The Tales of Beaufort Scales

By Kim M. Watt

Rating: 4 stars

I read the first book in the Beaufort Scales series on the recommendation of a friend, and while I enjoyed it well enough, it didn’t make me want to run out and buy the rest of them. But this collection was offered for free at the end of that book, and, well, it would be rude not to!

I actually ended up enjoying it a lot. It gives us the origin stories to how the Cloverly dragons got entangled with the ladies of the Toot Hansell WI, as well as stories featuring just the dragons, and one featuring just DI Adams, without a dragon in sight. A Rather Unusual Flying Lesson, in which Beaufort tries to teach Amelia’s younger brother Gilbert to fly, is particularly sweet. I think the stories maybe work better in short form than at novel-length. The book is quite short, but a lot of fun.

Book details

Year of publication: 2019

Mrs Frisby and the Rats of NIMH

By Robert C. O'Brien

Rating: 4 stars

This was a book that I’d loved as a child, and read several times, so it was with a little trepidation that I approached it as an adult, but my fears were mostly groundless. It’s been so long since I last read it that I couldn’t remember much of the plot, but the story of the widowed mouse Mrs Frisby and how she comes to associate with the rats that live in the farmer’s rosebush still holds up pretty well.

Reading as an adult in the 21st century, you do notice things: like how Mrs Frisby is the only major female character (yes, two of her children are girls, but they’re barely in it and their characterisations are limited to pretty much a single line: Teresa is the oldest and most responsible, Cynthia is the youngest and “over-fond of dancing”). The rats presumably have females amongst them, but other than Isabella, we never see any of them – they’re just described as “mothers” and it’s implied that they’re fond of the good things in life.

The story of the rats is still very exciting, though, from Nicodemus’ capture, to the experimentation in NIMH to their escape and finding the Toy Tinker. In between, we learn why the rats are willing to help Mrs Frisby in the first place and some of their philosophy. Personally, I’m leaning more towards Jenner’s side of the argument than Nicodemus – or, at least, I wouldn’t want to throw away everything and start completely from scratch.

Philosophical arguments notwithstanding, there’s a lot to enjoy here. It’s a story of kindness, of comradeship and of community. Recommended for children and adults alike.

Book details

ISBN: 9780141354927
Publisher: Puffin
Year of publication: 2014

Triplanetary (Lensman, #1)

By E.E. "Doc" Smith

Rating: 2 stars

I picked this up because I saw it on Project Gutenberg for free, and I needed something to pad out my e-reader for a holiday. It’s been about twenty years since I last read any Doc Smith, and, good grief, I should have left it that way. I was only just out of my teens when I read the Skylark series and I quite enjoyed that at the time. But since then I’ve developed a taste for things like plot, character development and moral consideration.

The writing here is fast-paced and breathless in its descriptions, edging on purple – with everything being “indescribable”, and “unbelievable”. There are lots of rays as well, for everything except, well, light. Relativity would be quite new at this point, but still fairly well known, but there’s no mention of the speed of light or any indication that there’s a problem in travelling between star systems (which happens at, of course, “indescribable speed…”).

The book has an odd structure, with the first three short sections describing the fall of Atlantis, Rome and our civilisation, according to the plan of the powerful Arisians, as they try to create a race that can face the evil Eddorians in a battle across time and space. The main body of the book is a space opera set in a future civilisation when the inner planets of the solar system are united under a single “Triplanetary” government. It’s full of the sort of lantern-jawed super super-scientists that Heinlein would go on to make famous. Surprisingly, there is a female character, and although she’s mostly there to provide motivation to one of the aforementioned lantern-jawed scientist secret service men, she does actually get to fight at one point.

The story was pretty slight, with lots of cycles of fighting, being captured, escaping, rinse and repeat, and there were a few casual city-wide slaughters that were casually swept under the rug at the end. I might have enjoyed this more as a teenager, but I think I’ll skip the rest of the books and just look up the plot summary on Wikipedia.

Book details

ISBN: 9781882968091

The Magic Engineer (The Saga of Recluce, #3)

By L.E. Modesitt Jr.

Rating: 4 stars

I had bought and read the first seven or eight Recluce novels when I was teenager. I got rid of most of them over the years, but this was always my favourite, and the one that I’d reread the most. I picked it up on a visit to my parents and wondered if it would hold up. I’m pleased that it (mostly) did. Some of the writing feels a bit clunky – especially the ideophonic descriptions of sounds, especially horses – and there was a lot more description of blacksmithing than I remember, but it was still an enjoyable read.

Dorrin is a young magic user living on the island of Recluce, interested mostly in blacksmithing and healing. He is exiled, along with his neighbour Kadara, because of his interest in building machines – particularly steam engines, which his father, a powerful mage, thinks can only lead to chaos.

Dorrin is a good central character. He starts as a bit of a brat, but his experiences over the course of the book temper that, and he’s as aware as the reader of the futility of his efforts in Spidlar and that he ends up causing more pain and destruction than he prevents.

