Attachment Theory (2021)

by Kayley Loring
ASIN/ISBN: B09HPD7ZDY
Publication: October 7, 2021
Series: The Brodie Brothers #2

Attachment Theory is the second book in Loring’s The Brodie Brothers series. It features the youngest Brodie brother Dylan searching for love. Unfortunately, his past partners–of which there have been many– have all been co-stars. Their relationships have never lasted longer than the length of their joint movies or projects. He keeps looking for that one person he can form a lasting relationship with. Scarlett is a marriage and family therapist. Having been betrayed by her ex, she is reluctant to date actors. A chance encounter with Dylan Brodie, however, left a lasting impression. When they finally meet again, in her office no less, it will take a lot of willpower to refuse his advances and ignore her attraction to him.

Kayley Loring has been strumming my heart and making me laugh for nearly a year. Attachment Theory (2021), while embodying everything I adore about Loring’s novels, surprisingly bears a tinge of sadness that hasn’t been nearly as present in her other novels. Much of it stems from both Dylan’s and Scarlett’s past. Scarlett is still recovering from her ex-husband’s betrayal and seems hesitant to start any relationship, especially with an actor. She blames herself for not being enough for him, but also believes that she has never really been in love. While Scarlett has put a pause on her love life, Dylan’s failed relationships haven’t stopped him from looking for “the one.”

Dylan isn’t the most likeable of Loring’s leads. He’s confident but there was also this arrogance about him that I didn’t really like. However, he displays a deep sense of insecurity along with a less pronounced vulnerability that also made me want to hug him. He’s looking for a relationship that will provide him sustenance, someone for him to love and to be loved in return. Despite having been programmed by his multitude of short-term relationships to believe he may not be enough, he continues to war his heart on his sleeve.

I’m torn about how I feel about this book because instalove isn’t my cup of tea, yet there’s something different about Dylan and Scarlett’s foundation–a woman in a red dress and the man who bends down to tie her shoelaces. It’s terribly romantic because this one moment is burned into each of them, feeding them until they see each other again. I enjoyed the slow burn of the first half as Scarlett struggled with her feelings. Unfortunately, the second half felt rushed just as their relationship was beginning to feel solid. I can’t quite be sure if I believe in their happily ever after because the ending felt so abrupt to me (e.g. more groveling was needed). The three epilogues didn’t make up for it either.

This would have been four stars, possibly even five stars, had the second half been as equally moving as the first. The ending was too sudden and would have fared better with an additional few pages or even a chapter. While fun reads, the three epilogues didn’t make me feel better, because I wanted better closure. Also, I’m looking forward to the audio book. I love the duet narrations. It’s really an ensemble when it comes to the text messages.

Additional highlights:

  • It was refreshing to have characters who had good relationships with their families. Scarlett’s relationship with her parents was a highlight for me. Her banter with her mom was probably my favorite as they traded sayings, her mom’s Chinese ones with her American ones. My mom and I have had similar conversations. We can agree to disagree. Hmm…
  • I love the character cameos. As a fan of her Name in Lights series, it was fun to see the mention of the That’s So Wizard family–Shane and Nico make appearances but, alas, Alex is only name-dropped.
  • I enjoyed the text messages and the emails. They add so much humor to the book and provide insight into the relationships between the characters, especially between the Brodie family.
  • The Garçon commercial. Everyone needs to watch the commercial.

The Orphan Witch (2021)

by Paige Crutcher
ASIN/ISBN: 9781250797377
Publication: September 28, 2021

**I received a copy of the book through NetGalley. I voluntarily read and reviewed it. All opinions are my own.**

The Orphan Witch is filled with loneliness and longing as Persephone May searches for a place she can call home. Because of the strange things that happen around her, she continues drifting from place to place. After receiving an email from her only friend inviting her to Wile Isle, she finally feels like she has found what she’s been searching for all her life. Her arrival puts her in the middle of a fierce family feud and a century-old curse.

