on some important topics like the importance of friends, the struggle to meet expectations and the desire to fit in, the difficult choices one has to make when deciding to follow a different path in life. It also talks about things like bullying at school and split families.

Oh, and you can really tell that the author loves cooking just as much as Millie does. The descriptions of most of the dishes Millie made in this book had me salivating and running for the fridge, though sadly, I didn’t have anything as good there to treat myself with.

Millie is a wonderful protagonist. She is shy and very self-conscious because all her life she considered herself a failure, a disappointment and a source of shame for her mother. She has zero self-esteem because she’d been mercilessly bullied and ridiculed by the other witch apprentices because of her inability to cast any “normal” witch spells. But that rather brutal upbringing didn’t turn her into an embittered hag. She managed to remain a very sweet girl who loves making others feel better with her cooking skill.  I like how she more self-assured once she makes some friends in school. Growing up is a hard and often painful process during which you can learn some rather unpleasant truths about people you considered your heroes when you were a child. I like that Millie stands up to her mother and decides to undertake the dangerous journey into the Logical Realm (aka our world) to find the truth about her father.

The Magical Realm of the Enchanted Forest is delightfully fleshed out. Yes, it’s a bit simplistic because it’s a children’s book, but it’s still full of depth and colors and different magical inhabitants, friendly or otherwise. I loved the School and the different creatures that teach there , and I kinda wish the book spent more time there, a bit like the Harry Potter books in Hogwards. I mean the caretaker is a giant tree! The whole school is located on its branches. And the Headmistress is a dragon. I would have loved to see what other classes were taught there, because the few that we saw seemed really interesting. Not that I’m disappointed with Millie’s journey into the Logical Real either, but talking about that would be a huge spoiler, so why don’t you find out about it for yourselves?

I don’t have kids, but I think A Witch’s Kitchen would be an excellent book to read with your middle grader on those fall evenings when the air turns colder and the sun sets earlier and paying outside is out of the question. I think there is something to enjoy in this story for both children and adults. So go on, buy it! You won’t regret it!

PS. I received an advanced copy of this book via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

The Proving by Ken Brosky.

Stars: 3.5 out of 5.

A few hundred years ago, a comet came too close to the Earth and when it collided with our atmosphere, it broke into a ring of ice that circles around most of our planet, hiding away the stars. That alone would be a disaster, but ice wasn’t the only thing that came with the comet. Every time a few of those chunks collide up there, they release Specters, strange beings that fall down to the Earth bellow. Problem is, those Specters are incompatible with Earth life. In fact, everything they touch dies, because they vibrate on a different frequency than all the other living creatures on Earth…

How can you fight an immaterial enemy who can phase through walls and can kill you by mere touch? What follows is a near annihilation of mankind. What’s left is holed up in a few cities protected by energy barriers that Specters can’t cross. Problem is, most of the infrastructures needed for those cities to function lay outside of the barriers and need to be repaired from time to time. That’s the job of the Cotteries – groups of people from all the clans who work together as one combat unit. Cotteries are formed  first at the age of 18 when they go through their first Proving, which also serves as a rite of passage into adulthood.

All in all, I really liked this book. The premise reminded me of the movie Final Fantasy The Spirits Within, which I really loved back when it came out in 2001. Same idea of an untouchable enemy that could kill you just by passing through your body. Same small human enclaves hiding behind energy shields.

But The Proving is in no way a retelling of that movie. This is a standalone story with a distinctly different world and interesting structure. The worldbuilding is what I enjoyed the most in this book. The world feels complex and well thought of and I would really like to know more about the clan system and technologies mentioned in this book.

I liked the pacing as well and the different POVs we had which put the same events in different, but complementary perspectives.

My problem with this book and the reason I only gave this book 3.5 stars is the characters. Most of them are supposed to be 18 year olds, but they behave like they are 14-15 at the most. My second problem is that they are supposed to be a Cotterie – a group that will be working together their whole life and performing tasks in a dangerous and deadly environment. Yet they don’t even try to get to know each other and try to cooperate. In fact, they so obviously distrust each other and even look down on each other that I’m amazed they even survived until the end of the book.

This also made me think, are all the Cotteries like this? From what is described in this book, the members have virtually no interaction with each other apart from when they go on missions. No training together, nothing. That’s… a serious lapse in logic in my opinion.

I wasn’t really thrilled by the ending either. I understand that this is the first book in the series and that the author needed to hook the reader into picking up the next one, but end it in a cliffhanger like that? Not cool man, not cool. I would have been okay with the ending if at least some of the questions raised throughout the book had been answered. But as it stands now, there is no resolution in this book. I felt like the characters accomplished nothing. And they didn’t really grow as people either, or learned to cooperate and trust each other. The whole story felt kinda… pointless. We got no answer as to what that secret research facility was working on and what the repercussions for the characters and the mankind would be from discovering that. We got no answer as to what was in those containers they found in the facility. We got no answer as to why the Specters chose that precise moment to change their behavior.

In fact, if the story is headed where I think it’s headed, all those answers will be irrelevant because the characters will have a bunch of new problems to face. That’s disappointing. I felt like the story was building to this big climax, a huge reveal that would shatter everybody’s view of the world… only to fizzle out like a wet firecracker.

Nevertheless, I will probably check out the next book because I liked the world and I want answers. But I will be upset if once again, I don’t get any.

Deep in the Hollow by Brandy Nacole.

Stars: 4 out of 5.

 

Apart from a few little gripes about the last part of the story, I really loved this book.

