Archive for the ‘Fantasy’ Category

Review of Strange the Dreamer, by Laini Taylor, read by Steve West

Monday, October 23rd, 2017

Strange the Dreamer

by Laini Taylor
read by Steve West

Hachette Audio, 2017. 18.5 hours on 15 CDs.
Starred Review

Note to self: Any time I start a new book by Laini Taylor, even if it doesn’t say “Book One” on the cover, check the last page for the words “TO BE CONTINUED.” This one has those words – and I would have been less dismayed if I had been prepared.

Laini Taylor’s imagination will never cease to amaze me. Every new world she builds is completely different from anything that’s ever been done before.

In this new world, we start with a boy named Laszlo Strange. He’s an orphan and is being brought up by monks. One of the monks tells him stories about a mythical long-lost city. Later, when he grows up, he becomes a librarian and finds more tales of this city.

And Laszlo knows that magic exists because of this city. For one day, suddenly, he forgets the city’s name, and all he can think of is “Weep.” Any writings about the city have the new name, Weep.

A lot more goes on. As a librarian, Laszlo helps the golden boy of the city, an alchemist, because he thinks there is a clue to the secret of alchemy within the writings about Weep.

Along the way, when talking about alchemy, we learn that everyone in this world has two hearts – one that pumps blood, and one that pumps spirit. (Where does Laini Taylor come up with these ideas?)

We also periodically visit an isolated family of five children with blue skin who live in a citadel and have special powers. A large part of the book is finding out how these two threads come together. The whole thing is stunning, and an incredible work of imagination. And okay, I really hate that these eighteen hours are only the beginning.

And yes, I said eighteen hours. Fortunately, I started this book on the way to South Carolina to see the total solar eclipse – and with traffic, it took me 13 hours to get home. I think it helped me get mesmerized by the story because I got to listen to most of it in one sitting (though I still had a lot left).

The book is long, and she repeats herself in a few places, but it was absolutely perfect for a long car drive. And Steve West may be my new favorite narrator. He distinguished between the voices of the various characters, and the voice he used for Strange the Dreamer was just plain dreamy. So I didn’t mind listening to his voice for a very long time. I hope he narrates however many books are still to come.

StrangetheDreamer.com
lainitaylor.com
HachetteAudio.com

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Source: This review is based on a library audiobook from Fairfax County Public Library.

Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but I maintain my website and blogs on my own time. The views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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Review of While Beauty Slept, by Elizabeth Blackwell

Tuesday, October 17th, 2017

While Beauty Slept

by Elizabeth Blackwell

Berkley Books, 2014. 456 pages.
Starred Review

I’ve meant to read this book for a very long time, especially once I had a signed copy. But I have a horrible problem with not getting around to reading books I own because they don’t have a due date. Anyway, I finally got this book read on a flight home from Portland – and I’m so glad I did.

I’ve always loved fairy tale retellings. This is a retelling of Sleeping Beauty. But usually such retellings are Fantasy. This one takes out the overt magic. There is a possibility of a curse; there is a possibility that the baby’s great-aunt does dark magic. But the story is told as historical fiction, set in medieval times, as something that could have actually happened. (Except that the kingdoms mentioned are still not actual kingdoms from our world, so technically, I’ll have to classify it as Fantasy. But the flavor is Historical.)

Our narrator is an old servant of Queen Lenore, the mother of Rose who became the Sleeping Beauty of the fairy tale. She saw all the events of the tale from start to finish. She’s looking back on her life and telling the story to her great-grandchild.

In the prologue, she’s hears children telling the fairy tale based on the experiences she lived.

Ha! It would be a fine trick indeed to fell a royal daughter with a needle, then see her revived by a single kiss. If such magic exists, I have yet to witness it. The horror of what really happened has been lost, and no wonder. The truth is hardly a story for children.

I was afraid with that line that the book would be too dark for my taste – but the story is beautiful. Yes, there are dark and tragic parts, but it’s woven through with love and with actual human passions and mistakes and foibles.

