Playing by the Book. Zoe raved about it most lovingly, and I added it to my own tbr list (it was only out in the UK at that point), waiting for the time when I was in the mood for a Book Depository purchase....Then this month I was offered a review copy of The Adventures of Lettie Peppercorn, and oh was I happy to see that this was The Snow Merchant in its US incarnation, and how quickly I said yes please! Because how could I pass on a book Zoe described thusly:
"Read it to your children (or any you can borrow), and I’m confident that for very many it will become one of those few books they look back on with especial warmth in their heart when they are all grown up; one of those books that leads into magical landscapes, with characters they desperately wished were their friends, taking them on adventures that even twenty, forty, sixty years later they still wish they could take part in."
Lettie's mother went away years ago, leaving a cryptic note that warned Lettie never to set a foot outside. And so Lettie has been a virtual prisoner in the family's inn, trying to keep the business going while her father drinks and gambles away what little money comes in. But then a mysterious visitor arrives, an alchemist who brings with him something no one has seen before--snow. Snow that's controlled by magic, that only he has the power to create. And Lettie, he says, is the customer for whom he's created the snow. But the two other guests, both greedy old women, want the beautiful snow for themselves, to make money off of what they see as ice diamonds.
Then the snow melts, and the Snow Merchant hightails it off to the harbor. Lettie, and a boy named Noah, whose boat brought the Merchant to town and who is Lettie's first human friend, follow, guided mysteriously by the Wind..
What happens next is a mad race across the ocean. Lettie and Noah, and a most uncooperative, rude, and hostile Snow Merchant, are chased by the two greedy old women, who have promised wealth to some nasty whalers in exchange for transport and help with capture and disposal of witnesses (Lettie and Noah). Lettie finds that she herself has a gift for alchemy, which keeps them from being captured, and at last the journey takes them to the place where her mother is waiting, and the story of how the snow was first created, and why her mother left, are finally told.
Zoe read the book out loud to her children, and found it wonderful and magical and lovely, and her children did too. I can see why-- Lettie is an appealing heroine, and I was happy to read about her great friendship with Noah, and I liked the way the alchemical magic worked, transmuting elements of the material world. The adventure proceeds at a nice pace after the cold and atmospheric set up of the first snow inside the inn. Gayton does an excellent job with his descriptions, and it is all very vivid.
But sadly for me, I couldn't share Zoe's personal enthusiasm, not because I have anything critical to say of the book, but because it just wasn't to my taste. This is a very fantastical sort of fantasy. The Snow Merchant's alchemy, for instance, turns one of the greedy old women's head into a teapot, with tea inside it, with no consequences other than the occasional slopping of tea from her spout. Noah comes from a far off land where everyone is born with a plant stalk growing from them, and although I liked how the stalk was used imaginatively to grow useful and tasty flora, I couldn't tap into my child side enough to think it wonderful. And then the boat grew wings (which I actually didn't mind as much as I minded the teapot head that could talk). But if you like really fantastical fantasy, like Jonathan Auxier's Peter Nimble and His Fantastic Eyes, for instance (which didn't work for me for much the same reasons), you might well love this one too, and I can easily see how an actual young child reader (as opposed to me) might well love it.
And in large part, and again a matter of totally personal taste, I ended up being disappointed because the Amazon UK blurb I read back in 2013 gave me the impression that Lettie looking after the rambling old inn would be a major part of the book, and being a fan of girls who have to run ramskakle inns of magicness, I was sad when the plot took us all out to sea (I like fantasy inside old buildings much more than I like fantasy at sea).
Zoe makes mention of the illustrations by Tomislav Tomic; the US edition is illustrated by Poly Bernatene in a style that looks (to me) much more American (less fine line and more shading with almost no white space).
And Good Grief! Kirkus and I are in agreement again (I think it's three in a row now):
"There’s plenty of action and creative plotting, but some readers may find it difficult to warm up to the offbeat characters and thus be reluctant to follow Lettie all the way to the grand finale."
But anyway--lots of people, not just Zoe, love this book! So don't give too much weight to my personal taste issues, because they are personal.