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Review – The Phantom Tree

The Phantom Tree, Historical Fantasy by Nicola Cornick

My rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Alison and Mary are linked across time, both struggling with their own present troubles as well as tragically weighed down by the past. Alison moreso than Mary, but they are both orphans. Being touched by the supernatural only seems to complicate things, though Alison is a sharp survivor who turns it to her advantage, and Mary eventually comes to accept it in herself.

I am an extremely soft mark for this book. On more than one point. Time travel appeals to everyone. I don’t see how it can fail to do so. We all have things we wish undone, or we feel displaced and wish for a brighter better future, or even a simpler past. (Although much as I love history, I don’t believe the past was ever simpler or easier than the present day.)

I’ve always loved the phrase, “the past is a different country.” For all that the two women’s accounts take place in the same geographical country, they are in very different places. That juxtaposition serves to show how much they have in common as the story progresses. Particularly when the action cranks up in the latter third, when answers come in a satisfying avalanche.

Although Mary is resilient, wispy, and delightfully self-aware, Alison is my favourite. She’s strong and smart enough to know that being nice is a luxury that she can’t afford. Consumed by the loss of her son and living in an impossible emotional situation, the fact that she can keep going is inspiring.

There’s a continuous theme of yearning for things that have passed, or simply wishing for them to have gone differently or contributed to a better present. Six or so years after my RA diagnosis, I still find myself prey to these sorts of thoughts. This book portrays the emotions involved in a beautifully genuine way, while anchoring itself and everyone involved in the reality that one cannot undo anything. Acceptance is the true goal.

The Phantom Tree is a lovely piece of historical fiction generously coloured by the supernatural elements. It feels true, which is one of the things that makes this genre is so intriguing.

(I received an ARC from NetGalley in return for an honest review.)

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Review – Pugs of the Frozen North

Pugs of the Frozen North, funny Fantasy by Philip Reeve, illustrations by Sarah McIntyre

My rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Thus far, my experience with Philip Reeve has mainly been reading the Larklight series two or three times. This is also a charming book full of confidently offbeat characters and a realistic sense of the importance friendship, belonging, and doing the right thing have to the target audience.

Shipwrecked by the sudden freezing of the sea, Shen finds himself alone and saddled with 66 pugs that the captain had said would sell in like hot pies. He finds the Po of Ice, formerly the Post Office where he meets Sika. A misunderstanding or two later, the two embark on the Race to the Top of the World, where the winner will gain their heart’s desire.

This book is best read to/with kids who don’t question the logic of everything and who enjoy random silly things for the sheer awesome factor. Things like shrinksnow and yetis who eat pasta made from snow and hate to wash up. The other racers are a good mix of characters, such as the fashionable Mitzi, the robot-building scientist, and the beleaguered butler serving the nasty entitled son of the last winner. My favourite is Helga, the bearded woman who is kind and pragmatic, and who prefers Winter and the cold.

The illustrations are cute and the message at the end is suitably warming without being kitschy. This book would make a good gift for just about anyone, child or adult.

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Review – At the Stroke of Midnight

At the Stroke of Midnight, Contemporary Romance by Tara Sivec

Series: Naughty Princess Club #1

My rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

What a wild ride.

Cynthia is at rather a low point in her life. Her husband has left her and their thirteen-year-old daughter with nothing. Unable to cope, Cynthia is desperately trying to carry on as though nothing is wrong, but she can’t keep the facade up in the face of her loud-mouthed neighbour Ariel cutting through the bullshit.

Their unlikely friendship song with another neighbour, a librarian named Belle, and mutually fire financial straits lead them to an intriguing commercial enterprise: a princess-themed stripper service. And who better to help them get started than the incredibly hot owner of a local strip club?

Small confession: I don’t generally enjoy crass humour. I don’t think I’m above it somehow, nor do I have a problem with swearing or sex. I simply don’t find it all that funny. At the Stroke of Midnight relies very strongly on that type of humour. So if that’s your thing, you’ll laugh until you’re sick. If it isn’t your thing, you should still give the book a fair shot. Once I was invested in the characters and substance alongside the humour, I was onboard for the whole thing. Warts and all. This book might well be my gateway drug to enjoying crass humour. It’s definitely my gateway drug for loving Tara Sivec.

I seriously loved this book. Cynthia is amazing. Even in the throes of Stepford Syndrome, she is vulnerable and relatable. Years of an unfulfilling and oppressive marriage haven’t managed to snuff out her strength or determination. She deals with a lot of shit from basically everyone, including Ariel, and one of the best things about Cynthia is that she always comes to a point where she confronts it. This is beautiful every time. Cathartic as fuck. Her blowups spoke to me on a personal level. Even though I haven’t been through the same kind of shit, being fed up is a universal thing.

