Friday, March 25, 2022

Second Star to the Left by Megan Van Dyke: review

4/5 stars on Goodreads

Second Star to the Left by Megan Van Dyke

I must say, I would never have thought to write an apologia for Peter Pan’s Captain Hook, let alone make him a romantic hero, but that’s exactly what Second Star to the Left is. Captain Hook is a nice, decent man with a crew that loves him, smouldering looks and a hot body. As far as Tinker Bell is concerned, he also knows how to use it in the bedroom. The cover of the book did not let me expect that.

The book takes place somewhere in the seven seas, though not in the Neverland or ‘real’ world. Tinker Bell, a human-sized pixie with wings and pixie dust, is stuck in the human world after a daring rescue of her cousin Lily from the Blackbeard. The Queen of mermaids has promised to help, if Tink does her a favour first. That involves stealing from Captain Hook. Tink succeeds in this by seducing him, but no matter how far she flees, he’ll come after her. Partly because the queen has put a curse on him and partly because he can’t get her out of her system.

Action, romance, and sexy good times follow. Familiar names from the Peter Pan stories make appearances too, like Peter himself. There are misunderstandings and betrayals aplenty, near deaths and noble sacrifices, revenge and life-changing revelations. And, since this a romance, a happily ever afteror at least for now.

This was a well-written and fairly well-paced book, though I must confess I found it too long. The middle part could’ve been a lot tighter (the bit about Royal Navy was a Chekhov’s gun that never got fired, for example). But if you like the overlooked characters of Peter Pan to have their chance in happiness, with good bedroom scenes, this is for you.

I received a free copy from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.


Tuesday, March 22, 2022

Legends & Lattes by Travis Baldree: review

5/5 stars on Goodreads

Legends & Lattes by Travis Baldree

Legends & Lattes is the debut novel of Baldree, and what a wonderful, warm-hearted fantasy it is. Set in a preindustrial world, but with clever gnomish inventions out of time and place (a bit like Pratchett’s), it tells of Viv, an orc mercenary who decides to hang up her sword and open a café in a town that has never heard of coffee.

With the help of a stone that’s supposed to bring her good fortune, she sets out to find a suitable place and turn it to her liking. And everything goes well. She is good at judging people and she finds just the talent she needs: Cal the carpenter, Tandri the barista and Thimble the baker. All four come from species (there’s a rich variety of them) that tend to be looked down by others (no matter how tall Viv is) and treated only as a representative of their species, good and bad (but usually bad).

Together they strive to make the café a success, and in the process form a family. And when things turn, and everything is (maybe) lost, they have what’s most important: each other.

It’s a pleasure to read such a life-affirming story that isn’t preachy or pointing. Upsetting things happen, but when difficult choices need to be made, Viv doesn’t take the easy way out. The pace is slow, but the process of building the café and making it a success is surprisingly riveting. And I absolutely loved Viv and her found family (Thimble especially). I hope there will be more books about them in the future.


Friday, March 18, 2022

The Elf Tangent by Lindsay Buroker: review

4/5 stars on Goodreads

The Elf Tangent by Lindsay Buroker

The Elf Tangent is a stand-alone fantasy novel set in a world not connected with any of Buroker’s many earlier worlds. It’s a low-tech, (almost) non-magic world where human kingdoms occupy one part of the continent and elves another, which is about as much as the reader learns about it.

Aldari is a princess who is sent to the neighbouring kingdom to marry a prince there to gain her kingdom an ally against another kingdom. She’s not entirely happy to leave her family behind, but she knows her duty and isn’t about to rebel. She already is a rebel of sorts to her father’s views, as she is a scholar of some renown under a secret pen name. Only the name isn’t as secret as she thought. The elves have a need for her special skills and so they kidnap her en route to her wedding.

Leading the elves is Captain Hawk, who is determined to save his people from what is essentially a zombie infestation, elves turning into mindless killers. To do that, he needs an access to a laboratory that caused the plague, but it’s protected by puzzles that only Aldari can solve.

