Title: Don't Expect Magic
Author: Kathy McCullough
Publisher: Delacorte Press
Other Reviews for This Author: None
Reading books that have cute paranormal premises puts me in a very good mood as a reader. So, naturally, I go to them when I need a light reading experience that cheers me up. Don't Expect Magic was released towards the end of 2011 and seemed to be a release that no one really talked about - yet the premise was something that caught my attention right away. Fairy godmother training from an estranged father? Count me in! Don't Expect Magic is a read that delivers on its premise with an enjoyable reading experience, although it uses too many tropes to be anything other than cute.
Delaney Collins does not live in a fairy tale. Her mother is dead, and she has to be shipped across the country to go live with her father, a man that she hasn't truly known in years. Memories of their old family life remind her of the man he once was; her father was the type of man that made her childhood a better place. Those happy memories all but left Delaney completely when her parents separated. Delaney lived with her mother for years and never heard from her father. He went from being someone she admired to someone she despised. On top of that, he became a bestselling author and life coach that taught other people how to change their lives for the better - totally ignoring the irony of his emotionally abandoned daughter.
To say that Delaney is not happy about her current situation is an understatement. Her father attempts to get back into her good graces, but all Delaney can think about is how he abandoned her. She's no longer the cutesy little girl that believes in fairy tales. There is no happy ending in sight for her. The fancy California school she gets enrolled in doesn't make things any better. Delaney spends her time designing unique boots with hardcore edges to them. Her main priority is not attending a high school that prides itself on sunny weather, an eccentric principal, and over-friendliness. The first day of school is just painful as Delaney sees how much of an outsider she is in California culture. After all, how many of her classmates have the ability to create punked-up boots that double as roller skates?
The discontent that Delaney feels with her life is about to change. Moving in with her father may dredge up old memories and unresolved emotions, but it also lets Delaney see what his new life is like. Her father, famous and well-known, barely has any time for himself. He's at the beck and call of one of his "clients" 24/7. Delaney knows that he works as a life coach and consultant, but he goes above and beyond the traditional role with how much he does for his clients - so above and beyond that it raises her suspicions. Could he really be all that he says he is, or is there something more to his career that Delaney doesn't know about?
Readers will find Delaney to be a character that is quick to like. She is an easily engaging protagonist because of her situation - gaining a new parental figure to deal with and a new school to attend - and is pretty much the YA standard in terms of getting readers interested. Characters with a barrage of new, confusing aspects in their environment are easy for teen readers to relate to because of those feelings being constant in the teenage experience, even if teens don't lose their parents or change schools as often as they do in novels. Delaney's characterization follows a lot of YA standards other than the classic new-girl-in-a-new-world tropes. She's an outcast by nature and has an odd quirk (designing wicked-cool boots), yet she really just wants some normalcy. Not so much normalcy in her social life, but the normalcy of a father that understands her and doesn't spout life coach advice at her like she's one of his clients. The feelings are average and don't break any new ground in the creativity department, but McCullough puts her own twist on Delaney's character type with the particulars of her story. The focus on Delaney's issues with her parents, as opposed to her issues with the supernatural aspects of the story or the hot boy that comes into her life, make the novel feel fresh. Delaney's journey as a character when it comes to accepting her father is two-fold: she learns to accept him as a person, looking past the cheesy sayings and motivational phrases that he spouts at her, and she learns to accept him for the fairy godmother (father?) that he is. In accepting one, Delaney learns to accept the other. That character journey is very strong in Don't Expect Magic, and really stands out in a sea of YA literature that focuses on the non-parental relations of the characters. Delaney's development does become stilted in relation to the grief she feels over her mother's death, however. The incident is fairly recent in the text and causes a lot of emotions to well up in Delaney - yet they often felt unexplored or pushed to the side when compared to the other aspects of the plot. It was an unfulfilled portion of Delaney's characterization that provided the entire setup of her stay with her father.
