The Very Secret Society of Irregular Witches

By Sangu Mandanna

Rating: 5 stars

Found family, check. Romance, check. Cosy, check. This book ticks pretty much all my boxes at the moment – there’s even an Northern Irish love interest! I thought I’d enjoy it from the description, and it turns out that I adored it!

Mika Moon is a witch who follows The Rules. She keeps her head down and doesn’t get too attached. She even only sees other witches once every few months, for a few hours. She’s repeatedly told by her guardian that it’s the only way for witches to be safe, and she’s become used to being lonely. And then she’s asked to tutor three young witches, and unwillingly finds a group of people who she can trust and open up to. Not to mention the glowering, but handsome, librarian who’s dragged kicking and screaming into unwillingly admitting a mutual attraction.

I loved Mika as a protagonist. I love the trope of a closed off person, unwilling to love and be loved, finding a person or persons who will love them unconditionally. Here, Mika meets not only librarian Jamie, but Ian and Ken, a couple who have been together for decades, and Lucie, the mother hen of the group, as well as the three children who she comes to care for immensely. Mika finding her place in the family made my heart grow three sizes.

What peril there is in the book is very mild, with almost nothing bad happening. The main antagonist is a lawyer (sounds about right), and the racist, homophobic gammon is set against the beautiful diversity of Mika and her new family. There’s never any doubt as to who’s going to come out on top, and a lot of satisfaction in seeing how he’s dealt with.

It may be too saccharine for some, but there’s enough darkness in Mika’s childhood and early life to balance that for me, and make me feel she really deserves the life she ends up with.

Book details

Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton

Legends & Lattes

By Travis Baldree

Rating: 5 stars

I’ve heard a lot of good things, all of them, it turns out, well deserved about this cosiest of cosy fantasy stories. Viv, an Orc fighter, has had enough of the adventuring life, and decides to settle down and open a coffee shop. In a city where nobody has ever heard of coffee.

This is not a high-stakes, world-shattering story. The worst threat here is an annoying ex-colleague, and the local crime lord, who’s after protection money. It was an absolute delight to read: I loved Viv, her assistant Tandri, carpenter Cal, little ratkin baker Thimble and the rest of the found family that Viv gathers around herself. It’s a warm, comforting and, yes, cosy read.

It’s very different to the last book I read, The Kaiju Preservation Society, but I think reading them back to back was entirely appropriate. Both are immensely fun, with strong friendships at the core of them, and a very warm heart. I thoroughly enjoyed KPS, but I had to stop myself from going back and starting this one right from the start as soon as I’d finished it.

My volume also came with a bonus short story at the end, which tells the story of how Viv became obsessed with coffee in the first place, which was pretty nice, and fleshed out her previous adventuring party a bit, especially Gallina.

Personally, I’m a tea drinker and don’t get the fuss about coffee, although sometimes I sort of wish I did. Then I see the prices and feel happy about sticking with my tea (Earl Grey, hot). I’d hang around Viv’s place at the drop of a hat though, even if it’s just for Thimble’s delectable baked goods.

Book details

ISBN: 9781035007301
Publisher: Tor
Year of publication: 2022

The Kaiju Preservation Society

By John Scalzi

Rating: 5 stars

For a Covid book, this was an immense amount of fun! Written in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic, when attempts to write a serious novel failed, Scalzi turned his mind to giant, radioactive creatures instead, and an organisation that goes out of its way to preserve from the real monsters (spoiler: it’s us. It’s always us).

Jamie Gray gets fired from his job at a tech startup just as the pandemic hits. Delivering take-out, he runs into an acquaintance from the past who offers him a job with the mysterious “KPS” that involves long tours away from home. Jamie jumps at it and is eventually inducted into the Kaiju Preservation Society (that’s not a spoiler, it’s literally the name of the book!).

As Scalzi says in the afterword, this is a pop song, it’s light and catchy and you can tell just how much fun the author had in writing this book, because I had exactly the same reaction in reading it. In the first handful of chapters alone, I was laughing out loud with delight (in public, I might add). I love the nerds he ends up hanging out with (even if making the Irish one the angriest is a bit stereotypical. I mean, it’s not necessarily wrong…).

The one thing that nagged me all the way through was the kaijus’ “parasites”. The way that they were described, the relationship between them and the giant beasties themselves is more symbiotic than parasitic, since both parties benefit, and you could say that they co-evolved together. But that’s a minor nerd issue.

This is a riot of a book that’s a pure joy to read. Recommended to anyone who loves quippy, clever people, sciencing around giant monsters (that’s all of us, right?).

Book details

ISBN: 9781509835317

The Uninvited

By Dorothy Macardle

Rating: 5 stars

I’m not usually into ghost or haunted house stories, but the Hugo Girls did this for a Halloween special and I liked the sound of it enough to stop the podcast, order the book and only picked up the podcast again once I’d read it.

