Frogkisser! – Garth Nix

“It was the middle of an ice storm, the wind howling across the frozen moat to hurl hailstones against the walls of the castle and its tightly shuttered windows.”

As the younger sister, Princess Anya has few desires beyond being allowed to study in the castle library. But, of course, things never quite go to plan, and when Anya promises her big sister that she will find a way to turn her more recent beau back into a prince (after the Duke, their stepstepfather (their stepmother having remarried after the death of the King), turns him into a frog) she soon finds herself on a Quest with a capital ‘Q’!

Can she find the ingredients needed for a reverse transmogrification potion? Can she avoid capture by the evil Duke, determined to claw his way fully onto the throne? Accompanied by the most loyal of Royal (and thus talking, of course!) dogs, Ardent, plus a few other companions she finds along the way, Anya is determined to do her best.

I really wanted to love this book. I mean the title, the name of this blog – surely a match made in heaven? I knew going in that it was aimed at younger readers, but other books aimed at a similar age – I’m thinking Terry Pratchett’s Tiffany Aching series – have swept me up, and I adored the author’s more famous works, Sabriel, Lirael, etc. Alas, Frogkisser! slants younger still, and I just couldn’t quite engage with it at all.

I found the whole thing perhaps a little too long for what it was, and several of the elements felt more distracting from the meat of the story rather than adding to it. For instance, there’s a whole set of characters based around other fairy tales, but with a ‘twist’ – and it didn’t just fall flat for me, but felt a little forced and silly. The supporting cast all tend to be quite daft and one-dimensional, too, and while some of that is obviously on purpose, it just lacked even the tiniest hint of sophistication that my too-grown-up brain was perhaps unfairly demanding.

On the plus side, Anya is a lovely character: strong and determined and intelligent, but with all the flaws that make her human and ‘real’ and not just a perfect wish-fulfilment character. I’d love a generation of little girls – and boys! – to admire Anya rather than most Disney-esque heroines. And of course, in this book, it is very much the Princess rescuing the (Frog) Prince – there’s always room for that!

So, while not quite my cup of tea, this is a sweet little book. The language is perhaps a little more advanced than the age group it seems aimed at, but again, no bad thing to have a heroine with a love of learning in a book that perhaps teaches a bit as it entertains.

NetGalley eARC: 389 pages / 36 chapters
First published: 2017
Series: none
Read from 22nd February – 1st March 2017

My rating: 6/10, with the acknowledgement that I am several decades over the target audience age o_O

The Moon of Gomrath – Alan Garner

“It was bleak on Mottram road under the Edge, the wooded hill of Alderley.”

I still have my inherited, old and very battered, paperback copy of The Weirdstone of Brisingman. In fact, when I was writing my own first NaNoWriMo effort, I liberally ‘borrowed’ a half-remembered scene of the characters being trapped underground, one that’s stuck with me through perhaps three decades. When I went back to reread the book – in shiny new eBook format, so my bashed paperback didn’t have to disintegrate any further! – I discovered the scene was at most a few lines, with nothing like the dark intensity it had grown to in my mind.

I also discovered that Alan Garner had written two sequels, the last of which only a few years ago. So of course I wanted to find out if the other books would be equally impactful!

Gomrath again follows Susan and Colin and the magic of Alderley Edge. There are hints that the two children have been trying and failing to reconnect with the magical creatures they encountered in Weirdstone – hugely underplayed, and yet instantly creating that sense of longing for something more wondrous in the world.

Of course, it’s not long before the magic not only arrives, but sweeps both children into terrible danger. The Morrigan wasn’t fully vanquished at the end of the previous adventures, and now she wants revenge – and she’s brought a few ‘friends’ along!

Driven by subtle manipulation and their own hopes, Susan and Colin manage to meddle where they should not, awakening the Wild Hunt. Can their old friends – practical dwarves and wizards of high magic – help them stand against such old magic?

Gomrath was never going to have quite the impact of a book I remembered from childhood, but it was a lovely, if dark, little read. The telling is rather quaint and old-fashioned, but that in itself really resonated for me. The story itself is an odd mix of much, much older fairy tales and myths that it’s a little odd to read some of it – the Wild Hunt, for instance, showed up rather more recently in a Dresden Files book! And yet, it works: the briefness of the telling leaves a lot for the reader’s imagination to work around, and the whole thing conjures up a deliciously dark nostalgia, both for my own childhood imagination and the Enid Blyton-esque period of children allowed off on adventures that would make the adults balk!

Not sure if today’s kids would take to this, but those of us ever young at heart could do worse 🙂

“And for to passe the tyme thys book shal be plesaunte to rede in, but for to gyve fayth and byleve that al is trewe that is conteyned herein, yet be at your lyberté.” William Caxton, 1485

Kindle: 227 pages / 20 chapters
First published: 1963
Series: Alderley book 2 of 3
Read from 26th-28th April 2016

My rating: 7/10

Dragons at Crumbling Castle – Terry Pratchett

“In the days of King Arthur there were no newspapers, only town criers, who went around shouting the news at the tops of their voices.”

The sad demise of Sir Terry Pratchett, author of the wonderful Discworld books, there was a small flurry of collections and other works released in the period leading up to his death – with hindsight, the timing makes it hard to imagine that he wasn’t aware that the end was near and undergoing a sort of ‘clearing the decks’, perhaps.

Three books of shorter fiction were included in this: A Blink of the Screen, collected short fiction (2012), A Slip of the Keyboard, collected non-fiction (2014), and this, Dragons at Crumbling Castle, a collection of work aimed at young readers, and first published in a small newspaper back in the 1960s. It seems, perhaps, an odd choice of material to resurrect, hence my opening comment (which is less cynical than any hints re marketing, tbh!).

The age and humbleness of the story origins is worth bearing in mind when reading, I think: there is something a little twee about many of them, but it’s a quaint old-fashionedness, mainly stylistic, rather than actually dated in feel. They are the sort of nonsense (in a good way) yarns that one might spin for a small child (if, of course, ‘one’ had the talent of PTerry!). There’s also an early story of The Carpet People.

The book also contains many illustrations, which weren’t best-served by my elderly e-reader, by Mark Beech, whose work here reminds me of Quentin Blake, perhaps – no bad thing!

Despite taking my time reading it, the stories are all short and quick to read. The audience is mostly likely to be Pratchett completists, but the material really is for kids.

Kindle: 352 pages / 14 stories
First published: 2014
Series: none
Read from 3rd January – 11th February 2016
My rating: 6/10

The Ice Dragon – George RR Martin

Adara liked the winter best of all, for when the world grew cold the ice dragon came.

The Ice Dragon is a children’s fable from the author of A Song of Fire and Ice. Like his more famous work, this doesn’t shy away from the darker side of life, with the horror of war spelled out in missing limbs as soldiers return from the front, and the children’s delight in playing with ice lizards leading to the poor creatures melting.

Only one child can safely handle the delicate creatures: Adara, born in winter and a child well suited to the ice and cold. But her joy in bonding with the ice dragon is at odds with its effect on her family’s land.

This is a short, read-in-an-hour kind of tale, with a slim storyline and some lovely illustrations (sadly ill served by my old kindle!). I love the imagery of the frost dragon, and the fact that it doesn’t shy away from de-glorifying war. But if you’re looking for a slice of A Dance with Dragons, this isn’t the place to find it.

Kindle: 112 pages / 8 chapters (plus illustrations)
First published: 1980
Reading on 20th September 2015

My rating: 6/10