Monday 28 March 2022

Wild and Wicked Things by Francesca May

Annie Mason's parents separated when she was young, and her father has remained a distant, virtually unknown figure in her life, but when he dies she inherits his belongings and house on mysterious Crow Island. It's a place with a reputation, for Crow Island is the last refuge of magic in a world from which it's been banned., but Annie despite her misgivings needs to go there to sort her father's property, and there's an added incentive in that it was also the last address Annie had for her long-lost friend Bea.

 Annie is a 'nice girl'; her mother's brought her up to be good, to never question, let alone break, the law forbidding magic, and to only envisage a future of husband and family, but from the moment she arrives on Crow Island Annie is tempted. From the tourist shops selling harmless herb-scented teas, the crows gathering ominously on roofs and fences, to the wild kazam-fueled parties held at the Delacroix house there's a scent of magic in the air. But it's the enigmatic neighbour Emmeline Delacroix, with her dark, mysterious past and gender-bender style that Annie finds most bewitching; despite the warning from her father's friend/solicitor, and even after she uncovers the dark bond forged by Emmeline and Bea, Annie can't help being attracted.

I'm going to make it clear upfront that I know the author - in happier pre-Covid times she helped run the local Waterstones book group I attended - and I heard long ago of her pet fantasy novel - a witchy, gay take on The Great Gatsby, that to be honest I thought sounded a bit weird. But I applied for and received a Netgalley copy, started to read - and loved it! 

It's not remotely a formulaic lesbian re-telling of Fitzgerald's story  but a fantastic read in its own right - dark, wicked and so entrancing. Gatsby dazzled his neighbours with money and alcohol, and no one queried their sources; Emmeline does the same with magic, from the small innocuous potions to perhaps attract a lover, to dark dangerous spells that are bargains sealed with blood and demanding blood (very literally) in payment, 

Much like Gatsby and co, these wild and wicked characters are morally ambivalent at best; messed up by their personal backstories, and with no sense of right and wrong beyond how it fits their needs. No one is out and out 'bad', and not even Annie could claim to be 'snow white'. To my mind, it makes them more interesting and realistic, but in a fantasy novel they may not be to everyone's taste. 

A gentle warning - Wild and Wicked Things may start slowly and quietly but builds through unsettling moments to horror and bloody violence. So, be warned, it's may not be for readers of a tame, easily disturbed disposition. 

Last year I included another, more traditional, Gatsby spin off - Nick by Michael Farris Smith - in my picks of the year; this year Wild and Wicked Things will be up there.

Thursday 24 March 2022

Guards Guards by Terry Pratchett


Review by The Mole

Sam Vimes, the head of the nightwatch and sometimes drunk, is not taken seriously by the people of Ankh-Morpork. With guilds legalising most crimes how can you take the guards seriously?

In an aspiration to depose the Lord Vetinari a would be usurper introduces a hero who shall become king. Unfortunately they unleash forces beyond their understanding and get on the wrong side of Vimes as well as Lady Sybil.

It's going to be tough and messy but will the good guys win?

Vimes is another of the enduring and ever popular characters in the series so don't count him out yet.

Oh, and here there do be dragons.

Another fabulous trip to the discworld that puts an explanation to things that occur later in the series. No, you don't have to read them in order but it's perhaps more fun if you can.

Publisher: Transworld

Genre: Fantasy, comedy

Friday 18 March 2022

The Clockwork Girl by Anna Mazzola


Paris 1750 - Since her father's death, Madeleine Chastel has been forced to work in her mother's 'Academie', actually a brothel in a seedy part of Paris catering to all tastes and perversions. Now through one of her mother's clients, a police officer, Madeleine has a chance to escape this sordid life. Someone is needed to spy on the household of Dr Reinhart, a maker of fabulous lifelike automatons. Is Reinhart a talented mechanical engineer suitable to be introduced at the court of Versailles, or is he dabbling in black magic?
Wary of revealing herself, Madeleine manages to work her way into the confidence of the household, particularly that of Reinhardt's seventeen year old daughter, Veronique, but she's also troubled by the strange disappearances of young children from the streets. Parisians are growing scared and angry, gossip spreading about who might be abducting the children, and why. 

The Clockwork Girl is a chilling, atmospheric novel set in mid-18th century Paris, against the backdrop of real historical events in which children disappeared mysteriously. 
The story progresses through the eyes of three women of differing positions in society; Madeleine, now employed as a maid, Veronique, Reinhart's daughter newly returned from a childhood spent in a convent, and Jeanne, Madame de Pompadour, mistress of the king. Through their eyes we're introduced to the extremes of Parisian society - from the lowest depths to the glittering court of Louis XV. It's all too obvious that these two worlds cannot exist beside each other for much longer; that poverty and anger will lead the Parisians to revolt. 
It's slightly 'slow burn' in mood. For most of the book the building of atmosphere,  the gradually unwinding of Madeleine's back story and her current growing fear of something dreadful hiding in plain sight, take priority over action and dramatic events, but it's these aspects, particularly Madeleine's growing unease, that lend credibility to the plot. 

Wednesday 16 March 2022

Wyrd Sisters by Terry Pratchett


Review by The Mole

The kingdom is in a state of flux following the death of the king. Having been accidentally stabbed to death and died falling down stairs, his baby son is smuggled out of the castle and ends up in the worst possible place - with Granny Weatherwax. Granny is a good person but with all the parenting skills of a wardrobe. Between the three members of the "coven" they find a home for the child until it's time to restore the throne to the true line. Or something like that.

