Kathryn Littlewood,
(Katherine Tegen, 2012)

I enjoy baking and children's fantasy books, so I fully expected to find Kathryn Littlewood's debut an enjoyable (if lightweight) confection. An off-kilter family, an esoteric cookbook, magical mayhem -- what could go wrong? Unfortunately, Bliss is more pastiche than pastry, slowly paced even for adult readers, and a little too precious for its own good.

The book centers around the Bliss family: four kids (all named after different spices), two parents, one ancient and magical Bliss Cookery Booke and a secret stash of arcane ingredients. The Bliss Bakery does more than dole out muffins and cookies: it also heals colds, fixes broken hearts and even saves lives with its magically enhanced goodies. When the Bliss parents are called away, they leave the key to the cookbook with their 12-year-old daughter Rose, along with a strict injunction not to use it.

You can probably guess how well that works, especially when their glamorous but untrustworthy Aunt Lily shows up. From the moment Rose and her brother Ty embark on making love muffins for two of their hapless customers, things start to go a little crazy in the town of Calamity Falls and keep right on getting worse.

If you know any version of "The Sorcerer's Apprentice," you know where this is all going. It just takes forever to get there. By page 100, the Bliss parents have left, Aunt Lily has arrived, and Rose and Ty are just beginning to bake their first magical recipe. That's it. There is so much exposition, so much internal waffling from Rose about her various insecurities and moral dilemmas (she almost invariably makes the wrong choice), that I started flipping pages out of boredom. At almost 400 pages, the book is about 100 pages longer than it needs to be.

It doesn't help that the characters are mostly caricatures. Rose, as the overlooked, ordinary, responsible middle child, is sympathetic at first, then wearisome. Everyone else primarily serves as a plot device. And the writing, while competent, sometimes crosses the line into wince-inducing: "Whatever horrors he'd seen as a fighting marine didn't hold a creme brulee torch to the cake-flinging war that had just broken out in the shop." The heart-warming message about family ultimately comes across as forced and cliche.

Bliss tries so hard to be charming, but like its protagonists' well-intentioned efforts, it doesn't really get anywhere.

book review by
Jennifer Mo

13 April 2013

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