The Witch’s Vacuum Cleaner

The Witch's Vacuum CleanerThe Witch's Vacuum Cleaner
by Terry Pratchett
Rating: ★★★★½
isbn: 9780857534835
Publication Date: August 25, 2016
Pages: 388
Genre: Children's Fiction, Fantasy
Publisher: Penguin Random House

Do you believe in magic?

Can you imagine a war between wizards, a rebellious ant called 4179003, or a time-travelling television?

Can you imagine that poor old Mr Swimble could see a mysterious vacuum cleaner in the morning, and make cheese sandwiches and yellow elephants magically appear by the afternoon?

Welcome to the wonderful world of Sir Terry Pratchett, and fourteen fantastically funny tales from the master storyteller. Bursting from these pages are food fights, pirates, bouncing rabbits and magical pigeons.

And a witch riding a vacuum cleaner, of course.


Long before Terry Pratchett became Terry Pratchett! he was a journalist for the Buck’s Free Press, writing short stories for their Children’s Circle.  This is a collection of some of those short stories, enhanced with illustrations by Mark Beech.  It also includes commentary after each story by a Suzanne Bridson, though I’d not include that as an enhancement.

I found the stories charming in a Roald Dahl way, except I suspect Pratchett of imagination, whereas I sort of suspect Dahl of LSD abuse.  They were funny, witty and there are hidden references to LOTR, C.S. Lewis’ work, and hilarious homages to the Wild West, including Maverick.  As I read, I kept thinking my nieces would find these fun, if I could get them to just try a story or two (they’re reaching that age when the tastes of all adults tank and can’t be trusted), and I must bring the collection to the attention of my sister-in-law who insists that teaching small children is fun.

The commentary was meh and in my opinion, skippable.  Bridson is, I’m assuming, aiming it at the stories’ audiences, and it’s obviously meant to steer them towards the full novels.  The comparisons she points out are the obvious ones, and she ignores almost all of the careful nuances and subtle wordplay that I appreciated most.

My edition is the slipcased one shown and it’s beautiful.  Inside I found it included a full colour illustration from Mark Beech, on postcard sized stock, slipped between the pages, a pleasant bonus.

The Left-Handed Booksellers of London

The Left-Handed Booksellers of LondonThe Left-Handed Booksellers of London
by Garth Nix
Rating: ★★★
isbn: 9781760631246
Publication Date: September 1, 2020
Pages: 374
Genre: Fantasy
Publisher: Allen & Unwin

Eighteen-year-old art student Susan Arkshaw arrives in London in search of her father. But before she can question crime boss Frank Thringley he's turned to dust by the prick of a silver hatpin in the hands of the outrageously attractive Merlin.

Merlin is one of the youngest members of a secret society of booksellers with magical powers who police the mythic Old World wherever it impinges on the New World - in addition to running several bookshops, of course! Merlin also has a quest of his own: to find the Old World entity who arranged the murder of his mother.

Their investigations attract attention from enemies of the Old and New Worlds. Soon they become involved in an even more urgent task to recover the grail that is the source of the left-handed booksellers' power, before it is used to destroy the booksellers and rouse the hordes of the mythic past. As the search for the grail becomes strangely intertwined with both their quests, they start to wonder… Is Susan's long-lost father a bookseller, or something altogether more mysterious?


I think I’m being unduly harsh on this book.  I bought it on the strength of the title and the blurb, but when it arrived I discovered Nix is an Australian author.  I have a very sketchy relationship with Australian fiction; sketchy as in ‘I rarely like it’.  But still, it sounded so good…

… and I almost DNF’d it on the second page of the prologue.  The writing was too too.  Too flowery, or verbose, or trying too hard.  Maybe all of the above.  Still, it seemed a little harsh and judgy and I paid for the damn book.  The start of chapter 1 was not encouraging either.  I have an aversion to numbered lists and the one on page 8 (the only one, thankfully) screamed of pretentious, or overly precocious, writing.

