Review: Frogkisser! by Garth Nix (Spoiler-Free)

When the flighty Princess Morven’s suitor-of-the-moment becomes the unfortunate victim of one of her wicked stepstepfather’s transformation spells, it is up to her younger sister Anya (who would really much rather be reading) to save him – and perhaps the kingdom as well!

Frogkisser! is a retelling of the Grimm Brothers’ The Frog Prince, in which a prince is magically transformed into a frog, and can only be restored to his original form by his true love. But Princess Anya is decidedly not Prince Denholm’s true love, and so the story instead centres around Anya’s quest to find the rare ingredients that she can use to make a magical lip-balm, which will negate the need for true love. Nix draws on many more tales and tropes than just the expected Frog Prince, and the unexpected ways in which each new almost-familiar character is implemented into the story is consistently entertaining. Frogkisser! also manages to set itself apart from many modern fairytale retellings (and even their source material) with its notable lack of romance! I kept expecting a love interest to show up, but there wasn’t even a hint of one, which was quite refreshing.

The characters are both varied and memorable. Our main protagonist Anya has a great character arc, and the people she meets on her quest all have unique roles to play in the story, as well as simply being great fun to read about. My favourite was the Royal Dog Ardent, whose every word and action was just so incredibly doggish that I couldn’t help but smile. 💕 (The Royal Dogs in general are a huge highlight of this book, and it’s definitely one that I would wholeheartedly recommend to young – and old – dog lovers.)

And the world, though small, is full to the brim with magic and whimsy, and enough different magic systems that this could easily have been an entry on my “interesting magic systems” list of recommendations, had I read it back then – but as it is, it may have be the first on a follow-up! 😁

I listened to Audible’s production of Frogkisser!, narrated by Marisa Calin, who gave an excellent performance, really drawing out the distinct personalities of each of the (many, many) characters with her incredibly expressive voice work.

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Library Scavenger Hunt: September

This month’s challenge – to read a book connected with the antipode of the place where I live – was particularly exciting to me, as (assuming that I took “connected to” to mean “set in”) it would allow me to tick off another continent on my read-a-book-set-on-every-continent challenge for the year (and in fact, my eventual choice unexpectedly ended up ticking off two!), but it ended up being a tougher search than I was expecting. 😨 Not because there aren’t a lot of great books set in New Zealand (which is the closest landmass to my antipode), but because my library doesn’t seem to stock a lot of them… 😓 Nevertheless, I did manage to find myself a couple of options, of which I was most drawn to…

THE LIFE & LOVES OF LENA GAUNT
Tracy Farr

In her youth, Lena Gaunt was at the forefront of electronic music’s wave of popularity. Now in her eighties, she is approached by a filmmaker, who wishes to make a documentary about her, and so finds herself looking back over her life, and the people – and instruments – that shaped it.

I was primarily drawn to this book because, on the surface at least, the main character seemed a lot like my sister – a cellist, and a theremin player, whose name is Helen(a) – which amused me, but thankfully the similarities end there. The Life & Loves of Lena Gaunt is a great novel, but Lena’s life isn’t the most cheerful… 😓

The story spans eighty years, and switches back and forth between Lena’s present-day encounters with the filmmaker Mo, and her memories of her earlier years; her childhood in Singapore and Perth, and later her time travelling wherever her loves (both human and other) led her. Both of these storylines were heartfelt and compelling, and although it could at times seem a little directionless, I found myself really appreciating the meandering, introspective tone of Lena’s narration.

I also appreciated how much Lena’s love was directed towards music, and how much that love of music influenced her life. Many of the significant moments in her life were, of course, affected by the people she most cared for (most notably, her Uncle Valentine and her lover Beatrix, among others), but just as important were her two instruments, the cello and the theremin. Lena was an incredibly vivid, realistic character, and I had to remind myself a few times while I was reading that this is a fictional autobiography.

This definitely isn’t my usual literary fare, but I’m glad to have read it nonetheless, and am sure that Lena’s journey will be sticking with me for a while. I’m interested, too, in checking out more of Farr’s writing, which also doesn’t look like what I’d usually gravitate towards, but will hopefully surprise me as pleasantly as this one did.

[Find out more about the Library Scavenger Hunt by following this link!]

Review: Black Light Express by Philip Reeve (Spoiler-Free)

[Warning: This is a spoiler-free review, but I will be referencing some events from the first book in the series, so if you haven’t started it at all yet, beware. Click here for my review of Railhead.]

