BooksOfTheMoon

Glamour in Glass (Glamourist Histories, #2)

By Mary Robinette Kowal

Rating: 4 stars

Jane and David Vincent are newlywed, deeply in love, partners in work as well as life and with the favour of the Prince Regent. Life looks good as they go on honeymoon to Belgium to see one of Vincent’s old friends and colleagues. But this is a Europe only just coming out of war. Napoleon may be conquered but he has many allies on the continent. The Vincents find themselves amongst all this, and worse, when Vincent is captured, leaving Jane as the only one who can save him.

I really enjoyed Shades of Milk and Honey and this continuation of the Vincents’ story was just as enjoyable. The blurb for the book played up the kidnapping, but in actual fact, that was a relatively short section towards the end, with most of it being spent focusing on their life together, Jane finding herself pregnant, and her increasing worry about being cut of of Vincent’s life.

The rules of this world are that women can’t do glamour when they’re pregnant. It’s not clear if that’s a solid rule, or if it’s something with some flexibility (like not drinking alcohol), but Jane sticks to it and starts to fear that because she can’t be her husband’s creative partner any more, he’s stopped valuing her. Kowal does a good job of setting up Jane’s fear and the reasons for it, but I never entirely believed it, seeing Vincent with somewhat clearer vision, even through Jane’s eyes.

The period setting is good. I wasn’t entirely convinced by the last book, but this one had me sucked right in. Kowal’s writing is noticeably improved, even between her first and second novel

I’m now fully invested in Jane and Vincent’s life and can’t wait to dig into the next book.

Book details

Publisher: Corsair
Year of publication: 2013

Shades of Milk and Honey (The Glamourist Histories, #1)

By Mary Robinette Kowal

Rating: 4 stars

Jane Ellsworth is an accomplished, but plain, young woman in Regency England. Her father has put aside enough money to ensure good dowries for her and her sister, but she isn’t sure that she’ll ever find a man to marry her, no matter her dowry, or how good her ability with glamour is.

This book wears its Jane Austen influences on its sleeve. From the very first page, it riffs on Pride and Prejudice, inviting the reader to note the similarities and differences. The biggest difference, of course, is the existence of magic in this world, in the form of glamour – the power of illusion, of drawing it from the ether and forming it into shapes, sounds and even smells. Jane’s ability at glamour incites jelousy in her sister, Melody, as much as Melody’s beauty does with Jane, although Melody, the younger sister, is more willing to show it.

I’m a great fan of Pride and Prejudice, and this homage to that world, while adding its own magical twist delighted me. It captured the spirit of Austen’s work very well, although at times the writing didn’t entirely feel authentic. Although that can be forgiven given that this is Kowal’s debut novel. Although the worldbuilding is broad, it’s done well and gives you the information you need.

We get everything we expect in a Regency novel, and then some – we get a ball, gossip, jealousy, a wayword younger sister and even a duel! Jane is a delightful protagonist (I mean, she’s no Elizabeth Bennett, but then, who is?). It’s fun trying to figure out which of the men in the novel will be the Mr Darcy to her Lizzy. Will it be the charming neighbour? Or the childhood friend? Or maybe the new glamourist hired by their aristocratic neighbour?

This was a lot of fun as a homage to Austen’s work and I’m really curious to see where it goes next. The world is really interesting, so now that we’ve had the homage, I look forward to something more off the beaten track.

Book details

The House in the Cerulean Sea

By T.J. Klune

Rating: 4 stars

I’m not sure this is a book that I would have found on my own, but I got a recommendation from a Glasgow in 2024 online conversation on anthologies. This book isn’t an anthology, but one of the people involved, Ann VanderMeer, spoke very highly of it.

I must confess that it didn’t start entirely promisingly for me. Our protagonist, Linus Baker is a bureaucrat. He’s a case worker in the Department in Charge of Magical Youth, reviewing orphanages for magical children to make sure that they’re suitable and up to code. He lives by the Rules and Regulations and prides himself on not getting too close to any of the people he reviews, as that Wouldn’t Be Proper. In the evenings he comes home to his cat, and listens to his records. But his latest assignment sees him sent to Marsyas Island where the rules break down and regulations are more like recommendations.