Still, aware of my bias, I persevered, and by the end of chapter 1, the writing had evened way out, and the story had found its footing.  I found myself drawn in by the characters, cheeky though Merlin is (I don’t think we’re meant to believe he’s the Merlin, just of, perhaps, his lineage).  I still think the author tried to hard to be relevant and current, while writing a book placed in an alternate early 1980’s, but that also fades away as the story progresses.  By about 1/3 of the way in, I was left with what the story should have been all along – a rather entertaining fantasy adventure written for the late teen readers – or at least the characters are all late teens.  The book won an Aussie book award for “older children”, which to me is NOT late teens, but early teens.  I’d easily give this to my 12 year old niece to read, though some of the innuendo might fly past her unnoticed.  Or not.

I was disappointed by the lack of time spent in actual bookstores.  Considering 2 or the 3 main characters are book-sellers and 8 out of 10 of the rest are as well, there was only 1 scene that took place inside bookshops.  The rest is a series of attacks, kidnapping attempts, and general mayhem that starts and ends in London, taking in the Lake District in the process.  It was fun, but entirely lacking in bookstores.

I suppose the ending was predictable, but not so much as to dim the journey getting there.  I have no idea of this book was meant to be a standalone, or the start of a new series, but it’s obviously left open to be one, even though no dangling threads remain.  If a second book is published, I’d likely read it.  I found the characters endearing, and maybe in the next book, they might spend time in the actual bookshops.

Charles Darwin and the Beagle Adventure

Charles Darwin and the Beagle Adventure: being an account of the voyage of the Beagle, 1831-1836Charles Darwin and the Beagle Adventure: being an account of the voyage of the Beagle, 1831-1836
by A.J. Wood, Charles Darwin, Clint Twist
Rating: ★★★★★
isbn: 9781742114446
Publication Date: March 1, 2009
Pages: 32
Genre: Middle Grade, Natural Science, Non-fiction
Publisher: The Five Mile Press

The Beagle Adventures of Charles Darwin tells the story of his momentous voyage aboard the Beagle to his own children. This purports to be Darwin's own notebook, packed with his discoveries.

Featuring a route map, a cutaway of the Beagle, notes about life on board and navigation aids, an introduction to the Galapagos Islands and details of the species Darwin discovered, this is all you need to understand his theory of evolution.

Released to celebrate the anniversary of Charles Darwin 's birth in February 2009. Includes paper novelties and detailed artwork to bring Darwin's discoveries to life. Packaged in a beautifully designed hardback with leather closing ties, Darwin's Notebook is the perfect gift for the enquiring young mind.


 

I spotted this book yesterday in a little used book shop on our way home, and I couldn’t resist its magnetic cover or the quick glimpse I got of the inside before MT whisked it off to the counter for me.  I’m a sucker for books with little bits and pieces glued to the inside: envelopes with letters, or fold out flaps of additional information.  They bring me the same delight as a well-done pop-up book.

Being rather exhausted on our return home, this felt like the perfect fit for me last night, and it was.  It’s beautifully put together and the writing was clear, concise, and well balanced for a middle schooler with language aimed at their reading level without being at all childish.  While certainly not detailed, I thought it covered the high points of the Beagle trip for Darwin; certainly enough for a middle schooler’s introduction to Darwin.  I’d have liked it to have a few more bits and bobs in it, but that’s just my inner child talking.

For what it is and what it’s trying to be, I think it excels.  It’s a gorgeous and charming book.

Havenfall (Havenfall, #1)

HavenfallHavenfall
by Sara Holland
Rating: ★★★½
isbn: 9781526621962
Series: Havenfall #1
Publication Date: March 3, 2020
Pages: 304
Genre: Fantasy, Young Adult
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing

Proof that I can’t resist a free book?

One of the schools I work at is near a small independent bookstore they try to do business with whenever possible.  Last week I went into the staffroom – something I try to generally avoid at all costs – and there were boxes of books on all the tables that said “free”.  Seems the local bookshop was cleaning house and these were all the advanced reader copies that had been accumulating in their back room.  I grabbed one on Elizabeth von Arnim, and because it’s been sooo long since I’ve gotten any new books, I lingered and pawed through them all and finally thought ‘what the hell?’ and grabbed this one.  YA Fantasy is usually more miss than hit with me, but did I mention how long it’s been since I’ve had a new book?

