Tea and Sympathetic Magic

By Tansy Rayner Roberts

Rating: 4 stars

There’s very little to this short novella of an eligible young lady trying to not get married to the most eligible bachelor in the land, and teaming up with a handsome spellcracker to save him from kidnap and being magicked into marriage. It’s very fluffy, but a lot of fun. It’s part of the magical Regency romance genre but very knowingly pokes fun at that genre.

I’m not sure I can take any book that’s set in a place called the “Teacup Isles” seriously, but then the author doesn’t really take it seriously either. Although despite it all, the book never mocks the genre but lovingly sends it up. I like that because it’s in an alternate world, although it liberally borrows from the British Regency period, it isn’t bound by it, and so things that don’t fit in that period (for example, same-sex relationships) are present and don’t feel out of place.

Great fun, with a protagonist I liked. A great antidote to 2021.

Book details

Year of publication: 2020

The Z Team

By Chris DeSantis

Rating: 3 stars

To be honest, this book wasn’t quite what I was expecting – I was expecting a found family story where the whole crew pulls together against external threats, but captain Dash Anderton’s biggest threat is his own crew. It’s not a spoiler to say that they mutiny – we start the book in media res in the middle of the mutiny, before jumping back to show the events that led up to it, which takes about half the book, and then the consequences.

I liked DeSantis’s world-building, in which he drops in details about how his galactic community (the Commonwealth) works, mostly without resorting to infodumps. There were a few biggies in there too, which weren’t expanded upon, but may be in future volumes – such as the idea that Earth has been cut off from the rest of the interstellar community after the “channel” that led to it collapsed; and that there are now subspecies of humanity.

Something else that was interesting here and which I’ve not really seen elsewhere, other than in MilSF, is the distinction between flight and ops crews – here it’s the ops crew that mutinies, while the flight crew stick together.

Dash, his pilot Gaius and medic Wesley form the flight crew and the book mostly follows them as characters, with Dash as our main PoV, while Wesley has his own secrets as he’s on the run, followed by a trio of bounty hunters.

It was a decent story, but I don’t know if I’ll look out for any sequels.

Book details

Publisher: TriWorld Publishing LLC
Year of publication: 2021

Raging Robots and Unruly Uncles

By Margaret Mahy

Rating: 4 stars

Finding this in a pile of books that my cousin was about to throw away over Christmas, I was hit with a wave of pure nostalgic pleasure, so I had to grab it to read again before he did so. It was with a certain amount of trepidation that I did so, though, since books that one loves as a child don’t necessarily hold up the cold light of adult inspection. Thankfully, that’s not the case for this one, and other than an assumption that girls won’t be accepted as electronic engineers, and a rather unfortunate episode of brownface, as the the two robot-haunted brothers try to escape their pursuers using boot polish to disguise themselves as “Middle-Eastern gentlemen”, it holds up very well.

There’s so much clever wordplay and puns that it’s a joy to read, and, I’d imagine, great fun to read out loud. It has a strong central message of following your own dreams, and working hard to achieve them, despite what those around you want, and even has time for a short digression on the free will of humans versus that of our creations.

A wonderful children’s book, with some really inventive child-friendly swearing and over the top characters.

Book details

ISBN: 9780140318173

The Book of Three (The Chronicles of Prydain #1)

By Lloyd Alexander

Rating: 3 stars

Taran is an assistant pig-keeper in Caer Dallben, which he doesn’t find very interesting, even if the (singular) pig he looks after is oracular (it’s completely unrelated, but I couldn’t help comparing Hen-Wen to the Empress of Blandings, and the various scrapes the latter gets into). Soon enough, Taran gets his wish to go adventuring and, as you’d expect, finds it less pleasant than he’d expected. He soon gathers a little group around him (although, frankly, I still don’t really understand why the others followed such an inexperienced youth, other than for Plot Reasons) and tries to take news of the coming of the evil Horned King to the ruler.

I’ve owned The Black Cauldron since I was a child, but had never read it. On a recent visit to my parents, I pulled the book down, intending to read it when I got home, before I realised that it wasn’t the first in the series, which led me to picking up this so that I could read the series in order.