In the fifty years since those terrible days in the tower, I have never spoken of what happened there. But with my body failing and death in my sights, I have been plagued by memories, rushing in unbidden, provoking waves of longing for what once was. Perhaps that is why I remain on this earth, the only person who knew Rose when she was young and untouched by tragedy. The only one who watched it all unfold, from the curse to the final kiss.

During the course of the tale our narrator, Elise, grows from a child in poverty into a mature adult, living in the castle. She gains perspective and makes hard choices and becomes a guide for young Rose through difficult times. I think that’s why this isn’t a young adult novel. This isn’t a coming-of-age story, but a story of a life lived beside large events, events that affected a kingdom. It’s about love and about choices and about making your way in the world.

And I especially liked the ending.

This is a beautiful book, which I know I’m going to want to read again sometime in the future.

elizabethblackwellbooks.com
penguin.com

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Source: This review is based on my own copy, which I got at an ALA conference and had signed by the author.

Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but I maintain my website and blogs on my own time. The views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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Review of Princess Cora and the Crocodile, by Laura Amy Schlitz

Sunday, October 15th, 2017

Princess Cora and the Crocodile

by Laura Amy Schlitz

illustrated by Brian Floca

Candlewick Press, 2017. 74 pages.
Starred Review

I am quite sure Princess Cora and the Crocodile is going to be one of my favorite books of the year. It’s a nice twist on your typical fairy tale scenario. This is a simply told beginning chapter book with abundant illustrations on each page – but the story is worth reading not only for beginners, but also for people who have been reading for years, and also for people who aren’t able to read yet.

I like Princess Cora – she’s just trying to do what’s right and follow the rules. Brian Floca portrays her as a good girl. But oh, the spark of mischief in the crocodile’s eyes when things start happening!

Here’s the scenario: The King and Queen love Princess Cora from the day she’s born. But then they realize that she will be Queen some day. They must teach her! They must train her!

By the time Cora is seven years old, she’s being trained every minute. Her nanny makes sure she’s always tidy and makes Cora take a bath – and wash herself thoroughly – three times a day.

The Queen teaches Cora that a princess must be wise. Every day she takes Cora to the tower room to read books about how to run the kingdom.

The books were so dull that Princess Cora yawned until her eyes were full of tears. Sometimes she asked silly questions, just to liven things up. Then the Queen frowned an awful frown and said, “Now, Cora, that is inappropriate!”

The King is in charge of her physical training. He’s turned the old castle prison into a gym and has Cora run in circles and skip rope up to five hundred. A future queen must be strong!

Princess Cora wanted her parents to be happy. She worked hard at being clean and strong and wise. But deep inside, she was angry. Sometimes at night, when she was alone in bed, she whispered, “Skipping rope is stupid! And I’m sick, sick, sick of those boring books! When I grow up, I’m never going to take any baths. I’m going to be dirty!”

These thoughts scared her, but she couldn’t stop thinking them.

One night a new idea crept into her head. It was different from the others, because it was a happy thought. She whispered, “What if I had a dog?”

When she presents this idea to the nanny, the Queen, and the King, they are not in favor. So that night she writes a letter to her fairy godmother, saying how much she wants a pet.

Savvy readers will realize she should have been more specific.

The next morning, there’s a box at the foot of her bed, with a crocodile inside! And he’s a crocodile with an attitude.

As they talk over how the crocodile can help, they decide that he will take her place and give Princess Cora a day off. He puts on one of her dresses and yarn from the mop as a wig.

“You’re perfect!” said Princess Cora. “Do you know, I think this might work? At least, it might work with Nanny. She never wears her glasses. And Mama’s always reading. And Papa’s always looking at his watch.”

“Of course it will work,” said the crocodile. “Now, I’ll stay here and be Princess Cora, and you run along and have fun.”

No one had ever told Princess Cora to run along and have fun, and she almost didn’t know how. But she dressed herself in the flash of an eye and ran down the castle steps and out the back door.