Set in the 1930s, it follows Roderick and Pamela Fitzgerald, half-Irish siblings who have just bought a house on the Devon coast, for a fraction of what it’s worth. What the owner, the formidable Commander Brooke doesn’t tell them is that it’s rumoured to be haunted, and that his granddaughter, Stella, is at the heart of the whole thing.

Something I found interesting here was the treatment of ghosts and haunting as almost a scientific phenomenon. This fits with the attitudes in the first half of the twentieth century and a boundless optimism and faith in science. It reminded me of William Hope Hodgeson’s Carnaki the Ghost Finder and his famous electric pentacle, which is another more scientific take on ghost stories. So I was treating it more of a mystery or SF story than horror.

I really enjoyed the relationships in the book, well, most of them – I did think grown man Roddy falling for teenager Stella was a bit creepy, but it’s mostly covered by the product-of-its-time filter. That is something that just happened a lot more in the past. I loved the relationship between Roddy and his sister, Pamela. They obviously care for each other a lot, and have a healthy, trusting relationship.

The ghostly stuff doesn’t really start until about half way and the first half is mostly taken up with buying and fitting out the house, as well as lots and lots of eating and meeting folk in the village. It’s really pleasant reading, actually. It makes you like the house and root for the Fitzgeralds and want them to save their home.

As I say, it’s not at all the sort of book I normally read, but I thoroughly enjoyed it. Great recommendation (and everyone should listen to Hugo, Girl, they’re awesome!).

Book details

ISBN: 9780992817077
Publisher: Tramp Press
Year of publication: 2015

Terminal Alliance (Janitors of the Post-Apocalypse, #1)

By Jim C. Hines

Rating: 5 stars

Despite the blurb describing this as a “hilarious” book, it’s much more serious than I was expecting from a group of space janitors accidentally being left in charge of a spaceship, while still being an awful lot of fun to read. I was expecting the out and out comedy of something like Red Dwarf, but Marion “Mops” Adamopoulos and her crew are remarkably competent.

The book is set after the zombie apocalypse on Earth, where humanity pretty much destroyed itself. The alien Krakau discovered and started curing us, in exchange for helping fight in their Alliance’s war against the Prodryans. Mops is head of the hygiene and sanitation team aboard the EMCS Pufferfish (I do like how the Earth warships are named after the most deadly things on the planet, including the EMCS Mantis Shrimp, the EMCS Hippopotamus and, my favourite, the EMCS Honey Badger) and after a battle, her team is the only one unaffected by a bioweapon that undoes the cure, reverting humans to shambling biters. They have to save their crew, learn to work the ship, and stop the weapon being unleashed throughout human space.

Like I said, I was expecting an out and out farce, but the book is played much straighter than I was expecting (notwithstanding the Clippy-like Puffy, who appears to offer tutorials on how to work the ship (“It looks like you’re trying to fire the weapons. Would you like some help…?”). The menace is real, and the aliens are all interesting and well-created species. When they try to contact Command for help, they’re basically told that they can’t afford to take any chances with the bioweapon and that the affected crew will be “put down”. This is what prompts Mops to effectively hijack her own ship to try and save her crewmates.

The worldbuilding is intriguing, the rest of Mops’ crew are all good characters, even if they don’t get the same characterisation as Mops herself. There’s the ex-marine, Munroe, with an intelligent prosthetic arm; Kumar, who reads technical manuals for fun; and Wolf, young and eager to fight.

There’s some major revelations towards the end of the book and it’ll be really interesting to see if Hines can pull off the consequences for the rest of the series. Either way, I enjoyed this a lot and I’m looking forward to more adventures of the Pufferfish and her motley crew.

Book details

Year of publication: 2017

Mulliner Nights

By P.G. Wodehouse

Rating: 5 stars

With this book, The Angler’s Rest joins The White Hart and Callahan’s as pubs that I wish were real and where I’d love to hang out and listen in on the regulars’ conversations. In the Angler’s Rest, Mr Mulliner holds court and regales the patrons with unlikely stories of his extended family, giving us the funny (sometimes laugh out loud funny), warm and gentle humour that Wodehouse was famed for.

I’ve not encountered the Mulliner stories before but on the strength of this, I’ll certainly be on the lookout for the others! These are Wodehouse at his finest, whether it’s a private detective with a disconcerting smile, quests for strawberries in winter, love found over murder mysteries or fear of headmasters, you’re drawn into the stories almost with a sensation of glee. You know what you get with Wodehouse and each story is short enough that it can’t get too convoluted and silly. If you’re at all fond of his bumbling heroes and improbable situations, this comes highly recommended.

Book details

Publisher: Barrie & Jenkins London
Year of publication: 1980

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 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

The Angel of the Crows

By Katherine Addison

Rating: 5 stars

This Holmes-inspired story wears its influences very clearly on its sleeve, even siting its angelic detective at 221 (not 221b!) Baker Street. In a world where angels are tied to individual buildings, or have Fallen, and wreck devastation on whole countries, Crow is unusual (unique?) in that he is free to wander the city of London and offers his services as a private consulting detective as the Angel of London as a whole. Into his world comes Dr Watson Doyle, wounded by an attack of a Fallen angel in Afghanistan, and Doyle soon ends up helping Crow in his investigations.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book! As I say, it wears its influences clear on its sleeve, and most of Crow and Doyle’s adventures are clearly based on the first three Sherlock Holmes novels, with a few based on the short stories. Into the mix is also added Jack the Ripper, as Crow searches, increasingly desperately, for the famous killer.