It feels very Hero’s Journey, and you can all but tick off the stages of Taran’s development. To be honest, Taran isn’t a hugely interesting character, and can be oblivious and arrogant. His companions are interesting and more fun: the king turned bard Fflewddur Fflam, whose harp strings snap when he lies, and the princess Eilonwy, not to mention the marvellous Gurgi, with his crunchings and munchings and other rhyming.

It’s impossible to read this without comparing it to Tolkien. At times, it does feel quite “Lord of the Rings for children”, with many of the same tropes emerging, including a Dark Lord with powerful supernatural minions, a fellowship on a quest and a mentor who falls into darkness. But, at least, the Welsh-inspired setting gives it a distinctive flavour.

It’s an entertaining book though and the language is evocative. I’ll definitely read the next one.

Book details

ISBN: 9780006705925
Publisher: Armada Lions
Year of publication: 1973

Touchstone (Glass Thorns, #1)

By Melanie Rawn

Rating: 2 stars

Cayden Silversun is a tregetour – part magician, part playwright, who infuses his magic into wands that his troupe can then use to perform plays. He’s also got Fae ancestry, which gives him a power of foresight – a power he can’t control. He has to fight to keep his troupe – Touchstone – together, while also fighting with himself about what futures he can change and what he must leave alone.

This is primarily a story about a group of young men finding sex, drugs and rock’n’roll, and that’s a story that has never really touched me. A group of arrogant young men who think they’re going to live forever arguing about their art, while bedding a succession of nameless women and getting high. No thanks.

I didn’t particularly care for Cade, nor for the other major protagonist, Mieka, the “glisker” of the group, who uses the magic that Cade provides to create the backdrops and effects for the plays. While seventeen or eighteen isn’t that young, I mostly just thought of these people as children and their squabbles as they fight for a place on their nation’s theatrical grand tour, as profoundly boring.

The other two members of Touchstone, Jeska and Rafe get very little in the way of character development: the former is poor, good looking and sleeps with as many women as he can; the latter has a childhood sweetheart that he’s determined to marry when they make enough money on the tour. I imagine that they will get more development later in the series, but for the moment, they’re just rough sketches.

The central idea of Cade’s prophetic visions and his internal turmoil on whether he should tell the people involved has the potential to be interesting, but he just sticks to this idea that people have the right not to be affected by him, even when it’s obviously bad for them, and I’ve got little time for that these days.

The book spends the first half or so with Cade as the PoV character, and then suddenly switches to Mieka. I’m not sure if this was to let us see how frustrating that Cade could be without the benefit of being in his head to get his point of view, or if the author just didn’t want to spend time there, but it was an odd shift. And then it shifts back to Cade just before the end of the book, again without explanation.

The book ends on a cliffhanger, but I don’t care enough about these characters to find out how it’s resolved. I’m afraid that I’ll not be following Touchstone’s future career with any interest.

Book details

ISBN: 9781781166604
Publisher: Titan Publishing Company
Year of publication: 2012

The Incredible Journey

By Sheila Burnford

Rating: 4 stars

I found this old, quite fragile copy of this book while rummaging around my favourite second hand bookstore (Voltaire and Rousseau, in Glasgow, thanks for asking). I’ve never actually read it before, nor have I seen the film, although I do know the basic plot. I enjoyed this story of two dogs and a rather dog-like cat who make a journey of several hundred miles from the person who’s looking after them while their actual family are are away in Europe, back to their home.

I hadn’t realised that Burnford didn’t fully anthropomorphise the animals – rather than talking to each other, she refers to their instincts and love of each other to guide us through the story. Some of the episodes on their travels are mundane, like passing park rangers, while others are just odd, and a little sad – like the elderly gent living by himself who invites them in for dinner, but we slowly realise that he’s got dementia.

Now, as much as I love Labradors, the young Lab who led the trio was stubborn and maybe not the best at leading. The old, good natured bull terrier was my favourite of the trio, and the firm friendship between him and the cat was beautiful – leading to a joyous final paragraph, to leave the book on a high.

