Bookshops & Bonedust

By Travis Baldree

Rating: 5 stars

I adored Legends and Lattes when I read it last year, and while I was a bit worried about this prequel, it totally hits the same spot. In this one, Viv is just starting her adventuring career, and is merrily swinging her trusty sword when a wight stabs her in the leg, requiring several weeks of rest and recuperation. Her comrades deposit her in a sleepy seaside town while they continue their quest, and Viv ends up making the acquaintance of the local bookshop owner, Fern, in her personal quest to avoid boredom.

Given that we know Viv’s eventual destination, we know from the start that the friends that she makes in the little town of Murk will only be fleeting, but that doesn’t make it any the easier, for Viv or for the reader, to leave Fern, and Maylee, and Satchel and the others behind. But like Viv, we make the most of the time we spend with them.

As with its predecessor, this core of this book is in the relationships that the protagonist forms while she’s in town. With Fern, the bookshop owner, with whom she becomes firm friends; with Maylee, the baker, with whom she starts a shy romance; with Iridis, the watch leader, with whom she forms a mutual respect. And then there’s Satchel. I wasn’t expecting the bonedust of the title to be literal, but there’s a talking, book-loving skeleton right there.

There’s more magic in this book than the last one too. One criticism of Legends and Lattes was that it was a book about starting a small business wrapped in a thin veneer of fantasy. Well between Satchel, the book, and Varine (a necromancer and villain of the piece), I don’t think that can be said about this one, even if Viv does spend more time wielding a paintbrush than a sword.

The afterword talks about the book that Baldree had intended to write, a mystery story set in the same world, but with different characters. That didn’t work out this time, but it sounds like a story that I’d love to read.

In the meantime we have this. It’s cosy, a delight to read, and with a somewhat bittersweet ending, as Viv does, after all, leave Murk to continue the adventuring career that ends with her starting Legends & Lattes, twenty years down the line. We know where she ends up, but I loved this little window showing us one of the events that made her into the person she becomes.

Note: I got an advance copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Book details

ISBN: 9781035007387
Publisher: Tor Books

Central Station

By Lavie Tidhar

Rating: 5 stars

For me, books often fit into two moulds – either heavy plot driven where I skim the actual words in my excitement to find out what happens next, or slow and lyrical, where the plot is almost secondary to the language, which has to read slowly and savoured. For me, Ray Bradbury was a master of the latter form and whenever I find books of that type, it’s always to Bradbury that I compare them. And Central Station passes that test with aplomb. I was hooked within the first few pages and despite there not being much of a plot, that feeling stayed with me throughout.

In some ways, the book is a love letter to the great science fiction and writers of the 20th century. There’s references to CL Moore’s Shambleau; Cordwainer Smith’s Instrumentality of Mankind; Larry Niven’s Louis Wu and several others (and how many did I miss through not recognising the reference?). But the book is more than just nods to great writers of the past, it takes all those threads and weaves something beautiful from them. Central Station itself – a giant spaceport built between the cities of Tel Aviv and Jaffa – is a wonderful creation that will stick in the memory long after you put the book down.

The world-building is deft, slotted in between the glorious language as we explore the Station, the city and the characters who inhabit it. There’s Boris Chong, who’s returned from the Up and Out (itself such a Cordwainer Smith phrase) as his father is ill, with a sort of memory cancer; there’s Kranki, a lab-grown boy who’s more than the sum of his parts; and Carmel, a data vampire, drawn to Central Station by something she doesn’t understand. And that’s only a handful of the many characters that Tidhar makes us care about, in a fairly short book.

We see into their lives and how they cross and intersect both in the physical and the digital realms, through the ubiquitous network known simply as The Conversation. Everyone gets a node implanted at birth and it’s part of them as they grow. Those who don’t have one (like Miriam’s brother) are considered disabled, and lesser. Many things have changed in the future, but fear and distaste of those different to ourselves is still very much part of humanity and its digital descendants.

It’s not an entirely perfect book, I would have liked a stronger plot to weave these characters together, but I enjoyed my time spent with them all and would definitely add Central Station to my list of fictional megastructures to visit, given the opportunity.

Book details

ISBN: 9781616962142

Light from Uncommon Stars

By Ryka Aoki

Rating: 5 stars

Seven times seven years ago, Shizuka Satomi made a deal with the devil. This has resulted in her needing to find seven souls to send to hell so that she can escape. She’s trained up six prodigious violin students and sent them all packing. Katrina Nguyen is to be the seventh. But it’s not going to be as easy as that, as Shizuka ends up taking Katrina to live with her, as she’s trans and has escaped an abusive parental home. Shizuka finds herself beginning to care more for her student than she should. And that’s not the only relationship she’s starting – she starts to fall for Lan Tran, who runs Starrgate Donuts, who is the captain of a starship and an interstellar refugee, along with her family.

I honestly don’t know how this book works. It mixes demons and curses with interstellar empires and stargates, but somehow, like one of Aunty Floresta’s doughnuts, it’s perfect. I never really questioned the the way that the two things intermingled, and neither, really, did the characters. That’s not really what the book is about – it’s about love, and all the different forms that can take. Falling in love with a new partner, the love of family, the love of food and of music. Those last two play a huge role in the book as well. Obviously, the plot is about a student learning to play the violin, but even for someone like me with a tin ear and no knowledge of classical (or any other sort of) music, it evoked a kind of awe.

And the food! Well, the sweet stuff was great, but there’s a lot of different kinds of East Asian cooking here, and it’s quite strongly meat-based, so for a vegetarian like me, it could sometimes be a bit much, but it’s all very lovingly described, even if I had to skim some of it.

My heart broke constantly as we followed Katrina’s story, dealing with an abusive dad, sex work and trying not to be noticed, because she’s afraid of what will happen when she’s noticed. I honestly just wanted to hug her. Katrina’s story is hard to read, but I suspect it’s not uncommon, in her world or in ours. Most people just want to be people. They want to play their music; go out dancing; talk about the things that bring them joy; and sometimes just use the loo. And the folks who want to do a close up examination of their genitals before letting them pee need to take a long, hard look at their own lives.

One of the great joys of the book is seeing Katrina start to blossom when she comes under Shizuka’s care (and that of her housekeeper, Astrid). But it’s still a joy mingled with sadness, and a lot of anger. Katrina is just being given what any of us should get by default: respect and kindness. That she feels she doesn’t deserve it, and keeps waiting for the other shoe to drop, is heartbreaking. But her new family doesn’t give up on her, and that, too, is a source of joy.

And then we have the Tran family. Interstellar refugees, with their captain and matriarch, Lan, at the helm. They have their own problems, not least with angry teenage son Markus, but they pull together as a family, and as their lives intertwine with Shizuka and her family, something new, and beautiful, is created.

All that is a lot of waffling to try to get under the skin of this amazing book. The characters are a joy to spend time with; Aoki creates such presence around the music and the food; and her writing has such a light touch. I was welling up constantly, and sometimes punching the air. I don’t know why this hasn’t won every damned (pun intended) award this side of Ganymede! Read it, you won’t be sorry (unless you’re a bigot, in which you can fall into the sun).

Book details

ISBN: 9781250789082

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

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