There’s a pretty wide fantasy element to the world that Addison has created here. In addition to angels, most other creatures of folklore and fantasy are present as well, from werewolves and vampires to hell-hounds and fetches. I love how all of these have integrated into society and are just part of everyday life. We don’t get a huge amount of detail – although vampires make a fairly robust appearance – but they’re just there, as part of the world.

Crow is a much more sympathetic and, indeed, empathetic character than other versions of Sherlock Holmes – especially the Benedict Cumberbatch incarnation, where he explicitly calls himself a sociopath. This iteration has an irrepressible curiosity about humanity (Crow regularly watches Doyle eat, as an activity that he can’t partake in) and while eccentric, is a pleasure to spend time with.

Dr Doyle is also an interesting creation, coming back from Afghanistan with multiple secrets. At least one of those took me entirely by surprise. At some point, I’m going to have to reread the book to see if there’s any clues left for the observant reader that I had missed.

Some people might complain about just how close the mysteries are to the Conan Doyle canon, with added supernatural elements, but I actually really enjoyed that. My memories of the Holmes stories aren’t that strong, so it’s nice seeing how Addison works in the additional elements to them and the end is also usually a surprise. There’s a lot of Easter eggs for the Holmes fan to find here.

Another of Addison’s supernatural elements that I really liked was the idea of how the angels are tied to their habitations and how their names reflect that, and that to lose that involves returning to the realm of the Nameless – angels without distinct personalities that Crow implies have a sort of hive mind, without any distinct self-awareness. It’s a fascinating idea, and while Addison doesn’t really do much with it, other than describe it, if there are more Crow and Doyle books to come (which I fervently hope there are), that’s certainly somewhere that she could go.

So while the stories that Addison tells may be familiar, her detective is wonderful, and the world she’s created is intriguing and I loved every minute I spent in it.

Book details

ISBN: 9781781089101
Publisher: Solaris
Year of publication: 2021

A Master of Djinn (Dead Djinn, #1)

By P. Djèlí Clark

Rating: 5 stars

It’s early 20th century Cairo, where magic was released back into the world a generation earlier by the Soudanese inventor and mystic, al-Jahiz, who promptly disappeared. A rich Englishman and his secretive brotherhood are found murdered, and a man claiming to be al-Jahiz is roaming Cairo and claiming responsibility. Agent Fatma es-Sha’arawi works with the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities and is called on to the case.

I’m quite glad I read the first short story set in this world – A Dead Djinn in Cairo – before this. It would probably work fine on its own, but this book does reference the events of that story, and Siti, a core player here, is first introduced to Fatma in the short.

To cut to the chase, I loved this book. Firstly, Cairo feels real and distinctive. I’ve read a few books recently set in “exotic” locations and they never felt distinctive or different. Many of them could be set in Anyville, Genericshire. Whereas Clark makes Cairo come alive and makes me feel that I’m definitely not in London, or New York, which is a big win, in my book.

I loved our protagonist, agent Fatma, as well. The youngest graduate of the academy, who dresses not in Ministry uniform but in sharp Western-style three-piece suits, complete with bowler hat and swordcane. I picture her as a young John Steed, only, you know, female and Arabic. It’s not just Fatma’s dress sense that’s sharp – her wits and her eyes miss little. Here, she’s partnered with rookie agent Hadia, and while we get a bit of the grumpy mentor/rookie stereotype, thankfully that melts away quickly, as Hadia works hard to prove herself. With endless stories stories about endless cousins, and a wit to match Fatma, Hadia is a fun character. And then there’s Siti, Fatma’s lover, and worshipper of Hathor, one of the ancient Egyptian gods. She’s another great character and some of her secrets get revealed during the course of the story.

One of the things I really enjoyed about the book was the emotional maturity of the characters. When secrets come out, there are no shouting matches and nobody storms off. There might be hurt and mistrust, but they don’t just walk away from each other, they stay and work it out. After having read a few YA novels recently with the emotions turned up to eleven, and where people refuse to talk about their feelings, it was refreshing change.

The world of Cairo in the early 20th century, with djinn and other magical creatures is fascinating too. Egypt is a world player now, having overthrown the British, with djinn help, and Cairo rivals Paris and London as world centres. We also get glimpses of what’s happening elsewhere – other native magic traditions are helping colonised peoples around the world to throw off their colonial overlords, and the world is changing.

I can’t wait to read more set in the same world, and look forward to meeting agent Fatma, and her fabulous suits, again soon.

Book details

ISBN: 9780356516882
Publisher: Orbit
Year of publication: 2021

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