I found Linus (sorry, Mr Baker) frustratingly wet and somewhat incompetent at first. He’s given the files for the children of the orphanage and told not to read them until he gets off the train at his destination. He reads the first one, and then fails to read the others until after he’s he’s surrounded by the children, being shocked and surprised by their abilities again and again. Something that wouldn’t have happened if he’d got over himself and just read the damn files.

Still, he does grow on you, as do the kids at the orphanage. And its master, Arthur Parnassus. The latter isn’t quite presented in a sunbeam, in soft focus, when we first meet him, but he might as well be. The romance between him and Linus is signposted a mile off. It’s awkward and you roll your eyes a bit, but it’s sweet.

This is a story of found family, and love, but also fear and xenophobia. Marsyas is an island, and the nearby village on the mainland fears and resents the orphanage. In this, they’re encouraged by the government, with signs reading things like “See something, say something”. It’s not exactly a subtle metaphor for the post-9/11 era, but it makes its point.

I was pretty much won over in the end. It has issues (lack of subtlety being the main one), but it’s a sweet and wholesome book, with a lot of charm.

Book details

ISBN: 9781250217318
Publisher: Tor Books
Year of publication: 2020

The Rosie Project (Don Tillman, #1)

By Graeme Simsion

Rating: 3 stars

Having decided he wants to get married, Professor Don Tillman creates a very detailed questionnaire that he intends to use to weed out the unsuitable from his dating pool (which is most people). And Rosie definitely doesn’t fit the bill. But inevitably, as they spend more time together, they’re drawn closer.

Even after a few days of thinking it over, I’m not really sure what to make of this romantic comedy about a neuroatypical man looking for love. While the author usually shows affection for his protagonist, I can’t help shake the feeling that just occasionally, he’s inviting us to laugh at Don, rather than at the absurd situations he finds himself in. And that makes me uncomfortable. Other than that, it’s a fairly standard boy-meets-girl story of the kind I usually actually quite enjoy. But the fact that the protagonist was on the Autism spectrum and that the author didn’t really deal with that bothered me.

I mean, I guess that could have been the point – just because someone is on the spectrum doesn’t mean they’re so different that they don’t want to find love, and that the ASD was beside the point, but I feel that it should have come up somewhere. There’s a sequence near the start where Don, a professor of genetics, researches and delivers a talk about Aspergers (covering for a friend) but he never seems to associate it with himself. This can only be a deliberate authorial choice, but I don’t understand the point he was making.

The other characters don’t get much in the way of characterisation. Love interest Rosie feels a bit like a manic pixie dream girl with daddy issues. There’s the philandering friend and the dean who’s more obsessed with keeping the money coming in than academic rigour. These characters do get a certain amount of re-evaluation by the end of the book but I still struggled to sympathise with anyone in it.

I feel I’ve been a bit negative in this review, but I did smile, and even laugh occasionally. As I say, the core trope that the book fits into is one that I like, but this implementation was flawed.

Book details

ISBN: 9781405912792
Publisher: Penguin
Year of publication: 2014

To Say Nothing of the Dog (Oxford Time Travel, #2)

By Connie Willis

Rating: 4 stars

Ned Henry is suffering from time lag from too many drops into the past too quickly. Taking pity on him, his supervisor offers him a couple of weeks in the nineteenth century, just as long as he does one simple task first. It’s just a shame that Ned’s too time-lagged to remember what that was. And if he doesn’t, the whole of history could unravel.

I’m really glad I read Doomsday Book before I read this. Not because it needs it – there’s almost no connection between the two books other than the setting and the character of Mr Dunworthy – but because if I’d read them the other way around, I would probably get shellshock at the drastically different tones the two books have. The former is a serious, quite dark at times, tome about survival and plague, while this is a jaunty romantic comedy. And while, the former was good, this is good and enjoyable to read too.

Three Men in a Boat is explicitly referenced, as Ned spends time in a boat on the Thames (yes, with a dog) but it reminded me more of P. G. Wodehouse‘s farces. There’s definitely something of the Awful Aunt about Lady Schrapnell and the star-crossed lovers really need Jeeves to sort them out.