Zen and Nova have escaped from the Network Empire aboard the Damask Rose, and must now make a new life for themselves in an entirely new world, unknown to humans, but far from uninhabited. Meanwhile, Threnody – now Empress – releases the criminal Chandni Hansa from her frozen prison, in hopes of learning more about the plot that resulted in her father’s death.

Black Light Express has something of the middle-book-syndrome about it; it started off very strong, and the final section was fantastic, but the entire middle of the book was spent on travelling the Web of Worlds, which – as a new system, with loads of new species and cultures to encounter – ought to have been really exciting, but was actually mostly quite dull. Nothing really happened for the majority of the time that the characters spent there, and Zen and Nova seemed barely to even interact with any of the Web’s people… The Kraitt, who served as the only real antagonists during this arc, were at least decently worrying villains, but showed up kind of out of the blue near the end of the arc, and then disappeared just as quickly. I expect that they will return in the next book, but their introduction here was somewhat lacking.

What I did really like about the Web of Worlds was the alternative perspective that it provided on the history and mythology of the Network Empire, as the Web’s own stories fit together with the Empire’s to present an interesting picture of what is presumably the true history of both systems. Towards the end of the book, we already begin to see some game-changing revelations, but there is still presumably much more to come!

The slow pacing of this part of the book also allowed for excellent relationship development for Nova and Zen. The challenges of a romance between a human and a Motorik were not glossed over at all, and I really enjoyed their struggle to figure out how it should proceed, and whether it was important enough to them to work through their wildly different goals in life…

The end of the book was amazingly action-packed (and will hopefully set the tone for the series’ conclusion), but so too were the early parts of the book set in the Empire. Threnody has become one of my favourite characters, and Chandni makes an excellent addition to the cast. I yo-yoed back and forth a lot over whether I liked Chandni, but came down more often on the side of liking her than not, and her practical cynicism made an excellent foil for Threnody’s more naïve, privileged worldview. (Their tentative friendship was one of my favourite things about this book.) We also got a small part of the book from the perspective of Threnody’s ex-fiancé Kobi Chen-Tulsi, which was interesting despite its brevity, and contained a great deal of the kind of political manoeuvring that I most enjoy in fictional high societies.

It was really difficult to give this book three stars – even reminding myself constantly that three stars is not a bad rating – since I loved Railhead so much, but in truth, much of Black Light Express seemed very filler-y… It does do an excellent job of setting things up for the next book, however, and Station Zero looks like it’s going to be incredibly exciting. I get the impression that Black Light Express is a book that I’ll probably appreciate more on re-reading once I’ve finished the series, and am able to see more of what this has all been building up to.

Review: A Torch against the Night by Sabaa Tahir (Spoiler-Free)

[Warning: This is a spoiler-free review, but I will be referencing some events from the first book in the series, so if you haven’t started it at all yet, beware. Click here for my review of An Ember in the Ashes.]

Laia and Elias have narrowly escaped from Blackcliff with their lives, but are now the most sought after fugitives in the Empire – an Empire which is vast, and which they must cross in its entirety if they are to reach Kauf prison before Laia’s brother is executed. And close behind them is the Emperor’s most elite fighting force, the Black Guard, with Helene Aquilla now at its head, Elias’ closest friend.

A Torch against the Night picks up exactly where An Ember in the Ashes left off, throwing us straight back into the frenzied action of Elias and Laia’s escape, and although there are quieter moments later on in the book, the high tension – and the incredibly high stakes – is something that is maintained throughout. And despite the bulk of both Laia and Elias’ chapters being concerned with travelling, the plot has plenty of game-changing twists and turns, both in terms of what’s currently going on, and in terms of backstory. We also have a new POV character in the form of Helene, which as well as keeping us in touch with the Empire’s side of the story, gives us a fascinating insight into her character… and as a result, I found myself rooting for her a lot more than I did in the previous book.

There is a lot more of Keenan in this book, too, and like Helene, his character benefits from the extra screen-time. I found his growing relationship with Laia somewhat awkward – especially considering the simultaneous deepening feelings between Laia and Elias, which I was much more in favour of – but had managed to shed almost all of my former distrust of him by the time the story reached its mid-point, and even grew to like him (but not for Laia! 😠). As you can probably tell, I’m not huge fan of Keenan as a romantic rival for Elias, but I do think that the plot implications of his relationship with Laia are very interesting, and didn’t find myself bothered all that often by Laia’s uncertainty over her feelings for them both.

New characters Shaeva and Harper also both have prominent roles in this book, and I find myself very much looking forward to seeing what Tahir decides to do with them in the next one. In particular, I hope that Harper’s part in the series is going to grow rather than diminish, and I’m pleased that it looks likely that that will be the case.