It starts as a lovely book about finding family but slowly turns into something more suspenseful with secrets looming, dark forces lurking near, and magic demanding a price possibly greater than many are willing to pay. I was immediately charmed by the writing with its rich descriptions and the sense of yearning it evokes from Persephone’s desire to find a family. I appreciated the level of detail that went into the history of those on the isle as well as the magic system. The moderately slow pace worked well in the beginning, helping to create a comforting atmosphere as Persephone starts to feel like she belongs–I was completely immersed in the first half of the book.

As the mystery of the isle deepens and the rift between cousins begins to affect Persephone’s livelihood, the pace and certain plot elements began to impede what could have been a more exciting second half. The slow pace became frustrating as the time left to break the curse started to tick away, and there was still so much to do…and read. My frustration was further exacerbated by the miscommunication or misunderstandings in the story, preventing a very much-needed reconciliation that would have continued pushing the story forward. There were times when I just wanted straight answers and couldn’t get them.

Persephone was initially someone I easily sympathized with because I understood her longing for a place and people to belong to. This theme of belonging and a desire to be among family was a heartbreaking one. Anyone who has ever felt out of place will be able to connect with Persephone’s loneliness and desire for love. I desperately wanted Persephone to get a happy ending. The book managed to keep me engaged for the majority of it; however, I was not a fan of the ending. Individuals who enjoy slower reads and magical novels that emphasize love and family while also pitting good against evil may enjoy The Orphan Witch.

Love, Comment, Subscribe (2021)

by Cathy Yardley
ASIN/ISBN: 9781542030007
Publication: October 1, 2021
Series: Ponto Beach Reunion #1

**I was provided a copy of the book by the author through NetGalley. I voluntarily read and reviewed it. All opinions are my own.**

Love, Comment, Subscribe begins with the past before it leads us into the present, providing insight into what may have motivated Lily to become a beauty influencer as well as to leave her friends in Ponto Bay behind. However, the past comes back to bite her in the form of her high school frenemy and fellow Nerd Herd member Tobin Bui when she needs to increase the number of her subscribers. Although they’re complete opposites, collaborating allows them to see a different side of each other, discovering chemistry where there was just irritation before.

The story provides insight into the life of social media stars through Lily Wang and Tobin Bui, both with very different strategies for creating content. Despite being opposites, Tobin and Lily have great chemistry with each other. Reading their thoughts as both realized their attraction to the other person was swoon-inducing. I smiled. I giggled. I wanted to scream into a pillow at how cute they were. Just for the record, I shipped them way before their followers ever did. 

Although I grew to like Lily, it was difficult at first. She seems a genuinely nice person and is relatively drama-free on social media, but I always felt like I had to be careful because I wasn’t sure when or if she would turn on her current friends. It was hard to completely sympathize with her. She feels bad about not connecting with Tobin for so long, but she is also more than willing to use their past when it’s advantageous for her. This feeling of waiting for the show to drop was instigated by her willingness to leave behind friends, the Nerd Herd, who always accepted her for who she was. It also made it difficult for me to embrace the reason Lily gives for becoming a beauty influencer because even she seems unsure of it. I would have liked more to help me understand her better.

Tobin was easily my favorite character because he is like a Labrador–fun, loving, and easy to please. Additionally, his friends are important to him. Often disorganized and at his best under pressure, he is well aware of who he is and stays true to himself. This contrasts greatly with Lily. She is a planner and extremely organized, maybe even too rigid when it comes to adhering to structure. She cares immensely what people think of her, especially those who are popular. The great thing about opposites is how they can balance one another out–mannered and organized Lily with fun and spontaneous Tobin. They are exactly what the other needs. 

Although the book may have started a little slow, it was an enjoyable read once the collaboration started. They were cute together even when each refused to admit their attraction. Despite their past and being opposites, together they learn to face their struggles. Individuals who enjoy contemporary romances where frenemies turn into lovers and opposites attract may enjoy Love, Comment, Subscribe.

Hot Desk (2021)

by Zara Stonely
ASIN/ISBN: 9780008436278
Publication: August 31, 2021

**I was provided a copy of the book through NetGalley. I voluntarily read and reviewed it. All opinions are my own.**

Although working from home might be nice for some people, it’s not exactly conducive to Alice’s productivity. She shares her house with other people. She shares her clothes with her sisters. Only her cubicle and her desk at work can be called her own, so she is more than ready to be back at work. Her excitement is short-lived when she learns she now has to share her desk with Jamie, someone she has a crush on but also irritates her incessantly with his teasing. Her feelings for him are…complicated.

