The Bandit Queens by Parini Shroff, published 03 January 2023.
This story of female friendship, sisterhood, found family, but also about the limitations women are still facing, would have deserved to advance to the Women’s Prize of Fiction Shortlist. Shame it didn’t.
Geeta’s village thinks she murdered her husband and fed his body to the dogs. Geeta knows it’s not true, but if the whole village wants to think she’s a murdering witch, she embraces the idea.
Since her drunkard of a husband left Geeta five years ago, she turned her luck and has never missed a payment for her small business loan. This success story attracts the attention of other women who would like to turn their fortune around by getting rid of their husbands too. So they ask Geeta to help them. Not all of them know how to ask nicely, though.
There is lots of dark humour in this story. Furthermore, behind that dark humour lie truths that need to be acknowledged and challenged. It’s a book that made me laugh out loud at the antics these women came up with, but also made me more aware of the culture and the situations they live in.
Murder Your Employer: The McMasters Guide to Homicide by Rupert Holmes, published 21 February 2023.
Have you ever wondered what a college for assassins would look like? Probably not. Rupert Holmes has given this idea a lot of thought, though. The McMasters Conservatory for the Applied Arts is the finishing school where the discerning student will learn all there is to know about successfully deleting a person without the deletion backfiring on them. The school’s motto: “Do in others as you would have others do in you.”
This hopefully first novel of a series is set in the 1950s. In this at-home study guide McMasters dean Harbinger Harrow offers the case studies of three pupils, engineer Cliff Iverson, nurse Gemma Lindley, and incognito Hollywood star Dulcie Mown, who all have an ethical reason to delete their employer.
The first part of the book shows why and how students arrive at McMasters’ secret location. We get to know some teachers and their subjects as well as lots of ambitious students who are showing off their acquired skills at every opportunity.
In the second part of the story, Holmes lets us root for the three would-be-killer graduates of McMasters as they all try to finish their respective theses – as the successful deletion of their target is called. Failing is not an option as it would result in successfully being deleted themselves. You only leave McMasters by graduation or in an urn.
A witty murder mystery that was a delight to read, and I am hoping the second volume in this educational at-home course will be available soon.
Here’s the promised second part for December. Well, what can I say, I read a lot.
Pulling the Wings Off Angels by K. J. Parker, published 15 November 2022.
Look, another KJ Parker! That's how I approached this novella. I just like the writing style of Parker's first person POV novellas.
The story follows a young man who was born with the proverbial silver spoon in his mouth, likes gambling and suddenly owes a loan shark quite a substantial sum of money. Without wanting to spoil too much, our miserable first person narrator finds himself in a pickle that he might not be able to get out of. Because fate and the sins of his forefathers, justice and mercy are all working against him; as well as that well-meaning brilliant professor of his, Saloninus.
As much as this is a metaphysical/religious/philosophical work and at times felt a bit 'preaching to the choir', I truly enjoyed it. Not least because of Saloninus, who is a self-professed genius.
4/5 Harpy Eagles
A Very Scalzi Christmas by John Scalzi, published 30 November 2019.
Scalzi put fifteen snippets of Christmas fun into this collection. There are interviews, short stories, informational articles and poems.
As much as I liked the short stories, I have to say that I liked the interviews the most. There's one with Santa's lawyer, for example. My favourite was the one with Santa's reindeer wrangler.
It's a selection that you can dip into and don't have to scarf down like a plate of the most delicious Christmas cookies. I said can! You can, of course, also just read them all in one sitting as I did.
5/5 Harpy Eagles
The Christmas Killer by Alex Pine, published 29 October 2020.
The review copy for this debut novel had been on my TBR for far too long. I have heard a lot of good about this series and am glad that I actually got to it.
The ARC was a rather tough read. There were grammar errors and the prose and dialogues sounded very clunky and stilted at times. I hope this has been edited out before the book went public.
What rankled me most, though, was how easy it was to sniff out who the murderer was and what their motive was. I was fairly certain early on that I had the right person and then only kept on skimming the text to find out whether I was right. I was.
As I said above, the series has a lot of fans and I hope the sequels improved in quality compared to the first book.
2/5 Harpy Eagles
The Dresden Files by Jim Butcher, series published since 2000.
Yes, I might be late to this Urban Fantasy series, but this just means I have lots of books to binge on.
A friend from Litsy sent me the first book in the series, Storm Front (2000), felt ages ago. I had another book to read to get my self-set goal of reading twenty physical copies off my shelves, so I chose this. Well, I was in for a treat.
