I like to read books that feel appropriate for the season. I've been known to plan out my reading months in advance just so that the proper book coincides with the proper time of year (more on that later this week).
However, other times I begin a book without knowing much about it beforehand . . . certainly not enough to know whether it is best read in September or February or June. So it makes me feel a little giddy when I start one of those books and realize a few chapters in that I couldn't have picked a better time of year for it. Such are the pleasures of a book nerd.
And such was the case with this book.
My reading of the synopsis didn't tell me that the story would take place in November with blustery winds and chill rains nor that the two old ladies would, in fact, turn out to be witches nor that a mangy black crow with a missing eye would be a loyal (and disloyal, depending on who you asked) sidekick. Yet all these things instantly flavored the book to make it perfect for autumn.
The story begins with Fortuna, an eleven-year-old girl who hesitantly offers her help to Selena and Ellie, the old Baldwin sisters. The Baldwin's house has always held a strange, spooky appeal to the neighborhood kids, but Fortuna is still surprised when she finds out they are real, honest-to-goodness witches and that they (accidentally, of course) turned a small bird into a small boy.
Now they need to transform him back before they get into big trouble with the CUE (that would be, the Council of Unnatural Events). But Martin, as they've dubbed the boy/bird, isn't so ready to be changed back. The Baldwins hope Fortuna can befriend him and thereby convince him to return to his life in the trees. But complications arise, not the least of which being that after a couple of days, Fortuna isn't entirely sure if she wants to help Martin turn back into a bird.
I quite liked the setting and the plot, and it was the perfect dose of fantasy for me: magical elements (the witches, Fortuna's notebook, the ability to fly) mixed in with normal happenings (annoying brothers, breakfast, school break). I know it's the kind of book I would have loved as a kid.
At first, I also loved the characters (Fortuna was spunky, Selena was severe, Macabra was cunning), but after awhile I felt like something was missing. By the end of the book, I'd landed upon three reasons for that dissatisfied feeling:
First, the narrative, while not exactly shifting viewpoints, didn't always stay with Fortuna. Thus, it left me feeling a bit confused. Sometimes I felt loyal to Fortuna, but then she was in bed sleeping, and all this other action was taking place, and suddenly I wondered if the story was really about Selena. There were moments when it seemed like Fortuna's presence was an afterthought--almost like, Oh yeah, she's the main character, I guess she better make an appearance even though everything is progressing smoothly without her.
Second, the details didn't always match up. For example, for most of the book, all we know about Fortuna's father is that he plays the trumpet for a living, but from all appearances (he's usually sleeping or practicing the trumpet), he seems to be a pretty easygoing guy. Then, suddenly at the end of the book, we get this other piece of him that doesn't jive with the rest of his character. He comes in from cleaning the garage, rather annoyed that no one is helping him, and says, "Fortuna--I don't see your bike anywhere. Did you leave it at someone's house again?" And then this observation: "He was really strict about them taking care of their possessions." And I thought, What? You mean this trumpet-playing, easygoing father is actually a stickler for order and organization? It was a small detail but one that seemed completely unfounded given the rest of the story.
Finally, for me, the character of Martin was rather empty, and it unfortunately made the rest of the book fall a little flat. Most of the time, he seemed like a shell with absolutely no personality. But then he would do things like squeeze Fortuna's hand or call her by her nickname, and that kind of emotional connection felt superficial.
All that being said, I would most definitely recommend this book to kids. Like I said before, it's the kind of story I would have loved at age nine or ten. And it's a book I'll definitely share with my oldest son in a year or two . . . in October, of course.
Many thanks to Disney-Hyperion for the review copy. All opinions are decidedly and definitely my own.