The Very Secret Society of Irregular Witches

The Very Secret Society of Irregular WitchesThe Very Secret Society of Irregular Witches
by Sangu Mandanna
Rating: ★★★★
isbn: 9781399709866
Publication Date: August 30, 2022
Pages: 318
Genre: Fantasy, Fiction
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton

As one of the few witches in Britain, Mika Moon has lived her life by three rules: hide your magic, keep your head down, and stay away from other witches. An orphan raised by strangers from a young age, Mika is good at being alone, and she doesn't mind it . . . mostly.
But then an unexpected message arrives, begging her to travel to the remote and mysterious Nowhere House to teach three young witches, and Mika jumps at the chance for a different life.
Nowhere House is nothing like she expects, and she's quickly tangled up in the lives and secrets of its quirky, caring inhabitants . . . and Jamie, the handsome, prickly librarian who would do anything to protect his charges, and who sees Mika's arrival as a threat. An irritatingly appealing threat.

As Mika finds her feet, the thought of belonging somewhere starts to feel like a real possibility. But magic isn't the only danger in the world, and soon Mika will need to decide whether to risk everything to protect the found family she didn't know she was looking for . . .

This was just what I needed after a run of mediocre reads.  It’s cute, but not cutesy or twee – it definitely has a cozy vibe going on, as nothing about the story is dark.  There is a lot of dysfunction though, and a lot of magic, and at least 1 overly-precocious 8 year old who talks like a sassy and hilarious 30 year old.  I enjoyed the little twist at the end that I probably should have seen coming, but I was too relaxed in the story to pay all that much attention to care about what was coming next.

A well-written, fun read.


by Nigel Planer (narrator), Terry Pratchett
Rating: ★★★★
isbn: 9781407033075
Series: Discworld #20
Publication Date: January 4, 2007
Genre: Fantasy
Publisher: Penguin Audio

Susan had never hung up a stocking . She'd never put a tooth under her pillow in the serious expectation that a dentally inclined fairy would turn up. It wasn't that her parents didn't believe in such things. They didn't need to believe in them. They know they existed. They just wished they didn't.

There are those who believe and those who don't. Through the ages, superstition has had its uses. Nowhere more so than in the Discworld where it's helped to maintain the status quo. Anything that undermines superstition has to be viewed with some caution. There may be consequences, particularly on the last night of the year when the time is turning. When those consequences turn out to be the end of the world, you need to be prepared. You might even want more standing between you and oblivion than a mere slip of a girl - even if she has looked Death in the face on numerous occasions...

Another re-read.  My first read of Hogfather was back in 2017, and I can’t really add anything different, so I’m appending that original review here.

Actually, as the original read was of the printed edition, I will just add that I thought Nigel Planer did an excellent job with the narration, and even MT, who passed by as I was listening, mentioned he was impressed with the wide variety of voices and accents Planer gave to all the characters.

I was supposed to be doing this as a buddy read with everyone, but I’ve not been keeping my end up at all. The cold I thought I’d beaten down made a comeback at the end of last week, so I kept falling asleep every time I tried to get stuck into Hogfather. Which sounds like a terrible condemnation of the book, but is really is NOT. The book was excellent. I’d prove it’s excellence with quotes, except all my reading buddies beat me to all the quotes I liked the best.

There’s mischief afoot in the Discworld, and the Hogfather is missing. Death decides to step in and play the Hogfather’s role, visiting houses, filling stockings and doing his best to ensure that belief in the Hogfather never falters, while his grand-daughter Susan and a host of others do their best to thwart the mischief so Hogfather can come back.

This is a brilliant story – practically flawless. My only two complaints are that:

  1. Teatime is a little too evil; it adds an edge to the story that I freely admit is necessary; without it the whole thing would be a little less brilliant. Nevertheless, His story line was the fly in my lemonade; I’d be reading along having a rollicking good time and then he’d show up being manically evil, and it felt like someone let the air out of my balloons.

  2. The book kept referring to both dollars and pence. Either this was done on purpose, because it’s the discworld and can use any form of currency Pratchett would like, or else it’s an editing error that wasn’t caught during a transition from UK to international editions. If it’s the former, well, that’s totally fine. But I don’t know, so I kept wondering if it was the latter and I kept getting tripped up by the discrepancy.