At the beginning, I was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to get into this. I loved Cynthia, but sometimes I couldn’t help thinking Ariel was a shitty friend and PJ as a love interest worried me because he was pushy and rude. Then something magical happened. Ariel apologised for something. PJ apologised and explained his actions like a mature adult. I was over the moon. Things that bothered me were acknowledged and unpacked in the narrative. This is a book about adults, not only because they swear and have sex. They communicate and take responsibility for their actions. People who don’t do those things are villains.

I can’t wait for Belle’s book.

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Review – Spill Zone

Spill Zone, Science Fiction Graphic Novel written by Scott Westerfeld, drawn by Alex Puvilland, coloured by Hilary Sycamore

Series: Spill Zone #1

My rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

When I see Scott Westerfeld’s name, I get excited. His name on a book means an interesting world, difficult choices, troubled youngsters, and the occasional surprise that makes me squee. The artist is new to me, but I love the art. It’s lovely and fits the tone well.

After the Spill, Poughkeepsie has become uninhabitable. Addison and her sister Lexa still live rather close. Armed with rules like “Never get off the motorcycle” and “don’t look at the meat puppets,” Addison braves the weird dangers of the Spill Zone in order to take photographs which she sells through a broker for big cash.

Or so she thinks, until she meets one of her ‘collectors’ who offers her a million to take what might be her last trip into the Spill Zone.

I loved the soldiers that set up barricades around the zone. They were a nice touch of mundanity. Addison is badass and also sympathetic. Her parents were lost in the Spill, leaving her to care for Lexa, who was affected in ways that we’re only beginning to see.

It’s mysterious and exciting, and the stuff in the Spill Zone appeal to both my love of Cthonic weirdness and zombie apocalypses. The second volume cannot come soon enough.

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Review – The Lawrence Browne Affair

The Lawrence Browne Affair, Historical MM Romance by Cat Sebastian

Series: The Turner Series #2

My rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️

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Three stars can either feel exactly right as a symbol of “I liked it” or it can be damning with faint praise. In this case, it’s the latter. This book feels like an exercise in mediocrity. Romance boiled down to instruction and formula, as if it had come in a flatpack from Ikea. The setting is just historically accurate enough to not trigger potato rage. But since most of it takes place indoors in Cornwall, that isn’t asking for much. The writing is probably better than good enough, but it gets lost in a sea of checked boxes and familiar tropes. Both of the main characters are an example of the latter.

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We’re told that Georgie Turner is a con artist who’s growing a conscience, despite his best efforts to quell it. Consequences for failure to fight that nascent conscience are already in play before the story begins. I say, “we’re told” because his behaviour doesn’t bear it out. He’s sentimental and squishy from the word go. There isn’t a character arc, he just eventually stops denying his squishiness.

Lawrence is an earl with scientific leanings, and he also thinks he’s mad. There seems to have been some attempt to imply the autism spectrum to a modern reader. These attempts fell flat for me, largely because the author seemed to forget about it. By the last third, madness was suddenly okay to joke about (because that isn’t insensitive) and his condition was flanderised into “he only eats ham and apples.”

I’m not kidding.

The romance has high points. For all that the initial attraction deserves the term ‘instalust’ they are genuinely into each other. They also develop a friendship first, and it’s lovely to see how they get to know each other through both caring observation and questions.

Unfortunately, the sex is pretty basic. There’s nothing wrong with it, it’s suitably sexy, but I had to make myself go back and read some scenes after skimming because nothing happens other than sex. Sex scenes should be an opportunity for the characters to discover things about each other, themselves, or at least to show that their relationship is something special. Maybe not every sex scene should be ~something more~ but at least one should. These felt interchangeable, like factory add-ons. They could have been between any two men so inclined. Ugh. It’s fine. The sex is fine.

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There’s too much plot, yet it doesn’t do anything but show up. A gangster has it in for Georgie, Lawrence’s voltaic piles, fear-mongering rumours about Lawrence, an eight-year-old son comes home for the holiday, smugglers because Cornwall. It feels like a laundry list. Some things are resolved, although not all of them need to be addressed in the manner they were addressed. Contrivance is rife. Other things simply fall by the wayside. Yet it all comes to a nominally satisfying conclusion. Everyone lives happily ever after, and I believe they will be happy.