I have to say, it wasn’t bad.  It wasn’t amazing but it held my attention nicely after a rather weak and tedious start.  The second half of the book really morphed into something worth reading and I give points to Holland for sneakily weaving an Important Societal Lesson into the story about the power of perceptions and propaganda to alter history.

It wasn’t so good that I’m curious about what comes next, but it was good enough that should I stumble across the second book I’d probably pick it up.

Roommates

RoommatesRoommates
by Emily Chase
Rating: ★★★★
isbn: 0590328433
Series: The Girls of Canby Hall #1
Publication Date: March 28, 1983
Pages: 220
Genre: Young Adult
Publisher: Scholastic Books

I saw a mention of this title somewhere on the ‘net last year, and it was like a lightbulb going off in my memory.  This was the book that inspired by adolescent desire to go to boarding school (unfulfilled, which is probably just as well, as I doubt the reality would have equalled the fantasy).  I immediately tracked down a copy for nostalgia’s sake, and the forgot about it until it showed up in my mail several months later.

I really expected it not to hold up to time, but I have to say, I’m impressed and how well it did.  There were some incredibly frivolous moments, but there were some weightier ones as well, including racial stereotypes and running away.  Not up to today’s standards, but respectable for the early 80’s, I suppose.  Either way, I enjoyed it for the quick, easy read it was and still is.  I still want to go to boarding school.  And summer camp.

Grave Mercy (His Fair Assassin, #1)

Genres: Fantasy, Fiction
Format: Paperback
Grave MercyGrave Mercy
by Robin LaFevers
Rating: ★★★★
isbn: 9780547628349
Series: His Fair Assassin #1
Publication Date: April 3, 2012
Pages: 484
Genre: Fantasy, Fiction, Historical
Publisher: Andersen Press

In the fifteenth-century kingdom of Brittany, seventeen-year-old Ismae escapes from the brutality of an arranged marriage into the sanctuary of the convent of St. Mortain, where she learns that the god of Death has blessed her with dangerous gifts, and a violent destiny.


I just ate this story up with a spoon.

I’ll admit this has sat on my TBR pile for awhile as I was a bit shy about starting such a thick YA book.  But once I picked it up I was loathe to put it back down again.  I’m usually a character driven reader; I can put up with a lot if I connect with the characters.  But I can’t say it was the characters that drew me deeply into the book.  I liked them, don’t get me wrong.  Ismae, Gavriel, The Beast, Anne – all of them characters you want to see come out all right.  But here, it was the story, the palace intrigue, the writing, that sucked me in well and good.  I know absolutely nothing about the time period this book takes place in, so I wasn’t burdened with knowing whether or not there’s any realism, or whether any research was done.  I was just along for the ride.

I didn’t give the book 5 stars because in a sea of villains, it was still obvious to me who the ultimate traitor was.  It didn’t in any way hamper my true enjoyment of the book, but it felt like the author could have hidden the clues a bit better.  I suspect I’m also not the books target audience so perhaps I’m being too harsh a judge.

Grave Mercy is YA really only in the sense that the MC is a 17 year-old.  The writing is oblique enough that I still can’t figure out if anyone was getting lucky or not, so I guess someone could argue that makes it more ‘age-appropriate’.  Although that someone wouldn’t be me.

If you enjoy historicals, and a bit of mythology this is a book that might be worth checking into.

Death and the Girl He Loves (Darklight Trilogy #3)

Death and the Girl He LovesDeath and the Girl He Loves
by Darynda Jones
Rating: ★★★★
isbn: 9780312625221
Series: Darklight #3
Publication Date: October 8, 2013
Pages: 255
Genre: Fantasy, Young Adult
Publisher: St. Martin's Griffin

WARNING:  If you haven’t read the first two books in this trilogy – there are spoilers ahead.  But no spoilers for this book.