In the grand scheme of things, these are inconsequential – this is, hands down, the best discworld book I’ve read so far. But Teatime’s rain on my holiday parade does keep me from going the whole 5 stars.

If you like silly fun with a side of very deep philosophy, read this book.

There’s one quote I don’t think anyone has beaten me to yet:

Humans need fantasy to be human. To be the place where the falling angel meets the rising ape.

That might very well be my favourite quote of the book.

Her Majesty’s Royal Coven

Her Majesty's Royal CovenHer Majesty's Royal Coven
by Juno Dawson
Rating: ★★
isbn: 9780008478513
Publication Date: August 3, 2022
Pages: 452
Genre: Fiction, Paranormal
Publisher: HarperCollins

Hidden among us is a secret government department of witches known as Her Majesty’s Royal Coven.

They protect crown and country from magical forces and otherworldly evil, but their greatest enemy will come from within…

There are whisperings of a prophecy that will bring the coven to its knees, and four best friends are about to be caught at the centre.

Life as a modern witch was never simple … but now it’s about to get apocalyptic.

Another reminder that it doesn’t do for me to impulse buy books while the parking meter is running.

I actually quite liked the story itself.  It’s a 3.5-4 star level read with a diverse cast, interesting characters that are well written, three dimensional participants in a well plotted story.

Unfortunately, the author’s need to … politicize?  that’s not quite the right word, but it’s the closest I can come up with … to politicize the diversity, to make this book a passive-aggressive lecture on societal ills, ruined the story for me completely.  I didn’t DNF it because the story kept me going while the society bashing kept me fuming.  Also, I paid something like 30 bucks for this book and I was, literally, invested in it.

The thing is, I know there are social problems concerning diversity and race.  It’s been a talking point now for long enough that I can’t believe there are any cave dwellers left who haven’t gotten the memo.  I don’t need to be beat about the head with stories that are constantly telling me there is a problem.  I know there’s a problem – how about we focus on how to fix said problems instead of wallowing in the crisis of their existence?  If this story had all the same characters, doing the same things, being the same people but without all the social commentary, I’d have loved this story.  It would have gripped me and I’d have been totally on-board for the sequel.  And I’d argue it would have ultimately been a book that accomplished more, because it would have been an example of healthy, functional diversity in action, taking on a pivotal point of prejudice and dealing with it appropriately.  A fictional good example, sure, but good examples have to start somewhere and that’s what stories are meant to do anyway.  I just think they’re more effective without the lecturing.  Or, at least, I sure as hell enjoy them more.

So, yeah.  If you don’t mind the social commentary, this is a good story that ticks a lot of diversity boxes.  If you don’t like to be constantly reminded of the problem, stay away from it.

Legends & Lattes

Legends & Lattes: High Fantasy, Low Stakes, Good CompanyLegends & Lattes: High Fantasy, Low Stakes, Good Company
by Travis Baldree
Rating: ★★★★
isbn: 9781035007318
Publication Date: August 11, 2022
Pages: 312
Genre: Fantasy
Publisher: Tor Books

After a lifetime of bounties and bloodshed, Viv is hanging up her sword for the last time.

The battle-weary orc aims to start fresh, opening the first ever coffee shop in the city of Thune. But old and new rivals stand in the way of success — not to mention the fact that no one has the faintest idea what coffee actually is.

If Viv wants to put the blade behind her and make her plans a reality, she won't be able to go it alone.

But the true rewards of the uncharted path are the travelers you meet along the way. And whether drawn together by ancient magic, flaky pastry, or a freshly brewed cup, they may become partners, family, and something deeper than she ever could have dreamed.

I first heard about this book from H.C. Newton at The Irresponsible Reader, and while it sounded interesting, it didn’t really seem like my kind of thing.  And then I read about it again somewhere else (I can’t remember) and thought … maybe.  So when I saw it at the shop, I just picked it up and thought what the hey?

It wasn’t at all what I feared it would be – a former adventurer trying to retire but being forced out of retirement for reasons.  Instead it’s a very … gentle book.  Even sweet.  There’s very little plot in the obvious sense; the book is entirely about friendships and how they can often develop in the most unexpected ways.