I didn’t think I would be able to read a post-COVID book so soon. It helped that there are only mentions of the pandemic and nothing that was particularly triggering for me. Hot Desk was difficult for me because the romance takes a long time to get started and it’s slow. The book mostly focuses on Alice learning to stand her ground and saying no. She wants a space of her own that she has control over, without roommates interrupting, a sister always taking her clothes, or an ex-boyfriend insists on tidying it against her wishes. She wants to create boundaries to discourage people from walking all over her. For the most part, this is captured fairly well, especially Alice’s worries about being perceived as mean. She keeps second-guessing herself because people aren’t used to her being assertive nor are they used to her saying no. I completely understood where she was coming from because I can be a total pushover as well, and I hate conflict. Those conflicting feelings of wanting to stand your ground but feeling bad and being seen as mean are all too real.

Miscommunication plays a pivotal role in the potential romance, and it hurt my brain a lot because Alice rambles on and on about it in the first part. Part of the pain came from the rambles being all internal, which I normally enjoy. There was no other person to help break up the conversations she had with herself to give her brain a rest so I could also give my brain a rest. The other part of it was that it was mostly rambling. She was worried about everything and particularly confused and in a twist over Jamie. Her anxiety gave me anxiety. Once this finally passed, I was able to enjoy the book. However, I’m not sure how I feel about the events of the second half. Life is messy, and the second half gets it down well. I did, however, like how Alice slowed down her internal conversations and worries, which decreased my anxiety.

The book’s content does bring to mind Mhairi McFarlane and McFarlane’s books. Hot Shot doesn’t have the same emotional impact nor provide insight on life as effortlessly, but the book is not devoid of them. It just doesn’t evoke them to the same magnitude. Fans of McFarlane may enjoy the book but will need to overcome the internal ramblings of the first half to do so.

Pahua and the Soul Stealer (2021)

by Lori M. Lee
ASIN/ISBN: 9781368068246
Publication: September 7, 2021

**I received a copy of the book through NetGalley. I voluntarily read and reviewed it. All opinions are my own.**

I’ve been waiting for the book since I first read the announcement. Although I was unsure about what to expect, I enjoyed what I found. Miv the spirit cat is very much a show stealer with his wit and sarcasm. Pahua is the girl who could be more than she seems if she only believed in herself. Zhong, the shaman warrior, is always ready for a fight and desperately wants to prove herself. They embark on an adventure to the spirit world to rescue Pahua’s brother Matt. It’s one that is exciting, made fun especially with Miv’s sarcasm, and filled with some very close calls.

The book is rich in imagination. It’s an entertaining infusion of Hmong mythology and folk tales with Lee’s skillful world-building; she not only incorporates the mythology but she expands the world to make it her own. There are shamans, shaman warriors, spirits, and gods. The spirit realm is especially complex with its many entities–tree spirits, wind spirits, gate guardians, and more–to the various modes of transportation. One of my favorites is when the spirit horse appears. When Zhong seeks out her horse spirit, she has to go to a rental to call for it…heh. There’s a lot to learn about this world, and at times, it can be a bit overwhelming, especially with new pieces of information popping up every few pages. 

The emphasis on who or what a hero looks like was an especially compelling part of the book. A hero doesn’t always look or sound like what a hero is imagined to be. Pahua, as the central protagonist, lacks confidence and know-how but is willing to do what is necessary to return her brother’s soul to his body–her love for her family exceeds her fears. Pahua demonstrates that anyone can be a hero. You just need to look within yourself. Additionally, winning doesn’t always mean swords and fists. Sometimes there are better ways to get what you want.

I loved the inclusion of Hmong words and names. Many were spelled in Hmong while others were Anglicized, possibly to make it easier to read or pronounce. For instance, Nhia Ngao Zhua Pa is used as opposed to the Hmong spelling Niam Nkauj Zuag Paj. Phonetically, the former is easier to pronounce. Then there is the former God of Thunder’s name where xob is the correct spelling of thunder as opposed to xov meaning thread–different tones as denoted by the last letter will change the meanings. I was tripped up a bit by the usage xob and xov because some characters had names that identified who or what they were while others did not.  