The plot is kind of simple, but the road to the happy ending is perilous. During many attacks and hardships, through mutual rescues and facing foes together, Aldari and Hawk grow to care for each other. So, instead of fleeing at every chancewhich would’ve been dangerous anywayAldari decides to help him voluntarily.

This was pitched as a fantasy romance, but it’s very, very light on romance. Not even at the end are feelings brought up, and there’s nary a kiss. Romance is more a garnish, and a way to explain why Aldari would help her kidnappers. Aldari and Hawk are both a bit blandthe side characters are much more interestingand they only come to life during action scenes.

Good thing, then, that the book is heavy on action. There’s constantly something going on, swordfights and pirates, zombie elves or plots against Aldari and Hawk. The pace is fast, and the events kept me reading until small hours. It’s a good book, but if you’re looking for great emotions, this isn’t for you. Friends of good, solid high fantasy will like it though.

Tuesday, March 15, 2022

The Player in New Zealand by Liz Alden: review

3/5 stars on Goodreads

The Player in New Zealand by Liz Alden

The Player in New Zealand is the fourth book in Love and Wanderlust series, but it’s a standalone and no prior knowledge of the series is needed.

Claire has come to New Zealand to put as much distance between her and her stalker as possible. She has a job as a bartender, which she can keep for six months and then has to switch them because of visa rules. Tane is a former rugby player veering on a brink of alcoholism. She’s not impressed by him, but he pulls his act together and becomes sober. They are sort of forced together by Tane’s sister, but realise they lust each other and make the most of the situation. Later they decide they love each other and get married for visa reasons.

The description above is a tad spoilery, but that’s how the book played out. There’s a handful of scenes where Claire and Tane interact, with no emotional engagement whatsoever that the reader is made a part of. Most of the book is filler scenes about Claire’s daily life and New Zealand that are told not shown, and which had no impact on the plot whatsoever. The ticking clock of Claire having to switch jobs doesn’t add any tension to the narrative.

Nothing important happens in front of the reader. Tane quits drinking behind the scenes and if it’s difficult for him, it isn’t shown. Claire, whose point of view we follow, presumably falls for him, but doesn’t bother to share it with the reader. For example, we are told of longing phone calls when they’re apart, but we never witness one. Since it’s a romance, the reader automatically infers love, but the emotional payload for reading to the end isn’t there.

I liked Tane and I would’ve wanted to be there for his journey to sobriety, only I wasn’t allowed to, but I didn’t really get Claire at all. She constantly reacted oddly to everything, and I kept wondering if she read situations wrong or if I did. Her trauma for being stalked for years wasn’t dealt with, only the stalker. And since I wasn’t told why Claire and Tane liked each other, I couldn’t really see them as a couple either.

I like my romances light, so this was fine. But I like the emphasis to be on the romance and the couple. And I’d like to feel at least something by the time we get to the I dos.

I received a free copy from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Monday, March 14, 2022

Gallant by V. E. Schwab: review

5/5 stars on Goodreads

Gallant by V. E. Schwab

V. E. Schwab has an ability to write wonderfully atmospheric fiction, no matter the genre or the age level the book is aimed at. Gallant is not an exception. It’s middle grade horror that’s exactly scary enough to spook younger readers and perfect for adults like me who don’t like to be too frightened.

Olivia is an orphan girl of fourteen in England around 1930s. She’s mute, unable to form the smallest sound, without friends in the orphanage where she’s lived since she was baby, and able to see ghouls. She knows nothing of her parents, but she has her mother’s diary where she warns her daughter to stay away Gallant.

Her life changes when her family contacts her, and without any inquiries, the orphanage sends her to live with them instead. She ends up in Gallant, a manor in northern England. But it turns out she isn’t welcome there after all.

Gallant has a secret which slowly unfolds to the reader. We follow Olivia as she tries to make sense of it, unable to properly communicate with the people in the house. She learns that her parents have been part of the secret too, and they’ve left her a legacy unlike the rest of her family. When it’s time to face the foe, it’s her duty to do it.