Honestly, there is only one real problem with this perfectly competent novel. It has no substance. I feel like that’s why I had so many minor details to quibble over: there is nothing seriously wrong with this except that it doesn’t do anything special. Many people like or love it, and I can’t help thinking that it’s more due to the reader than the book. If you bring a slice of cake to an empty table, you get to eat cake and it doesn’t matter that the table didn’t actually give you cake. I don’t love tables for their correlation to cake.

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Review – Foxheart

Foxheart, Middle Grade Fantasy by Claire Legrand

Series: Foxheart #1

My rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

At this point, I think it’s safe to say that I love everything Claire Legrand writes. I love her ideas—this is a story about a witch in a time-travel loop who wants to be a master thief—and I love her characters. But most of all, I love that she so clearly has fun as a writer. There is a chapter called “The Most Stupid of All the Boys, Ever.” This book is funny, sweet, exciting, and all around  delightful.

At first intentionally nameless to the point of being called Girl, a grey-haired orphan grows up in a convent where no one is very kind to her. It probably doesn’t help that she is prone to pranks and grudges. She is called Pig and Witch as well as Girl, and her only friend is a little yellow dog she named Fox.

After the convent is attacked by a magical assailant who might be the vaunted Wolf-King who hunts witches, Girl flees with a mind to becoming the best thief in the Star Lands. At first, it looks like this is the path the story will travel—she takes up the name Quicksilver and meets a hapless boy whose parents are thieves but currently in a magical coma, and the two strike a deal to be thieves together—but then an old woman appears who has a dog just like Fox (but much older) and who knows Quicksilver’s real name. Things get questy from there.

Legrand is fearless in exploring bad things that can happen and in following through with the consequences. Her characters endure, survive, and learn that apologising doesn’t magically fix everything. If someone loses a leg or dies in a Legrand book, they get a prosthetic or stay dead, respectively. Maybe I’ve just read too many authors who love their characters too much, but that feels almost novel in Fantasy. …pun not intended.

Quicksilver is an incredibly active protagonist. For all that she is precisely the sort of feisty redheaded little girl that on might think they’ve seen many times, she is also flawed—slow to forgive, mean, vain—and vulnerable. It isn’t often that I see a child orphan character who actually carries the emotional baggage of that state. Usually it’s just to cut down on the number of extraneous adult characters. Thanks to the strong agency of its main character as well as the aforementioned fearlessness of the writer, twists in the narrative aren’t relegated solely to shocking reveals. Things change, dramatic action is taken.

Reading this book reminded me why I love Middle Grade Fiction in general and Claire Legrand in particular.

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Review – A Thousand Words for Stranger

A Thousand Words for Stranger, Science Fiction by Julie E Czerneda

Series: Trade Pact Universe

My rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️

It feels funny to say this 20 years after the fact, but this was an impressive debut. The writing and some of the world building are so good that they mask some of the amateur mistakes.

This is a setup I’ve seen before: amnesiac protagonist Sira is lost and pursued by danger she doesn’t understand. She takes up with a spaceship captain, Jason Morgan, and the two work together to find out what’s going on and who she was.

Ugh, that oversimplification doesn’t cover it at all. I feel like this is one of those books that I can’t really explain unless I over-summarise or compare it to another book. Unfortunately, the closest I can think of is Nine Princes in Amber, to which A Thousand Words for Stranger can only pale in comparison. Of course, it is a different story with different themes and intentions. The amnesia lasts for most of the book, Sira resists attempts to recall her former self, and she doesn’t have anything like the agency or motivation of Corwin. This is more of a small-scale space romance. And that’s fine.

For people who like telepaths in their Science Fiction, I would put this up there with the later Acorna novels. The Clan are a race of humanoids who breed for psionic power and the rest of their society and culture revolve around it. That part of the world building is faithfully and logically portrayed. There are many alien races that come in bite-sized pieces, enough to add interesting diversity. It reminded me of reading Star Wars novels as a kid. That’s probably enough to recommend it on its own.

It is still noticeably an early book in Czerneda’s career. The pacing is muddy and character development woefully uneven. More than one subplot seems to accomplish nothing more than taking up time, while some threads are dropped soon after being brought up to introduce something else. What actually bothered me was how inconsistent the characters are. Most notably, antagonist characters are never well established, either before being introduced or revealed to be antagonistic. I’ve read way more awkward examples of this, though. If I had been reading with a less intent eye for detail and structure, I might have just liked it without any qualifiers.

I’ve been wanting to check out Czerneda’s books for a few years, so I thought I’d start at the beginning. It’s a bit rocky, but I did enjoy it. I’m looking forward to reading more. Not just in the Trade Pact Universe.