And thus the real fun begins. We see each adult get an appropriate comeuppance from the crocodile. Or inappropriate as the case may be. My favorite part is when the crocodile sings this song to the Queen:

“I am Princess Cora’s pet –
Am I her favorite croc? You bet!
Inky-stinky, dry or wet.
And I am inappropriate!”

Meanwhile, Princess Cora is having a lovely time in the woods. I love the way Brian Floca draws her, getting gradually dirtier, with a scrape on her elbow, but clearly having a wonderful time.

And yes, everything comes right in the end, and the process of this happening is beautiful.

And it’s all done in simple language for kids ready for chapter books, in seven chapters, with marvelous illustrations on each page.

candlewick.com

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Source: This review is based on a library book from Fairfax County Public Library.

Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but I maintain my website and blogs on my own time. The views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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Review of The Empty Grave, by Jonathan Stroud

Saturday, September 16th, 2017

The Empty Grave

Lockwood & Co. Book Five

by Jonathan Stroud

Disney Hyperion, 2017. 437 pages.
Starred Review

I finished The Empty Grave today, and with it the entire Lockwood & Co. series – and Yes! The series ends well. I can now officially say that from start to finish, this is one of the best children’s book series ever. These books make good family reading, since adults will enjoy them every bit as much. Children need to be old enough to be able to not be afraid of all the murderous ghosts (and murderous people). If your child doesn’t mind some severe spookiness, I highly recommend this series.

This series deals with an alternate reality England where there’s a “Problem” with ghosts roaming the countryside and haunting buildings and places where they died. These aren’t friendly ghosts – if they touch you, you’ll die. And only children can see them. Lucy, Lockwood, George, and Holly still have their independent agency for dealing with ghosts – but powerful forces are ready to put them out of business – or perhaps simply kill them.

In this final installment, all the threads come together. Can the smallest agency in London expose what’s at the root of the Problem? Or will they be silenced? We’re told at the beginning of this book that Lucy survives. But will any of her friends survive with her?

I really mustn’t say any more about the plot. Yes, this is a series you should read from the beginning – It’s brilliantly crafted, with important pieces revealed at just the right time. In this book, it all comes together in a satisfying, and very suspenseful, way.

Jonathan Stroud’s Bartimaeus series is brilliant – but Lockwood & Co. goes far beyond it. You come to care about all the characters deeply (even George!) and to understand the complex situation and all that’s at stake. This series is magnificent! Read it!

LockwoodandCo.com
jonathanstroud.com
DisneyBooks.com

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Review of The Slow Regard of Silent Things, by Patrick Rothfuss

Tuesday, August 8th, 2017

The Slow Regard of Silent Things

by Patrick Rothfuss
illustrated by Nate Taylor

DAW Books, 2014. 159 pages.

This book is set in the world of Patrick Rothfuss’s Kingkiller Chronicle, a short tale of Auri, a mysterious girl who lives deep under the University in dark passages.

In the Author’s Foreword he tells you right up front this isn’t the best introduction to his worlds, and includes other reasons you might not want to read it.

I think it’s only fair to warn you that this is a bit of a strange story. I don’t go in for spoilers, but suffice to say that this one is . . . different. It doesn’t do a lot of the things a classic story is supposed to do. And if you’re looking for a continuation of Kvothe’s storyline, you’re not going to find it here.

On the other hand, if you’d like to learn more about Auri, this story has a lot to offer. If you love words and mysteries and secrets. If you’re curious about the Underthing and alchemy. If you want to know more about the hidden turnings of my world. . . .

Well, then this book might be for you.

He said it! Patrick Rothfuss’s astonishing ability to write beautiful language is still evident in this book — but this isn’t where you’ll see his ability to craft a plot.

But if you already love his world, here’s an opportunity to spend some time there, and to get inside the mind of the mysterious and broken Auri as she goes about her interesting hidden world, putting things in their proper places.

patrickrothfuss.com
dawbooks.com

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Source: This review is based on my own copy, purchased via Amazon.com.

Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but I maintain my website and blogs on my own time. The views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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Review of Journey Across the Hidden Islands, by Sarah Beth Durst

Monday, August 7th, 2017

Journey Across the Hidden Islands

by Sarah Beth Durst

Clarion Books (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), April 4, 2017. 338 pages.

Sarah Beth Durst is so imaginative! I have to say that as a rule, the creatures her characters befriend and ride on are generally exceptionally cuddly. I’m thinking of the bear in Ice and the tiger in Enchanted Ivy, but now also the winged lion in Journey Across the Hidden Islands.

This one’s a middle grade adventure about twelve-year-old twin princesses. Seika is the heir to the emperor of the Hidden Islands. And Ji-Lin will be her sister’s imperial guard, along with her winged lion companion, Alejan.

Ji-Lin and Seika are still in training, but somewhat to their surprise, on their twelfth birthday, they are told they are ready to go on the Emperor’s Journey.

Every generation, the emperor’s heir journeys across the hundred islands and renews our bargain with the dragon, ensuring the continuation of the barrier for another generation. The heir travels only with her or his brother or sister and one winged lion, as Himitsu himself did long ago.

The barrier that the dragon maintains keeps the islands safe from the koji (monsters) on the outside.

But as Ji-Lin, Seika, and Alejan travel, they encounter koji where they shouldn’t be. They find the journey much more difficult than it should be, and other unexpected surprises in what’s supposed to be carefully planned. Is the barrier already falling? What if they fail in their quest? What will happen to their people?

Along the way during this adventure, there are wonderful details of this magical world, including mer-minnows, waterhorses, and unicorns. I like the interaction between the sisters, and the character of Alejan – obviously a young winged lion, and one who’s always hungry.

This is an excellent adventure for middle grade readers. And who wouldn’t want to fly on the back of a lion?

sarahbethdurst.com
hmhco.com

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Review of The Reluctant Queen, by Sarah Beth Durst

Thursday, August 3rd, 2017

The Reluctant Queen

Book Two of The Queens of Renthia

by Sarah Beth Durst

Harper Voyager, 2017. 360 pages.
Starred Review

The Reluctant Queen begins exactly as a Book Two should do, with a quick summing up that jumps into the action (Don’t read this if you haven’t read Book One!):

Everything has a spirit; the willow tree with leaves that kiss the pond, the stream that feeds the river, the wind that exhales fresh snow . . .

And those spirits want to kill you.

It’s the first lesson that every Renthian learns.

At age five, Daleina saw her uncle torn apart by a tree spirit for plucking an apple from his own orchard. At age ten, she witnessed the destruction of her home village by rogue spirits. At age fifteen, she entered the renowned Northeast Academy, and at age nineteen, she was chosen by a champion to train as his candidate. She became heir that same year and was crowned shortly after, Queen Daleina of the Forests of Aratay, the sole survivor of the Coronation Massacre. She’d heard at least a half-dozen songs about her history, each more earsplitting than the last. She particularly hated the shrill ballads about her coronation, a day she wished she could forget. Instead she had it hammered into her skull by a soprano with overly enthusiastic lungs.

Six months after her coronation, now that the funerals – and so many of her friends’ graves – weren’t so fresh, all of Aratay wanted to celebrate their new queen, and she was swept along with them. For her part, she planned to demonstrate her sovereignty by healing one of the barren patches created during the massacre and replacing it with a new village tree.

It is, she thought, one of the worst ideas I’ve had in weeks.

Indeed, when she collapses during the effort – and people who came to witness it are killed, Daleina is even more convinced it was a bad idea. Her friend the Healer does test, and tells Daleina that she is dying. She has an incurable sickness that will lead to more and more blackouts and eventually her death. These will get worse the more she uses her power. But what is a Queen of Aratay without using her power?

Even worse, in the last book, when Daleina became Queen, all the other candidates died. There is no one remotely ready to step into her place. But if Daleina dies before an heir is ready – the spirits will destroy Aratay and everyone in it.

