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BOOK REVIEW: Frogkisser! By Garth Nix

Friday, June 01, 2018

 

The Blurb (From Goodreads):

Poor Princess Anya. Forced to live with her evil stepmother’s new husband, her evil stepstepfather. Plagued with an unfortunate ability to break curses with a magic-assisted kiss. And forced to go on the run when her stepstepfather decides to make the kingdom entirely his own.

Aided by a loyal talking dog, a boy thief trapped in the body of a newt, and some extraordinarily mischievous wizards, Anya sets off on a Quest that, if she plays it right, will ultimately free her land—and teach her a thing or two about the use of power, the effectiveness of a well-placed pucker, and the finding of friends in places both high and low.


My Thoughts:


A funny and charming subversion of the well-known ‘Frog Prince’ fairytale, Frogkisser! by Garth Nix tells the story of a bookish princess, an eager but clumsy puppy, and a whole host of young men turned into amphibians.

Princess Anya just wants to be left alone to study sorcery, but unfortunately her step-stepfather wants to take over the kingdom and so transforms any suitor for her big sister’s hand into a frog. Anya reluctantly sets out on a quest to gather the ingredients that will enable her to turn the enchanted frogs back into humans, and encounters many obstacles – both humorous and deadly – along the way.

Along her travels, Anya learns a great deal about the dangers of absolute power and the importance of kindness, compassion and political awareness. Fabulous fun!

You can read my 2013 interview with Garth Nix here.

Please leave a comment and let me know what you think!

BOOK REVIEW: Begone the Raggedy Witches by Celine Kiernan

Wednesday, March 28, 2018


The Blurb (From Goodreads):

On the night that Aunty dies the Raggedy Witches come for Mup's mam. Pale, cold, relentless, they will do anything to coax Mam back to Witches Borough. When they kidnap Mup's dad, Mup and her mam must leave the mundane world to rescue him. But Mam is strange on this side of the border - striding, powerful, and distant. Even if they can save Dad, Mup is not sure anything will ever be the same again...


My Thoughts:

Celine Kiernan is an Irish writer, illustrator and animator best known for her wonderful Moorehawke fantasy series for young adults, which I read and loved many years ago. Begone the Raggedy Witches is aimed at a younger readership, but it shares the vivid and atmospheric world-building, the strong and empathetic characters, and the powerful plot engine which keeps the story whizzing along.
The story begins when Mup realises that their car is being followed home from the hospital by a troop of dark, raggedy, malevolent-looking witches. Her great-aunt has just died, and the raggedy witches want to seize Mup’s mother Stella, who is the heir to the throne in a magical land that presses close against our own.

Celine Kiernan’s writing is exquisite, but done with such a light hand it does not impede the progression of the plot at all: ‘The witches were gone. That was certain. There was no taint or tincture of them to the night, no trace of them in light or shadow.’

The ghost of her great-aunt saves Mup’s mother, although she is ‘nothing but a silver outline … filled in with the night.’ The witches then kidnap Mup’s father, to set a trap for Stella. Mup sets out with her mother, baby brother and pet dog to save him. Yet the magical world is ruled by a cruel and terrifying witch – Mup’s grandmother.

Mup is a delightful character. Funny, quirky, kind-hearted and brave, she stands up for what she thinks is right. After deciding to cross into the other world, she dresses herself in rainbow-striped tights, lime-green gumboots with frog faces, a pink tulle tutu, and an orange hat with rabbit ears. As Celine Kiernan writes: ‘There was something about the witches – their cold, dark eyes, maybe, their fluttering black clothes – that made Mup want colours.’

The action hurtles along, with lots of surprising twists and revelations, culminating in a petrifying denouement with the queen, in which Mup triumphs because of her goodness and kindness and trust in the world.

This is the loveliest children’s fantasy book I’ve read in a while, with a delightful heroine supported by memorable characters (including a tongue-tied raven who is really a boy), and the promise of more adventures to come. Wonderful in every sense of the word.