On the surface this might make it sound like a dull book, but it’s very readable and the characters all offer something interesting.  There’s a dire-cat named Amity that’s fabulous, and I’d have liked more of her (him?), and there’s a gnome whose cryptic comments about time left me wanting more explanation, or at least more information about him.  But overall the characters are all well fleshed out and likeable.  There’s a low-key, back burner romance that would qualify this book as a diverse read.

Overall, a surprisingly enjoyable read.  Yes, all the typical obstacles just melt away in a way that’s usually catnip to a critic, but somehow, that’s ok.  It just works – and maybe I was just looking for the literary equivalent of a serotonin drip.  If you enjoy fantasy and are looking for a happy read, you might enjoy this one.

Half a Soul

Half a SoulHalf a Soul
by Olivia Atwater
Rating: ★★★
isbn: 9780356518763
Publication Date: June 28, 2022
Pages: 280
Genre: Fantasy, Fiction
Publisher: Orbit

It's difficult to find a husband in Regency England when you're a young lady with only half a soul.

Ever since she was cursed by a faerie, Theodora Ettings has had no sense of fear or embarrassment - a condition which makes her prone to accidental scandal. Dora hopes to be a quiet, sensible wallflower during the London Season - but when the strange, handsome and utterly uncouth Lord Sorcier discovers her condition, she is instead drawn into dangerous and peculiar faerie affairs.

If Dora's reputation can survive both her curse and her sudden connection with the least-liked man in all of high society, then she may yet reclaim her normal place in the world. . . but the longer Dora spends with Elias Wilder, the more she begins to suspect that one may indeed fall in love, even with only half a soul.

A reading friend read this recently and called it a sweet, cozy read and my local library had a copy so I thought, why not?

It’s definitely sweet, but I might call it closer to YA than cozy.  I’m not sure I can explain why though – maybe because of the strong fairy tale parallels?  Either way, Atwater is a solid writer who definitely has a moral to share in this story – one that comes across strong, and almost heavy handedly, to this reader, but might be right on target for younger, or less cynical – or more passionate – readers.  For me, the message was better shared in the author’s Afterword, when she tells the story about the little girl on the beach, throwing all the struggling, beached, fish back into the sea.  (For those that haven’t heard it: a man approaches the little girl and asks her why she bothers, the fish are going to die, it doesn’t matter; to which she replies “it matters to this one”.)

I struggle with nasty, mean characters that don’t end up the centre of a murder investigation by the end of the book, so I struggled with the Aunt’s treatment of Dora; treatment she faced no consequences for.  I enjoyed the strong friendships though, and the satire of the British ton that was faire land was acerbic.

All in all it was a light read strongly focused on kindness.

The Last Graduate (Scholomance, #2)

The Last GraduateThe Last Graduate
by Naomi Novik
Rating: ★★★
isbn: 9781529100891
Series: Scholomance #2
Publication Date: September 28, 2021
Pages: 388
Genre: Fantasy, Fiction
Publisher: Del Ray Books

At the Scholomance, El, Orion, and the other students are faced with their final year--and the looming specter of graduation, a deadly ritual that leaves few students alive in its wake. El is determined that her chosen group will survive, but it is a prospect that is looking harder by the day as the savagery of the school ramps up. Until El realizes that sometimes winning the game means throwing out all the rules . . .

While the story remains a good one, the tendency to natter continues.  Randomly flipping to a page, there’s a few lines of dialog at the top of page 202, and then nothing but introspection and inner-dialog until page 208.  That’s a random page, so it’s not a rarity, and it happened at least once in the middle of not only a scene, but a conversation; by the time I got to the character’s response I had totally forgotten there was a ‘scene in play’ and I had to flip pages and pages back to figure out what the character was responding to.

I dinged the story itself 1/2 star from the first one because it’s meh.  Not quite as good as the first, although El’s attitude improved exponentially.  She also gets a mouse familiar who is loaded with sass, but neither is enough to pull the story up.

Though I’m damning with faint praise, the last one in the trilogy is out later this month and I’m willing to reserve it at the library to see how the story ends.  I’ll probably skip anything else by the author though.