Here we meet Nanny Ogg, the second of the much loved witches but one who goes through life with a lower moral standard than Granny. Nanny loves her bawdy songs and has an extended family of which she is head.

Then there's Magrat Garlick, the youngster who's read too many books and believes that the rituals and potions are all necessary. Granny can't be doing with all that.

Getting into scrapes then out again, getting others into scrapes and leaving them there, getting it wrong more than they get it right - the three set about bring their order to chaos. Or is it the other way around?

Of course Granny and crew will save the day - Pratchett wouldn't be Pratchett if they didn't. And it's not about the how either - it's all about enjoying the confusion of the journey. 

Another fabulous Discworld story that has been enjoyed for years and will continue to be enjoyed for many years more

Publisher: Transworld

Genre: Fantasy, comedy

Friday 11 March 2022

The Heart Scarab by Saviour Pirotta

 illustrated by Jo Lindley 

Saviour Pirotta is back with a new historical adventure series for children, this time set in Ancient Egypt, with brothers, Reni and Mahu as the main characters.

Renni is the younger, quieter and more thoughtful. He's learning to be an artist, helping his uncle Pepy decorate the tombs in the Valley of the Kings. His older brother Mahu is always full of schemes - often ones which get the brothers into trouble. He's interested in boats, fishing and hoping to one day find work on a ship that would take him to far distant places. To get such a job he'll need to bribe one of the crew, and his current plan is to steal something valuable from one of the tombs (or persuade Renni to) and barter it for an item of interest to a sailor. Things aren't as easy as Mahu claims. Renni is persuaded to enter the tomb of a dead general and steal a heart scarab placed on his chest but this is the beginning of the brothers' problems, for the Pharaoh's vizier also wants the heart scarab and will stop at nothing to get it. 

As with the author's previous 'Wolfsong' series set in the Neolithic period, this story mixes an exciting, maybe a little bit scary, plot with rich historical details; the first will engage younger readers, the second teach them about Ancient Egypt. Through the lives and adventures of Renni, Mahu and their friends, history is presented in a way to interest children. Pharaohs and their Gods can seem a little remote to the average 7 to 9 year old; experiencing that world through the eyes of  similar-aged children brings it to life. Everyday life probably didn't involve mummies coming back to life, or pursuing an enchanted thief through the corridors of a tomb, but this is definitely a story to entertain as much as it educates. 

There are black and white illustrations by Jo Lindley throughout to bring the characters and settings to life, and at the back a glossary of the more unusual words, notes on Gods and the locations of the story. As it's not all dull learning, the book ends with instructions for how to play the Ancient Egyptian board game of Senet.

Sunday 6 March 2022

The Five Queendoms - Scorpica by G R Macallister

In a world where women rule the unthinkable has happened - no more girls are being born. Of sons, there are plenty, but no daughters. The Five Queendoms have lived in peace for centuries but this seemingly natural catastrophe looks set to bring them to war. Women are the warriors, the mages, the scholars; this Drought of Girls could be the end of everything. At first it's not apparent - there just seem to be a high number of boys being born - but gradually the situation becomes obvious to all. The Five Queendoms must be cursed, but how, why, and by whom is a mystery. 

If you've ever been put off fantasy novels because of the preponderance of male characters, then this is the book for you. This first book of a series based in a female-dominated society promises to have as much intrigue, magic, and evil manipulative characters as you could ever want, but without men. Obviously the men are there, in the background, doing the menial jobs, and fathering children, but whether as warriors, mages, or scholars, women are the ones in charge. It's a refreshing change, and, though occasionally it gives rise to unanswered questions about gendered roles, a great premise on which to build an alternative world. 

It has everything I look for in a fantasy novel - great world building, a wide range of well fleshed out characters, a gripping plot and well-paced story telling. I'm looking forward to the rest of the series!  

Wednesday 2 March 2022

When We Were Birds by Ayanna Lloyd Banwo

Darwin has just moved to the Trinidadian city of Port Angeles, leaving behind his mother and the Rastafarian faith he was brought up in - for the only employment he can find is digging graves and tending to Fidelis cemetery grounds; a job no Rastafarian would agree to do. Despite his misgivings, his work turns out to be pleasanter than expected - caring for the grave plots, attempting to sooth the bereaved - until he discovers the predatory behaviour of his fellow workers.

Above the city, in an old house which remains standing far longer than it should, live Yejide and her extended family. Through her maternal line, Yejide has inherited a strange obligation - to care for the dead. to talk to them and calm their spirits; a power which family tradition attributes to their descent from the 'corbeau', huge black birds which fly east at sunset with the souls of the dead. 
Unsurprisingly Darwin and Yejide, even before they meet, are drawn together, their destinies intertwined, one supplying something which the other lacks.
Told from their alternating points of view, not in first person but still with the rhythm and cadence of Trinidadian speech, When We Were Birds is about family (its secrets and obligations) and destiny (and trying to avoid it). It's a wonderful mix of the mundane and the fantastical, full of the sights and sounds of its setting, and the hopes and fears of two very different young people. Magical realism at its best. Surprisingly it's a debut novel, so the author is definitely one to watch out for.