I kind of like the idea of a magic system based on order and chaos, and the idea of machines like steam engines that inherently embody chaos, but contained through order, but at times, the two words do seem to be used as arbitrary labels.

Of the other characters, we don’t get as much development for the likes of Liedral, Dorrin’s love-interest, or the smith family that takes him in when he’s exiled from Recluce to the continent of Candar. Kadara fares a little better, although her lover and fellow exile, Brede, doesn’t.

The story moves along at a decent pace, and never really feels as long as its nearly 750 pages. The chapters tend to be quite short, sometimes just a half page “cut scene” as we cut to the machinations of the chaos wizards of Fairhaven. Although that trick can sometimes feel really tiring to read, that doesn’t seem to be the case here. Possibly because each chapter doesn’t end on a cliffhanger, but just ends a short scene and lets time jump forward a bit.

So I enjoyed rereading this after probably a couple of decades, but I have no interest in getting back into the Recluce series (which I see from the GoodReads series page is now over twenty books long!).

Book details

ISBN: 9781857232721
Publisher: Orbit
Year of publication: 1995

Vet in a Spin

By James Herriot

Rating: 4 stars

Volume six of James Herriot’s fictionalised memoirs have him completing basic training in the RAF and going to learn how to actually fly a plane. He completes this but ends up being invalided out the service before he ever sees action – I guess the military want people to be fully healthy before they send them off to be killed!

But as with the last volume, we spend very little time in the RAF, with most of the book being taken up with Jim’s musings on his previous life in the Yorkshire Dales. We meet more of the wonderful farmers and villagers that make up his life and there are some touching stories about how their lives touch that of Jim.

We don’t see much of the supporting cast this time round, although we do get to see an unexpectedly tender side to Tristan, which leads into a beautifully bittersweet story. Jim’s business partner Siegfried barely turns up at all, and we don’t get any appearance from the always delightful Granville.

But as with the others, it’s a pleasure to read, and Jim always has empathy for his charges, whether that’s a farm animal or a beloved pet. His writing is soothing and the glimpse into another time is fascinating. Even for a confirmed urbanite like me, it’s a wonderful read.

Book details

ISBN: 9780330443579

Light of Impossible Stars

By Gareth L. Powell

Rating: 3 stars

The final book in the Embers of War trilogy sees the sentient former warship Trouble Dog battle-scarred and on the run from the Fleet of Knives. Along with her last remaining sibling, her brother Adalwolf, she and her crew make for the area of space known as the Intrusion, where our universe intersects with another, which the Fleet seems to avoid, as do the dragons which, it turns out, are real and haunt the hypervoid.

This book introduces another new PoV character, Cordelia Pa, who lives on the flat plates that hover near the Intrusion, inexplicable artefacts left behind by the Hearthers, the same species that created the Fleet of Knives and which disappeared over five thousand years ago. Cordelia should be an interesting character, but I didn’t really get much of a feel for her. She was plucked from her home as a teenager, four years ago by the crew of her father’s ship – a father she didn’t know she had at that point. We pick up with her four years later, after being put through flight school and then she’s thrust into a leadership position on her father’s spaceship when he disappears unexpectedly, so there’s a lot going on for her, but that doesn’t really come through for me in the writing. If she’d been introduced more slowly, maybe in the previous book, with more time to get to know her and what’s strange about her, then it might have worked better.

We don’t see as much of Ona Sudak in this book, but what do see of leaves me sort of puzzled. She’s someone who seemed to be growing as a person in the first book, but when given the opportunity in the second book, fell back into old patterns, repeating her previous mistake on a potentially much bigger scale. Here, Captain Konstanz gives her several opportunities to reflect on what she’s done but she just doubles down, and tragedy follows. I’m not really sure what to make of her, other than to wish that the firing squad had had their way with her at the start of the previous book.

It’s lovely to see the bond between Trouble Dog and Konstanz deepen in this book, even if it is through shared loss. At the start of the story, Trouble Dog was conditioned to not be more than mildly sorry by death and loss. She’s overcome that and is coming into full-scale grief here, growing in a way that Sudak never did.

[spoilers removed]

I didn’t think that the conflict with the dragons was hugely satisfying. You’ve got Cordelia moving from a position of “we can fight” to “run awayyyyyy” within the space of a chapter with little explanation; the Scourers retreating with no explanation; and then there’s the throwaway line about them being intelligent, but no attempt at dialogue or negotiation ever being attempted.

There’s a lot of big ideas here, and I loved the found family. Lots of little niggles though mean that although the series started well, there were issues as it went on.

I’ve been pretty negative in this review, but I enjoyed spending time with Trouble Dog, Sal and the others. I just wonder if it could have done with more attention from the editor.