Tahir also does a great job of expanding on the world of An Ember in the Ashes in this book. We still haven’t learnt much about the world (or races) outside the Empire, but Laia and Elias both spend a significant amount of time among the Tribes, even visiting their cultural centre of Nur. And the magic and supernatural creatures of the world are also emerging more and more from the woodwork, making it clear that they will become even more prominent as the series goes on, while still not making magic the solution to every problem, something that I appreciated about the first book (… but am slightly nervous about going forward).

I can’t say that I liked A Torch against the Night quite as much as An Ember in the Ashes, but I am definitely looking forward to reading A Reaper at the Gates – though who knows when that’ll be, considering how long it took me to pick this book up. 😓

Library Scavenger Hunt: August

This month’s LSH challenge was to read a book that was recommended to you, and I’m sorry to admit that I cheated (just a little bit) once again. 😳 This was a genuine recommendation, but that recommendation was also accompanied by a gift of the book in question, so I’m afraid that I haven’t actually set foot in the library this month… 😓 (I will do better next time, I promise!) But in any case, my pick for this challenge was:

FATHERLAND
Robert Harris

It’s 1964, just one week before Adolf Hitler’s 75th birthday – and the body of a high-ranking Nazi official is found floating in a lake. Was it an accident? Suicide? Or is that just what it’s supposed to look like?

On the surface, Fatherland is your basic murder mystery (unusual setting notwithstanding), which I’m generally not a fan of, and I probably wouldn’t have ever chosen this book for myself – but I’m grateful for the recommendation that led me to it! The mystery is of course an integral part of the plot, but Harris seemed less concerned with the murder that occurred than with the political implications of it, which were fascinating, and utilised the Orwellian backdrop excellently.

In fact, I found myself reminded a lot of 1984 while reading this – or rather, of what I hoped 1984 would be. The two books share their unsettlingly close-to-possible style of dystopia, but while I detested everybody in 1984Fatherland’s protagonist, SS Sturmbannführer Xavier March, was sympathetic despite his (reluctant) Nazi affiliation, and there was a memorable and compelling supporting cast. As the book went on, I became particularly invested in March’s relationships with his partner Jaeger, and with the American journalist Charlie Maguire.

It’s an excellently-crafted world: Picking out the differences between Harris’ alternative history and our true history was an interesting experience, but the similarities were also very striking (again, in a rather unsettling way), and I was impressed by how well Harris was able to play off my expectations of which things would and wouldn’t have changed.

[Find out more about the Library Scavenger Hunt by following this link!]

Series Review: The Illuminae Files by Amie Kaufman & Jay Kristoff (Spoiler-Free)

Caught in the middle of a conflict between two corporate giants, the residents of the illegal mining colony of Kerenza IV find themselves forced to flee through deep space, pursued by people who will kill to keep their crimes a secret. Potentially more dangerous, however, is the quickly-spreading virus aboard the colonists’ already-damaged ship – and the ship’s A.I., which will do anything within its power to save them.

The Illuminae Files is comprised of three books: IlluminaeGemina and Obsidio. The summary above only describes the first book, but the plot of the later two goes on to describe the continuing struggle between the the aforementioned corporate giants (the Wallace Ulyanov Consortium – or WUC – and BeiTech Industries), and the roles of two more pairs of protagonists in it. Each book’s plot is relatively separate, but they are blended together perfectly to create an overarching storyline that is incredibly powerful, and feels truly epic in scale.

The most immediately noticeable thing about these books is their formatting: The entire series is told in the form of data-logs, emails, IM chats, and beautiful word art, along with descriptions of security footage, which are the most conventional parts of the series to read, but from an obvious outsider perspective. Hanna, one of the main characters in Gemina, has a talent for drawing, so in the last two books we also see a lot of extracts from her sketchbooks. (These illustrations are – in the non-fictional world – by Marie Lu, who did a fantastic job.) This was one of a couple of reasons why I didn’t start Illuminae with high hopes; these all seemed to me to be barriers that I would have to overcome in order to really get to know the characters, and as someone who is primarily drawn to character-driven stories, that preconception was a massive turn-off.