So this second book is, once again, about finding someone to be queen. Daleina asks her champions to look for suitable candidates to train. But only very young girls are left in the academies.

That is, except for Naelin. She’s a mother of two young children who has always tried to hide her power. Nothing good can come of getting attention from the spirits! But will she step up for the good of Aratay? How about to protect her own children?

There are two plot threads in this book. One is the training of Naelin. The other is back at the palace, trying to find a cure. And then there are signs of foul play. And candidates start dying. The plot threads come together in an exciting and satisfying showdown.

The first book in this series was nicely self-contained, as I like first books to be. This one? Well, you do need to read the first book first to fully understand this world. Part of me felt like, But we just found a queen! – But I think it helped me feel more fully the tragedy of Daleina coming down with this illness so quickly after her coronation.

And the book ends with new impending dangers. I very much want to read on! My review of the next book will probably give away what happens in this one. Trust me! This is an imaginative series with some awesome world-building, intriguing characters, and plenty of suspense and danger. I am definitely going to want to read on as long as it continues!

sarahbethdurst.com
harpercollins.com

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Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but I maintain my website and blogs on my own time. The views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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Review of Norse Mythology, by Neil Gaiman

Friday, July 7th, 2017

Norse Mythology

by Neil Gaiman
performed by the author

HarperAudio, 2017. 6.5 hours on 6 compact discs. Unabridged.

I could listen to Neil Gaiman read the phone book! Although I ended up finding Norse mythology quite strange and wild – I can’t imagine a better way to hear these stories than read by Neil Gaiman. And written by Neil Gaiman doesn’t hurt, either. He captures the magical and mystical feel of the tales.

There’s an explanation at the beginning about Asgard and Midgard and the Land of the Giants and all the rest – It might have been simpler if I’d had that explanation in print to refer back to. Anyway, this way I was caught up in the stories. Most of them had Loki being a trickster and Thor throwing his hammer around to get his way.

There are many stories in this collection, and many of them have more than one chapter. There’s a dizzying array of characters, though usually Neil Gaiman refers back to where we have seen an obscure character before, so it seems quite coherent.

We do learn how Thor gets his hammer and what powers it has. And we find out about many adventures of the gods and goddesses, which so often start by an action that wasn’t terribly wise. And then there are consequences. And gods and giants try to trick others and are tricked themselves. And most of the stories were not familiar to me like Greek myths, so they were all new adventures.

That review seems a little coherent, but here’s the bottom line: Norse mythology explained and retold by Neil Gaiman, and even read by Neil Gaiman. Now that’s worth listening to!

neilgaiman.com
harperaudio.com

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Source: This review is based on a library book from Fairfax County Public Library.

Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but I maintain my website and blogs on my own time. The views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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Review of The Fox Wish, by Kimiko Aman

Thursday, July 6th, 2017

The Fox Wish

by Kimiko Aman
illustrated by Komako Sakai

Chronicle Books, 2017. Originally published in Japan in 2003. 32 pages.
Starred Review

This book charmed, surprised, and enchanted me.

The book starts in the middle of the action, well, in the middle of a snack. We see a little blonde girl and her younger brother, and she’s got big surprised eyes. She left her jump rope at the park!

She goes to get it, and Lukie comes along. But when they get to the park, the jump rope isn’t there. But they hear laughter in the trees. They go to investigate.

The laughs were louder now, and I could hear it:
the swish, whip of the jump rope.

But it wasn’t Thomas and Samantha jump-roping.
It was foxes.

“Doxy, foxy,
touch the ground.

Doxy, foxy,
turn around.

Turn to the east,
and turn to the west,

and choose the one that
you like best.”

The spread shows the children looking out from behind some trees at a line of foxes jumping rope. Two are turning the rope, one is watching, and seven foxes are joyfully jumping, in various poses in the air.

The foxes were not very good at jump rope.
They were good jumpers, but their tails kept getting caught in the rope.