Detective fiction of the era (Christie, Sayers etc) are referenced as well, and the trope of the first crime actually turning out to be the second crime. This is something that resonates at the end, when resident boffin TJ drops something that could change how we view the whole set of what’s just happened. It’s a nice little coda to the story, to suggest that the universe is not only weirder than we think, but weirder than we can believe.

Once I got past the awful Lady Schrapnell and Ned was safely in the Victorian era, I thoroughly enjoyed this novel. It was fairly gentle, and although the stakes were theoretically quite high, it never felt like history was in any real danger – and this isn’t a bad thing, it let me enjoy Ned and Verity’s adventures in the Victorian era, complete with eccentric professor, ex-colonel, domineering matriarch, scatterbrained friend and highly competent butlers. A rocking great read that never felt nearly long as its actual 500+ pages.

Book details

ISBN: 9780575113121
Publisher: Gollancz
Year of publication: 2013

The Best of All Possible Worlds

By Karen Lord

Rating: 5 stars

This is a remarkably sweet and uplifting book for a story that starts with genocide. The planet of Sidira is destroyed, leaving only small groups of survivors. One of these groups is resettled on the planet of Cygnus Beta, a world that prides itself on welcoming all those who seek refuge. A government civil servant, Grace Delarua, is seconded to help the new settlement. When the colony decides to scour the planet looking for those with genetic heritage from their world, to help rebuild their society, Grace is assigned to travel with a group, including Dllenahkh, one of the Sidiri leaders.

There’s not a huge amount of plot to this book, it’s mostly a travelogue through various societies on Cygnus Beta, having minor adventures en route. It’s the characters that shine through. The warmth with which they’re portrayed is delightful, especially given the awful nature of the event that brought them there. The Sidiri are known as an intellectual and thoughtful people, not prone to burst of emotion (I pictured them as slightly more laid back Vulcans) and the dry wit that Dllenahkh shows, and his surprisingly tender romance with Delarua is a pleasure to read.

This also feels very much like a book for our times, showing us an example of how a society should handle those in need of refuge: with grace and open arms. In a world where more and more countries are turning their backs on their fellow peoples, we need to be reminded of the alternative. Where the host encourages those who come to them to develop and grow and become they best they can be, while those who take up that offer in turn grow into their host culture, while maintaining their own traditions.

The focus here is very much on Cygnus Beta, with only minor hints being dropped in about the wider galactic society and the four peoples (including Terrans) who make up humanity as a whole. The world-building is nicely done, and slides neatly into the story.

This isn’t a flashy novel, but it’s one that I found has worked its way into my heart without me really noticing. I cared about the characters and their relationships, which, to me, means the book is a success.

Book details

ISBN: 9781780871684
Publisher: Jo Fletcher Books
Year of publication: 2014

Fanny Hill: Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure

By John Cleland

Rating: 3 stars

I must confess that when I picked this up (on the basis purely of a positive review I’d read), I knew it was supposed to be risqué but I was convinced that a book written in the middle 1700s couldn’t be that risqué. I was wrong. Fanny has a homosexual experience within the first dozen pages and goes on to meet and enjoy men in pretty graphic fashion fairly soon afterwards.

I suppose I shouldn’t be too surprised, it’s not that people haven’t been having, thinking, drawing, talking and writing about sex since the start of our species, I just wasn’t expecting it in written and published form in this period.

The book is in epistolary format and can be quite frustrating at times, with lots of long, run-on sentences and nested clauses (not helped by the Gutenberg text I was reading having quite a lot of typos). I sometimes found it difficult to tease out meaning from them. But if you can work through that, it’s enjoyable enough. While not explicitly naming genitals or acts, your euphemism vocabulary will certainly grow, and it can be quite fun spotting the more outrageous metaphors.

I also like that although there’s a moral at the end where Fanny disclaims her past, it’s not a moralistic book in that nothing bad happens to her. She’s allowed to enjoy sex and still get her happy ending.

