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.


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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.

Cinderella Is Dead (2020)

by Kaylynn Bayron
ASIN/ISBN: 9781547603879
Publication: July 7, 2020

I’ve been meaning to read Cinderella Is Dead since it was first published nearly a year ago, but being a mood reader means wanting and doing are two different things. I finally finished it yesterday. The premise behind the book is rather interesting, providing readers with a retelling of the fairy tale and what happens after Cinderella and her prince supposedly lived happily ever after.  While I did enjoy the book, it didn’t quite live up to the expectations I built around it. 

Sophia is in love with her best friend Erin, and while Erin seems to return those feelings, she is unwilling to rebel. The laws are explicit that young women are to attend balls where suitors will choose them as brides. And just like the fairy tale, they are meant to then live happily ever after with some caveats. The happily is optional, women only have three tries at finding a suitor, and men can terminate the ever after if they choose to. The ball maintains the illusion of what Cinderella had to go through to find her prince including arriving in one’s best dress and finding a life partner at the end of it. For over 200 years, this has been the way of things, and women have been without rights. Forced to attend her first ball, Sophia makes a run for it, choosing an alternate path she carves for herself.

While Sophia is tenacious and daring, willing to risk her life not only for love but freedom for herself as well as those of other young women in her position, I found her character naively idealistic at times. I wanted to yell at her and tell her to consider the consequences including thinking through her actions more carefully before doing anything risky. Maybe it’s meant to be part of her character but I wanted more complexity from Sophia. With the plot moving so quickly, jumping from one thing to the next, Sophia hardly ever gets to think many things through. I was also bothered by how quickly Sophia moves on despite being adamant about her love for Erin and her willingness to risk everything to be with Erin. She jumps from one love interest to the next in a matter of what seems like days. This feeds into the too fast pace of the novel, which I was not particularly fond of. I didn’t get the depth I was expecting in a story with a premise that fascinated me. The lack of depth also extends to Constance, Erin, and a few other characters.

While it lacked depth, I did like the dominant themes in the novel. The recurring theme of empowerment was particularly done well. There are several lines from Sophia that highlighted this that I loved. One of my favorites is Sophia saying, “I don’t want to be saved by some knight in shining armor. I’d like to be the one in the armor, and I’d like to be the one doing the saving.” I also thought one of the most poignant lines in the book asks who the tale of Cinderella is really for. It highlights how problematic fairy tales can become and the book confronts this through the retelling.

Cinderella Is Dead offers a retelling of the classic fairy tale that turns it on its head. Rather than waiting for a prince or princess, the book emphasizes seizing the opportunity to be your own hero. While not all my expectations were met, those who look forward to alternatives to the stories they’ve heard or watched growing up may enjoy the book.


Cars, Signs, and Porcupines! (2021)

by Ethan Long
ASN/ISBN: 9781250765987
Publication: March 2, 2021
Series: Happy County #3

**I was provided a complimentary copy from the publisher. I voluntarily read it and played activities with it. All opinions are my own…and that of my nieces of course.**

In Cars, Signs, and Porcupines, kids get the opportunity to learn about Happy County while porcupines go on the loose, subsequently learning about things they might see around the communities they live in. findsomethingblueAt first glance, it can seem a bit overwhelming because many of the pages have a lot going on, but once the reading begins and the fun starts, the feeling quickly subsides. The pages are colorful and bustling with so many potential activities beyond what’s written in the book.  It encourages children to interact with each other and with adults. My nieces and I spent more than an hour perusing the pages, going over the content, and playing “I Spy.”  One of my nieces was ruthless spying “something blue” while the other went easy on me with “something black and white.” We had a great time with it! My nieces loved it and were not ready to close the book.

Clues to the Universe (2021)

by Christina Li
ISBN: 9780063008885
Publication: January 12, 2021
Series: N/A


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

(I apologize in advance for being longwinded in this review–it turned into something more like a book report…hehe)

Clues to the Universe is a slice of life novel about two seventh graders. While it deals with multiple aspects of growing up, including bullying and making new friends, it is grounded in dealing with loss. Ro and Benji are individually trying to come to terms with not having their dads around, neither realizing that maybe what they need is a peer for support along the way. A mix-up in class forces Ro and Benji to talk and become science partners, making a deal that Ro will help Benji find his dad while Benji agrees to help Ro with her rocket. Slowly, the relationship becomes more than something obligatory; it blossoms into a friendship.