This was well-written, easy to read fantasy horror that kept me in its grips from start to finish. Olivia was a great protagonist: tough, stubborn, and not easily scared. Her muteness didn’t bother her as much it bothered other people, and she had a way to express herself by drawing. It wasn’t solely a gimmick either, but it could’ve played a greater role in the plot. The ending wasn’t a perfect happily-ever-after of MG fantasy, but it was satisfying. All in all, a great book for readers of all ages.

Wednesday, March 09, 2022

Mickey7 by Edward Ashton: review

4/5 stars on Goodreads

Mickey7 by Edward Ashton

Mickey7 is sci-fi set on a beachhead colony sent to terraform a planet somewhere in the universe in far future. It’s a dangerous project and for that they need someone to take all the almost-certain-death jobs that robots can’t do. Enter Mickey Barnes.

Mickey is an expendable. To escape debtors on the planet where he lives, he agrees to have his memories uploaded and his body scanned to make copies of itand to die when necessary, usually in a painful and gruesome fashion. As the number after his name implies, he’s done this several times already.

It never gets easier to die.

A routine mission goes awry and unable to rescue him, Mickey7’s pilot leaves him to die. By the time Mickey7 manages to return to the base, they’ve already revived a new copy, Mickey8. The problem is, there can be only one. But instead of fighting to the death to see which version gets to live, they decide to keep the double a secret and stay both alive.

Immediately, they run into problems. The food is rationed, and they have to share it between them. One of them is injured and the other isn’t, which leads to some baffled encounters. And which of them gets to spend time with their girlfriend?

In a colony of a couple of hundred people, secrets never stay hidden for long. But Mickey7 has another one in his sleeve. He knows that the planet has sentient beings. Because he didn’t make it back to the base on his own.

This was a fun book. The plot was simple and not terribly high stakes. Most of the book was filled with Mickey7’s running commentary on everything: his previous life, the colonies that have failed before, and all his deaths.

What the book is about in the end is identity. Are you still the same person if you’re the seventh copy of your original self? Who has the greater right to your life, you or your future copies? And are you still human?

Not all questions are given definitive answers, but it’s well-written enough to keep the reader entertained. Mickey7 comes to a conclusion that satisfies him, and that leaves the reader in a good place too.

I received a free copy from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Monday, March 07, 2022

Last Exit by Max Gladstone: review

3/5 stars on Goodreads

Last Exit by Max Gladstone

Max Gladstone’s latest, Last Exit, is a blend of (pre)apocalyptic sci-fi, magical realism with a horror twist, and a road movie. It shouldn’t really work, but it comes together well enough.

The plot is straight-forward. A group of people who have met in college and banded together to find alternative worlds, gather one more time to find the one they left behind. But the semi-intelligent rot that bleeds into the worlds, destroying them, doesn’t want her to be found. It’s a constant battle all the way to the crossroads at the heart of the alts, which is the only place where they can find her. Sal is the veritable MacGuffin, always a little out of reach, and never as important for the plot as the characters make her to be.

The idea of alternative worlds isn’t unique, but the rot destroying them makes it more interesting, as does the idea that they can be accessed either with magic or mathematic irregularities, depending on which member of the group you believe. The alts were surprisingly boring though, and while the book gives an explanation to why they’re all so similar, I whish more would’ve been done with them.

But the weakness of the book is its characters. I couldn’t connect with any of them. I followed them down the road, but I was never with them on the journey. I never felt their emotions, fears or pain, because the character experiencing them was never the point of view one. They told very little of themselves and at the end of the book I had learned nothing new.

A road movie is never about the road, it’s about the people on a transformative journey. All the elements were there: four people who used to know everything about each other, good and bad, have grown apart and into different persons in ten years they haven’t seen each other. An epic journey is a chance for them to put the past into a rest so that they can continue with the lives they’ve built for themselves.

