The Halloween Tree – Ray Bradbury

halloween tree cover

“It was a small town by a small river and a small lake in a small northern part of a Midwest state.”

One spooky Halloween night, a group of boys find themselves on a fantastic journey through time to learn the origins of the festival. Their guide, Moundshroud, takes them to ancient Egypt, Celtic Britain, Medieval Paris and more. But even as they discover the origins of the costumes they have chosen, they also try to discover what happened to their missing friend and group ringleader, Pipkin – is he a mummy? A gargoyle on the Notre Dame? Or is he… (gulp!) dead?

My Habitica book group chose this for their October read, and I thought why not – especially as the library had a digital audiobook I could borrow. I’m still trying to get ‘in’ to audiobooks, and this was a great one to try: aimed more at younger readers, it wasn’t too long or complex for easyish listening, and Bronson Pinchot (actor, Perfect Strangers, Beverly Hills Cop, etc) is an excellent narrator.

I didn’t really know what to expect going in to this, so was surprised and intrigued when it shifts from what seems might be a haunted house-ish kind of story, with the boys stumbling across Moundshroud’s home and the titular tree, to this fantastical journey through time.

The story is nicely creepy, but not too scary. I’m not sure half the ‘explanations’ actually have much to do with the festival of Halloween, but they do capture the origins of popular costumes e.g. mummies, witches, and the like. However, the tale is much bigger than the boys’ adventure, it’s really about cultural attitudes to death and how those have changed – pretty hefty stuff dressed up in a spooky kid’s tale!

I can see this possibly inspiring the likes of Neil Gaiman (The Graveyard Book) and Tim Burton’s Nightmare Before Christmas, so if you’re a fan of those this might appeal too. I hear there’s a cartoon adaptation, too, and while I’ve not seen it, this story certainly lends itself to the idea of visual representation.

Audio book: ~144 pages / 3 hours 10 listening time / 19 chapters
First published: 1973
Series: none
Read from 13th-30th October 2019

My rating: 7/10

The Trials of Morrigan Crow – Jessica Townsend

Trials of Morrigan Crow cover

“The journalists arrived before the coffin did.”

Morrigan Crow has a miserable childhood. She’s a ‘cursed child’, doomed to die on her eleventh birthday and bringing dreadful luck to those around her until that day. Her family keep their distance, leaving her feeling more than a little unloved.

Events transpire, however, to save her – hardly a spoiler, that the main character doesn’t die at the start, even if we do begin with a funeral! – and she finds herself in the strange land of Nevermoor. She’s entered into the annual competition to join the Wundrous Society – except, the lucky few must pass four trials, the last of which is to display a ‘knack’, a gift better than anyone else’s. And Morrigan does not have a knack…

I know I’m older than the target audience for this book, and yet it perfectly hits the sweet spot of whimsical but not talking down to the audience, making it perfect for grown ups, too. In fact, I loved it. There are nods to all sorts of possible inspirations – from Narnia to Doctor Who – but it’s brought together very nicely. Nevermoor is somewhere I’d like to visit, and sign me up for a room that alters itself to match moods.

The story of Morrigan’s trials (not quite Hunger Games level, don’t worry!) is perhaps less original than it could be, but again it’s told well. The mystery of her missing ‘knack’ is maintained throughout, keeping you guessing. The rivalry with the nasty girl is a bit of a cliche, but y’know what? It’s overall sweet and uplifting and entertaining, and well worth the read by kids of any age!

NetGalley eARC: 513 pages / 26 chapters
First published: 2017
Series: Nevermoor book 1
Read from 17th-26th August 2019

My rating: 9/10

In the Hand of the Goddess – Tamora Pierce

in the hand of the goddess cover

“The copper-haired rider looked at the black sky and swore.”

If you read my review of Alanna, the first book in this series, you’ll know that I’ve waited several decades (!) to find out what happened to Alanna after those first adventures. So, was it worth the wait?

Usual warning: just mentioning a character in book 2 might be classed as a spoiler as to who survives book 1. Continue at your own peril 😉

Following on from the first book, Alanna’s secret is now known by a few, but all are sworn to keep quiet while she continues in her quest to become a knight. The final test – the Ordeal – is weighing heavy on her mind. Then there’s their new magic tutor – Jon’s cousin, Roger. He’s handsome and charming – and for some reason Alanna cannot stand him. Even if her suspicions are correct, what if anything can she do about them?

I’m kind of glad I didn’t read this back in the day, at the same time as Alanna. It continues the story, but at the same year-skipping pace, so we find our heroine going from child to pretty much an adult. With that creeps in romance – and although she swears she’s against it, there’s a fair amount of slightly creepy behavior from not one but two potential suitors.

So, not quite so much the kid’s book as the previous instalment, but then the writing style hasn’t updated. Big events are covered with a line or two, the plot drives forward in large chunks of time, and Alanna is still gifted and semi-revered, despite being a child amongst adults. Everything seems to be very easy for her.

I still enjoyed the light, easy read to a certain extent, and yes am glad to have finally moved on in the story. But, ho-hum, it’s not aged all that well and the problematic stuff just seems… off-putting. Still, book 3 purchased and I’ll go on.

Kindle: 233 pages / 10 chapters
First published: 1984
Series: The Song of the Lioness book 2 (of 4)
Read from 3rd-6th July 2019

My rating: 6/10

Alanna – Tamora Pierce

alanna cover

“‘That is my decision. We need not discuss it.'”