Aside from the Hmong words, there are references to sayings here and there that made me smile. In particular, there’s a reference to eating only eggs and ramen. When you’re a kid and you cook eggs and ramen (referring to the instant kind here), it’s commendable. When you’re an adult and someone says all you eat or can cook are eggs and ramen, it’s an insult meaning you’re lazy. Hehehe. 

I needed this book as a kid when I was searching for demons to fight and dragons to ride. Like Pahua, I grew up not knowing much, and, to be honest, I still don’t know very much. It creates the possibility of building and enhancing cultural connections for Hmong children who might find themselves wondering about their heritage and their identity. Representation would have gone a long way for me, including not being ashamed about what I brought to lunch or having white and red strings around my wrists–all things Lee mention in the book. The book eill also introduce non-Hmong individuals to new and exciting adventures that incorporate folktales and myths they may not have previously been exposed to. It’s a fun middle-grade read that is very much plot-driven. Those looking for action and adventure will certainly enjoy Pahua and the Soul Stealer.

Just a note: As a middle grade read, this is definitely 4 stars with its emphasis on action and adventure. For me, this is only 3.5 stars mostly because I like a more time to ruminate in specific moments and the book doesn’t do this much as Pahua, Miv, and Zhong are constantly moving on to the next thing to do or place to go.

The Worst Best Man (2020)

by Mia Sosa
ASIN/ISBN: 9780062909879
Publication: February 4, 2020

Lina is a wedding planner and asked to compete to be permanently on staff for a prominent hotel group. She’s excited at the prospect, but decidedly less so when she meets the marketing team–her ex- fiancé and his brother Max–who is supposed to help make her pitch. Although Max may have encouraged his brother to leave her on their wedding day, he can’t help but be attracted to her the more they work together. Similarly, Lina starts feeling like more than just work is happening with Max.

The Worst Best Man has a trope I hate, dating an ex’s sibling. I get it. You can’t help who you fall in love with, but there’s a code somewhere that has to be followed, right? The book addresses it, and the characters have a tough time figuring out their situation, but it’s still such a messy ordeal and feels nearly incestuous. This decreased my enjoyment of the novel, but I liked Max and Lina together enough that I would forget they were almost in-laws. The problem was when I would remember out of nowhere. **shudders** My other gripe was how quickly they became attracted to each other. It’s a substantial hurdle to overcome, going from despising the guy who encouraged your fiancé/his brother to leave you to being nearly instantly attracted to him. There needed to be more time to knock over the hurdle than was given.

Despite being conflicted about their prior connection and the pace of their interaction, I enjoyed Lina and Max’s relationship, from enemies to lovers, because they were so easygoing with each other. They not only worked well together, but they had fun while doing it. The aspect I enjoyed most was how they brought out the best in each other by helping to quell negative thoughts and provide comforting words. Their relationship, which may have started with some petty moves mostly on Lina’s part, had substance to it. This was a healthier relationship than I’ve seen in most books, one not marked by possessiveness but a willingness to talk and listen. While they were great together, the passion felt subdued. I am a fan of emotional reads (Kennedy Ryan owns so many pieces of my heart that it’s not funny), and The Worst Best Man doesn’t have that. Although it didn’t make my heart flutter miles a minute, part of me enjoyed that their affection toward each other wasn’t the all-consuming kind–it was nice to breathe and not be left in a book coma.

The subdued feelings, however, play well into Lina’s character. Lina is dedicated to her job and possibly even loves it, but I’m not sure because she doesn’t seem to express joy over it as much as she is dedicated to doing a good job. She is petty, which makes for some funny situations especially when her family is in the picture, but she is mature when it counts–seeing your ex and the cause of your breakup calls for a lot of maturity and restraint. It’s this latter ability that forms the basis of her character arc. She displays a lot of emotional restraint, while Max is the opposite. He’s very willing to take chances on what he feels, but he’s also patient, allowing Lina the space she needs to make her decision. Max isn’t perfect, which makes him all the more likeable. His insecurities often hinder his potential, but Lina reinforces how wonderful he is. He might be the worst best man, but they’re well-suited for each other.

