Spells and Sleeping Bags (Magic in Manhattan #3), by Sarah Mlynowski

And we are back with more of Rachel Weinstein’s adventures, only now we leave the noisy urban landscape of Manhattan to the bright, mosquito-filled Camp Wood Lake. Now that Rachel’s finally found her magical mojo, let’s see what mischief she and Miri will get up to now.

Rachel and Miri leave Manhattan for the summer to go to Camp Wood Lake. While Rachel quickly makes friends with her bunkmakes, Miri is having a hard time connecting with hers. The summer becomes even more interesting thanks to Rachel’s continual mishaps with her new magic, and the fact that Raf, her long-time crush, is attending camp also. But then a new mean girl, Liana, moves into Rachel’s bunk, and her charisma and charm win over everyone, including Miri. But Rachel’s going to have to up her magic game if she is to come out on top this summer.

Reading this book kind of makes me nostalgic for one summer experience that I actually never had. While my sisters and I did attend one summer camp together, it was just a day camp. We never drank bug juice, slept in a cabin, or ate in a mess hall, but this book sure as heck made it sound like fun. It definitely gave off Parent Trap remake vibes, and I’m always up for that.

While Rachel’s bunkmates are not the most distinct characters, they’re still fun to follow, and it’s nice to see Rachel grow her circle of friends.

Rachel’s magical mishaps are delightful, and they’re balanced with just enough serious learning moments to maintain a generally fun tone. When Liana begins causing trouble, Rachel goes to Miri to learn more secrets about controlling her magic, and we can see Rachel’s intelligence and cleverness at play, which is especially satisfying once Liana starts to become more of a legitimate threat.

And Liana…ooh, boy, did she grind my gears! I hated her pretty much the same way I hated Logan in The Obsession. She is so calculating and coy in all the most irritating ways, and she makes it easy to breeze through this book. Especially when her influence over other people becomes a problem, and Rachel is the only one seeing reason anymore.

That said, this book has a complete tonal shift before the third act. 

We start out having a fun camping adventure, but then, suddenly, we take a HARD left turn into a soap opera. 

I shan’t spoil anything, but the tone suddenly becomes completely serious, and the stakes are higher than both of the previous books combined. While those books had high stakes in a fluffy chick-lit way, these stakes are like something out of a supernatural thriller. While I guess it’s a new turn for the series, it almost, ALMOST, becomes completely and utterly ridiculous. 

I should give the ending credit in that Rachel gets tested like she never has before, and I do like her increasing maturity. In fact, Rachel is at her most likable in this book, perhaps in part because the ending shakes her up and her desires are not as superficial.

On the other hand, the series still can’t quite get Rachel’s relationship with Raf right.

To recap, Raf was supposed to be Rachel’s date to her father’s wedding, but then shenanigans happened that forced them apart. In the second book, Rachel dated Raf’s brother Will, which makes things exponentially more awkward. And now here, suddenly, Raf has just forgotten all that and is going straight for Rachel. There is no awkwardness about being stuck at camp together, and no gradual buildup to Raf being comfortable around her. He just sees her, smiles, and makes his way over like he’s wanted to do it his whole life.

Where’s the development? Where’s the chemistry? Although this romance is one of Rachel’s greatest desires in the series, it’s probably the weakest story point overall. Rachel can only think of how cute and desirable his looks are and doesn’t give much thought to his personality, or lack thereof. If anything, Rachel and Miri have the best relationship in the series, and Raf feels like a footnote.

This book is crazy, to be honest, in both a fun and what-the-actual-hell-is-going-on way. It’s probably the best book in the series so far in terms of story engagement and character development, even if the 180-degree tonal shift almost brings the house down.

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