A fairly quick read, and the prose is lovely, both in describing the landscape that the trio travel through and their actions and relationships. The illustrations, by Carl Burger, are also delightful – full page sized and detailed. It was just a shame I couldn’t view them as clearly as I wanted to, for fear the opening the book too wide would cause it to fall apart (I mentioned it was an old, fragile copy, right?).

Book details

Publisher: Bantam Pathfinder
Year of publication: 1965

Drive: Act 3

By Dave Kellett

Rating: 4 stars

Act three of the very fun Drive webcomic is right back into the thick of it. The Second Spanish Empire is now at war with two alien species: the Continuum of Makers and the Vinn. And it’s losing both. The scout ship Machito is tasked with finding more of of Skeeter’s alien species – he’s able to navigate a spaceship like nobody else – but they’re running out of clues, and Humanity is running out of time.

I actually had to go back and read the whole previous volume to bring me back up to speed before I started into this one. The characters are still as immensely fun as before – Nosh, in particular, is so loveable. The plot is pretty twisty, as different factions have different agendas, most of which aren’t compatible with each other. The Fillipods are a brilliant species – very intelligent, but more concerned with turning that intelligence to poetry slams than weapons or technology. And the Astronomer Royal in particular is brilliant, in his inability to sensibly compliment the emperor.

It’s not a long volume, the main story is only about 160 pages long, but it is very pretty. The comic pages are well-produced with lots of detail. There are also a number of short stories set in the universe at the end, although given that these aren’t written by Kellett, it’s not clear how canonical they are. But notwithstanding that, the story Motherbear by Beth Reidmiller is marvellous, and quite heart-breaking.

I don’t know how many acts the story as a whole is envisaged to cover, but it feels like we must be past the mid-point now. We’ve had many revelations about the universe, and we’ve finally found out who Skitter’s people are. It sort of feels like it should start to wind up a bit fairly soon. Although mind you, at the pace that the webcomic is released, that could still take several years to come to completion.

Book details

ISBN: 9781733126632
Publisher: Small Fish Studios
Year of publication: 2021

Doctor Sally

By P.G. Wodehouse

Rating: 3 stars

After reading the synopsis, I almost didn’t buy this slim volume, as I thought it could be awful, but my love of Wodehouse won over. The plot, what there is of it, is your usual Wodehousian shenanigans, with Bill Bannister falling in love with a beautiful lady doctor, Dr Sally Smith, with the complication that he’s already involved with another woman.

My worry about the tone of the book wasn’t eased when it opened with Sir Hugo Drake, a nerve specialist and archetypical “gammon” if ever I saw one, observing a beautiful golf hit (can you tell I don’t do sports?). I worried when he found out that this perfect shot wasn’t played by an “old chap” but by a woman. But Wodehouse played with my expectations, and Sir Hugo is much more interested in the golf than the person, and compliments her on her abilities and is happy to even take instruction from her.

The nominal “hero” of the book, Bill Bannister, made a much less favourable impression on me, especially towards the end, when he physically threatens Sally, in a scene that really felt out of place for a Wodehouse comedy. The moment quickly passes and isn’t really remarked upon again, but it felt unpleasant.

The book isn’t really long enough to get into the usual labyrinthine plots and counter-plots of a Wodehouse story, giving it a kind of perfunctory feel – it’s only 120 pages, and even taking into account the smaller font size of older books like this edition, it feels particularly slight.

My favourite character was probably Lord “Squiffy” Tidmouth, who feels much more like a traditional Wodehouse character. Rich, swanning around, currently between wives, not burdened with too much in the way of brains, but amiable and loyal. A chap I’d like to have in my corner.

So while most of the book concerns Bill’s attempts to get Sally to love him, the cringe I’d feared about the “lady doctor” and the expected sexism never really materialised, thankfully. This was enjoyable enough – it wasn’t nearly as bad as I feared (damned by faint praise there), but it’s certainly not classic Wodehouse.

Book details

ISBN: 9780140013702

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