If you're interested in Children's Fantasy, you might like to read my review of Nevermoor by Jessica Townsend. Please leave a comment, I love to know your thoughts! 





BOOK REVIEW: The Dark is Rising Sequence by Susan Cooper

Friday, February 02, 2018


The Blurb for Book One (from Goodreads):

On holiday in Cornwall, the three Drew children discover an ancient map in the attic of the house that they are staying in. They know immediately that it is special. It is even more than that -- the key to finding a grail, a source of power to fight the forces of evil known as the Dark. And in searching for it themselves, the Drews put their very lives in peril.


My Thoughts:

The five books in ‘The Dark is Rising Sequence’ are among my most treasured books from my childhood. I have the old Puffin paperbacks, which cost my aunt $2.75 each when she bought them for my 11th birthday. I have read them so many times they are battered and creased and faded. I read them again this Christmas as part of an international reading challenge initiated on Twitter by British authors Robert Macfarlane and Mary Bird. Thousands of readers joined in to read The Dark is Rising, Book 2 in the series, which takes place between Midwinter Eve (20th December) and Twelfth Night (5th January). Some read it in one big gulp (like me) and others read each chapter on the date that corresponded with events in the book (i.e 1-2 chapters a day). Readers shared their memories of the book, discussed the meaning of symbols and events, created original art, found kindred spirits. It was absolutely wonderful.

I went on to read all five books in the series:

Over Sea, Under Stone is the first book in the series, and was written by Susan Cooper in response to a publishing content organised to honour the memory of Edith Nesbit, one of the great Golden Age children’s writers. She did not finish the manuscript in time to enter, and the book was subsequently turned down by more than twenty publishers, before being accepted by Jonathan Cape and published in 1965. 

It tells the story of Simon, Jane and Barney who go to Cornwall on a holiday with their family and end up being caught up in a quest to find the lost Holy Grail. Drawing on Arthurian mythology but set in contemporary times, the book introduces the children’s Great-Uncle Merry, a professor at Oxford who ends up revealing mysterious powers. The book is more like an old-fashioned mystery than a traditional fantasy, except with eerie unsettling moments of darkness and magic, particularly towards the end. 

The second book in the series, The Dark is Rising, was published in 1973. It tells the story of Will Stanton, seventh son of a seventh son, who turns 11 on Midwinter Eve, and finds his safe and comfortable world threatened by strange and eerie events. For Will is, he discovers, an Old One, destined to fight on behalf of the Light against the ancient and malevolent forces of the Dark. Merriman Lyon – the character of Great-Uncle Merry – returns as the Oldest of the Old Ones, and becomes Will’s guardian and mentor. Will needs to find Six Signs if he is to defeat the forces of darkness this midwinter and help fulfil a mysterious prophecy:

“When the Dark comes rising six shall turn it back;
Three from the circle, three from the track;
Wood, bronze, iron; Water, fire, stone;
Five will return and one go alone.

Iron for the birthday; bronze carried long;
Wood from the burning; stone out of song;
Fire in the candle ring; water from the thaw;
Six signs the circle and the grail gone before.

Fire on the mountain shall find the harp of gold
Played to wake the sleepers, oldest of old.
Power from the Green Witch, lost beneath the sea.
All shall find the Light at last, silver on the tree.”

Of all the books in the series, The Dark is Rising is my favourite, perhaps because it was the first I ever read, perhaps because of the vividness of the setting (a small snow-bound English village that seems outwardly normal but is still shadowed with magic, menace and danger), perhaps because I loved the idea of an ordinary boy who finds himself the carrier of an extraordinary destiny. The book as a ALA Newbery Honor Book in 1974, and is often named on lists of the best books for children ever published.

Greenwitch, the third in the series, brings Simon, Jane and Barney back to the little Cornish village where they had discovered the lost Holy Grail. Jane watches an ancient ritualised offering to the sea and makes a wish that then helps the Light unlock the secrets of the Grail. Greenwitch is the favourite of many female readers of this series, because the key protagonist is a girl and she triumphs not because of any battle of strength, but because she is compassionate and empathetic. 