I read this because it was sitting on my coffee table; it isn’t readily fitting any available squares on my Halloween Bingo card, so I’ll leave off shoe-horning it in somewhere unless I need it later (I might, for Country House Mystery and a Wild Card usage).

Marion Lane and the Midnight Murder

Marion Lane and the Midnight MurderMarion Lane and the Midnight Murder
by T.A. Willberg
Rating: ★★★
isbn: 9781409196648
Series: Marion Lane #1
Publication Date: June 10, 2021
Pages: 320
Genre: Fantasy, Fiction
Publisher: Hachette Books

They were a band of mysterious private detectives who lived beneath the streets of London in a labyrinth of twisted tunnels and ancient hallways, the entrance to which no one had ever found. The Inquirers were something of a myth, a whispered legend that may or may not exist, depending on whom you asked. They were like ghosts, some said, these sleuths who guarded the city...

London, 1958:

Elaborately disguised and hidden deep beneath the city's streets lies the world of Miss Brickett's, a secret detective agency, training and housing the mysterious Inquirers. From traversing deceptive escape rooms full of baited traps and hidden dangers, to engineering almost magical mechanical gadgets, apprentice detectives at Miss Brickett's undergo rigorous training to equip them with the skills and knowledge they will need to solve the mysteries that confound London's police force.

But nothing can prepare 23-year-old apprentice Marion Lane for what happens after the arrest of her friend and mentor Frank on suspicion of murder: he has tasks Marion with clearing his name and saving his life. Her investigation will place Marion and her friends in great peril as they venture into the forbidden maze of uncharted tunnels that surround Miss Brickett's.

Being discovered out of bounds means immediate dismissal, but that is the least of Marion's problems when she discovered that the tunnels contain more than just secrets...

Meh.  Brilliant idea but mediocre execution.  I wanted to like it, and the really cool premise of the underground detective agency kept me reading when it felt like a slog, but unfortunately, the characters, while all likeable, failed to click with each other; there was no spark.

In better hands this would have been an amazingly fun book and start of a great series.  I don’t regret reading it, but I don’t regret getting from the library either.  There’s at least one more, but I can’t say I’m at all curious about it.

I read this for Halloween Bingo 2022’s Darkest London square – it’s a perfect fit for it.

Blood and Moonlight

Blood and MoonlightBlood and Moonlight
by Erin Beaty
Rating: ★★★★
Publication Date: June 28, 2022
Pages: 442
Genre: Fantasy
Publisher: Farrar Straus and Giroux

Rising above the city of Collis is the holy Sanctum. And watching over its spires is Catrin, an orphan girl with unique skills―for she alone can spot the building’s flaws in construction before they turn deadly.

But when Catrin witnesses a murderer escaping the scene of his crime, she’s pulled into a dangerous chain of events where the only certainty is that the killer will strike again. Assigned to investigate is the mysterious and brilliant Simon, whose insights into the mind of a predator are frighteningly accurate.

As the grisly crimes continue, Catrin finds herself caught between killer and detective while hiding her own secret―a supernatural sight granted by the moon, destined to make her an outcast, and the only thing that might save her and those she loves from becoming the next victims...

Thanks to Whisky in the Jar for putting this book on my radar.  I finished it last night and thoroughly enjoyed it.

The characters make this a YA murder mystery with a side of romance, but the plot has some dark and disturbing elements that are touched upon (sexual violence/incest) that put it at the older end of YA.  The setting is supposed to be, I think, medieval, but it worked better for me to imagine it as an alternate reality, thereby making anachronisms less anachronistic.  This was easy to do as the city/country names have little to no similarity to real ones, and the religious system is based entirely on the sun and moon.

Mental illness is a very prominent theme in the story and though I have no first, or even second-hand experience with it myself, the inclusion in the story didn’t feel disrespectful or heavy-handed.  The moon magic was interesting and felt like a fresh take on magic systems; the mystery plotting was a little clunky, possibly over-complicated, but overall it kept the story moving along.

In general, I thought it was a good read and if the author were to make a series out of it (could easily go either way) I’d read the next one happily.

The Cartographers

The CartographersThe Cartographers
by Peng Shepherd
Rating: ★★★★
isbn: 9780062910691
Publication Date: March 15, 2022
Pages: 391
Genre: Fantasy, Fiction
Publisher: William Morrow

What is the purpose of a map?

