The Secret Garden

By Frances Hodgson Burnett

Rating: 4 stars

This was a firm favourite as a child and whatever fondness I have for nature, I think I can, to some degree, thank it for. I feared that returning to it as an adult, it might not stand up, but, despite the flaws that I see now, it retains all the charm that I remember, and I finished it with a smile on my face.

The flaws definitely need discussed: its attitude to colonised peoples is patronising at best; it’s a good thing I’ve got a fairly strong product-of-its-time filter, trained in my youth on Golden Age science fiction stories. It has a remote, rose-tinted view of “virtuous” poverty, with Mrs Sowerby and her dozen children painted as healthy and happy, despite always being hungry and crammed into a tiny cottage while a hundred-room mansion lies mostly empty. And there’s a lot more child neglect than I remember, with the early chapters showing how both her parents had no interest in Mary, leaving her upbringing to the servants. That’s also mirrored in Colin, the “young rajah” of Misselthwaite and the relationship between those two children is the heart of the book.

There’s also, as I mentioned, a true love of nature here, and especially the Yorkshire countryside. The turning of the seasons, the joy of planting and tending and growing are all major themes, the growing plants of spring mirroring the growing children who begin to unfurl and grow healthily in when planted in the outdoors of England.

Despite flaws seen through 21st century adult eyes, this remains a delight to read, making me wish I could just roam the moors for days on end, with Dickon as my guide.

Book details

ISBN: 9781855345041
Publisher: Geddes & Grosset Ltd
Year of publication: 1990

Hilda and the Mountain King (Hilda, #6)

By Luke Pearson

Rating: 5 stars

After having escaped from the troll mountain at the end of the last book, Hilda wakes up back inside the mountain, to find herself in the body of a troll, with the troll baby having replaced her. Despite her wish to be free, she really does love her mum and wants to go back home, so when a large troll trapped in a cave behind a wall of bells says he can help her, she agrees without stopping to think who trapped him there or why? Meanwhile, her mother is searching for her lost daughter non-stop, and when Hilda and her mother both put their minds to the same thing, the world had better watch out!

This was a lot of fun. It was another story of mother-daughter love and what a mother will do for her child, whether that’s Hilda’s mum, the troll mum or, er, the other mum, with a side dose of mutual respect for others as well. It’s packed with adventure, (mild) peril and the humour that the Hilda books are known for. Not where you should start with the Hilda books, but very definitely a great place to end the series.

Book details

ISBN: 9781838740528

Hilda and the Stone Forest

By Luke Pearson

Rating: 4 stars

The penultimate Hilda graphic novel kicks off with a chase after a walking piece of turf with an elf home on its back, followed by a montage showing the young adventurer enjoying all that Trolberg’s weird and wonderful magic scene has to offer. And then it all comes crashing down as she takes one too many risks and gets grounded. Now a book about Hilda cooped up in her room would be quite dull, so it’s not long before Hilda, and her mum, get pulled through a magic portal and end up somewhere unknown but surrounded by trolls. What follows is a story of adventure, trust and running away from trolls. Lots of running away from trolls.

Like the other graphic novels, this focusses pretty much exclusively on Hilda and her family, with the other characters from the TV show (primarily David and Frida) getting very little to do, except in the montage, where we see them getting up to Shenanigans. This makes the world a little narrower, but allows us to focus on the title character, which is always fun.

Having Hilda’s mother around makes for a different dynamic too, as the two end up worrying about each other and trying to keep each other safe. And, in the end, strengthening their relationship. It’s a great story, even if it does end on a cliffhanger! The art remains adorable and suits the story perfectly. Thoroughly enjoyable.

Book details

ISBN: 9781911171713

Without A Summer

By Mary Robinette Kowal

Rating: 4 stars

I’ve thoroughly enjoyed Kowal’s Glamourist History series to date, and I’m pleased to say that that streak continues with the third in the series. This one is about prejudice, something that you don’t necessarily initially notice because it’s our series heroine and PoV character, Jane, who holds the prejudice.