The Grey King, the fourth book, returns to the point-of-view of Will. He wakes after a long and terrible illness with no memory of his role as an Old One and at risk from the forces of the Dark who seek to strike him own while he is vulnerable. Sent to Wales to recuperate, Will meets an albino teenager called Bran who has a strange dog like a wolf. Guided only by snatches of memory, Will and Bran must find the golden harp that will waken the Sleepers under the hill. This is my favourite second of the series, again because of the setting – the wild mountains and moors of Wales is brought so wonderfully to life – and also because of the sense of the great struggle between the forces of good and evil. The Grey King won the 1976 Newbery Medal. 

Silver on the Tree is the final book in the series, and brings Will and Bran together with Simon, Jane and Barney and their mysterious Great-Uncle Merry. They are searching for a magical crystal sword which will enable them to cut the mystical mistletoe, the ‘silver on the tree’, in the final battle against the Dark. Drawing on Welsh mythology and stories of a drowned land, the suspense is heightened by the presence of a hidden enemy, someone who is trusted but betrays them in the end. 

It was truly wonderful to re-read this series, which had such a powerful shaping force upon my imagination as a child. And a great deal of the pleasure came from sharing it with like-minded people. The twitter book club set up by Robert Macfarlane and Mary Bird intends to choose other great works of fantastical literature to read over the year. I’ll can’t wait to be a part of it.

If you love children's literature, you might also be interested in my review of Midnight is a Place by Joan Aiken. 

Please leave a comment and let me know what you think. 


BOOK REVIEW: The Trials of Morrigan Crow (Nevermoor Book 1) by Jessica Townsend

Wednesday, December 06, 2017


The Blurb (From Goodreads):

A breathtaking, enchanting new series by debut author Jessica Townsend, about a cursed girl who escapes death and finds herself in a magical world--but is then tested beyond her wildest imagination

Morrigan Crow is cursed. Having been born on Eventide, the unluckiest day for any child to be born, she's blamed for all local misfortunes, from hailstorms to heart attacks--and, worst of all, the curse means that Morrigan is doomed to die at midnight on her eleventh birthday.

But as Morrigan awaits her fate, a strange and remarkable man named Jupiter North appears. Chased by black-smoke hounds and shadowy hunters on horseback, he whisks her away into the safety of a secret, magical city called Nevermoor.

It's then that Morrigan discovers Jupiter has chosen her to contend for a place in the city's most prestigious organization: the Wundrous Society. In order to join, she must compete in four difficult and dangerous trials against hundreds of other children, each boasting an extraordinary talent that sets them apart--an extraordinary talent that Morrigan insists she does not have. To stay in the safety of Nevermoor for good, Morrigan will need to find a way to pass the tests--or she'll have to leave the city to confront her deadly fate.


My Thoughts:

I was sent a proof copy of The Trials of Morrigan Crow by the publisher, Lothian Books, as part of a massive publicity drive promising a magical and captivating children’s fantasy novel. The back of my proof copy lists all the advance buzz this book has garnered – publishing rights sold in 28 territories, film rights pre-empted by 20th Century Fox, a ‘multiplatform marketing and publicity campaign like never before.’

I, of course, love children’s fantasy. It’s one of my favourite genres to both read and to write. And I was interested to see if the book lived up to all the hype.

The first line is: ‘The journalists arrived before the coffin did.’

The opening scene then shows a black-clad man, Chancellor Corvus Crow, reading a statement to a mob of journalists in which he announces the death of his daughter Morrigan and assures them all that – now she is dead – there is ‘nothing to fear.’

Then Chapter One begins, three days earlier, with Morrigan discovering the kitchen cat was dead and that, as usual, she was being blamed. Morrigan is a cursed child, thought to bring trouble and misfortune everywhere she goes. She was born on Eventide, and so is pre-destined to die at midnight on her eleventh birthday – which is only three days away.