Nell Young’s whole life and greatest passion is cartography. Her father, Dr. Daniel Young, is a legend in the field and Nell’s personal hero. But she hasn’t seen or spoken to him ever since he cruelly fired her and destroyed her reputation after an argument over an old, cheap gas station highway map.
But when Dr. Young is found dead in his office at the New York Public Library, with the very same seemingly worthless map hidden in his desk, Nell can’t resist investigating. To her surprise, she soon discovers that the map is incredibly valuable and exceedingly rare. In fact, she may now have the only copy left in existence...because a mysterious collector has been hunting down and destroying every last one—along with anyone who gets in the way.

But why?

To answer that question, Nell embarks on a dangerous journey to reveal a dark family secret and discovers the true power that lies in maps...

I need to get this part out of the way first:  this is a great story, well written, with great characters.  It started slow for me, but once the momentum kicked in, it didn’t let up.  I love how the author did multiple POVs without actually doing multiple POVs (well, there are two legitimate POVs, but the other’s were tucked seamlessly into the narrative).  The story is what I’d call a variation on the scavenger hunt theme, centering on a seemingly cheap, pedestrian road map that’s really one-of-a-kind, and how it tore a group of friends that were as close as family apart, with a side helping of how obsessive love can corrupt.  My biggest gripe is that, while the ending is hopeful and happy, it wasn’t really an ending to my mind; I wanted at least a little bit more explanation.

But beyond all of that, and I know this makes me a massive nerd, what I loved most was what was in the author’s note at the beginning, coupled with what was in the acknowledgments at the end.  The story that emerges in these two is, to me, even better than the fictional story between, and no, I’m not sharing it; it would put a dent in the plot of the story, and might sap the joy of discovery from some other nerd out there that might find it as delightful as I do.

I read this for Halloween Bingo 2022, for the Relics and Curiosities square.  I’m pretty sure it also fits Splatter, because a serial killer is involved.

A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking

A Wizard's Guide to Defensive BakingA Wizard's Guide to Defensive Baking
by T. Kingfisher
Rating: ★★★
isbn: 9781614505242
Publication Date: July 21, 2020
Pages: 309
Genre: Fiction, Middle Grade
Publisher: Argyll

Fourteen-year-old Mona isn't like the wizards charged with defending the city. She can't control lightning or speak to water. Her familiar is a sourdough starter and her magic only works on bread. She has a comfortable life in her aunt's bakery making gingerbread men dance.

But Mona's life is turned upside down when she finds a dead body on the bakery floor. An assassin is stalking the streets of Mona's city, preying on magic folk, and it appears that Mona is his next target. And in an embattled city suddenly bereft of wizards, the assassin may be the least of Mona's worries...

This title flowed across my radar a while back, and I’ve seen a lot of other T. Kingfisher titles too, but this one is the title that kept standing out, so I thought I’d give it a go.

As the YA book it’s labelled as:  meh.  Maybe it’s me, but it isn’t all that dark and the voice is a bit juvenile for YA.  I suspect my 13 year old niece wouldn’t have patience for it.  But her younger sister, who’s 11, might love it.  So as a middle grade level book, it’s probably not bad.

Mona was a bit whiney (again for the YA it’s labelled as), but I loved Bob the sourdough starter, and the gingerbread man.  Neither of whom had any dialog, which might be a bit telling.  But Kingfisher packs a lot of personality into these two without giving them a voice.  The rest of the characters – the adults – all spoke to Mona as if she was 10 rather than the 14 she is, and yet she’s asked to save the kingdom single-handedly.

There is a very poignant scene at the end between a character named Molly Knacker and her skeleton horse; that scene stood out in what was on whole rather bland writing.

<img class=”alignleft wp-image-16083″ src=”×300.jpg” alt=”” width=”110″ height=”110″ />I read this for Halloween Bingo 2022, although without any thought about what square it might fit.  After some consideration, I’m going to use it for the <strong>Monsters square</strong>, and re-assign my original book, <em>The Dark Place</em> to Genre: Mystery.  It would also fit <strong>Dem Bones, Gallows Humor, Genre: Supernatural, Spellbound,</strong> and <strong>Sword and Sorcery.</strong>