Additional highlights in the book include Max and his heart-to-heart talks with best friend Dean. I enjoyed their bromance. Friends should be supportive like Dean. At one point, Dean lets Max crawl into bed with him, and it was too cute. Lina and her family are also fantastic. Natalia is fierce and ready to back up Lina at any moment. She’s awesome!

The Worst Best Man didn’t sweep me off my feet, but it didn’t have to. With characters who complement each other so well, it was easy to support the main romance, even if I wasn’t on board with the “dating an ex’s sibling” trope.

Just Last Night (2021)

by Mhairi McFarlane
ASIN/ISBN: 9780063036857
Publication: May 4, 2021

Eve was in love with Ed in their teens, and now in their thirties, she remains in love with him. Although he has a girlfriend, she still keeps wondering about what could have been, hoping there might still be a chance for them, especially since she believes he might still be in love with her too. Everything changes in a single night and secrets are revealed that make Eve doubt the things she thought she knew.

Just Last Night retains the elements that make me gravitate toward McFarlane’s books from realistic characters to poignant reflections on life, yet I couldn’t help but be unfulfilled by it. It’s almost as though there are two distinct books bounded together into a single novel. Separately, I’d give the first half 4 stars and the second would also receive 4 stars, but when they’re together the sum is not exactly equal to its parts–I’m giving it 3.5 stars. It’s a story of love, grief, hope, and learning to move forward.

Part I: Eve recalls how she and Susie became friends with Ed and Justin along with memories of Ed and Eve’s missed connection. Eve is incredibly lucky to have a close knit group of friends, but just because they’re close doesn’t mean there are aren’t secrets. Betrayal can be found in unexpected places. Eve learns this the hard way when she discovers secrets that make her wonder if she might have been better left in the dark. Eve’s seemingly blind loyalty is challenged, which adds on to the grief she is already battling with. This first part tugged at me because I hate regrets and loose ends. McFarlane emphasizes that, unfortunately, we don’t always get the answers to the questions that we have. The emotional turmoil is prominently center as Eve is left struggling to understand why.

Part II: Eve makes several realizations about her life and about the people around her during and after an unplanned road trip. Insight from an unexpected individual helps her discover that she deserves better than what she’s had. In this section, I discovered that Eve is definitely a better person than I am–she is much more forgiving. My reaction would been terrible and I would cut off ties. It was empowering to see Eve ask for more for herself. It was a “hand raising, finally” moment for me. It’s true. Sometimes we don’t get the closure we want, so we have to create our own. It’s ultimately up to us to decide what is worth keeping, what we need to let go, and how to keep pushing forward.

The two parts are connected with Eve’s arc being the thread. They are very much before and after, but I would have liked something to help transition from one part to the next. It is a hard hitting book, so if you pick it up please be prepared.

Mark of the Wicked (2021)

by Georgia Bowers
ASIN/ISBN: 9781250773890
Publication: August 10, 2021

**I received a copy of the book through NetGalley. I voluntarily read and reviewed it. All opinions are my own.**

I’m usually prepared for Christmas in July but not so much for Halloween in August. Mark of the Wicked certainly helped set the mood for the ghostly holiday. It’s an atmospheric read with a mix of growing up pains and unexplained paranormal occurrences. While I mostly enjoyed it, the storyline does drag a bit with some repetitiveness in the first half and continues longer than I wanted after it reaches the climax. The ending, however, makes up for it.

Matilda, the lead character, is introduced while attempting a spell sixteen days before Halloween. Despite the price of bringing harm to others, she is more than willing to do it because she can. What’s the use of having power if she can’t do what she wants with it? Her willingness to cause harm so recklessly is also the result of the ability to hide the personal consequences of her actions. She’s a morally grey character. Matilda is not an easy character to connect with. She has a lot of pent-up anger and resents her mom. These feelings fuel her decision making, pushing her to use magic on anyone who has made her life miserable. Despite her tough exterior, the insecurities and vulnerability that come with high school rise to the surface when she meets Oliver, a boy who finally likes her for who she is. In reconciling these different accounts of her character, it’s obvious she’s a little lost and lashing out. Her mother’s presence would have been helpful, but it’s her Nanna May’s presence that provides her comfort. While I was not fond of Matilda’s actions and just generally not too fond of Matilda (at least until the second half), I grew to understand her. Her world collapsed, and she closed herself off. Of course, it doesn’t excuse her behavior. She is not a good witch by any means but even as wicked as she is, she also claims she has boundaries she is unwilling to cross.