Harry Dresden, the wizard protagonist of the series might be a little old-fashioned in his believes and in the way he works and lives (anything invented after the 1940s doesn't really work around him), but he soon grew on me. Even if he notices the erectness of the nipples of the woman in front of him before he notices the colour of her eyes. I have yet to see him mistreat a woman. In fact, he recognises that women are often far stronger than men and behaves fairly gentlemanly around women.
Chauvinism or no chauvinism aside, there are wizards, ghosts, demons, literal fairy godmothers, vampires, werewolves,... All the ingredients for a good Urban Fantasy. And it's set in Chicago, not New York, or London or a small town somewhere out in the back of beyond.
I'm three books in and I know I have to get to the next one sooner than later.
Also, the audiobooks are narrated by James Marsters, who does an excellent job. Even when I am reminded of Spike from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, especially when he, as Harry, is talking about vampire lore.
I have to admit, I knew nothing about this book, but I liked the cover and the blurb was interesting enough.
Raine can see--and more importantly, speak--to the dead. It's a wretched gift with a death sentence that has her doing many dubious things to save her skin. Seeking refuge with a deluded cult is her latest bad, survival-related decision. But her rare act of kindness--rescuing an injured woman in the snow--is even worse.
The author walks a fine line between YA and adult book, sometimes, Raine got a bit on my nerves, but not so much that I did not enjoy the story from start to finish. There is a sapphic love interest that’s not dominating the story, but interwoven in an engaging way. Raine herself is bisexual, which is a big plus for me, because I just don’t care about the heteronormative love stories anymore.
The story is a classic hero’s journey, but for an epic fantasy, its fairly short with just under 350 pages. The momentum the author builds from chapter one does not die down, and the story leaves you wanting to know more of the world. Many things are hinted at, and I’m looking forward to Book 2 next year.
K.J. Parker is one of the a-bit-under-the-radar authors we at Sceptical Reading have grown to like quite a bit. And in A Practical Guide to Conquering the World, his mix of humour and cleverness works its charm again.
It is the third and final instalment in Parker’s The Siege trilogy and follows Felix, a translator stuck in another country while his home is conquered.
But what would a Siege book be, without an outsider / unlikely hero saving not only his own, but everyone‘s bacon? And that‘s exactly what happens. Again. But let me tell you, the formula does not get old. This time, the whole world is the playing field. It really makes you appreciate the power translators may wield.
If This Book Exists, You’re In The Wrong Universe, by Jason Pargin.
This is the fourth book in the John Dies at the End series. All the other books in the series were written under Pargin's pen name David Wong, who is also the main character of the stories.
Like the three other books in this series, this book can be read as a standalone. Reading the other books in the series, in order or not, won’t help with that feeling of “what the … am I reading here?” It's a bonkers wild ride with aliens and magical soy sauce and parasites and a magical egg that demands human sacrifices and ...
In other words, a novel where you have to trust that the author knows what they were doing and go with the flow.
4/5 Harpy Eagles
The Conductors (Murder and Magic book 1) by Nicole Glover, published 02 March 2021.
I liked the idea of the story, Underground Railroad conductors turned detectives, and there is magic involved. Sadly, I didn’t like the way the story was told.
Too many characters are introduced at the beginning of the story and they all lacked backstory, so keeping up with who was who was difficult.
The magic system is not well explained. It’s not clear what makes a magic holder and how exactly the magic works. All I understood was that constellations are used as sigils and those make up a spell.
The mystery is interesting, but since there was too much telling, via dialogue between the two main characters Hetty and Benjy, it was not very engaging.
This speculative fiction woven into a historical fiction story was not for me. Still, I am hoping the next books in the series are better.
3/5 Harpy Eagles
The Immortality Thief by Taran Hunt, published 11 October 2022.
This is the story of that quirky side-character who seems to always stumble into situations without ever having had the ambition to be a hero. Alas, he's about to become the hero he never wanted to be and here is his story.
There is a thousand year old space ship about to be sucked into a supernova. Sean Wren, refugee, criminal, linguist, and FTL pilot, and two other felons are offered a pardon when they rescue important data about the Philosopher's Stone from the space ship before it goes up in flames. What's supposed to be a quick job soon turns into alien encounters, sociopolitical debates and a rather predictable outcome.
I liked the short chapters and the chapter titles. I did not enjoy the 600+ pages of the book. The story could have been told in half the page-count.