Book details

Year of publication: 1748

A Pocketful of Crows

By Joanne M. Harris

Rating: 3 stars

I started this book back in the summer, but put it down for a long period because I could see what was coming and it felt “cringe-y”. I did eventually pick it up again, and I’m glad I did. As much as anything, the writing is poetic and beautiful to read, as much as for the story.

Our protagonist is a young woman of the travelling folk, who travels in all manner of birds and beasts, not tied to anyone or anything. Until she falls in love with a young prince. An inevitable betrayal and revenge follows, but it’s the journey that it takes that is worth staying for.

Based on some of the Child ballads, the story is simple enough, and Harris’s embellishments and feminist reading make for an interesting interpretation. As I say, the writing is a pleasure to read, and helps raise the fairly simple story to something greater. Also, the art, even in my Kindle edition, is gorgeous.

Book details

Publisher: Gollancz
Year of publication: 2017

This is How You Lose the Time War

By Amal El-Mohtar, Max Gladstone

Rating: 4 stars

I read this novella immediately after finishing The Girl Who Could Move Sh*t With her Mind and the contrast couldn’t be more extreme. From the short, clean prose and breathless action of the former to the leisurely pace and beautifully crafted letters of this, about the only thing the two have in common is the short chapters.

Red and Blue are agents on opposing sides of a war that rages through time. Against orders and, indeed, common sense, they strike up a correspondence that slowly turns into something more.

The time war is very much a background to the evolving relationship between Red and blue. In the early chapters they taunt each other after after thwarting the other’s plans, but the tone of the letters shifts as the backgrounds do and the reader comes to care for these two extraordinary individuals as they come to care for each other.

I loved reading this book. The language is beautiful and is something to savour. Short as it is, it took a while to read it first time round, partially because of a lack of time, and partially because I was reading it slowly. After finishing it, I went back and read it again, much more quickly, which gave me a stronger overall view of it, and the references which had passed me by the first time (as I’d forgotten the details of the earlier chapter by the time I got to the payoff later).

The two sides in the war are mostly stereotypical views of opposing SF worldviews: the technological Agency vs the Garden of bioengineering. While I would love to know more about them and the war, that’s not this book. This book is all about Red and Blue and paints them as a microcosm for the wider conflict. If you accept that, this is a very rewarding read.

Book details

ISBN: 9781529405231
Publisher: Jo Fletcher Books
Year of publication: 2019

The Unlikely Heroics of Sam Holloway

By Rhys Thomas

Rating: 4 stars

I must confess that this tale of a troubled young man who dresses as a superhero to avoid dealing with trauma in his past isn’t the sort of thing I would normally read. But it got a glowing review in a magazine I usually trust and I’m a sucker for a good romance.

Sam is an average guy with a nice house, some nice friends who are as equally socially awkward as he is, and a decent job. He also dresses up a few times a week to fight crime (well, help old ladies across the street, give young kids a heart to heart, and help drunks out of graves, mostly). And then Sarah walks into his life and things will change forever.

Sam is a likeable guy, probably on the spectrum and some aspects of his life hit a little too close to the mark for me personally. His awkwardness around Sarah felt completely authentic and once they did eventually get together, there’s still a lot of tension because you’re just waiting for the secrets to come out and for things to go horribly wrong.

When I were a lad, romances tended to be built up throughout the book and resolved with the couple getting together in time for the climax (so to speak). Whereas here, and possibly in modern romance more generally (like I say, it’s not usually my genre), they get together by the middle of the book, and then things fall apart. In that sense, it reminds me of the film La La Land, although it has a very different thematic ending to that film.

The characterisation of Sam is excellent, although his two friends, with the somewhat unlikely nicknames of Tango and Blotchy, are much less well served. Even Sarah feels like she could have had a better treatment. Of all people, I was surprised that Sam’s boss, Mr Okamatsu, got a lot of attention.

This is a powerful story about grief, loneliness, kindness and love. It’s a very quick read and left me with a number of emotions. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to hug my nephlings.

Book details

ISBN: 9781472248145
Publisher: Wildfire
Year of publication: 2018

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