My least favorite character in the book is her mom, Lottie. I was disappointed in her a lot, but this is likely a product of the story being told from Matilda’s point of view–I just sympathized more with Matilda. Lottie acts more like she’s in a dispute with a younger sibling. From Matilda’s perspective, Lottie appears to be gallivanting to the beat of her own drum. I get it. Matilda isn’t the easiest person to get along with, but Lottie also isn’t present to help Matilda work through her frustrations. I also felt ambushed by Lottie’s reveals as she tries to soothe over their relationship. Like Matilda, I even started to resent Lottie. It’s highly problematic when your daughter suspects you are the culprit behind the dead animals and her blackouts.  

I enjoyed the plot and thought the price to pay for harming others was clever. It poses an interesting question: what choices are we willing to make if we could hide the consequences of our actions? The plot becomes repetitive (something happens, Matilda blacks out, something happens, Matilda blacks out again), which led being frustrated at trying to piece things together. Strange things are happening to animals and Matilda keeps blacking out. There is a connection somewhere, but it’s difficult to pinpoint what exactly. I nearly stopped reading because the mystery kept building without any real payoff. When the pieces finally come together, it was a bit of a letdown, confirming my suspicions. On the other hand, the ending was great. It came together well, even if it was a bit too easy.  

Those ready for Halloween will enjoy the mystery presented by Mark of the Wicked. Additionally, fans of the cult classic The Craft are likely to enjoy it as well.  


So We Meet Again (2021)

by Suzanne Park
ASIN/ISBN: 9780062990716
Publication: August 3, 2021

**I received a copy of the book through NetGalley. I voluntarily read and reviewed it. All opinions are my own.**

Repeatedly passed over for promotions despite her hard work and now finally terminated due to downsizing, Jessie/Jess Kim returns home to figure out her next steps. It doesn’t help that she bumps into boy wonder Daniel Choi, who she was always compared to while growing up. The only difference now is that he’s no longer the bowl cut wearing PK or pastor’s kid, but successful and very good-looking. Although long-time rivals in life and Daniel remains rather snobby, he ends up being a helpful presence as Jess and umma’s cooking show starts taking off.

The blurb of a book can often affect our expectations. In this case, I was expecting something a bit different from what I read. I was focused on the cooking show Jess eventually develops with her mom and also on her high school rival and frenemy Daniel because the description primed me to focus on these two aspects. When I didn’t get a lot of the cooking show as highlighted, I was disappointed. It takes about a quarter of the book for the cooking show to appear. When it does, there aren’t as many streams with umma and appa as I wish there had been, which would have helped support the fact that Jess’s success starts rolling in pretty quickly. She goes from live streaming to career-defining deals in what feels like a matter of pages.

I was also disappointed by the blurb’s spoilery information about Daniel, which I won’t mention because it’s a spoiler and also because I believe the description has since changed in some outlets but not in others. The setup sounded like it would be a pivotal part of the book, and it sort of is in some aspects, but it makes up only a small portion of the book. The emphasis should have been on Jess trying to find her place after losing a job that finally solidified her as being a success. Her outlook on her career became framed by the perspective of a company that didn’t know how to value someone like her–apparently, being hardworking and committed to the job is frowned upon. She spends much of the time figuring out how to start over. This would have better prepared me for the book. For those who have yet to read the book, the current description on retail sites leaves out this information, so I think you’ll have a slightly better experience than I did.

Although I had a different set of expectations for the book, there’s still a lot to like in So We Meet Again. Park’s signature humor is present. I loved the family dynamics, the emphasis on career aspirations, and the experiences highlighted because I can identify with many of them. A 50-lb or 100-lb bag of rice on sale is a big thing! I rush over when I know it’s on sale. Additionally, it’s a story that is easily relatable if you’ve ever been compared to other kids growing up. Unfortunately, similar to Sunny Song Will Never Be FamousSo We Meet Again is a good story that ends just as it’s only about to get better.