Spotty development is par for the course with the rest of the characters. Some of them were transformed into very unique, three-dimensional individuals. Delaney's father was by far the most developed of the secondary characters. He became a great character that encompassed a lot of the traditional images of parents in YA and overcame them. The traditionally overbearing, ridiculous parental unit became a person that Delaney could relate to and understand. He was more than just a source of drama to add to the story - he was a character that was treated with respect and development, and it was a welcome change of pace in my YA reading to see that. Flynn, the love interest, was entertaining and cute for the most part. Delaney's conflicts with him were standard ones found in YA, although it was nice to see that his character held out more than the boys usually do - the reader can't immediately tell if Flynn actually likes Delaney or if he really does like the other girl who is much more popular than her. Speaking of which, Cadie - the girl that Flynn initially has a crush on in the novel - was a welcome little addition to the story. She was pretty and nice. That in and of itself was nothing new, but she had something extra about her, and the bit of her that is revealed as the story goes on is unique. It's enough to want her to be present in a sequel with Delaney, if just because she has so much potential. McCullough shows just enough of Cadie to make her a memorable secondary character that is more than you would think she is, although she is involved with a slight plot twist that a reader can see coming if they are astute enough. Other characters didn't stick so well, however, and the downside to them all is that, while nice, they don't ever breathe. They ultimately are too embedded in their archetypes to really make a permanent impression on the reader the way Delaney does.
McCullough's writing really sets the tone for how the reader likes this read. Her characters may stick to type, but her storytelling skills make for a read that a reader wants to invest in. The story itself works on a strong premise - not necessarily an indicator of strong writing out of the gate, but one that is helped when the writing lives up to the premise's idea. McCullough's writing is a mixture of the fluffy and the not-so-fluffy. She deals with emotional issues that go beyond the cute premise. Delaney's troubled relationship with her father is one that is far from easy, and the morbidity that surrounds her at times definitely has its darker points. Despite the emotional work that McCullough puts into the text, she maintains a tone that is pitch-perfect for the reading experience. Reading this novel, there was a great warmth that made everything feel exciting and rosy. Delaney's antics in learning the art of being a fairy godmother - f.g. for short - are ones that easily entice laughter out of the reader. She may be an emotionally charged girl, but Delaney has a lot of the teenage silly still inside of her. It not only makes her seem more like a realistic protagonist (no teenager is just angst - many of us are often ridiculous as we are angsting), but it also balances out the text of the novel in a positive direction. Instead of focusing on the less-balanced darker parts of the book, McCullough highlights the fun parts that are done very well. Some parts of the novel delve too far into the cheese factor - the ending is a very classic YA denoument that tries to wrap everything up in one last scene that is meant to be meaningful and heartfelt - yet others work so well with the cuter aspects of the plot. What McCullough does best with Don't Expect Magic is develop a premise that serves a greater developmental purpose for the plot. It's cute and magical on its own, yet it also allows the characters to go through their character arcs in interesting ways that parallel the plot itself.
At the end of the day, I'm not entirely sure where I stand on this novel. A huge part of me wants to label it a three because it has too many aspects that rely on conventional YA stereotypes and plot devices in its characters and in the way the plot unfolds. Another part of me wants to label it a solid four because of how fun Delaney was, how the conflict with her father was handled, and how McCullough made the premise unique and hilarious (in a good way). This is what middle ratings are for. Readers like me who love cutesy stories with a bit more to them will enjoy what Don't Expect Magic has to offer. Readers who want something more original outside of the premise may not enjoy it so much. Ultimately, the book left a pretty positive impression on me that has me wanting to read more from the author. A sequel is in the works, and I have to say that I will be looking forward to it.
Cover: Meh. On one hand, it has the boots from the story and catches the eye. On the other hand, I've seen the exact same cover type with different elements added via Photoshop before on Kate LeVann's book Things I Know About Love.
Rating: 3.5 Stars
Copy: Received from publisher/publicist for review (Thank you, Random House!!)