Thankfully, however, it was also a massive misconception. True, we didn’t see directly into their heads all that often, but the challenge of portraying fully-fleshed-out characters mainly through conversation and body language was one that the authors rose to, to great effect. I laughed, I cried, I raged and I yearned as I read these books. Additionally, I found that this formatting lent itself really well towards fast paced action, and did a particularly great job of portraying the confusion and chaos of warfare. There’s a couple of pages near the end of Obsidio that are entirely made up of jumbled-up radio transmissions of people trying to figure out what’s happening in a battle, and it doesn’t tell a story in any traditional sense, but it does make its point very vividly; that everything is happening all at once, and everyone involved is confused and frightened, despite their determination. Granted, if the whole book had been like those to pages, it would’ve been unreadable, but Kaufman and Kristoff managed to strike a very nice balance between styles, so that each one had its own powerful impact.

Of the three pairs of protagonists, I found myself more attached to Kady and Ezra than either Hanna and Nik or Asha and Rhys, but because – as the lead characters in the first book – I spent much more time with them over the course of the series than with the others, rather than because they were any better written. Correspondingly, I was much less invested in Asha and Rhys, who were only introduced in Obsidio, where they were already sharing screen-time with the other four – but they were all excellent, compelling characters. As was AIDEN, their A.I. kind-of-ally, whose presence was felt in almost every twist and turn of the plot (and who I loved).

Each pair also had their own romantic sub-plot, which both sweet and very believable, and (unusually for YA, at least in my experience) all of these were either built on pre-existing relationships, or at least pre-existing feelings. This could have made us as readers feel disconnected from the romances, but I found that the characters’ feelings still grew and changed enough that that wasn’t the case, and I also appreciated the fact that less time spent building the relationships from scratch meant that more time could be spent on developing the main story.

This whole series was incredibly emotionally draining, in the best possible way, and Illuminae and Obsidio were particularly intense (there were a few places in both of them that brought me close to tears). Gemina was probably the weakest of the three, as it felt a little less connected to the series’ overarching storyline (its plot was kind of a “meanwhile, these other peripherally-connected things were going on nearby”), but that’s really not saying much, as the other two were so incredible; all three books were definite five-star reads for me, and Illuminae was my favourite of them.

Review: History Is All You Left Me by Adam Silvera (Spoiler-Free)

Even after their breakup, Griffin was determined that Theo would be his endgame; they couldn’t be together just, but they’d both acknowledged that they really wanted to be. Now, all the hopes he had for the future are moot, as Theo is dead, leaving Griffin with only one person who fully understands his grief: Jackson, Theo’s new boyfriend from university.

I really, really wanted to love this book, but although I did end up enjoying it, I also found that it was something of a let-down. Griffin was a very difficult protagonist to like, especially in the early stages of the book, as every time he spoke to anyone about Theo, his internal monologue seemed to turn into a grief-off of sorts, as if he felt like the validity of his own grief was actively threatened by anyone else having similar feelings. He pushes away Theo’s best friend Wade (though there are reasons for this that eventually become evident), and viciously derides Jackson, even though he barely knows him. And his feelings towards Jackson are not unrealistic, but when Jackson is the only one of the two boys who seems to be making an effort to be civil (and is also far more likeable than Griffin), it’s hard to hear him being so unfairly attacked.

And Theo is another character who it’s very difficult to care about. We’re mainly exposed to him through snapshots of his relationship with Griffin, which take up every other chapter of the book (appropriately titled “History”), but everything we learn about him is from either Griffin or Jackson, both of whom clearly have their rose-tinted glassed on at all times, so he never really comes across as real. Near the end, we finally see a few of Theo’s flaws, but this actually made me like him less… the real Theo was kind of a jerk.

Given all this, it might not surprise you that halfway through the book, I was almost ready to give up on it, but I’m glad I didn’t, as it actually got a lot better as it went on. True, I liked Theo less and less, but I appreciated the added dimensions to his character. Griffin also improved as he got to know Jackson, and I felt that the relationship that grew out of their shared grief was the real heart of the novel. The History chapters that occurred after Theo and Griffin’s breakup went in an unexpected direction, too, which I enjoyed – and the truth about Griffin’s avoidance of Wade was, for me, what finally pushed this book from a “meh” to a “good” in terms of rating (Wade was the best character in the book, and I just wish he’d been in more of it).

I also liked Silvera’s portrayal of Griffin’s OCD (though I am not qualified to comment on its accuracy); I’ve read a couple of books recently with characters with OCD, and it always seems to be treated as just some endearing character quirk – and although History Is All You Left Me does do the same to an extent, it also called itself out for it, which I appreciated.

Final verdict: I didn’t dislike the book, but found it difficult to connect with, at least until near the end, and my disappointment was no doubt enhanced by my expectation that it would be fantastic (I definitely let myself fall victim to the hype this time). I’m beginning to think that YA contemporaries are just not for me any more, but I hope that I’m wrong about that.