The characters plunge into endless reminiscing of the time they met and how the band came to be. Surprisingly little time is spent on remembering their time exploring the alts. The crucial event that led Sal to be lost is brushed away with a quick description that includes torture and fighting people to death. I would’ve thought a trauma like that would merit a larger role in their healing process, but instead they talk about the racism of the college they went toarguably important, but meaningless for the plot, even with its diverse castand the state of (present day) America that they live in.

The token outsider that’s supposed to push the characters out of their remembered patterns only managed to enforce them. The climax was clearly meant to happen because of her, but in the end she was pushed aside and played no crucial role.

All in all, the plot could basically have been the same without Jane and the fantasy elements for how little they meant for the characters. They went through their journey and the world was different at the other endor at least it felt renewed for them, which is the best anyone can hope. If I’d felt them transform with the world, the book would probably have made a greater impact. Now it’s just something I’ve read. I dithered between three and four stars, but the long stretches that left me bored made me give it three stars in the end.

I received a free copy from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.


Tuesday, March 01, 2022

Only a Monster Can Kill a Hero by Vanessa Len: review

4/5 stars on Goodreads

Only a Monster by Vanessa Len

Only a Monster is the debut of Vanessa Len. It’s YA urban fantasy set in modern London about Joan, sixteen, who is spending summer with her maternal grandmother while volunteering at a manor house turned a museum. She has a huge crush on Nick, a fellow volunteer, but on the day of their first date something odd happens and she loses a whole day in a blink of an eye.

From her grandmother she learns that it’s because her family are monsters, people who can time travel by stealing time from humans. But before Joan can learn anything more, like how to do that and why they exist, the hero of the title butchers her entire family and some other monsters too. (It all happens within the first couple of chapters so it’s not much of a spoiler.)

The only survivors are Joan and Aaron from an enemy family of Joan’s, and she gets a crash-course on being a monster from him, like how the monsters are grouped into families with special abilities, and about safe places for all time travellers that seemed to exist outside time and be undetected by humans, though it wasn’t properly explained.

Since they can travel through time, Joan insists they go back and prevent the deaths from happening, but apparently that isn’t possible. She doesn’t believe Aaron, and sets out to do the impossible.

This was a good book. The idea of monsters was intriguing, though the world could have been explained a lot better. The story flowed in a brisk pace, and while it was highly illogical and at times felt like the author didn’t have a grasp on different timelines and people jumping in from whenever, it wasn’t anything I got stuck with. The narrative was a bit repetitive, some facts were told over and again, while some important plot points seemed to spring from nowhere. Joan was both utterly clueless and seemed to possess information she couldn’t possibly have, as if the author had forgotten that Joan was the narrator and not omniscient.

I did have issues with Joan who was irritating and too stupid to live. We get many hints of a mystery about her dead mother and a recurring nightmare for example, but her character and backstory remained annoyingly vague.

Why wasn’t Joan even a little curious about her family’s special skills? Why was she half-Malaysian, if that had no impact on her life as human or a monster? Couldn’t her unique skill have come from that side, for example? The monster families seemed fairly inbred, so it would’ve made sense, yet the father had been conveniently cleaned away from the story. And if her grandmother knew about her special skill, why had she kept the monsters a secret from her? The explanation about her being a half human wasn’t convincing. I think the story would’ve been stronger if Joan hadn’t been going into it blindly.

The side characters remained vague. I didn’t feel Nick as the love-interest, as Joan’s crush on him had happened before the book began and I only got to witness who he was now. Aaron would’ve had an interesting story that wouldve brought depth to the plot had it been woven into it for Joans purposes (couldnt the prisoner have been the reason he was cast out from his family, for example?) But Joan isn’t even a little curious about him and his role remains that of a reluctant teacher. The pivotal character springs out of nowhere. I can only hope that he has a greater role in the upcoming books, because he was ill-served in this one.

The ending was satisfying and nothing I saw coming, despite the title of the book. It left Joan in a good place, if this remains the sole book in the planned trilogy, but the open questions and especially Aaron are reason enough to continue with the series.

I received a free copy from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.