Jane and Vincent are back from the continent, and after a period staying with her parents, they travel to London for work, and take Jane’s sister, Melody, with them, hoping to introduce her to eligible young gentlemen in the capital. But while there, they get caught up in a plot that goes to the highest echelons of government.

We encounter many forms of prejudice, and now that I think about it, not a small amount of pride as well, and the book clearly lays out the harms that it can do when your view of a person is predisposed to find the worst in their every action. We have the eligible young man that attracts Melody’s eye, eligible in every way except that he’s Irish and Catholic. And we have the distaste that Vincent’s father has for him and his profession. And caught up in all this are the innocent coldmongers, who are unable to ply their trade in the year without a summer, being used as pawns in a larger political game.

One thing I consistently like about these books is the relationship between Jane and Vincent. Much of the romance we see in media relies on the artificial drama of misunderstandings taken out of context and tearful reunions. The Vincents communicate constantly, and even when revelations from Vincent’s past come out, they’re able to talk them through and not let them drive a wedge between them. It’s so nice to see a healthy relationship portrayed here.

The worldbuilding continues to delight, with more details about the different types of glamourists, in particular the coldmongers. There was also a throwaway line referring to George III as the King of the “United Kingdom of Great Britain, Faerie and Ireland”, which is intriguing and I hope is covered more in future books. The magic, however, is mostly set-dressing (ironic, since that’s what the Vincents spend much of their time doing), and it’s the character interactions that are the real draw.

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The Paper Magician (The Paper Magician, #1)

By Charlie N. Holmberg

Rating: 4 stars

Ceony Twill graduated at the top of her class at magic, so is heartbroken when her dreams of being bonded to be able to work metal are crushed as she’s told she has to work with paper. But she finds her new teacher, Emery Thane, to be a kind and gentle man and that working with paper is actually quite marvellous, as she creates paper creatures that come to life, ghostly images from stories, and even tells the future. But then someone uses forbidden magic and literally rips Thane’s heart from his body, and Ceony has to find the heart-napper, and travel into her mentor’s very soul to save him.

I enjoyed this a lot, but having come from Holmberg’s Spellbreaker books, you could tell that this was an earlier novel. Her later books were more assured and the writing, and plotting, here felt a bit weaker. But the ideas are sound, and you’re always rooting for Ceony. There’s some cracking action scenes too, including a magic duel, which is genuinely thrilling.

There’s some interesting world-building here too. Nominally set in Edwardian England, around the turn of the 20th century, it’s more than the existence of magic that’s made this world diverge from history as we know it. There’s enough tantalising hints that I really want to know more about the world that Ceony and Emery inhabit. I will definitely be picking up the other books in this series.

Book details

ISBN: 9781477823835
Publisher: 47North
Year of publication: 2014

Titanic Terastructures

By Jessica Augustsson

Rating: 4 stars

This is a great theme for an anthology – collecting stories relating to one of SF’s oldest and fondest tropes – the Big Dumb Object. From space elevators to arcologies to planet-sized cities to Dyson swarms; if it’s a giant megastructure, chances are it’s featured in a story in this book.

I only heard about it because a friend has a story here but I liked the concept enough that it immediately went on my wishlist. One birthday later and it’s sitting on my shelf. There’s a great breadth within the twenty six stories here, and the best of them contrast the size of the structure with the small scale of the characters.

The first story, Honeysuckle for Ashes features a witch, complete with Wizard of Oz style flying house, who lives around a ringworld and the child who stows away when the witch comes to help her mother through a difficult pregnancy. It’s a nice story, but could really be set anywhere, with the ringworld being more backdrop than an important part of the story. Better, in that regard, is You Too Shall Pass, a fable about hope in the face of endless toil and loss, as blue-collar workers strive to build a bridge to a New Earth and what they have to give up along the way.