Their specific situations are different–Benji’s father appears to have left of his own accord while Ro’s father died–but are also similar in many ways. Both Ro and Benji take after their fathers. Like her father, Ro has her head in the stars, and she’s trying to build a model rocket–a project they never had the chance to complete. Similar to his father, Benji loves art, and his hands can’t keep still because he’s always doodling away. They’re each trying to maintain a connection to their father in some way.

While they are somewhat opposites of each other, Ro and Benji fit together well. Benji is more likely to just go along with whatever is happening but is in many ways content in his environment. Ro is very precise, trying to maintain control over what she can while looking for that next step. It’s this latter element of being content with stability as opposed to moving forward that causes friction in their relationship. While differences may exist, sometimes it’s the differences that will foster positive growth, pushing us to be better versions of ourselves. It’s this aspect of the book that I enjoyed the most, seeing the changes in both Ro and Benji as they started spending more time together.

Another aspect of the book is Li’s ability to tease out Ro and Benji’s developing friendship through small things like who Ben thinks of when someone refers to his friend. I especially enjoyed how she anchored their individual perceptions of their friendship in the things they loved. Benji’s realization comes with his observations about characters drawn in comics but for Ro, it’s slightly different because of her personality. Being inclined toward science, observations offer her evidence to support her theories so it makes sense that the more they hang out, the more likely they can be considered friends. Other times, it has to really hit her in the face because she’s so goal-oriented, her mind on a single purpose, that she doesn’t pay attention to anything else. If the above doesn’t really do a good job of it, let me just sum it up: Li does a superb job with the characterization of her 7th grade leads. They’re both well-developed characters with Benji and Ro each experiencing growth through their new found friendship.

This is a story about two lonely individuals who didn’t realize how much they needed support and understanding from someone with similar experiences and unexpectedly found solace and strength in each other. Individuals who have experienced any kind of loss, not just that of a parent, will be able to relate to the heartbreak and yearning as well as to asking questions that don’t necessarily have answers.

Coming Up Roses (2019)

by Staci Hart
ISBN: 9781082579479
Publication: August 1, 2019
Series: Bennet Brothers #1


I’m an Austen fan so you’ll probably see Austen-related titles here and there. If you’re a Pride and Prejudice fan, you may want to check out Hart’s Bennet Brothers series.  This isn’t a retelling of P&P—that’s a separate book called Pride and Papercuts—but a contemporary reimagining of the Bennet sisters as brothers, flipping genders with the exception of Elizabeth (Laney in the series).  Luke returns home after a whirlwind marriage and divorce to help revive the family business, Longbourne Flower Shop.  Luke is Lydia’s male counterpart, and this is the story of Lydia after her divorce to Wickham. 

Hart manages to remain true to Lydia’s original character.  Luke is fun, flirtatious, popular among the opposite sex, and a bit insufferable. (Sounds like Lydia, right?) Similar to Lydia, Luke is fickle in his emotions and jumps headfirst into situations without really thinking things through.  Luke is steady in his devotion once he realizes what or who he wants, and it could be argued that Lydia also has this quality—she did fall for Wickham and commit to him.  Luke puts his energy into winning over Tess, an employee of the flower shop and a former friend—yes, this is an enemies to lovers story. Unlike Lydia, Luke can recognize his foolishness and is more than willing to try to fix his wrongdoings. Luke is a more mature Lydia.

Luke is more likable than Lydia will ever be, but I never quite rooted for him—he was just okay. I would have liked a lot more bantering between Luke and Tess to build their chemistry with each other. It started to lose a bit of steam once our lead characters got together (this is both a spoiler and not a spoiler because it is a romance novel after all). I think what did it for me was that the problem that arises between our leads and its resolution is predictable.  

This is an interesting take on P&P, giving life to the other sisters, or brothers in this case. I liked the premise of the series but didn’t find this particular story to be compelling.  I liked it enough to finish reading it but it wasn’t a page-turner. If you’re a P&P fan, it is an acceptable book to pass the time, to see Hart’s take on Lydia and how Lydia potentially matures, but you’re not missing much if you pass it up.