3/5 Harpy Eagles
Legends & Lattes by Travis Baldree, first published 22 February 2022, US publication 10 November 2022.
TheMarquessMagpie wrote a wonderful review about this book earlier this year. You can find it here. I agree wholeheartedly.
This book is like a hot mug of coffee and a warm cinnamon roll on a blustery autumn day. Simply delicious, heart-warming soul-food.
I’ve read so many palate cleanser books -light entertainment, romance mainly- that I am wondering whether the real palate cleansers are the Sci-Fi and Fantasy books I read in between.
Anyway, here are a few of the books I have read that would make an ideal read for a day at the beach, or by the pool, or under a tree in the park, or wherever you like to spend a drowsy afternoon when the temperatures are high.
Stuck on You by Portia Macintosh, published 17 September 2020.
This is a Christmas themed book and might hence be a bit weird to read on a hot day, but reading about cold days might help you cool off a bit. You might also get a few ideas about how to celebrate Christmas in a quirky way.
Sadie is the PA of Damian Banks, famous portrait photographer. Hence her life revolves around his whims and she has no time for friendships or love. Except, she has a sticky-notes penpal-friendship with her desk-buddy Adam, whom she can confide in.
With Christmas around the corner, and a new year coming up, Sadie wants to make more time for herself. Can she invite Adam out for a drink? Can she leave the demanding Damian for a new job? Or will she re-ignite the flame that once burned between her and her high-school boyfriend Brian?
The romance was very predictable and the major plot twist probably just came as a surprise for the female lead. Strange that the otherwise intelligent woman didn't catch on to it sooner.
There was a lot of build-up about Mackie, a person Damian takes photos of, at the beginning of the story and I would have liked to see this rounded up; a snippet from a newspaper towards the end of the book would have been nice. It felt like a story line that was dropped half-way to its conclusion for the sake of the romantic Christmas plot.
ARC provided by the publishers through NetGalley
3/5 Harpy Eagles
Note to Self by Anna Bell, published 23 June 2022.
Edie just turned 35 years old. A few days after her birthday emails arrive, written by her 18 y/o self during the summer she met Joel. The summer that changed her life forever. The summer Joel broke her heart. The summer her mother died.
The emails are like entries in a diary. They remind Edie of who she was back then and how much her life and her goals in life have changed. And they make her reach out to the people she met working at a campsite that summer, reconnecting with old friends.
Of course Joel is part of that group. The chemistry between the two of them is still there. But Edie is in a relationship, and Joel has an American girlfriend he might want to follow to Florida for work.
What I liked most about this book was how down to earth the individual characters' lives were. They all had their problems, but were projecting if not a perfect life than at least a happy life to the world.
TW: grief, alcoholism
ARC provided by the publishers through NetGalley
5/5 Harpy Eagles
Stone Broke Heiress by Danielle Owen-Jones, published 21 March 2022.
From riches to rags. Or from Dom Pérignon to dumpster diving. The blurb sounded fantastic and if I was less of a sceptic it might have worked. If you like a really light read, where you can overlook a lot of the flaws of the premise behind this story, this is the perfect rom-com for you.
Bella's family loses their tinned soup company. Bella loses her fiancé to her best friend. Bella is out of a job and broke. So Bella has to find a cheap flat and a job.
Of course she starts working at a soup kitchen, her familial background would make this an ideal job for her, but she's never wielded a spatula in her whole life.
Dan, the owner of the soup kitchen, is a good looking grump. He holds a grudge against her family, so Bella has to lie about who she is...
The writing is easy to follow if a bit repetitive at times.
ARC provided by the publishers through NetGalley
2/5 Harpy Eagles
Abridged Classics by John Atkinson, published 5 June 2018.
To give you the full title of the book:
Abridged Classics: Brief Summaries of Books You Were Supposed to Read but Probably Didn't.
What more could I tell you about the book? Each classic book is summed up in one or two fitting drawings with a one-liner at the bottom.
Perfect if you need a good chuckle in between some very sad books.
If you intend to still read those classics mentioned in the book, don't worry, the short summaries do not spoil the stories.
4/5 Harpy Eagles
How to Swear by Stephen Wildish, published 10 April 2018.
Just in case the Abridged Classics didn't cheer you up, try this book. It has Venn diagrams and charts about swearing.
This is the perfect book for you, if you feel like you need a refresher course on the four letter words you were told never to utter in polite and/or under-aged company.