Back when I was but a tadpole and still book-mad, there was a glorious day at school when a book seller came to call and we all got to buy books. I’m guessing I was about 7 or 8 when I got this, oh, I loved it! The girl taking on the boys and doing what she wanted despite her gender, the magic, the colour-coding of magic and eyes (yup, details like that were a thing for me!). And then it ends, not on a cliffhanger per se, but obviously with so much more story to go.

Whether the second volume just hadn’t been published by then (yes, yes, I’m old 😉 ) or I just didn’t have the resources to track down series (I pre-date the internet), I never got to find out what happened to Alanna. Imagine my surprise – and slight regret – in finding out that there were another three books, and then several more series in the same world!

Even so, I held off any attempt at getting hold of this. How would a book I read and loved in childhood stand up to adult eyes? It was a recent Netgalley of another Tamora Pierce book, Tempests and Slaughter, that allowed me to think maybe I could go back.

Which is a lot of preamble, I apologise, but there are just some books that have more than the story between the covers to them 🙂

Thom and Alanna are twins. She’s about to be sent off to the convent, while he will train to be a squire and then a knight. Problem is, Alanna wants to fight and Thom hates it, preferring to study and learn sorcery. And so a plot is hatched that pretends they are twin boys, and the two swap places.

It’s not a long book, and yes written for a younger audience, but it makes for a lovely read as an adult, too. The writing isn’t dumbed down, just stripped of unnecessary waffle. We skip through several years but it never feels rushed, just that we aren’t being told unimportant details. And so we deal with Alanna learning to fight, covering up her developing womanhood (I think that was an important chapter to a young girl!), and facing her fears over her magical abilities.

I needed something light and positive to read during a trying time, and this fit the bill perfectly. My only real complaint would be how a child – Alanna’s about 11 – gets to be so good at nearly everything she does, and is treated quite as an adult at times. I imagine that went down a little better when I was about the same age 😉

I’m glad I went back to read this again. It didn’t spoil my memories at all, and – huzzah! – after so many decades I get to find out what happens next!

Kindle: 231 pages / 7 chapters
First published: 1983
Series: The Song of the Lioness book 1 (of 4)
Read from 1st-3rd July 2019

My rating: 8/10

Unwritten – Tara Gilboy

unwritten cover

“Always, for as long as she could recall, Gracie had the memory of fire.”

After years of terrible nightmares, Gracie’s mother explains the truth: they are both characters from a story, escaping to avoid the horrible fate written for her. Try as she might to live a normal life, Gracie is plagued by ‘glimmers’ of story: things she should have done, if the book hadn’t been interrupted.

And then one day the book’s author comes to town to give a talk. Will Gracie finally find out who she was meant to be? What if story-Gracie isn’t the same person as she thinks she is, out in the real world – which side is true?

I love books about books, and am clearly not alone in this. Tara Gilboy has written a wonderful fantasy about characters moving in and out of their story, and how this changes their lives in both locations. There’s a strong theme of what it means to be labelled, and how you can choose to fight that label and ‘fate’ and live your own life.

The author in the book says that villians are often the most interesting characters, and while that’s not strictly speaking true here, I did like the fact that none of the characters is always nice, each with flaws to overcome (or not).

Excellent premise, nicely written. Recommended for younger readers, and those young at heart.

NetGalley eARC: 200 pages / 26 chapters
First published: October 2018
Series: none
Read from 10th-16th October 2018

My rating: 7/10

Greenglass House – Kate Milford

Greenglass House cover

“There is a right way to do things and a wrong way, if you’re going to run a hotel in a smugglers’ town.”

It’s the first day of the Christmas holidays, and Milo already has his homework out of the way so he can enjoy the festivities with his parents. Then, disaster: the usually quiet season for their family-run hotel is disturbed by not just one unexpected guest, but an increasing parade of odd and shifty characters. It seems obvious that they’re all looking for something – probably the same thing – but what on earth could be hidden in the home Milo’s lived in all his life?

After reluctantly teaming up with the housekeeper’s youngest daughter, Meddie, the pair set out to discover the secrets of Greenglass House. After all, it was once owned by a famous smuggler…

I am so, so glad I took up the recommendation to read this book – and to read it instantly, not do my usual of adding it to the insane reading pile – as it is quite possibly the best thing I’ve read in ages! Fair warning: it’s a ‘middle grade’ book, so the main character is about eleven, but think Narnia or Sabriel – by which I mean, the themes are still a little dark at times, and the language is totally not ‘dumbed down’, despite the suitable-for-younger readers status. It’s also hugely suitable for older readers, who are open to having a little magic in their lives 🙂

There is an absolute magic in this story, in the way it swept me up and stirred up memories of childhood adventures – or at least, the ones I imagined, whereas Milo and Meddie get to have the reality of familiar surroundings becoming so much more exciting. The plot is a perfect mix of mystery and adventure and a little of the supernatural. It’s also got a huge amount of heart, not least from the background detail of Milo’s adoptive status. Overall, it’s just lovely!

Not only was I utterly in the mood for that, but reading this actually reminded me of why I want to write: to capture the excitement and enthusiasm for stories, for adventures. I can’t give that anything less than full marks!

Do yourself a favour: at time of writing this is still on sale in the Kindle store, under £2. It’s an absolutely perfect, slightly cosy but still exciting book to snuggle up with and particularly appropriate for the Christmas season. Go go go!! 🙂

Kindle: 384 pages / 15 chapters
First published: 2014
Series: Greenglass House book 1 (of 2 so far)
Read from 11th-15th October 2017

My rating: 10/10

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