I don’t read a lot of YA – usually only if someone I trust highly recommends it and if it’s paranormal.  But I picked up the first book in this trilogy based solely on the author, Darynda Jones.  I love her work.  I LOVE her snark.  She writes some of the best snarky banter around (Chloe Neill – also a favourite).

This trilogy didn’t disappoint.  If the fact that I choose paranormal didn’t give it away, I’m not looking for the realistic portrayal of teens.  All that angst and melodrama – Yuck!  These are teens I can thoroughly enjoy reading – smart asses every one of ’em!  But all thicker than thieves.

The trilogy, in a nutshell, focuses on Lorelei – she’s the last in a line of very powerful prophets, the one foretold to stop the end of the world before it starts.  She has a nephilim to protect her and the Angel of Death by her side along with her two best friends.  She has no idea how to stop the end of the world before it starts.  Adventures are had and information is gleaned.  Much snark and witty banter is exchanged.

I didn’t know until I finished this one and went searching for information that this was, in fact, a trilogy.  But the book ended in such as way that it could be the final wrap up or it could continue.  It was only when I turned to Google in confusion that I saw references on her site to it being a trilogy.  Boo and hiss.

I read through this final instalment in a day – I stayed up too late on a work night because no way was I going to put this book down.  It starts of a tiny bit slow – Lorelei is attending a boarding school in Maine, hoping to hide out from the chaos and forestall the inevitable until she can figure out what she’s capable of.  It picks up pretty fast though – she can run but apparently she can’t hide.  I was happy to find that the gang is only separated for a short time, and once they were reunited I became completely absorbed in the book.

It’s a fast, fun read with a final showdown that isn’t kind to anyone, but ultimately fulfils the prophecies.  The aftermath took me a bit to figure out – the transition was very abrupt and so left me feeling disoriented (which might be just what the author intended…) for a few paragraphs before I had my Ahhhh…. moment.  After that – fun.

And that last chapter…  it left me hoping….

Death, Doom, and Detention (Darklight #2)

Death, Doom, and DetentionDeath, Doom, and Detention
by Darynda Jones
Rating: ★★★★½
isbn: 9780312625214
Series: Darklight #2
Publication Date: March 5, 2013
Pages: 306
Genre: Fantasy, Fiction, Young Adult
Publisher: St. Martin's Griffin

After a week of reading books that disappointingly read like paper-pulp Xanax, Death Doom and Detention was just the breath of fresh, fast-paced air with kick-ass dialogue I needed. An excellent story with really great characters you can get behind. And thank you thank you thank you Ms. Jones for having two breath-taking male leads and no love triangle!! I can cheer both of them on!

Seriously, there wasn’t anything I didn’t like about this book – nothing. I picked it up and did not put it down again until I’d read not only the last page (ok, a little tiny bit of boo and hiss here) but the sneak peak at the next book in October. I was reading this book outside and seriously, it was so good, I did not move even after the rain started (it wasn’t a lot of rain, and I shielded the book, of course!).  Thank you for not making me wait a year until the next one.

I know this is YA, but it’s a great story/series. I can’t help but try to mesh events in this series with those in the Charley Davidson/Adult series. Different, I know, but still fun to imagine. 🙂

Death and the Girl Next Door (Darklight #1)

Death and the Girl Next DoorDeath and the Girl Next Door
by Darynda Jones
Rating: ★★★★
isbn: 9780312625207
Series: Darklight #1
Publication Date: October 2, 2012
Pages: 286
Genre: Fantasy, Young Adult
Publisher: St. Martin's Griffin

I don’t read a ton of YA, and I picked this one up especially because I’m a huge fan of Ms. Jones’ Charley Davidson series. I loved this book, I picked it up and did not put it down again until I’d read the last page and the excerpt from the next book.

All the great witty dialogue I’ve come to expect and adore from Ms. Jones writing, set in a teen universe. I love the strong focus here on the mythology of Angels, although I wouldn’t have normally picked up a book ‘about’ angels. All of the characters are just excellent, and the word play amongst them all is just a pure joy to read, although I worry about Glitch and his place in all of this.

I just had a really great time reading this story and I eagerly await the next book.