The Witch's Guide to Cooking with Children
by Keith McGowan
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
The Witch's Guide to Cooking with Children / 978-0-8050-8668-3
I love redone fairy tales of all kinds, from the whimsical to the dark, and I love children's books in general, so this book seemed like a no-brainer for me. Unfortunately, however, I simply did not enjoy reading this book, though I cannot say for certain whether a much younger audience might find the novel more palatable.
"The Witch's Guide" carries with it a strong whiff of the amateur about it. Author McGowan seems to be aware of the wildly popular "A Series of Unfortunate Events" series, and it feels like he is attempting to recreate the dry, direct narrative that marks that series so uniquely and indelibly. There is a world of difference however, in a direct narrator who is distanced and sympathetic, and direct narrator who is immediate and antagonistic (i.e., the witch). The directness of the narrator in SoUE creates a gulf of time, loneliness, and isolation between the reader and the orphans. The directness of the narrator in TWGtCwC merely seems to serve as an expository device to keep the story chugging along.
Fairy tale re-tellings should not, as a general rule, have self-awareness of the tale they are supposedly re-telling. There are exceptions to this rule, but by and large it is a fourth wall that the author really should not break. Having the 'father' (who is actually not the father in an incredibly convoluted sequence of identity theft that seems only necessary to validate why a 'father' would abandon his children...thereby completely undermining all the insistence in the opening paragraphs that real parents give up their children to be eaten all the time) and the 'mother' turn out to somehow be the great-great-great-grandchildren of the "real" father and mother (er, step-mother) of Hansel and Gretel is silly and unnecessary. I understand that McGowan is trying to affix his story in the 'real' world, but the point at which one can find Hansel and Gretel on Ancestry dot com is the point at which I've lost all interest because the issue creates more questions than it can possibly answer.
I say that "The Witch's Guide" feels amateurish because it seems to feverishly blunder about with no clear indication of where it wants to go. Details are strewn randomly about, some having minor plot relevance (Sol's failed invention ends up being plot relevant...sort of) and others apparently having to do with characterization but never really going anywhere. McGowan provides a sympathetic adult foil to the witch, but hamstrings her with some half-baked explanation of a curse, all of which fails to resolve into anything plot relevant - she doesn't help the children, nor does the apparent resolution of her curse have any significance.
About the time McGowan figures out that the witch can't handle a world-wide operation like this on her own, he shoehorns in another expositionary diary entry explaining how she has a number of goblin helpers just...because... and most of them are librarians or teachers. None of which makes much sense, because the conceit of a goblin librarian handing over a child to be eaten undermines the earlier insistence that the witch only accepts children through "the proper channels", i.e. their parents. You'd think a parent evil enough to toss their child to a witch to be eaten would be capable of just dropping the kid at the house for a 'piano lesson' or other contrived reason, rather than needing a librarian intermediary.
All in all, "The Witch's Guide" just feels rushed and unpolished. I think some time with a good editor might have made the plot more readable, but it seems from the foreword that the editor was so taken away with the idea that she apparently wouldn't let anyone touch her new 'baby' with the necessary red editing pen. Children may find this book novel and distracting, but it's a very quick read and lacks the staying power to be worth the price. I'd recommend waiting for a library copy.
Final note to parents, there is some lightly risque humor where Connie gets drugged on magical herbs; this scene culminates in her "pretend[ing] to be a dog peeing" and "acting like a dog on all fours, she sniffed near Swift's behind".
NOTE: This review is based on a free Advance Review Copy of this book provided through Amazon Vine.
~ Ana Mardoll
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