Lukie can’t help but laugh. So then they come out and join the foxes. The foxes politely ask them how to jump rope without tripping, and Roxie is glad to explain that they simply need to hold their tails up.

They all have a lovely time jumping rope together until it starts to get dark. When it’s Roxie’s time to turn the rope, she sees that the rope indeed has her name on the handle.

But when it’s time to go home, there’s a surprise. This is the part where I was utterly charmed. I don’t want to give it away, so let me just say that it’s delightful to watch wishes come true.

I love this book. The illustrations (Those fox faces! The joyful jumping!) are a big part of that. But also the story of a little girl who learns to give joy to others.

chroniclekids.com

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Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but I maintain my website and blogs on my own time. The views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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Review of Frogkisser! by Garth Nix

Monday, July 3rd, 2017

Frogkisser!

by Garth Nix

Scholastic Press, February 2017. 372 pages.
Starred Review

This one’s fun. Garth Nix, the author of dark and mysterious tales of necromancy in the Old Kingdom has here taken a light-hearted and more traditional route. In a tale peppered with cleverness and delightful twists on tropes, we meet Princess Anya, whose wicked stepstepfather wants to take over her sister Morven’s kingdom.

He’s her stepstepfather because he married her stepmother. The stepmother “was expected to be quite evil but mainly turned out to be a very enthusiastic botanist.” But Anya’s father died a year after marrying the stepmother, and her stepmother married Duke Rikard.

So the girls had two stepparents. Their stepmother the botanist wasn’t a huge problem, but as it turned out, their stepstepfather was evil and wanted to be the king. Though Morven should by rights be crowned when she turned sixteen, in three months’ time, it was fairly certain Duke Rikard would somehow prevent this from happening.

Anya’s adventures begin when Duke Rikard transforms the current prince Morven’s in love with into a frog. But then he jumped into the moat with thousands of other frogs. Morven gets Anya to make a Sister Promise that she’ll find him. Anya makes a magical dowsing rod with the help of Gotfried, their castle librarian/sorcerer, to figure out which frog is Denholm, using hair from Morven’s locket.

But when she brings the frog to Morven, her sister refuses to kiss a frog. Fortunately, Gotfried has one dose left of Transmogrification Reversal Lip Balm. This works best when a princess uses it, so now Anya gets to kiss the frog.

But when Anya does so, the frog turns out to have been a different former love of Morven’s, not Denholm. And then her stepstepfather, who notices someone has tampered with his spell, decides to send Anya to a distant land to school, and he’s got a new prince for Morwen who Anya realizes is a transformed magpie – with no actual family or kingdom to help Morwen take her rightful place as queen.

Anya does manage to find Denholm, in the hands of the local frogcatcher. But then consultation with the Royal Dogs convinces her the time has come for her to go on a quest.

“You can’t hide away,” the elder dog informed Anya. “You can’t even go back to the castle now. It is time that you sought help against the Duke. He grows in strength and power, and he clearly feels he can move against you and Morven now. This is your Quest: to find those who can help you defeat the Duke.”

When Gotfried gives her a copy of the spell for the making of “Fairly Reliable Transmogrification Reversal Lip Balm,” Anya gives in and adds to her quest a search for the ingredients to the spell, which include witch’s tears, a retired druid’s blood, and feathers fresh-pulled from a cockatrice’s tail.

Along the way, Anya collects allies – but many of those have also suffered transmogrification. Anya will get their help if she promises to reverse their transformation once she makes the lip balm. And so she assembles a motley crew. Once the heralds give her the name Frogkisser, her reputation spreads. When she finally assembles the ingredients, Denholm manages to break free and get into a pond with many other transformed frogs – so the Frogkisser name is apt.

This book is full of silly fun, with a nice traditional quest and amusing obstacles.

I enjoyed it immensely – so I’m not quite sure why it took me a very long time to finish. Probably the episodic nature of the story made the book easy to put down. This is light-hearted magical fun that makes me smile as I write the review.

garthnix.com

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