Luckily Morrigan is rescued on the eve of her death by an enigmatic man named Jupiter North with fiery red hair and a taste for elegant but brightly coloured suits. He whisks her away to Nevermoor, a world in another dimension, and allows her family to think she is really dead. Here she must take part in a series of trials in order to win a place in the Wundrous Society. If she fails, she will be sent back to her own world where nothing but death awaits her.

The comparison to Harry Potter is inevitable, and indeed Jessica Townsend has a great deal of the humour, whimsicality and excitement of the first few books by J.K. Rowling.

Anyone who has read as much children’s fantasy as I have will recognise many of the tropes Jessica Townsend employs – the unwanted child, the mysterious curse, the hidden world, the secret enemy, the dangerous competition …

Jupiter North reminded me of Willy Wonka, the magical umbrella flight parroted Mary Poppins (please forgive me the bad pun), while the battle between Saint Nick and the Yule Queen had strong echoes of the rather startling appearance of Father Christmas in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

Does it matter? Not a bit. The Trials of Morrigan Crow is brimming over with imagination and fun. Morrigan is a wonderful heroine – dark, moody, and wry – and the unfairness of her situation makes her very easy to empathise with. The story gallops along, and the setting is wonderfully vivid. I can understand why the movie rights have been sold. The scenes are all brilliantly cinematic and the characters – while undeniably one-dimensional – are also fresh and vital. A wonderfully assured debut from a young Australian author, The Trials of Morrigan Crow sparkles with zest, wit and inventiveness.

For a similarly excellent children's fantasy novel, check out my review of A Most Magical Girl by Karen Foxlee.

Please leave a comment, I'm interested in your thoughts! 




BOOK REVIEW: A Most Magical Girl by Karen Foxlee

Friday, October 06, 2017

The Blurb (From Goodreads):

From the author of Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy comes the story of a friendship between two girls set in Victorian England, with magical machines, wizards, witches, a mysterious underworld, and a race against time.

Annabel Grey is primed for a proper life as a young lady in Victorian England. But when her mother suddenly disappears, she’s put in the care of two eccentric aunts who thrust her into a decidedly un-ladylike life, full of potions and flying broomsticks and wizards who eat nothing but crackers. Magic, indeed! Who ever heard of such a thing?

Before Annabel can assess the most ladylike way to respond to her current predicament, she is swept up in an urgent quest. Annabel is pitted against another young witch, Kitty, to rescue the sacred Moreover Wand from the dangerous underworld that exists beneath London. The two girls outsmart trolls, find passage through a wall of faerie bones, and narrowly escape a dragon, but it doesn’t take long for Annabel to see that the most dangerous part of her journey is her decision to trust this wild, magical girl.

Sparkling with Karen Foxlee’s enchanting writing, this is a bewitching tale of one important wand and two most magical girls.

My Thoughts:


I’m a big fan of Karen Foxlee and always buy her books as soon as they come on my radar. A Most Magical Girl is a delightful, whimsical tale of a very ordinary girl named Annabel Grey who is sent to stay with two eccentric old aunts when her mother disappears. To her dismay, Annabel realises her aunts are witches and that she is the heir to their magic. Meanwhile, a wicked man named Angel is sucking out the power of sad things – such as flowers stolen from a new grave or the bonnets of long-dead babies – to feed his Dark-Magic Extracting Machine. He plans to take over the world and only Annabel can stop him. She needs help, however, which as always comes from the most unlikely people …

An enchanting story, told with simple lyrical writing, and just enough wild magic to keep it fresh and surprising, A Most Magical Girl is just the kind of book I would have loved when I was eleven.




Want more Karen Foxlee? Here is my interview with her from 2014.

Please leave a comment, I love to hear your thoughts! 