Caster (2019) / Spell Starter (2020)

by Elsie Chapman
Series Review

**This is a series review that may contain spoilers for Spell Starter**

Caster_cover


Caster

ASN/ISBN: 9781338332629
Publication: September 3, 2019
3h-stars

Aza is left to ensure her parents’ debt to the Tea District’s gang leader is regularly paid after her sister is killed. Although against the law, she resorts to using full magic to make money while also trying to learn what happened to her sister. When she stumbles upon an underground tournament for casters such as herself, the prize money is too much to pass up. 

Caster grabbed my attention right away. I liked Chapman’s writing style, which immersed me in Aza’s life, even though it takes place in a matter of days only. It’s an atmospheric read that will have you also thinking about the potential demise of our world. The world of Caster is dark and bleak, especially for individuals like Aza. Losing her sister and trying to protect her parents spurs Aza to put her life at risk daily by casting full magic to make ends meet. The magic system Chapman creates is a harsh one, where its use exacts a high price. Not only do casters such as Aza pay with headaches and bruises, but the earth breaks down each time. This made me question why individuals would still choose to cast. From Aza’s perspective, it’s both a matter of choice and survival, but there’s also a need to cast that is created by magic.

Aza is a flawed protagonist, which was why I was both drawn to her and struggled with some of her decisions. Lies easily leave her tongue if her survival depends on it. It isn’t necessarily that she’s only interested in looking out for herself, but her family’s well-being is also her top priority. Don’t expect her to go jumping into a fire to save someone; she’s more likely to look the other way if it means she can keep those she loves safe. I found it admirable but also winced a little each time someone’s life was forfeit because of her. While her actions throughout the book are reflective of her priorities, there are glimpses of her fighting against herself to not care about other people, showcasing that if life were different she had the potential to be the protagonist I wanted her to be rather than straddling the middle.


SpellStarter_cover-rs


Spell Starter

ASN/ISBN: 9781338589511
Publication: October 6, 2020

Aza deals with the aftermath of her decisions during the tournament. Left beholden to Saint Willow, she becomes an enforcer, shaking debtors for late payments, until it’s decided her skills are more useful in one of Saint Willow’s new endeavors. Compliance is mandatory because refusing to do Saint Willow’s bidding could spell disaster for her parents.

Spell Starter feels similar to Caster but more dangerous due to Aza’s new circumstances. Just as things seem like they can’t get any worse, they do. I thought this was clever of Chapman because her magic system already requires such a high payment. While the second book ups the stakes, Spell Starter isn’t nearly as intriguing a book because it was mostly already done (and done pretty well) in Caster. Parts of the book also feels cheaper, but it’s obvious it is meant to feel this way. If you read it, you’ll understand what I mean and that it’s not a jab at Chapman because I think she purposefully does it well. Aza’s story is still compelling, but it doesn’t hit the same way Caster does with loss and revenge at the forefront of her decision-making. 

The beginning of the book had me a bit frustrated because it didn’t make sense why Aza didn’t just think about incapacitating or even just destroying Saint Willow until it was too late. She has full magic! My best guess is the devil you know is better than the one you don’t. While she tries to protect her parents throughout both novels, it also gets tiring and even frustrating, especially in Spell Starter. I started to question their obliviousness at so much of what Aza was doing and everything else going on. They couldn’t be that unaware…could they?


Overall Assessment

Caster is a gritty duology with a protagonist who isn’t always likeable. Aza goes to great lengths to protect her parents from the district’s gang leader and to find out the circumstances behind her sister’s death. The world is a bleak one, and Aza’s decisions aren’t always ones I readily approved of, even if I understood why she made them. The duology left me in a dreary state, with a less than positive outlook, as it moved from the impact of losing a loved one to the costs of a world where magic not only destroys the user but the world. Although I enjoyed Caster more than I did Spell Starter, the series is a worthwhile read, and there’s potentially more that can be added should Chapman continue Aza’s story. I’m all in.