 

Jo is a typical teenager faced with very untypical circumstances. A year ago she witnessed the death of her boyfriend Bryce and the circumstances were less than ordinary. Something attacked them at the overlook and pushed Bryce over the stone wall and into the hollow. Problem is, nobody believes her. In fact, everyone in the little town seems to think that she killed her boyfriend. So Jo turned from the leader of the cheering squad and popular girl into the school pariah. Only Jo isn’t as crazy as everyone thinks, and monsters do exist. And this one isn’t done with her yet…

 

I loved Jo. She has a very distinct voice and is a very interesting and believable character. How do you deal with a tragedy like that when you are barely 18 and struggling with your life as it is? She has PTSD and survivor guilt, and recurring nightmares of the thing that attacked her and Bryce that fateful night. So much so that she’s almost persuaded herself that she is slowly going crazy.

 

And it doesn’t help that the police thinks she’s guilty, and that everyone in school think the same. Even her parents bailed and left town, abandoning her with her older brother. Her brother tries to help, but the big problem is that he doesn’t believe her when she says there’s a monster haunting her dreams and think that it’s all due to depression.

 

How do you cope with that and not break? How do you keep on living when everyone around you would rather wish you slunk away and quietly died somewhere out of sight? Even adults would crack under that pressure. So I really admire Jo for hanging on in there and for finding the courage to do what’s right when the truth comes to light.

 

All these trials have made her cynical, with a rather gloomy outlook at life, but she still possesses a wry sense of humor that gives us a glimpse of the firecracker she used to be before tragedy ripped her life apart.

 

The story itself is suspenseful and interesting as well. I love the way it deals with difficult themes like loss and grief and the need to move on (and the guilt that arises when you are starting to move on). I liked how the author managed to show the stifling atmosphere of a little town where everybody knows everybody and rumors spread at the speed of sound. And where deep dark secrets are kept from generation to generation.

 

SPOILER!!!! READ AT YOUR OWN RISK!!!

 

 

 

 

 

The gripe I had mentioned earlier has to do with the coven that comes into the limelight in the last part of the book. First, it felt like it popped into existence almost out of nowhere. Second, the members of the coven were way too bat shit crazy to be believable. I mean how can they function and appear normal in everyday life when they fly off the handle like it was depicted in the scene on the overlook?

 

But apart from that, it was a very enjoyable read, and I would love to see this book turned into a series.

 

PS. I received an advanced reader’s copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for a honest review.

Johnny Shipwreck by the Lindsay Brothers.

Stars: 3 out of 5.

 

I love pirate adventures. I’ve read all the classics back when I was a little girl, starting with Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea by Jules Verne and the Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson. So when I got asked to read Johnny Shipwreck in exchange for an honest review, I jumped at the occasion. After all, it has all the elements I love: pirates, a mystery, a hidden treasure and lots of adventures. And it even starts like all good adventures should – with a message in a bottle. Well, in an old lantern in this case…

 

All in all, I enjoyed this book. It had a good balance of action and sleuthing. The narrative alternates between 1950, when Johnny Socko finds a strange message and begins his search for the mysterious Castillo del Mar, and the 1700s, when Titus, first mate on the English ship Queen Anne, has his fateful encounter with a pirate and his daughter.

 

The authors managed to capture the feel of most pirate adventure novels – the slow unraveling of the mystery that drives the reader along with the protagonists in the hunt for the next clue. It was also fun to watch the conclusions Johnny and his crew come up with, and then read how it really happened in the chapters set back in the 1700s. Sometimes Johnny got it right, but sometimes he fell short of the truth.

 

So by now you are probably wondering why I gave this book only 3 stars if I liked it so much? Well, there were several problems that dampened my enjoyment considerably, that’s why.

 

First of all, the authors tried to write this book in Subjective Third Person Omniscient point of view. I get it. Most of the pirate adventure books back in the days were written in that POV, so they probably wanted to keep that feeling in their story as well. Problem is, omniscient is extremely hard to do well, especially subjective where the narrator (and the reader) knows everything, even the characters’ thoughts and feelings. For it to work, the narrator needs to have a strong voice, and he cannot be one of the participants.

 

Unfortunately, that’s where this book falls short. There is no distinct narrator to tell us this story, just a jumbled mess of POVs from all the other characters that switch back and forth several times in the same scene. That’s called “head hopping,” and I found it extremely confusing and irritating.

 

My second gripe with this book is that Johnny, the boy wonder and all-star sleuth, is a bit too perfect. He solves all the mysteries, he gets all the answers, he fights off the bad guys, and he does all that seemingly effortlessly. This kills a lot of the suspense, because I was never worried for Johnny’s life and well-being. Since he had all the answers, it was clear that nothing bad could happen to him, no matter how dire the situation. Had the authors made him a little bit more fallible, let him make some mistakes and reap the consequences, his adventures would have had a bigger impact and kept me on the edge of my seat.

 

And my final complaint: I think the whole mystical / magical element in this book was entirely unnecessary. It was all good and dandy while it was just hinted upon, because it could or could not have been the truth, but the final confrontation with the Crimson Pirazzo felt alien to this story, like it had been included as an afterthought. And it really didn’t add anything to the story itself. Just escaping from Castillo del Mar in one piece would have been a worthy enough conclusion.

 

But despite those shortcomings, I think Johnny Shipwreck is a good book. I would definitely recommend it even to reawaken that feeling of adventure and wonder we used to get when we opened a pirate book when we were kids.