Highlights for me included The What-The Tree about an interruption to a cold-sleep journey to another star system; Haunting House about a house that’s haunting a shipyard, which I loved for its evocative worldbuilding and clever mystery; and And the House Did Watch Over All about a planet-wide House that’s slowly dying but still has an awareness that tries to help its inhabitants.

There’s more than a few pretty dark stories in the mix, but those too shall pass, and you’ll find yourself reading about living starships, senile giant houses or outsized spacebourne life. A mixed collection, but with the good definitely outweighing the bad for me.

Book details

ISBN: 9798758871829

The World of Poo (Discworld, #39.5)

By Terry Pratchett

Rating: 3 stars

A pleasant little book that’s much more interesting (and less scatological) than I feared it might be, given its subject. It’s got lots of small nods to other Discworld books, and its humour is gentle. An adult can read it in probably not more than an hour or so.

I kept expecting there to be some of Pratchett’s trademark sharpness and thoughtfulness, but it’s really not that kind of book. It really is just about a boy who’s visiting Ankh-Morpork and wants to collect all sorts of poo for his collection and the gentle adventures that he has, with help from his (very understanding!) grand-mama. En route, you learn about the history of toilets and the people who collected waste and what sorts of things get done with it.

The illustrations are lovely and fit the style very well. It’s a great book to give to a child (probably a boy) of just the right age, who can be entertained and learn a thing or two without realising it.

Book details

ISBN: 9780857521217
Publisher: Doubleday
Year of publication: 2012

Hilda and the Black Hound

By Luke Pearson

Rating: 5 stars

In another delightful slice of whimsy, this time Hilda befriends Tontu, a house spirit who’s down on his luck and she has to find out what’s causing havoc in the town of Trolberg and if it’s related to the sightings of the mysterious creature stalking the streets.

This volume does have David and Frida from the animated TV series in it, but more in passing than as characters in their own right, which is a bit of a shame, but that does allow the spotlight to remain on our favourite blue-haired adventurer herself. With her trademark sense of adventure, and moral compass pointing firmly at ‘kindness’, Hilda is a wonderful character and Pearson tells a delightful and heart-warming tale. Sure to delight children of all ages (including this forty-something).

Book details

ISBN: 9781911171072
Publisher: Flying Eye Books
Year of publication: 2017

Toccata System:

By Kate Sheeran Swed

Rating: 4 stars

Part of a SFWA StoryBundle, I really bought the whole thing for this, and it was totally worth it. Starting with a space station AI that raises a daughter to be an assassin to kill a man who spurned her, it picks that up and runs with it.

Interstellar travel is mentioned in the series, but this story is all set in the Toccata star system, in the planets, moons and space stations that inhabit that system. Each of the three novellas that comprise this series take different PoV characters, the first being Astra and the AI SATIS who raises her. SATIS sends Astra to kill Conor, the son of the man who turned her programming, years before, but Astra discovers that Conor, a genius in his own right, has a device that can jam AIs – Astra could be free of her tyrannical ‘mother’.

The second and third books see the fallout of Astra’s attempts, but focus on different PoV characters. Something I wasn’t expecting from a space opera was a Phantom of the Opera story. The second novella in the series is a clear homage to that, with opera divas with masks (well, veils), secret passages behind mirrors and setpieces involving chandeliers. This one also deals with cyborgs and the prejudice they face. It’s never clear just why this prejudice evolved, and I guess there’s not much space to get into that in a short-ish story like this one, but it would have been interesting. Still, humans have never found it difficult to divide people into Us and Them.

I’ve had a lot of fun in the Toccata system. The bonus short story also in this omnibus edition deals with Fay and how she ends up with SATIS, deepening her character considerably. I’ve signed up to the author’s mailing list to get another short story in the same universe and while I was on her website, I found details about Swed’s other work. Both her superhero series and new space opera sound like something worth reading.

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