Book details

ISBN: 9781785655241

Fleet of Knives (Embers of War, #2)

By Gareth L. Powell

Rating: 3 stars

The sentient starship Trouble Dog and her mismatched crew are en route to a rescue call from the salvage vessel Lucy’s Ghost when all hell breaks loose, as the Marble Armada, which Trouble Dog had had a hand in finding and giving a purpose to prevent war, suddenly starts going berserk and attacking all human ships with weapons, in order to protect them from themselves. And then the Armada, now calling itself the Fleet of Knives, intercept a transmission from Trouble Dog that puts the former warship directly in the Fleet’s crosshairs.

I wasn’t sure where the story would go after the end of the first book, and I must confess that’s not a direction I was expecting. We have a new PoV character this time round, in the form of “Lucky” Johnny Schultz, the captain of the Lucy’s Ghost, and he and his crew basically get to play out Alien as they race across this ancient artefact, one step ahead of the horrors following them. He’s struggling to live up to his reputation, and only realises too late that he’s bitten off far more than he can chew in his latest salvage attempt.

The poet and war criminal Ona Sudak also returns in this book, and plays a key role in setting events in motion. I’m not sure if she’s just in way over her head and having to cling on to what she thinks she believes for dear life or if she really believes in this course of action. She’s a complex character, but not one that I have nearly as much sympathy for as I did in the previous book.

I like Trouble Dog and her crew, and even Adalwolf from the last book gets some redemption. The book moves along at a fair pace, but it does suffer from middle-book syndrome, as it’s setting up a lot but can’t resolve an awful lot. If I’d read this as soon as it came out, I think I’d have been frustrated at the end. As it is, I shrugged and immediately ordered the final book in the series.

Book details

ISBN: 9781785655210
Year of publication: 2019

The Murder on the Links (Hercule Poirot, #2)

By Agatha Christie

Rating: 3 stars

The second Poirot novel starts with Hastings on his way back to England to meet up with his friend when he runs into a young lady on the train. In what will become a theme throughout the book, he’s arrogant and chauvinistic towards her before she escapes at Paris. The main plot involves Poirot being asked to come to a village in France to help protect a client, but by the time he arrives, the client is already dead.

Much of the fun of an Agatha Christie for me is in following along with the clues and seeing if I could figure it out myself (narrator: he never can), but with this one, I’m not sure that we were given enough clues to figure it out. That takes a bit of the fun away, but it’s always great seeing Hercule Poirot at work, disdaining the Holmesian method of physical investigation, here propounded by the police inspector Giraud. Poirot relies on psychology and using his famous Little Grey Cells and, of course, they don’t let him down.

So the mystery part of it was fun and I enjoyed it, but Hastings was pretty unbearable in this one. Maybe I’m too used to Hugh Fraser’s loveable bumbling sidekick in the TV series, but between chasing anything in a skirt and the chauvinism, I wanted to shake some sense into him.

So a good murder mystery, but beware the creepy sidekick.

Book details

ISBN: 9780061749940
Publisher: William Morrow Paperbacks
Year of publication: 2004

Baking Bad (Beaufort Scales Mystery #1)

By Kim M. Watt

Rating: 3 stars

This self-described “cosy” mystery was suggested to me by a friend who knows my low tolerance for grimdark as an antidote to that. And she wasn’t wrong! The vicar has been murdered (poisoned by a cupcake, no less), and signs point to the local WI ladies as being the prime suspects. They have to clear their own names, while also hiding the fact that they’ve made friends with a group of nearby dragons. Dragons who, it turns out, like tea and cake as much as the WI does.

There is definitely a strong element of farce to this, to a degree that would even make PG Wodehouse mutter “steady on”. I struggled with this to start with, and with the degree of all-round bumbling by just about all concerned. From the RAF Wing Commander (retired) who leads the WI, to the local hippie, and the investigating police office, DI Adams.

The police didn’t seem to be hugely competent, as they ran around, accepting cake and sandwiches from possible suspects, not securing crime scenes and general ditziness. The Folly these guys ain’t. Mind you, Nightingale (or Peter, or even Abigail) would have clocked the chief dragon, Beaufort (who’s just trying to help out his human pals) on the first encounter and had a stern word. But DI Adams is just a normal police officer trying to do a job in trying circumstances, albeit with the obligatory Mysterious Past.

The dragons are almost the least interesting things about the book. They’re mostly invisible to people who don’t know they’re there and are mostly interested in tea and cake. Beaufort, after whom the series is named, is the chief of the tribe and is supposedly this ancient dragon, who remembers a time when knights would hunt and kill dragons. But he mostly just feels like a jolly uncle who encourages kids to get into mischief. There’s an interesting section part-way through when there’s hints that not all dragons like the idea of interacting with humans, and some would rather they just went away, but this, or indeed any other aspect of dragon society, isn’t really explored (something to hold back for later books?).

It’s a fun enough book, and the characters are likeable but you’re not given enough hints to solve the mystery yourself. You’re basically following along as both the police and the WI work things out. There’s a free collection of short stories in the universe that I’ll pick up, but I don’t know if I’ll pay for any more in the series.

Book details

Year of publication: 2018

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