BOOK REVIEW: The Road to Ever After by Moira Young

Monday, July 31, 2017



The Road to Ever After – Moira Young

The Blurb (from GoodReads)

Part Benjamin Button, part Harold and Maud, part Brian Selznick and part Neil Gaiman, this is a unique, magical story that will draw readers in and make them fall in love with both characters.

Davy David is a thirteen-year-old orphan, who lives in the bushes in a town ruled by a strict minister, Reverend Fall. A talented artist, Davy loves to draw pictures of angels in the dirt, in the early hours of the morning before the townspeople are awake. He spends his days on his own, except for a small dog, who has attached himself to Davy, often going to the library to find inspiration for his pictures of angels. One day, after chasing after a ball for some of the town's boys, he finds himself in the yard of the old boarded-up museum, now rumoured to be the home of a witch. The witch is Miss Elizabeth Flint, an elderly woman who has a proposition for Davy: drive her to her childhood home, where, it turns out, she has made the decision to die. 


My Thoughts:
Moira Young is a Canadian-born author best known for an award-winning series of young adult dystopian novels. An uncorrected proof copy of ‘The Road to Ever After’ was given to me whilst I was in the UK last year and I have only just got around to picking it up. It’s an enchanting and surprising read, and not at all what I was expecting given her earlier work.

The hero is a thirteen year old boy named Davy David who lives in a town under the sway of a severe and hypocritical pastor named Parson Fall. Davy is an orphan who spends his days drawing angels in the dirt with a stick. His only friend is a scruffy terrier who draws him into trouble. One day he meets an old woman who lives in a derelict boarded-up museum. Her name is Miss Elizabeth Flint, and she hires Davy as her chauffeur. She wants him to drive her home.

And so begins a magical fable of life and death, love and grief, transformation and transfiguration. Utterly simple and utterly profound, this is a strange but wonderful story of an unlikely friendship and a magical quest. 

BOOK REVIEW: Kumiko & the Dragon By Briony Stewart

Sunday, March 19, 2017




Kumiko and the Dragon
– Briony Stewart
Kumiko and the Dragon’s Secret – Briony Stewart
Kumiko and the Shadow-catchers – Briony Stewart


BLURB of Book 1 (from GoodReads)


Kumiko doesn't like going to bed. She can't sleep, and the reason she can't sleep is because of the giant dragon that sits outside her bedroom window, every single night.

So one night she plucks up the courage to ask the dragon to leave, not knowing that the truth she is about to discover is more thrilling than anything she could ever have imagined.


MY THOUGHTS:

This delightful story will take the young readers on a soaring dragon adventure, as Kumiko discovers a strength she never even knew she had.

A trilogy of charming fantasy books for very young readers, inspired by the tales that Briony Stewart’s Japanese grandmother used to tell her. Kumiko is frightened of going to bed because a dragon spends each night perched outside her bedroom window. One day she plucks up the courage to write the dragon a note … and so begins her adventures with the many different dragons who live in the clouds above our world. 

Some really beautiful writing.


BOOK REVIEW: THE SWORD IN THE STONE by T.H. White

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

I had to re-read this book after reading Helen Macdonald’s extraordinary memoir H is for Hawk, which revealed much I did not know about T.H. White and his life and sorrows and struggles. 

A classic of children’s fantasy, The Sword in the Stone is a funny and inventive story of King Arthur’s childhood. It was first published in 1938, but it feels incredibly fresh. Much of the book is made up of a series of set pieces in which Arthur (known as the Wart) is changed into different animals like a fish, a falcon, and a badger, and meets various comic or menacing characters, such as Robin Hood (cleverly disguised as Robin Wood). The underlying idea is that the Wart is being secretly prepared to be king by his tutor, Merlyn. The book abounds in comic anachronisms (ostensibly because Merlyn lives backwards), but it is also filled with acutely observed historical details about medieval times. No attempt has been made to simplify the language, and so one of its joys is the multitude of strange words and terms, which I remember delighting in as a child. 

A wonderful, strange and memorable fantasy, perfect for any clever child.


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