It's a very brief book, so don't expect in-depth etymology of words. What it lacks in depth, it makes up in summing up the important facts in handy graphs.
Sometimes, a book jumps into your way at just the right time. I‘ve read about Legends & Lattes by Travis Baldree on Goodreads, and decided to try it to get me out of a reading slump. Gladly, I loved everything about it.
It‘s about an orc called Viv, and she‘s had enough of the adventurer life. She‘s worn out, and her back hurts. So after one last job retrieving a fabled artifact, she moves to Thune to open up a coffee shop.
She quickly gathers a lovely cast of characters around her, including:
Cal, a hob carpenter / handyman who helps her renovating
Tandri, a succubus who supports her as a barista (and also in general)
Thimble, a rattkin who turns out to be an amazing baker
Also, there‘s an epic direcat strolling around and protecting the premises.
Let me just say that everything about this book is lovely. There is a strong found family vibe, as Viv is building a new home against all odds. This story gave me all the warm fuzzy feelings.
Keep cinnamon rolls and coffee on hand when you are diving in, though.
Someone in Time is a short story anthology edited by Jonathan Strahan, publishing date 10 May 2022. All stories centre around the topic of time travel and finding love. As a fan of time travel novels and romance novels, this was right up my alley and I am glad I was approved for an advanced copy. I enjoyed reading about the different time travel devices, all were as diverse as the authors of and protagonists in the stories.
Even time travel can’t unravel love
Time-travel is a way for writers to play with history and imagine different futures – for better, or worse.
When romance is thrown into the mix, time-travel becomes a passionate tool, or heart-breaking weapon. A time agent in the 22nd century puts their whole mission at risk when they fall in love with the wrong person. No matter which part of history a man visits, he cannot not escape his ex. A woman is desperately in love with the time-space continuum, but it doesn’t love her back. As time passes and falls apart, a time-traveller must say goodbye to their soulmate.
With stories from best-selling and award-winning authors such as Seanan McGuire, Alix E. Harrow and Nina Allan, this anthology gives a taste for the rich treasure trove of stories we can imagine with love, loss and reunion across time and space.
Including stories by: Alix E. Harrow, Zen Cho, Seanan McGuire, Sarah Gailey, Jeffrey Ford, Nina Allan, Elizabeth Hand, Lavanya Lakshminarayan, Catherynne M. Valente, Sam J. Miller, Rowan Coleman, Margo Lanagan, Sameem Siddiqui, Theodora Goss, Carrie Vaughn, Ellen Klages
I particularly liked Zen Cho’s story about an M/M couple that had recently broken up. The MC of the story uses a machine that allows him to experience his past lives. Every time he uses the machine, he meets his former partner. It is soon clear that this person is his soulmate and they belong together, but can he win him back in his own time, his real life?
This collection allowed me to discover and re-discover some of the finest speculative fiction/science fiction/fantasy authors out there. Surprising to me was that I actually liked the short stories from authors that I had read full length novels by before and didn’t like; a second chance romance.
If you are looking for a palate cleanser in between some longer books, pick this up and read a story from it. Actually, I dare you to manage to read just one story at a time. I couldn’t do it, I read the whole book in one sitting.
A Brightness Long Ago by Guy Gavriel Kay is one of the books that has been sitting on my shelves for some time. Patiently waiting. Or more likely silently judging me. Like most of its kind, it turned out to be a “Why did I wait so long” kind of book.
Set in a fantasy version of Renaissance Italy, it is alive with really effortless world building. Because it does not hide the fact that it is kind of Italy but different, everything already feels kind of familiar when you enter the story.
It boasts a big cast of characters, changing perspectives frequently. Sometimes storytelling like this can really annoy me, but in this case it made every aspect more interesting. While parts of the story are told by a first person narrator, he is not necessarily the main character of the story. I’m not even sure there is one. Instead, complex political and personal relationships take the main role.
The writing style was compelling, and at times even a bit self-aware. It felt like the author was winking at you, right before dismantling typical storytelling tropes.
Ultimately, this is a book about the ways people both glorious and seemingly unimportant can shape history. Its place is somewhere between fantasy and historical fiction. But the fantasy elements are more an underlying feeling than, you know, dragons. It still scratches the high fantasy itch. With this book, Guy Gavriel Kay has immediately become an author I need to read more of. Seems like historical fantasy, if we want to call it that, is right in my wheelhouse.